Music

Belcea Quartet

I have been meaning for some time to write recommending the Belcea Quartet‘s Schubert recordings. There’s one double disk of the G major, Death and the Maiden, and the Quintet, and another disk of the Rosamunde Quartet, the E flat, and the Quartettsatz. Both seem to me (and not just to me!) to be quite stunning — surely comparable with the Lindsay’s great recordings (and indeed, I suppose not dissimilar in their whole approach).

But I got to see the quartet playing live for the first time tonight in the very intimate setting of the Peterhouse Theatre here in Cambridge (part of a series of concerts which includes the  remarkable prospect of Viktoria Mullova playing in this tiny space which seats less than 200 people). In their new line up — with a new second-violin — they played the first of the late Haydn Op. 77 quartets, the Grosse Fuge(!), and then after the interval  the first Rasumovsky. All jaw-droppingly good (though I confess I do prefer hearing the Grosse Fuge played as the culmination of Op. 130; coming at it without the preparation of the journey there, it can seem too extreme, too outlandish).

The Belcea’s Rasumovsky in particular was as good as I have ever heard, live or on disc — everything that that recent feeble performance by the Endellion wasn’t. Passionate, by turns driven and etherial, utterly engaged (and stunningly together given the very recent change in line-up, with an intense rapport).

Music doesn’t get better than a great quartet in full flow; and quartet playing doesn’t get better than tonight’s.

Not even close

Given the choice, I prefer hearing a good string quartet play to almost any other concert-going.

When we lived in Sheffield, we were spoilt by being able to go to see the Lindsays in their prime (and we also got to see other quartets visiting the series of concerts they organized, from the likes of the Tokyo Quartet, down to new young ensembles just starting out). Coming to Cambridge we missed all that a great deal. We tried early on going to see the Endellion, the quartet in residence here, but really didn’t enjoy the experience. But perhaps we were disposed to find fault and find them over-rated. And perhaps we were too swayed, as well, by the marked differences between the Sheffield occasions and the Cambridge concert in ways that were no fault of the quartet — the much less intimate setting of the concert hall here, the seeming stiffness of the antique audience.

Well, a number of years further on, with various people encouraging us to give them another chance, we went to hear the Endellion again last night. The audience was as stiff  as before. And as for the music? … “lacklustre”, said Mrs LogicMatters. You can tell she is kinder than I am.

They played the Haydn Op 33, no. 1, lacklustre indeed at the outset, and only just about getting into it by the last movement. Then Shostakovich’s 8th quartet (which is a quite startling piece, and admittedly their best effort of the night — but Mrs LM had heard the Takacs Quartet play this quartet while we were in NZ, and she thought them in an entirely different class). Then after the interval the First Rasumovsky. Sigh. This was really pretty thin and unconvincing stuff (especially from the leader), with even the aching slow movement quite failing to grip the soul. If they’d been a recording they’d have been switched off long before the end.

Or is this unfair? I’ve just been listening again to the Vegh Quartet playing the Beethoven; heart-stopping eloquence. And within reach I have stunning recordings by the Busch Quartet and the Hungarian Quartet too, and equally fine and emotionally gripping newer recordings by the Lindsays in two versions and the Takacs (not to mention three or four other pretty good versions). So is it that, those paradigms having become so  familiar, I have just become primed to expect almost impossibly much from a live concert? (Does the easy availability of the best performances of the last seventy or more years tend to spoil our ability to enjoy anything but the extraordinary?)

No, I really don’t think it is that at all. We have been, for example, to concerts by young quartets who perhaps have quite a way to go, yet which have been just wonderful — where you are swept along for a couple of hours by their vision of the music, by their intense desire to communicate with their audience, by the sense of a shared journey. But last night was not even close to that.

The Endellion remained at a distance, then bowed stiffly in their tail coats, and walked off-stage just leaving me deeply disappointed.

Bowers & Wilkins MM-1

If the header for this post means absolutely nothing to you, then read no further. But a few people might be interested in my impressions of these classy desktop speakers. Are they worth the not inconsiderable expense?

A bit of background first. I recently re-organized my very small study at home and bought a new iMac. And I’ve found myself listening to music a lot through the surprisingly-not-too-awful speakers on the computer. (I should say that, for someone with something like a thousand classical music CDs, I’ve put up with some really crap music playing systems, and the one I had in my study before rearranging stuff was pretty hopeless: even listening through the iMac’s speakers was about as good.) And I really liked a lot having the music coming from in front of me as I worked at the computer, rather than from shelves to my side. So I started investigating the options for improving things with desktop speakers actually designed for “near field” listening. The reviews for the B&W MM-1 are extremely good, with the price point being the only clear negative for many reviewers. I asked in the Apple Store, and — this is worth knowing, as it was a surprise to me — their “14 day open box returns” policy applies to everything they sell apart from software, including non-Apple kit. I knew from my experience of buying a 27″ iMac and then trading down to a 21.5″ that it really is a no fuss policy, and so it really is a no risk option to take home a pair of these speakers and try them out.

One or two reviews had  mentioned their performance on classical music at relatively low volume being particularly good: this recommendation certainly ticked the boxes for me, because that conforms exactly to my study listening habits.

But of course ‘classical’ could mean anything from Bruckner symphonies to early Venetian lute music (well, both are “classical” in the all-embracing sense that seems to be used in hi-fi reviews); and my tastes are nearer the latter — which is pretty exposing stuff. How do the speakers fare in practice on the kind of music I listen to? Here’s some reactions. The warm positives (just a selection of examples):

  • Brendel playing Schubert impromptus (his later, digital recording): amazing, revelatory sound (whether playing the CD or imported into iTunes with AAC at 192Kb).
  • Perahia playing the Goldberg Variations: similarly excellent.
  • Felicity Lott singing Schubert (the old IMP CD): again, revelatory.
  • Mullova playing Bach partitas — jaw-droppingly good quality sound.
  • Lindsays playing Haydn Op.54, no.1 (which I happen to be listening to as I write this): extemely real, natural sound. Difficult to fault.
  • Haydn, Symphony 35, AMA conducted Hogwood. Again quite excellent.

Sort-of-negatives:

  • I happen to have 128KB MP3s of the Alban Berg Quartet playing Beethoven: these didn’t sound at all good. Not the speakers’ fault of course, but they do expose less-than-high-quality digital sources.
  • I wouldn’t normally sit at the computer listening to opera, but I did try the speakers on some opera CDs. With the speakers only a couple of feet from your head, the opera seems to be taking place in an odd location and felt uncomfortable (you can in real life sit very up-close and personal to chamber music and even small classical orchestras, as you might do e.g. in the Sheffield Crucible Studio’s ‘music in the round’; but you want opera coming from further away! Oddly I preferred listening on headphones, where there is no definite location. I got the same effect with Solti’s recording of Schubert’s Great C major — but again not what I’ll be listening to at my desk.

So my summary verdict: if you want decent reproduction of chamber music, piano, song — small intimate music — then these small speakers made for intimate up-close listening seem pretty wonderful: as I suppose they should be for the price. They do certainly seem to live up to reviews like this one. As, as I said, I’m no hi-fi buff, and it wouldn’t have taken a great deal to beat what I was using before hands down and cheer me up: so your mileage could vary. However, I’m very happy with them. They certainly won’t be going back to the Apple Store …

The end of the journey

The third double-CD has recently been released of Imogen Cooper’s stunning journey through late Schubert in her QE Hall recitals in 2008 and 2009.

The first two pairs of disks got some extraordinarily warm reviews, and this too strikes me as just wonderful. Thoughtful, deep, utterly persuasive. And lyrically beautiful.

At the end of the second of the new disks she reaches the pinnacle — an amazing performance of D. 960.  I’ve accumulated over too many years recordings of this sonata played by Schnabel, Richter twice, Brendel three times, Schiff, Kovacevich, Perahaia, Uchida, and Lewis as well as the earlier Imogen Cooper; and yet here are new insights, a wonderful overall architecture, and an utterly compelling performance. This could well become my “Desert Island” choice of  all those performances.

Proceed to Amazon right now: you couldn’t possibly be disappointed.

Imogen Cooper’s Schubert continues …

Six months ago — oh, where has the time between fled to? — I very warmly recommended the first volume of Imogen CooperVol2.jpg Cooper’s new cycle of live recordings of the later Schubert piano music. The second volume has been out for a while, and is equally terrific.

The second CD ends with the four Impromptus D935, and her performances — it seems to me — more than stand comparison with Schnabel, Fischer, and Brendel’s earlier versions among the classic greats, not to mention Schiff, Uchida, Maria João Pires and the later Brendel among more recent recordings. There are so many heart-stopping moments. I loved Imogen Cooper’s earlier cycle, but now her playing has that perfect authority — while you are listening, you are entirely swept into her vision of the music, and you feel ‘this is how it must be played’. Wonderful.

Mullova/Dantone play Bach

The Bach recital that Viktoria Mullova gave at the Wigmore Hall last week was simply terrific. Up there with my all-time great concerts, including some Brendel, Holzmair singing Die Schöne Müllerin, and the Lindsays (often). Mullova finished up playing the great Chaconne from the second Partita. And she didn’t attack it as some do. As a reviewer said, “… many violinists try to match its immensity with a heroic sound. But Mullova often went the other way, becoming light and dancing where most violinists would be losing bow-hairs in an effort to wring a bigger sound from the instrument … totally convincing.” Certainly, she stunned the audience who sat in silence for some moments after she finished.

But the revelation for me was the two sonatas she played with Octavio Dantone. I didn’t know their recording of the sonatas on Onyx (I like Rachel Podger’s recording quite a bit, and hadn’t sought out another). But their performances last week bowled me over too, and so I sent off for the discs. And yes, hugely recommended!

Schubert’s Piano Trios

I buy few new CDs these days, as I already have ridiculously many (and multiple recordings of most pieces that I really care about it). But I was driving home from my aged mother’s the other day, and the BBC were playing the Schiff/Shiokawa/Perényi recording of the E flat trio D 897, and I was bowled over. The double CD with the other trio, the D897 Notturno and the Arpeggione Sonata came out in 1997, Schubert’s bicentennial year, but — though I’ve always admired Schiff’s Schubert playing — I’d missed this record. But, still in stock at Amazon, it arrived a couple of days ago.

And it indeed is terrific. The performances could hardly be bettered it seems to me — there’s a flow to the playing and a rapport between the three that gives new life to the pieces after years of listening to the Beaux Arts’ recordings. The Gramophone review agrees. (I can’t imagine though why, after a decade, this hasn’t been reissued in a cheaper version: it deserves to be on everyone’s shelves.)

D960 for a desert island?

Sometimes, in an idle moment, I jot down — be honest, don’t we all? — a list of the eight discs I would select as my Desert Island Discs. Impossibly difficult of course! But one constant choice is the last Schubert piano sonata, D960 (and if I had to save one of the eight from the waves, then this would probably be it). But which recording? …. Well, that’s almost impossible too.

I’ve for a while had Schnabel, Brendel (1972, 1988, 2000), Richter (three recordings of his too — extraordinary, Schubert stretched to the limit), Imogen Cooper (underrated, but very fine), Schiff, Mitsuko Uchida, Perahia, and Kovacevich. Surely I had Kempff too but that seems to have gone walkabout. And very recently I bought the recording by Paul Lewis, which has received much praise. Yes, I agree! — I really should kick this buying habit. But the prospect of another possible great performance was irresistible. Still, Lewis doesn’t quite work ideally for me: I’ll listen more — but it isn’t the one for the desert island. I still think that that has to be one of the Brendel recordings: after listening to others, I always listen to him again with a sense of coming home. Perhaps I love his 1988 recording the most.

Wandering stars

Well, if James can link to a YouTube video, I guess I can! Hardly Shaun the Sheep, and perhaps not adding to the gaiety of nations in quite the same way …. but here’s a rare recent sighting of a certain group, for late-night listening, from an unannounced performance in Bristol in February. Even so stripped down, the magic still works.

If Beth Gibbons’ words here have always seemed hauntingly evocative, maybe that is because she is drawing from — or should I say sampling? — the King James Version rendering of Jude 13.1: “Raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame; wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever.”

There still surface rumours of another CD, 10 years after the last studio album.

On Opera

A number of collections of Bernard Williams’s papers have been put together posthumously. But surely the best has to be the latest, the newly published On Opera which collects together a number of pieces he wrote for various scattered occasions. The four short pieces on Mozart, in particular, are simply wonderful: insightful, subtle, humane, passionate in their commitment to the idea that the best opera is worthy of our fullest engagement and of serious critical response. Read them.

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