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Haven’t done one of these in a while …

My current musical obsession is the 1983 recording of Brahms’ Violin Concertos featuring Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy. If you’re in a bad mood with the State of Israel (and we all are, from time to time), I heartily recommend it as the best kind of evidence that the original Zionist dream of creating a state (and specifically a socialist state, something unaccountably forgotten by non-Israeli Zionists) was at its heart motivated by the best kind of aspiration.

An actual violinist could presumably explain to me how it is that Perlman’s tone seems to be so much fuller and more rounded than any other violinist I’ve heard; it’s almost like Jacqueline du Pre’s cello at points in the Brahms recording. I suspect that it might have something to do with the painstaking recording done by good old EMI back in the days when people spent money on this sort of thing, or even that there is something to do with the fact that he plays sitting in a wheelchair rather than standing. But lying back with a glass of wine and listening to the confident, lubricious, opening section of the Second Concerto, I couldn’t help hearing it as the sound of a Jew at ease with himself. Perlman was born and grew up in Israel; he was three years old when the State was formed; unlike almost any other great Jewish musician you care to mention, he didn’t have the diaspora experience. The contrast with his accompanist’s approach to Romantic piano playing is extraordinary; Ashkenazy was a Soviet Jew and he approaches the piece with massive nervous energy; he always seems to be pushing the piece frantically forward. Perlman is sitting back and relaxing, letting Ashkenazy wear himself out doing the heavy lifting while savouring the warm, open melody for himself. You can clearly hear that one of these men has got demons and the other one hasn’t. Although I have very little time for most of the things that the Israeli government does, particularly when Likud are in charge, the truth has to be recognised that this music could not have been produced if the Jewish people were still living as guests and squatters everywhere in the world. And for this reason it reminds us not to always judge them too harshly when they fight like tigers to protect something that they lacked for a very long time.

On a similar theme, my other current musical obsession is “The Soul of Mbira: Traditions of the Shona People”. It’s a reissue of a 1970s anthropological recording originally titled “Traditions of the Shona People of Rhodesia” and it’s fantastic. The mbira is a thumb-piano, made out of strips of metal that vibrate when plucked and placed inside a large gourd which acts as a resonator. It’s a sort of deep guttural sound halfway between a stringed instrument and a xylophone or marimba and the music played on it is astonishingly complex in its polyphony. It’s a somewhat humbling experience to listen to it if you’re white, and particularly British, as the sleeve notes to the reissued edition tell us that several of the players featured were executed in the revolution which brought independence to Zimbabwe. But more than that, it is a racing certainty that some time in the nineteenth century in Africa, the British put a genius of the calibre of Beethoven onto a slave ship and didn’t even realise we’d done it.

Finally, I’ll briefly point out that if you liked the Norah Jones album, a) you sad cliched thirtysomething bastard and b) you will find that you like Eddi Reader Sings The Songs Of Robert Burns (with the BBC Scottish Orchestra and various Jock musos) much better. Trust me on this one. One of my minor magical powers is “music retail luck”, in that I can walk into a record shop and I don’t need to look at what I’m buying in order to know that it’s going to be both unusual and good. I would normally have recoild in revulsion from this one because a) Scottish (minus a few points) b) Robert Burns (minus a few more, though I must say I’m warming to him) c) Eddi Reader has known form with both “folk” and “jazz” music d) the cover photograph has a rather alarming chin sticking out of it. But I actually picked it up by mistake while reaching for the CD behind it, and when the universe hands you something, it’s usually a good idea to buy it. I must say I didn’t regret it; it’s a great record. As I say, trust me on this one.

Tomorrow, books ….

Update: Askenazy and Perlman play the Brahms Violin Concertos? Sonatas, you bloody idiot.


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