What we have here are ‘two Schuberts’, two recordings on tape from Toronto-based UltraAnalogue Recordings: Rondo Brillant in B Minor and Grand Fantasy in C Major. Both were recorded at the same live performance, which took place in UltraAnalogue’s own premises.
The artists are violinist Alena Baeva and Vadym Kholodenko, both winners of two of the world’s most preeminent music competitions: Alena won the prestigious Henryk Wieniawski International Violin Competition at the age of just 16, while Vadym won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2013.
I’ve already reviewed three of UltraAnalogue’s recordings of Alena and Vadym, so I’m hoping to keep this one reasonably brief (then again… rambler by name, rambler by nature!). Also, you can watch videos of both performances on YouTube (links below), which will give you a taster of what’s in store. Of course what you’ll hear on YouTube, no matter how good your digital set-up, won’t touch what you’ll hear on tape. So what follows are a few of my notes on what I heard.
I should say from the get-go that I can’t claim to be a Schubert aficionado. Before these two purchases I only had three Schubert LPs in my collection (symphonies 3, 8 & 9), so I set about doing a bit of research into the background to these compositions.
Despite Schubert’s short lifetime (he died in his early thirties), he left behind a pretty vast body of work in a wide variety of forms and genres. He composed the Rondo Brillant in B Minor in 1826 and the Grand Fantasy in C Major in 1827, both of them written for, and inspired by, the Czech violinist Josef Slavik. (A few years later Chopin would admiringly dub Slavik ‘a second Paganini’). This, I discover, explains why the two compositions are often considered as ‘display pieces’ from a composer who wasn’t usually known for being extrovert or ‘showy’.
Why, you might ask (and it’s a good question) did I shell out several hundred bucks on TWO Schubert tapes when I wasn’t even a massive Schubert fan? Because, frankly, at this level of sound quality, it’s easy to become a fan of pretty much everything and, scrolling through some of the testimonials on UltraAnalogue’s website, I’m relieved to know I’m not alone in that!
So, let’s kick off with the Rondo which, to my delight also comes with Rachmaninov’s Preludes, of which I’m a big fan. They also give me an opportunity to listen to Vadym Kholodenko on piano solo, more on which below.
Schubert’s Rondo Brillant in B Minor D.895 (Live) & Rachmaninov Preludes
The composition is made up of two sections— an Andante introduction followed by an Allegro. It is, as suspected, a confident and gregarious piece and, while I’m not a musician myself, I read somewhere that its technical demands were of a different order from some of Schubert’s earlier works, with the piano sometimes taking the role of a ‘surrogate orchestra’. In fact, right from the off, the piano is bold and imposing, Baroque-sounding and with the force of an overture. The violin by contrast is playful and sensuous. The piano then softens and settles into a melodious ‘massage’, which is lyrically overlaid by the violin. The two operate almost in a call and response dance, the piano bold and forceful, and the violin sweet and harmonic, then at times more strong, spirited and rhythmic, in response. (I saw the Allegro described as ‘skittish’ and ‘hyperactive’ in places, sorry I can’t remember where I read that, but I wouldn’t say that’s my personal impression). The concluding coda is Più mosso (more quickly) and for sure it’s a real stormer of a finale.
I love it, the whole piece is absolutely my cup of tea (which translates as high praise from an Englishman!). It could easily be the musical backing to a silent movie, I can see a couple of characters, a double act, in my mind’s eye.
Anyway, you can check it out for yourself here, as the performance was filmed at the same time as being recorded
So why invest in a tape when you can watch and listen online for free? It’s a fair question, but to me it’s almost the equivalent of saying something like, why go to all the trouble to travel to a Caribbean Island when you can look at a photo of one for free!
I’ll be honest, the YouTube clip is of very good quality by YouTube standards and of course I have the good fortune to be able to watch and listen on an extremely good system. And still, if I compare the sound quality to the tape… in comparison the YouTube piano sounds slightly ‘thick’ and the violin somewhat ‘clangy’. It’s almost as if I’m listening through one of those Covid-induced brain fogs! Switch back to tape and the sound is on another planet. Or rather, it’s in your room, in your whole experience, like a three-dimensional living, breathing thing compared to a potato print.
No doubt key to the sound quality here, in addition to the recording, are the instruments. The violin that Alena plays is an incredibly rare one, so rare in fact that it’s not an ‘an’ at all, but a ‘the’, the ‘ex-William Kroll’ Guarneri del Gesù of 1738. Her bow is by the legendary Françoise Xavier Tourte (1747-1835), probably the most highly regarded bow-maker in history. And the piano that Vadym is playing is the revered Steinway B, this specific example being endowed with Hamburg Steinway hammers and special bass strings for improved pitch definition.
Joining Schubert’s Rondo on this tape are four of Rachmaninov’s Preludes. Rachmaninov wrote a number of preludes for solo piano, the best-known of which are his 24 preludes covering all 24 major and minor keys. These are often performed and / or recorded as a unified set of 24 but in fact they were written and published at different times. Those we have here are:
- Op. 3 No.2 Prelude in C-Sharp minor
- Op. 23 No.1 Prelude in F-Sharp minor
- Op. 23 No.2 Prelude in B-Flat Major
- Op. 23 No.3 Prelude in D-minor
So here we have Vadym Kholodenko solo, which gives me the opportunity to really hear him play, and to focus on the sound of the piano – which is exquisite. There’s just one instrument here and yet the presence and dynamics and emotion are striking. I keeping coming back to one word, and I know I over-use it, but it’s the right word: it all sounds so real. I’m not just listening to music, I’m witnessing an event. I know I’m not there, I know it’s a recording of an event, but it’s very much a live event and it’s stunningly present. As for Vadym’s playing it’s as masterful as ever, I’m mesmerised by the way that he can flip effortlessly between powerful boldness and delicately colourful playing; in fact it’s so free-flowing, it’s almost as if he can do both at once.
Tempted? Find out more and buy a copy at ultraanaloguerecordings.com/new/shop/tapes/musician/vadym-kholodenko/schubert-rondo-brillant-live-rachmaninov-preludes
Schubert Grand Fantasy in C Major D.934 (Live) & Ysaye Violin Sonata No.5
Love is a funny thing. You never know quite when it’ll strike, where it comes from or what will grab its attention. But when something does, boy do you know about it. So it was for me with Schubert’s Grand Fantasy. This is a thing of beauty, achingly moving, captivating, calming, nurturing. While everyone’s taste is of course different, I almost think you’d have to be half dead not to be touched by this in some way!
I believe this was the last of Schubert’s compositions for violin and piano, and what a swansong. But apparently, those who attended its first ever performance were less than impressed and the audience, thrown off-kilter by the piece’s length and unusual structure, thinned out before the end. I can’t imagine what they were thinking, since I’d actually go as far as to say that this is one of the most magical pieces of classical music I’ve ever heard. I’m told it’s a very challenging piece to play, which I can certainly imagine. Actually I think I read somewhere that premiering pianist Josef Slavik claimed it was more difficult to play than all of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos put together!
There’s so much going on here that it’s hard to believe I’m listening to just two instruments, yet at the same time there is nothing demanding or fatiguing about my listening experience. I mean, there’s complexity here for sure, but I’m not being challenged by it, I’m being engaged and soothed. The only way I can describe it is that it’s like dancing with someone who’s a brilliant dancer and, in dancing with them, you somehow find yourself able to follow, respond and move quite effortlessly. There’s a hypnotic lightness of touch that leaves you feeling that you could and would follow the music’s lead to wherever it wanted to take you, which is does, to a sweepingly satisfying finale.
The piece is formed of three elements: Andante molto – Allegro vivace, Andantino and Allegro presto and, again the performance was recorded on video so you can view it here.
The clip will give you some indication of Vadym’s touch on the piano… so delicate, the instrument is recorded not too dry, not too wet, the notes trickle and tumble with light, freshness and energy. If it grabs you, you have got to hear it on tape. Trust me, it’s a whole other experience. The difference is like feeling sunshine on your face, or gulping in lungfuls of refreshing, life-giving energy. And Alena’s violin, oh dear God how to describe that. The violin plays with a sensitivity, so seductively, so naturally, gently, it soars right up into the heavens, almost at times to the point of non-hearing. The whole recording is an utterly different beast on tape. Every detail has more life and there’s far, far more extension at both frequency extremes; vastly more openness, greater dynamics.
By the way, I’ve since searched around and checked out various other recorded performances of Schubert’s Grand Fantasy. This is, by far, remains my favourite. In other versions I’ve heard, the piano simply doesn’t have the same light that sparkles in such a clear and detailed way. And the violins sound ‘sat upon’ in comparison, their passion subdued.
If you have just one master tape for your system, I’d say let it be this one.
I’ve seen Alena twice in concert. Both times, she blew me away and on one very memorable occasion she invited me backstage after the show – a moment that I’ll take to the grave with me (yes, okay, I was a bit star-struck!).
Great news – she’s touring again in the next few months. Check out her website at https://alenabaeva.com/dates for details. So far there are concerts scheduled in Japan, Spain, the UK, Croatia and Poland.