Tuesday, September 21, 2004


Rehearsing Weber
Originally uploaded by Duchenj.

We are back home after ten fabulous days in France. First, a week in a 'gite' in the Loire Valley countryside near Angers, relaxing (me) and practising (Tom). Lovely food from local market, a little private 'piscine' in our jardin, some trips to see the chateaux at Usse and Azay-le-Rideau and a spot of wine-tasting for good measure... Then off to Philippe's festival, Consonanaces de St Nazaire, where I took this picture during a rehearsal for the Weber Clarinet Quintet.

Left to right: Philippe Graffin, Tom, Nobuko Imai, Gary Hoffman and Charles Neidich. And they were bloody fantastic. I sat by, watching the Tomcat and engaging in that time-honoured pursuit known in Yiddish as 'clibing nachas'.

The intensity of atmosphere in these chamber music festivals really has to be experienced to be believed. I've written about St Nazaire before (a post a few months back entitled 'My favourite festival') - suffice it to say that this small, quiet, pleasant, rather uneventful shipbuilding town on the Loire estuary is home to a festival that, thanks to Philippe, its artistic director, provides chamber music of the calibre more often heard at Carnegie or Wigmore halls. Apart from Tom's spot in the Weber with Charlie Neidich (who is a complete genius of the clarinet), another major highlight was hearing the Faure Second Piano Quartet in a performance by Philippe, Nobuko, Gary and Pascal Devoyon that made me feel I was hearing the piece for the first time - and so beautiful it brought on tears. The flow, the freedom, the richness of expressive range, the cohesion between the players and the sense of utter absorption in Faure's magical language - words, I'm afraid, don't do it justice.

Rodion Shchedrin was present throughout - he was the focus of the festival. Tomorrow Philippe is giving the world premiere of a new Shchedrin work, Concerto Parlando. Rather than sitting here blogging, I ought to get on the next plane back to Nantes... Shchedrin had brought with him one of his finest young interpreters, a hotshot Russian pianist named Ekaterina ('Katia') Mechetina who has just won the World Piano Competition in Cincinnati (more details here). She performed a number of his piano works, which are astounding: Shchedrin, a fantastic pianist himself, knows exactly how to exploit the instrument's potential and creates pieces for it that are immensely energetic and hugely demanding on any virtuoso's abilities, yet also deeply poetic. Cross Shostakovich with Keith Jarrett and double it.

Every festival, however, should have a British brass player. Martin Hurrell of the BBC Symphony Orchestra was there to be trumpet soloist in Concerto Parlando alongside Philippe (the idea was to create something along similar lines to the Shostakovich First Piano Concerto which features a prominent trumpet solo). Martin is a brilliant player but also happens to be the funniest guy on earth. His sense of timing ought to have propelled him onto his own TV show years ago. Around midnight a few days ago over a late-night repas of French wine and cheese, he reduced the entire festival table, including Shchedrin and his wife, the former Bolshoi prima ballerina assoluta Maya Plisetskaya, to helpless, howling rubble with his impersonation of a certain 20th-century dictator which would make Charlie Chaplin turn in his grave. The experience won't be quickly forgotten...

We didn't really want to come home. But Solti is very pleased to see us.