Classic recording – Ravel: Tzigane – Jascha Heifetz, Alfred Wallenstein, LA Phil
I considered using these first few words here to apologise, given that this month my classic recording is once again from a great violinist of the twentieth century. Only when the violinist in question is Jascha Heifetz it feels wrong to do so, because it’s no exaggeration to say that Heifetz was quite simply a one-off. Nobody before or since has produced such an aristocratic sound, or one which burns with such extraordinary white heat.
As for why this month, it’s because October’s Gramophone magazine carries a Classics Reconsidered from myself and Rob Cowan on the recording Heifetz made in 1956 of the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner (Classics Reconsidered being the regular strand where two critics look at the mag’s original review of a classic recording, then discuss both whether they agree with the original critic, and whether the recording is still holding its own today); and in my view this recording has fully stood the test of time: a first movement of tortured angst, followed by a love letter of a central movement, before a joyful romp to the finish line. If you don’t know the recording then do look it up, because in the interest of variety I’m actually pointing you here towards Heifetz’s 1955 recording of Ravel’s gypsy Tzigane with Alfred Wallenstein and the Los Angeles Philharmonic: an electric adrenalin-fest of a performance, captured in stunning sound quality (just listen to the luminous bristling of textures when the orchestra finally jumps in). Adrenalin-wise, this particular recording does for me what three Red Bulls would; and every single time.
My three new recordings meanwhile are the latest superlative addition to Harmonia Mundi’s Debussy centenary series, a stunning Monteverdi Vespers from the period performance world’s most supremely gifted choral directors, and then a major-event Brahms symphony cycle.
Debussy: The Late Works – Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Javier Perianes, Xavier de Maistre, Antoine Tamestit, Magali Mosnier, Tanguy de Williencourt (Harmonia Mundi)
This past Debussy centenary year has hardly been short on top-drawer new recordings of the late works. However this latest addition to Harmonia Mundi’s already much-lauded Debussy series is unquestionably the most musically instinctive and subtly ravishing set of interpretations of these works that I’ve heard either this year or further back. Sonatas-wise, first up is the Violin Sonata, and whilst we’re all used to violinist Isabelle Faust wearing exceptional technique and interpretative passion lightly, her “Sleeping Beauty” Strad here appears almost supernaturally as a capricious and vulnerable talking entity in itself, with Alexander Melnikov’s piano playing fitting around her like a glove. Onwards, and a Sonata for Harp, Viola and Flute from Xavier de Maistre, Antoine Tamestit and Magali Mosnier of softly bristling textures, with de Maistre’s harp an absolute beauty of a nineteenth-century Erard, borrowed from Les Siècles. Finally a spacious and lovingly rendered Cello Concerto from Jean-Guihen Queyras and Javier Perianes, Queyras silkily waxing and waning, ducking and diving, with magical upper-register sonority. Between those three are poetically-rendered piano readings from Tanguy de Williencourt, which smoothly pull everything together to become the sort of programme clearly designed to be savoured as an end-to-end listen. Really, I can’t imagine another set of chamber musicians ever topping this one. For this playlist I’ve given you the Cello Sonata, topped and tailed by the piano pieces Élégie (L.138) and Les Soirs illuminés pas l’ardeur du charbon
Monteverdi Vespro della Beate Vergine – Collegium Vocale Gent / Philippe Herreweghe
When it comes to intelligent interpretations of text in early music, Philippe Herreweghe has no equal; and whilst for over four decades now he’s be recording everything from Palestrina through Handel and up to Mendelssohn and even Dvořák, some of his most celebrated work has been in the realm of Renaissance polyphony. In other words, the signs were always good for what is his second recording of Monteverdi’s Vespers, and those of you who know his 1986 first set will quickly spot that the intervening years have brought a radical rethink as to the music’s sound world. Most noticeably, violas da gamba have replaced the previous violas and cellos. There’s also the fact that the recorders, cornets and trombones are used more sparingly, meaning that when they do appear they make far more of an impact. Further elements to enjoy are the overall brightness and transparency of the sound from singers and instrumentalists alike, the lovely flow throughout, and the pleasure of intimate forces one minute, followed by the unleashing of magnificent sonorities the next. This playlist features the opening two movements, split by an antiphon.
Brahms: The Symphonies – Staatskapelle Berlin / Daniel Barenboim (DG)
Daniel Barenboim first recorded the four Brahms symphonies back in 1993 with the Chicago Symphony, shortly after stepping into post as their Music Director after Solti. So this new Brahms cycle with his Staatskapelle Berlin was always going to make us all sit up with interest: twenty five years under the bridge since that American set; a German ensemble he’s been conducting ever since the early 1990s and with whom he’s done much work on Brahmsian tone; and the first orchestral recording to be made in Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal. Plus, everything has come together wonderfully successfully, because this is a properly rich, old, autumnal German sound that manages to take its time (sometimes suspend it, even), sounding weighty but not unwieldily, with a lovely warm and depth; all of which sits perfectly within the Pierre Boulez Saal’s analytical but still-oh-so-warm acoustic. On this playlist is Symphony No 4.
Listen to the whole playlist on TIDAL