Good writing, magazines, and Franck

sujet: César Franck licence: source: http://ww...

sujet: César Franck licence: source: http://www.karadar.com/PhotoGallery/franck.html (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the best non-aural, musical stimulations is reading a well written article, review or book on music. I am one third of the way through Alan Walker‘s magisterial biography of Frans Liszt (three c 500 page volumes) which is both immensely readable as well as being scholarly. I am now convinced that Liszt is the greatest musician who ever lived, which I will explain when I have completed the trilogy, at some point in the future.

There are two major CD magazines which the serious collector has to read – the best known is the Gramophone. The other is the International Record Review. In recent years I have been a little suspicious of the Gramophone, as I suspect it pays more than lip service to its major advertisers. Some of the reviews are too short, and can be badly edited (by which I mean they don’t give all the information you want), and I don’t trust one or two of the reviewers. They used to have all the great writers – William Mann and John Steane, to name but two. Rob Cowan is is extremely knowledgeable but I think his natural medium is the radio, not the page.I find myself getting more and more pleasure from the IRR. It seems to take pleasure in the quality of the writing. The reviews are given ample space, they normally give the necessary information and there isn’t too much flannel. When there is, it is often a history of the work which doesn’t go beyond the bleeding obvious. I don’t always agree with their opinions but find the reviews sincere. What always gives me pleasure are the “summary” reviews. In last month’s magazine (January), there are articles on C Major’s (Record Company) release of 8 early Verdi operas on DVD; Vocal issues on the Eloquence label; Cesar Franck‘s complete chamber music and organ works ; Bruno Walter’s Mozart; and Historic recordings and reissues ( a monthly staple).

As an admission of my own ignorance I have never enjoyed Cesar Franck’s music as much as I feel I should. I quite enjoy the Symphonic Variations and the D minor Symphony. I know the Violin Sonata is a masterpiece, I think I like the Piano Quintet, and despite my general enthusiasm for the organ and knowing Franck is a first rate composer for that instrument, I don’t really know his music. According to Robert Matthew-Walker his music was very popular 80 years ago. He ascribes its falling out of favour to fashion, rather than critical perception. What Matthew-Walker’s article has encouraged me to do is put Franck on my list of composers to get to grips with and really get to know….such is the power of the (well) written word.

One of the real challenges for amateur music lovers is that we all know the music we love. Much of it is probably “great” music so we can continue to re-listen to it with great pleasure and a degree of intellectual self-satisfaction. There is an awful lot of great music out there that most of us amateurs don’t really know if we are honest with ourselves. Those with time and money might go to concerts of unknown or lesser known music. Many of us, I suspect, listen to the radio. In addition to this, well written articles and books also have a role to play – often in provoking yet more spending on CDs. So this year in addition to getting to grips with vast chunks of Liszt’s music, trying to take advantage of the Verdi, Wagner, Britten and Alkan anniversaries, I now have Franck’s music to add to the list. A very busy, but potentially very rewarding year, which I will report on later.

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Khatia – Live Concerts

Kammermusikfest Lockenhaus

Kammermusikfest Lockenhaus (Photo credit: Guus Krol)

I managed to get a ticket at the last moment to hear the Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvilli  in her recital at the Wigmore Hall, on a cold, snowy Monday lunchtime. She is a pretty 25 year old, wore a striking cream, diaphonous dress that was a site for sore eyes on such a miserable day, and has a mass of black hair that kept falling in front of her eyes, but didn’t seem to affect her playing. It did mean however that she couldn’t bow comfortably – if footballers can wear hairbands, why not female pianists ? Her programme was the Chopin Funeral March Sonata, his 2nd and 3rd Scherzi, and Ravel‘s La Valse.

As she started the Sonata I felt a warm glow inside me. The pleasure of hearing live music is indescribable. Given my disc jockeying activities I listen to a lot of CDs. Nothing compares with live music and the sense that an artist is ‘creating’ music in front of you. Khatia (not as a source of familiarity, but to avoid having to re-type Buniatishvilli many times) is one of a number of pianists whose inspiration seems to be the young Martha Argerich. A fantastic technique, and a tendency to play quick bits very quickly, and slow bits very slowly. I thought she pulled the Sonata around too much – but that didn’t matter. Here was an artist giving a performance of music she loved and had clearly thought about. Whether it would be the ultimate performance didn’t matter. It was valid and one likes to think Chopin would have been happy with it. Her La Valse was full of the colour and energy Ravel demands, and to show that she was still full of energy she gave a barnstorming performance of the last movement of Prokofiev‘s 7th Sonata as an encore.
I continue my love/hate relationship with the Wigmore Hall. Hate because the leg room is totally inadequate for anyone of above average height, and I believe using a full sized concert Steinway is too big for the Hall. Love because they have good programmes, and a knowledgeable audience, who are generally well behaved. However the concert was somewhat spoiled by an aged, over weight, individual sitting behind me, who went through the full repertoire of adenoidal harmonics as he nodded off to sleep and then woke with a start, on a number of occasions.
I have started reading Alan Rusbridger‘s Play it Again. There are two elements which have started to irritate me. The first is the view that Steinways are the finest pianos in the world. The one played by Khatia was not one of their most beguiling instruments with a metallic upper register, and whilst many Steinways are very good, I’ve heard many poor ones. A lot depends on the individual tuning and voicing, as well as the underlying condition of the piano. The other is his banging on about how technically difficult the 1st Ballade is. The Coda is reasonably, but compared with the two Scherzi Khatia played, it is not. I shall return to this book when I have finished it.