What do you get when
you cross a truly astonishing musician
at the peak of his powers with the greatest
music ever written for his instrument,
and one of the world’s finest concert
halls, packed to capacity? Answer: an
unforgettable occasion. And this pair
of discs is the evidence!
Everything I’ve said
in my opening paragraph is - I like
to think - fact, and this disc has got
to be worth hearing or purchasing if
only to experience the electricity of
that occasion. No CD studio recording,
nor even a heavily-edited digitally-corrected
‘live’ recording, can replace the sensation
of music-making as it happens. This
is especially the case with a lone artist
intoning some of music’s noblest and
most sublime statements, in front of
thousands of awestruck listeners, none
of them (one imagines…) daring to move
or breathe for fear of disturbing the
peace, that unpreservable sense of moment!
Where’s the catch,
you ask, detecting a note of reservation
amidst my passionate eulogy? Well there
isn’t one. Not really: not unless you
demand perfection. The trouble is, near-perfect
music deserves near-perfect playing.
And, inspired though Kagan is, there
are stylistic oversights and missed
opportunities which, once the novelty
has worn off, may irritate you. And,
technically masterly though his playing
is, there is some poor tuning, and countless
imperfections - if not ragged patches
- which, on repeated listening, may
frustrate you. But none of these is
of sufficient consequence to warrant
singling out here.
is not as enlightened as the best. Trills
are often plain wrong! Old-style long
(in the sense of full-length) notes
abound, and sprightly detached articulation
is a comparative rarity. Of course arpeggiated
multiple stops are almost inevitable
with modern bows. Unless your name’s
Grumiaux, Szeryng, Kremer or Perlman.
Among my disappointments
is the voicing of fugues. Kagan seems
content to play lines as written, without
obviously distinguishing between primary
(i.e. important) and secondary (i.e.
less important) material. I’m sure this
is not so much a matter of making life
easier for himself (which it most certainly
does) as apparent unconcern for the
music’s essential character and structure.
The same concern surfaces
in a different way during the great
D minor Chaconne. This is a set of variations
on a ground bass, and Kagan sees this
so much as a unified piece - fair enough,
you may think - that he plays through
from start to finish without pausing
for a breath. Not even the group of
D major variations is set apart:
it needs the player to set back a pace
or two, and quieten. For me, the way
Kagan plays this (with insufficient
‘space’) creates a feeling of self-importance.
And, mere musician that I am, writing
about music passed - so I dare believe
- from God Himself through His humblest
servant, no mere artist - not even a
great artist - has the right to stand
in the way of our hearing this music
as God, or Bach, intended.
Worshippers of Kagan,
and there must be millions of them,
will be undeterred. This is a valuable
historical document. And, as such, it’s
Worshippers of Bach
should stick with Rachel Podger’s miraculous
set on Channel Classics. Or the incomparable
Grumiaux on Phillips Duo - one of recorded
music’s highest pinnacles. Or try Lucy
van Dael on Naxos: wonderful!
Beware of coughs, bumps
and applause - you get the lot, in plenty.
But you get also some extraordinary
playing of extraordinary music, and
a record of an extraordinary occasion.
Peter J Lawson