Saturday, April 24, 2004

Mostly dead pianists and slidey violins

Got a nice message yesterday from a friend in New York saying he'd post a comment here, but only if I wrote something about Long-Dead Musicians. So here we go.

With so many historical recordings widely available, and many modern ones intensely uninspiring, it figures that we're listening more and more to the former, even becoming obsessed with them. When 'International Piano Quarterly' first started up, I found it difficult to spot any mention in it of a pianist who was alive. But then, when I came to write my big survey of 51 recordings of the Chopin B minor Sonata, guess which I chose...yes, dead pianists, namely Lipatti and Cortot. Still, I wouldn't like to deify the dead for the sake of it; it's unfair to the living. I reckon that pianists like Zimerman, Argerich and Sokolov can give anyone six feet under a jolly good run for their money.

Recently I put together a CD for fun, just a few of my favourite things...The recordings date from 1928 to 2003: the oldest is Myra Hess playing 'Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring', the newest Gil Shaham's Faure Album, and my top favourite is the Waltz from Rachmaninov's Suite No.2 for two pianos, recorded in Moscow in the 1940s by Alexander Goldenweiser and Grigori Ginsburg. Some of the musicians on my CD are indeed long-dead - Thibaud and Cortot, Mravinsky, Gerald Moore - and others play as if maybe they ought to be...the pianists because they have profundity, beautiful tone and imagination, the violinists because they SLIDE. There's nothing on earth that kicks out the bottom of my stomach like a slidey violin. (That vulnerability has got me into serious trouble on occasion... and may partly account for my marriage...)

What do the old-time musicians have that modern-day ones don't, other than acoustic crackles? This is, naturally, a massive oversimplification, but here's my theory:

* They lived through harder times, when people were not shielded from the realities of death, disease, war etc. Better perspective on life and its emotions = better perspective and more depth in music.

* They didn't have TV to trivialise everything. Or spin doctors, air travel, marketing executives and a music industry run largely by people who either have been selling frozen food or ought to be.

* They were, on the whole, deriving interpretations from times and influences far closer to the composers they played than today's musicians. And nobody tried to tell them that they weren't allowed to play Bach on the piano, or with vibrato & portamento on the violin.

I could go on like this for ages, but instead, here are a few recommendations:

Jacques Thibaud and Alfred Cortot playing Faure's Violin Sonata No.1 (1931)

Cortot playing just about ANYTHING - sod the wrong notes, listen to the tone and the drama (this man once worked as a repetiteur in Bayreuth)

Rudolf Serkin, the Busch Chamber Players and Adolf Busch playing Mozart Piano Concerto No.14

Pablo Casals playing the Bach cello suites. And, speaking of cellos, anything recorded by Emanuel Feuermann.

That recording of Menuhin aged 14 playing the Elgar violin concerto with Elgar conducting

Toscha Seidel and Erich Korngold playing Korngold' Much Ado About Nothing Suite. Yummy.