Friday, April 30, 2004

That was the week that was...

Quite a week, this one. The morning after the prodigy wonder on TV, some major drama took place at the LPO: Maria Joao Pires cancelled her Chopin Second Concerto at about two days' notice. What pianist can fly in and play this piece in just 48 hours?

Tim Walker, the LPO chief exec, made an inspired choice: Nelson Goerner, Argentinian, in his early 30s, an Argerich protege and one of the younger pianists I most admire. Personally I felt that the conductor, Emanuel Krivine, could have given him a little more space to breathe, but he played wonderfully, with a clear and singing tone and a super balance between energy and poetry. I interviewed Nelson a couple of years ago for International Piano and found him delightful, completely unpretentious and straightforward yet someone who 'really knows' music. He's short in stature but great of heart. We hope he'll come back soon.

The same concert was important to me as well: this was my LPO debut. At last they asked me to write some programme notes! Dearly as I love my orchestra-in-law, it's impossible, if you go to lots of their concerts, not to notice that most of their programme notes have been recycled over years and years, and are now a little dated and not quite the thing for a modern audience... So I hope that that policy is changing and it was wonderful to have the chance to research this programme - four of my biggest favourites, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Ravel and Debussy.

Programme notes are the only thing a music journalist can write and then see a hall-full of people actually reading. My most frightening programme note moment: a few years ago I did notes for a Faure song series at the Wigmore and arrived one evening to spot, a few rows in front of me, Vikram Seth...

A BIG PARTY last night to launch the 2004 Proms, and great fun it was. There's a 'silk road' strand to it, which involves Yo-Yo Ma's latest world-music ensemble, and as the British Library is having a silk road exhibition, the party happened in the British Library foyer, crowded but buzzing. Lots of champagne, beer and truly excellent canapes - and of course this is one of the prime music biz networking events of the year. Even Norman Lebrecht was there.

In between talking gossip and scandal, frustration and excitement and Who Did What To Whom, proms director Nick Kenyon ('old Nick' to the biz) announced a programme that I for one think looks a lot of fun. A few things jumped out at me: Truls Mork playing the Dvorak concerto, Paul Lewis playing some Mozart, the Glyndebourne Prom with the scrumptious Vladimir Jurowski conducting the Puccini/Rachmaninov double bill from the forthcoming season, and, rather to my satisfaction, lots of Elgar! No Faure or Korngold, of course, but you can't have everything...I keep hoping....

MEANWHILE, MANY THANKS to everyone who dropped me a line to wish my shoulder better. Glad to say that it is making excellent progress, under the ministrations of a fabulous local physiotherapist who also looks after the British Olympic rowing team.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

BBC Young Genius of the Year?

He's like a Mini-Mee of John Ogdon: a plump 11-year-old Essex boy with a brace on his teeth. 'Benjamin, what did you enjoy most about it?' a bemused Stephanie Hughes asks him. 'Um, being in front of an audience and playing to them, 'cos that's what I like doing,' comes the answer, half smiled, half mumbled. Just before this exchange, little Benjamin has been out on the platform, playing the piano with a maturity of expression and beautiful roundness of tone that any 30-year-old pro would be proud of.

Yes, it's the BBC Young Musician of the Year again and this is exactly what it's for: discovering talents like that of Benjamin Grosvenor, who's clearly destined for great things. Of course he's only 11 and has a long way to grow, but most of us know a genius when we hear one.

But there's controversy going on too, and it's not about Benjamin or even the competition itself, which is always controversial ("exploiting young people to make good telly"?). It's the way it's being shown. The final is on BBC2 on Sunday 2nd May, but the semi-finals this week are only on digital channel BBC4 and most of the population can't get BBC4. Marginalisastion of the arts, everyone shouts. (Apologies to my international readers: here in Little Britain we habitually fall between floorboards and then spend more time howling that it hurts than we do filling in the cracks.)

I don't want the arts marginalised any more than anyone else does, but I do have a problem with that viewpoint. First, the digital channels are brand new. The idea that moving the YMoY semis to a new channel means a downward shift in arts policy from the Beeb itself is a little shaky - presumably if they had had a digital channel to move this to 10 years ago, they would have done so. Secondly, the snail's pace at which the government wants to convert all TV to digital and switch off analogue (by 2010?) means that people haven't much incentive to spend £99 on a digital box. Yet when you think how much your average Brit usually spends on a night out in the pub binge-drinking, £99 doesn't sound so much. BBC4 is an arts channel. Those of us who pay our licence fee but loathe panel games have never had one of those before.

Of course a performance like Benjamin's should have been on terrestrial national TV. However, one doesn't generally expect to hear anything like this on YMoY. 'Historical' moments don't come often and while the other young pianists on the show were very talented, they didn't make me stop cooking dinner. Most years, that's how most of the players are. But when young Benjamin gets out there to do his concerto on Sunday, BBC2 will indeed be there. And with any luck by Monday morning he's going to be a household name.

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.



Wednesday, April 21, 2004

A trumpet for Saint-Saens

Just back from the opening concert of Steven Isserlis's Saint-Saens Festival at the Wigmore. One of those glorious evenings where you come out feeling glad to be alive.

A few highlights were the very, very young clarinettist Julian Bliss playing Saint-Saens's incredibly beautiful clarinet sonata of 1921 (sounds 100 years earlier), Josh Bell pulling out the pyrotechnics in the Rondo Capriccioso and, of course, Carnival of the Animals, complete with Ogden Nash verses suitably doctored for the occasion:

"When a clarinettist leaves the stage
It's not because he's under age!
He's lurking round behind that wall
About to do his cuckoo call."

And Steven's 'Swan' could have made Pavlova cry.

It feels very nice to have had some small part in spreading the word about this festival (see link to my piece in the Indy the other day) as it's something I really believe in. It's going to be marvellous - concerts include Steven and Pascal Devoyon playing the cello sonatas, concertos at the Barbican tomorrow and a programme of songs devised by Graham Johnson - next Tuesday, 27th April, still a few tickets available! The festival goes on until mid-May and finishes with a grand jamboree on 18 May to raise funds to start a Saint-Saens Society. Full details at the Wigmore Hall website.

But dare I make one tiny complaint? I didn't see any musicians in the audience. Yes, there were a handful of children and some 'young people', no doubt dragged in for the nice 'animals' piece. Otherwise, this was the Wigmore Hall Friends Incorporated (mostly over-65s from Highgate), plus a few music business types (the ones who look straight through you until you force them to acknowledge your existence) and, of course, sponsors. Not that I'm objecting to the extraordinary fact that a Saint-Saens Festival could suddenly become THE Place To Be Seen. But it's a conundrum for the Wigmore Hall, which seats about 550 and doesn't have room for everyone who'd want to go. The hall can't expand because that would wreck everything - the intimacy, the atmosphere, the acoustic. Isn't there any way to get more 'ordinary' music lovers into a concert like this?

Never mind. Three cheers for Camille Twinkletoes! I shall tell my mobile phone company that I'm only going to accept the free upgrade if I can have a handset that plays the 'Carnival of the Animals' finale. And you know someone's made a difference to the publicity when, on the way to such a concert, you hear a busker at Waterloo playing 'The Swan'!

Saturday, April 17, 2004

Injury time

I'm getting a taste of Life on the Other Side. It hurts.

Venturing to a piano in public is about the dumbest thing someone in my profession can do. Since I have to pass judgment on other people's musical achievements, trying to perform myself is asking for trouble. Still...playing the piano + marrying professional violinist = concerts. My colleague Olly Condy, dep ed of Classic FM Magazine, has asked Tom and me to give a recital in a series at the church where he's organist, St Paul's, Clapham. With rash delight, we chose the Cesar Franck sonata, which happens to have one of the nastiest piano parts in the repertoire.

Upshot: headache. Except that it's not so much headache as shoulder ache.

About six weeks ago my shoulder started hurting and it's got worse. I've eliminated various other activities that could have caused it - weight training (oh yes), carrying the shopping, carting around big handbags full of books...but with the concert a few weeks away, I can't cut out the piano; and the more I practise, the clearer it is that Monsieur Franck is to blame. So the heat is on - the Deep Heat.

It's so easy, from our usual position as happy listeners, to forget what an intensely physical thing playing a musical instrument is. Musicians are 'dreamers of dreams', absorbed in a world of beauty, spirituality and moral edification.....aren't they? No way. They're like Olympic athletes. The more I practise, the more spurious my privileged position as reviewer feels. Does ANYONE who doesn't play have ANY idea how DIFFICULT it is? It takes your whole body, your whole mind, your whole spirit, your whole heart, and if you emerge unscathed in each department you are damn lucky. Hey guys, dear musicians, I take my hat off to all of you.

I'm seeing the physiotherapist later this week and after our concert I can close the piano until I'm better. Spare a thought for the professional musicians who can't stop - no play, no pay. How many of them are pushing on through pain like this in front of oblivious audiences and critics? How many of them ever find the backup, support and understanding they need?

I'll never forget the nightmare I had as a student in Cambridge when I got tendonitis. In those days (1986), nobody had heard of RSI...Over 18 months I experienced:

* Sports injuries clinic - ultrasound.
* GP - anti-inflammatory drugs.
* Different GP - diagnosis of glandular fever-type virus.
* University Counselling Service - recommended for Neurotic Music Student Who Thinks Her Arm Hurts. Sat there telling long-suffering counsellor that my arm hurt.
* Chiropracter - mad Yorkshireman with chips on both shoulders who'd missed his true vocation (butcher). Nearly fainted in Newnham College afterwards.
* Acupuncture - no fun if you don't like needles. Emerged with bruising which, I'm assured by those who swear by acupuncture, isn't supposed to happen.
* Packet of frozen peas, wrapped in tea towel - applied to sore arm daily.
* Finally I bought a little bottle of homeopathic remedy for pains in ligaments. Two weeks later I was better. As I don't really believe in homeopathy, this was quite a surprise, but thank goodness it worked.

I was lucky then. Hundreds are less lucky. My toast today is to them. And my plea to everyone else is: just think a little more about what has gone into the creation of the performance you are listening to.


Tuesday, April 13, 2004

My favourite festival

I've been to a few, Salzburg and Verbier included, but this one took the biscuit. And the chances are you won't have heard of it.

I haven't been able to write about this anywhere 'official' yet, because editors tend to say 'Where on earth is that?' when I tell them I had a great time in...St Nazaire. Fair enough: a depressed, sometime-shipbuilding little town on the Loire Atlantique coast of France, blasted to pieces (mainly by the Brits) in the war and a long way from the glitz and glamour of gay Paris doesn't sound like a prime-time travel feature to anyone. And if you have heard of St Nazaire, chances are that it's because there was a fearful accident there last November when a gangplank leading onto the new oceanliner Queen Mary II (which was being built there) collapsed and 15 people were killed falling onto the dry dock.

If, however, you want to join my campaign for Real Music, this is the place to go in September. The festival was founded 14 years ago by my friend, interviewee and favourite fiddler Philippe Graffin [see South Africa etc]. Last September he assembled a marvellous group of musicians to perform a set of fascinating programmes build around the idea of 'L'invitation au voyage' - appropriate because the building of the Queen Mary II was the most significant thing to have happened in St Nazaire in years. 'L'invitation au voyage' largely took the form of a pairing of English and French music; there was also the world premiere of David Matthews's specially-commissioned setting of the Baudelaire poem of that title.

It was only there, listening to Yuzuko Horigome playing The Lark Ascending with piano accompaniment in the beautiful chapel-turned-art-gallery where most of the concerts happen, that I realised how little British music is known outside our little island. The enthusiastic local audience lapped it up, but had never heard it before. The same went for Elgar's Sospiri, the centrepiece of the final concert. That was an event in itself: a large warehouse, right next to the nearly-finished Queen Mary II, was transformed into a concert hall for the evening. Despite a rather unusual acoustic, it proved a stunning setting. The audience was bussed in from the town and some people apparently queued all day to get there first and be in the front row.

Why is this my favourite festival? There are no 5-star hotels or gourmet oyster bars; no mountain views or hang-gliding; no composer house museums, specially made chocolates or champagne tents for corporate sponsors. And there's no pretentiousness, no posing, no money for marketing, no big-name circuit recitalists playing their year's programme for the hundredth time. Just wonderful, imaginatively devised concerts played by fantastic musicians for mainly local audiences who'd never get the chance to hear it otherwise. St Nazaire may not be the prettiest of French towns, but it's friendly, the locals love their festival, the food is excellent and the local wine splendid - and there's also a wonderful beach! It's genuine, it's real and it deserves all the attention it can't afford.

This year's St Nazaire Festival - the official title is Consonances - takes place from 18 to 25 September and some exciting Russian stuff was being planned last time I checked it out. See the link for more info.

Friday, April 09, 2004

Pilgrims' progress - to Malvern

Just back from an Easter trip to the frozen north...well, north of Watford. On the way up to the in-laws in Buxton, we took a detour to Malvern. I'd always wanted to go there to pay homage to a secret favourite: Sir Edward Elgar.

Being effectively English, by birth if not blood, I feel, as so many of us do, that maybe there's something a little shameful about actually liking music by certain English composers. But Elgar is glorious: paradoxical, personal, heart-rending. His public face can be deeply irritating - even he didn't like what became Land of Hope and Glory - but when he turns inward and shows you his heart, he is up there with the finest of his day. My personal favourites: the Piano Quintet, Serenade for Strings, Violin Concerto, Cello Concerto, Sospiri and even a symphony or two.

The Malvern Hills - a bizarre, dramatic hump in an otherwise flattish landscape - provided the backdrop to Elgar's inspiration. The views are stunning and the atmosphere remarkable. It feels like a place to stand back from life and look at everything from above and beyond: at once distanced, provided with perspective, yet also thrown back upon yourself and your own thoughts. You seem to gaze at life through both ends of the binoculars at the same time. Is this perhaps how Elgar saw it too?

He is buried in the graveyard of St Wulstan's Church, Little Malvern. We went there and found the grave adorned with vases of daffodils. Tom got out his violin and played Salut d'amour for him.

The Elgar Birthplace Museum, just west of Worcester and north of Malvern, is the cottage where the composer first saw the light of day. His daughter Carice bought it and turned it into a museum in (I think) the 1970s, with, on show, his writing table, plenty of photos, some letters and memorabilia and the prettiest of English country gardens full of daffodils and apple blossom. An additional Visitor Centre offers an excellent display telling the story of his life and containing some amazing manuscripts including the Second Symphony. More info via link on the left.

Additional insight for Faure fanatics like me: Elgar and Faure had the same British patron - Leo Frank Schuster - who once gave a party for the two of them together. They both sported fabulous moustachios and there are moments when they even sound alike.

A visit to Malvern and the Elgar Birthplace Museum is highly recommended for all Elgar fans, closet or otherwise. We don't make enough fuss of our few composers in this country!

Friday, April 02, 2004

Get a grip, Gustav

I can't help wondering whether there's something wrong with me. The rest of the Royal Festival Hall goes nuts over Mahler, Bruckner and Shostakovich symphonies. And I sit there wondering what to cook for dinner tomorrow, daydreaming about being forcibly confined for as long as this in better surroundings (the Sanctuary/beach in south of France/leisurely dinner at Gavroche) - or simply wishing that dear old Gustav could get a grip.

Why, why, WHY did these self-indulgent egomaniacs have to write symphonies that go on for 80 minutes with no relief to the overwhelming gloom? Were they sadists? Or cry-babies? Listen, Gussy, everyone's got problems. If you didn't know what you were getting into when you married Almschi...well, you were probably the only man in Vienna who didn't. You have only yourself to blame.

Actually, I can deal with Gus on a good day - at least he had a heart, which is more than can be said for Bruckner, who bores me to tears. Shostakovich isn't exactly heartless, but usually induces inclination to throw self off Waterloo Bridge - bad idea, no future in it.

Schubert could encapsulate the sort of emotion that the symphonic dinosaurs were after in a three-minute song. What did Anton B write that could even begin to compare with Schwanengesang? And did Gus ever create a view of the human condition more intensely touching than Schubert's String Quintet? I don't believe so.

Also, the more I think about it, the more I prefer French stuff once we get past about 1865. One of my best musical moments in the past month was attending the dress rehearsal of Verdi's 'Simon Boccanegra' at the Royal Opera House. Lots of doges, intrigues, mixed-up identities, oompahs and fight scenes. And as the curtain went down, someone's mobile went off - playing the twinkletoes finale of Saint-Saens's Carnival of the Animals. If that didn't put things in perspective, nothing could.