Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Exciting young musicians to watch

Late September is a hectic time on the London concert circuit. I'm writing a 'round-up' review for The Strad of five concerts this week, all of which feature superlative artists; and I've been lucky enough to hear some exceptional youngsters just starting out on their careers.

Alina Ibragimova is 19 years old and was clearly born to play the violin. She's the daughter of Rinat Ibragimov, principal double bass in the LSO, and studied at the Menuhin School and Guildhall. I first heard her about three years ago in a prizewinners' concert at the South Bank and was struck by her natural musicality, but since then she has developed into something very special. On Friday she performed the Britten concerto - a tall order for any musician, let alone someone so young - at St Luke's, the LSO's education centre in the City. She looks delicate and unaffected on the platform, but nothing stands in the way of her music when she begins to play; the violin becomes part of her and the music pours out straight from the soul. Mesmerising.

Jonathan Biss, a young American pianist who is one of the musicians featured by the Borletti-Buitoni Trust, an organisation that helps selected young artists to become established. Mitsuko Uchida is helping to spearhead the trust and on Sunday she played at the QEH with some of the award winners, including Jonathan, who accompanied fellow-winner the soprano Emma Bell in some Schumann Lieder and later played the Mozart A minor Rondo. It's a brave man indeed who plays that Mozart, a very 'revealing' piece: nothing to hide behind if you can't phrase everything perfectly, balance your counterpoint or convey the subtlest of emotions. Jonathan can, however, and does - with deep sensitivity, beautiful singing tone and real poetry. He too was born to play: his parents are Miriam Fried and Paul Biss and his grandmother was the cellist Raya Garbusova. He's studied at Curtis and even before he was snapped up by BBC Radio 3 New Generations I had heard great things about him from people in the US whose opinions I trust and value. They were right. Emma Bell, too, is someone to watch: bags of personality and a super voice with a big range and great versatility.

The rush continues. To St John's Smith Square this evening for the Chilingirian Quartet and Stephen Coombs (Faure! Yes!), then Truls Mork at St Luke's tomorrow lunchtime, Vengerov and the LSO at the Barbican tomorrow evening, the BBC Symphony Orchestra launching its season with Mahler 2 at the Barbican on Friday and the LPO and Masur doing Beethoven on Saturday. Next week the Wigmore Hall is reopening after its latest refit (and its boss Paul Kildea tells me that, among other things, they have a new chef, which can only be a good thing...). All this confirms what I've always felt: the London music scene really is incredible. I don't believe there's anywhere in the world to match it in terms of quality, quantity and variety.

Monday, September 27, 2004

A critic's best friend... his/her cat. Alex Ross's cat, Penelope, looks as if she could be our Solti's little sister. Apparently she helps Alex with Bartok. Solti has proved his worth on many occasions, most notably over piano recordings. He hates bangy pianists. A couple of years ago I undertook a big comparative review for International Piano Magazine of about 50 different recordings of the Chopin B minor Sonata. Solti curled up near the CD player and sat twitching his ears happily through several top choices - Lipatti, Cortot, Katchen, etc. Enter Nikita Magaloff, however, and he was out of the room in moments.

He was also up in arms (or whiskers?) when I had to do a phone interview with another conductor the other day - and this cat has developed a meow loud enough to be heard through piano and violin being played together. I had to ask Martyn Brabbins to hang on while I shut cat in kitchen so we could have some peace, and added that the cat is called Solti. 'No wonder he won't let you talk!' exclaimed my interviewee.

Paws for thought...

Sunday, September 26, 2004

You look away for 2 minutes and...

...come back to find that cyberspace has gone completely bananas. The blogosphere, anyway. While I've been chilling out in rural and seaside France, Scott Spiegelberg, ACD, Alex Ross, Helen Radice et al have been engaging in a fast and furious debate about the difficulty, indeed the whole point, of writing about music. In blogging etiquette, as it evolves around us by the moment, I'm really too late to add my bit to this as everyone is now moving on to other matters such as the best way to blow the shofar (bravo, Scott, I'm sure you did brilliantly!).

Better late than never, perhaps, but I'll keep it short.

I believe that:

1. Writing about music is basically impossible. Music is a medium sufficient unto itself and its point is that it begins where words end.

2. Nevertheless, we keep trying. Why? Because we love it and want to communicate our love for it to those who haven't had the opportunities to know it as we privileged poseurs have. Yes, I am a privileged poseur (poseuse?) because my parents steeped me in music from well before day 1 and I learned three instruments (good at piano, so-so at fiddle, only ever scared cat with oboe). I'm bloody lucky and I know it.

3. It is fine for us in the PP camp to say that biographical details about composers are irrelevant and music has to speak for itself, but for those trying to find a way in to the classical spheres - which can seem very remote and hostile for exactly that reason - such matters are absolutely invaluable. And we PPs can't afford to ignore that, because if we do then the music we love is going to be cut back and killed off.

4. For some possible solutions, read the piece I wrote for the Indy a few months back. I'm not offering these solutions to the PPs, but I know for a fact that bringing storytelling back into music can help to recruit new audiences. We need new audiences whether we like it or not.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Reading & listening for the autumn

OK, OK, OK. I said I would be recommending books and CDs from time to time and a delicate correspondent has now told me that I don't do so often enough. So here is my latest selection: a mix of old and new, including both things I like that have landed on my desk this week and slightly older things that I've looked at again thanks to experiences like St Nazaire.

GREAT TENOR ARIAS: JUAN DIEGO FLOREZ (Decca). The latest release from my brand-new favourite singer. I've grown sick of starry opera singers who look good but actually can't do the business. This guy is different. He's an amazing vocal virtuoso with a wonderful high, bright, focused and open sound - and he's drop-dead gorgeous too. My birthday treat will be going to see him sing at the Royal Opera House in Don Pasquale. As I'm not habitually plugged in to bel canto opera, I'd managed not to hear him until June, when our Danish opera-buff friends, driving through the countryside near Aarhus, played us a tape of him singing Rossini at the Met. I nearly fell out of their Merc.

MATTHIAS GOERNE sings SCHUMANN; and also WINTERREISE (both also Decca). You have to be a bit of a masochist to love Lieder. It certainly casts your view of your own psyche in a new light when you find yourself lying on your study floor snuffling desperately into your third Kleenex thinking 'Why do I put myself through this? I could just press STOP...' Listening to Goerne singing these phenomenal songs is like having the skin stripped from your soul. Winterreise is out now, Schumann will be available from 11 October.

BARENBOIM PLAYS BACH (Warner Classics). Daniel Barenboim has recorded the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, using the full range of the piano's expressive abilities to penetrate to the heart of Bach's spirit. While the 'early music brigade' are all-too-often trapped on the surface of the flypaper, Barenboim goes straight for the honey underneath.

GRAFFIN AND DEVOYON PLAY CANTELOUBE (Hyperion). The CD includes the Violin Sonata No.1 by Pierre de Breville and Joseph Canteloube's Suite 'Dans la montagne'. The Canteloube is a real discovery - absolutely beautiful. Its 'Jour de fete' is full of clever, light-touch effects and 'Dans le bois au printemps' is a prequel to the Songs of the Auvergne. Philippe's bow arm is particularly stunning and sometimes reminds me of Errol Flynn wielding his rapier in those Korngold-scored swashbucklers, and Pascal's even-tempered sensitivity and gleaming sound comprises its perfect partner.

SHCHEDRIN PIANO CONCERTO NO.2 (Hyperion) played by Marc-Andre Hamelin with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Litton. Shchedrin at his most dazzling, mingling modernist fireworks with what sounds like a trip to Ronnie Scott's, switching from one idiom to the other in the twinkling of a Hamelin finger. Coupled with an exceptionally touching performance of Shostakovich's Second Concerto.

I, MAYA PLISETSKAYA. Madame Shchedrin's memoirs of her days as prima ballerina assoluta of the Bolshoi in haut-Soviet times. It's a chunky volume and I'm looking forward to it.

NATASHA'S DANCE by Orlando Figes. Figes transforms the cultural history of Russia into a fabulous tapestry, bringing together elements ranging from music to the Orthodox Church, Pushkin to Akhmatova, Glinka to Shostakovich, Turgenev to Solzhenitsyn. Not only a marvellously informative history, but a fantastic read as well.


Friday, September 24, 2004

Encroaching shamelessness

I'm informed of the following: first, my PDF download section doesn't work. I couldn't figure out how to get it to work, so I've chopped it. Next, a pragmatic pal said "What's the point of having a website if you don't promote your books on it?", so, swallowing all my Best of British modesty, I have put up a new sidebar section with links to my books on

It's one of the big cultural differences between the UK and the US that in the latter, it's basically expected that you will be proud of your achievements, do all you can to further them and better yourself and the more you earn, the better. In Britain, we are oh so easily embarrassed. We are particularly embarrassed if we commit the cardinal sin of being good at something, of doing something that our friends and colleagues haven't done, of daring to shift above what could be perceived by others as our 'place' in life. We don't like to put ourselves forward or admit that we are ambitious. And heaven forfend that we should be paid for working hard at something we enjoy... this is a Very Big Problem for those of us who enjoy job satisfaction in the arts since we do have to pay the bills like everyone else...

So, yeah, I'm embarrassed to push my own books on my own website. But I can take comfort in the fact that the terms of the publishing contracts are such that I'm not likely ever to see another penny/cent from any of them anyway.

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.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Happy hols ahead

I'm off to France this morning for 10 days. Back in town and in cyberspace on 20th September. We are renting a house in the middle of nowhere in the Loire Valley for a week, then going to St Nazaire. Watch this space for a report on chateaux, fromages, patisserie, the St Nazaire Festival and Tom's momentous day on stage with the Graffin All-Stars!

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Happy Birthday Dvorak

It's Dvorak's birthday - he would have been 163 today... My article about him for The Indy came out on Monday to trail today's all-Antonin Prom, which included Sarah Chang playing the Violin Concerto with the Czech Phil conducted by Charles Mackerras. The second half was the New World Symphony, which is the basis of my article.

That symphony was in the first concert I ever went to, at the Royal Festival Hall in (I think) 1973. I still remember it. It was the Royal Philharmonic - then a powerhouse presence on the musical scene, not the demoralised, cash-starved basket-case it has become today - with Rudolf Kempe conducting, on a Sunday afternoon so that hard-working fathers like my dad could take their children along at an hour when they wouldn't be missing bedtime (WHY don't we have Sunday afternoon concerts now? As a kid, I'd have never heard any live music without them!). If I've got this right, they started with the Berlioz Carnival Romain overture and then Miriam Fried played the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. What I remember most from the Dvorak symphony was a) loving the tunes, b) feeling desperately sorry for the flautist, Susan Milan, who was sitting right in front of the very loud brass and timpani.

30 years on, I've interviewed Susan Milan, and also Miriam Fried's son, Jonathan Biss, a young pianist we'll soon be hearing a lot more about. But today I felt as if I was hearing the New World Symphony for the first time, thanks to Michael Beckerman of NYU, whose superb book New Worlds of Dvorak explores the work's connections to the composer's abortive attempts to write an opera based on Longfellow's 'Hiawatha' (a task later satisfactorily accomplished as a cantata by his young Black British disciple Samuel Coleridge-Taylor). Dvorak, always considered a 'Czech Brahms', says Mike, always wanted to be a 'Slavic Wagner' instead. This book has all the warmth, gentle humour and humanity that is so often missing from musicological tracts, and it made a deep impression when I first perused it when writing liner notes for Philippe's recording of the Violin Concerto, coupled with Coleridge-Taylor's (see link on left).

Now, though, I can really hear it. This symphony is pure symphonic poem. It's all there - the death of Minnehaha, the demoniac dance of the magician Pau-Puk-Keewis, the great famine...and if there should be any doubt as to Dvorak's operatic aspirations, the final chord is straight out of the Ring Cycle, the woodwind sustaining into the beyond after the strings have vanished. Incredible. That b****y bread advert wrecked this work for many years with naff associations; in fact it's one of the late 19th century's finest efforts. It is both sobering and inspiring to return to a work like this and suddenly recognise that you have never appreciated it before.

Bravo Dvorak! And happy birthday.

APOLOGIES MEANWHILE for long blogging silence. I'm trying frantically to juggle family duties with finishing a bunch of articles before going away to France on Friday. GOOD NEWS: my NEW NEPHEW was born on Saturday! He is adorable, and reputedly responds positively to the CD of Nice Soothing Tracks that I put together for his mum, my brother's partner Laura. I'm told it has become the Soothing Feeding CD. It's is full of beautiful slow movements from various concertos, plus a good few chunks of Faure. Luckily enough, it seems to work.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Sir Georg's 15 minutes

A peculiar number of hits originating at a wonderful blog named Llama Butchers prompted me to investigate. Turns out that our resident feline Solti, a.k.a. Sir Georg, a.k.a. Poochface, is having his own personal 15 minutes of fame and has nearly won us a companion cat from the States. Voila: Llama Butchers.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Eating fire and words in Edinburgh

Two glorious days in Edinburgh at the tail end of the Festival have, I think, made me eat most of my former words about Scotland. Previously I've had a few nasty experiences there, but this trip was pure magic. Not least, that was because the sun came out - though Edinburgh is a stunningly beautiful city whatever the weather. Tom compares it to Prague, with the hilltop castle, the deep cleft valley, the historic grandeur that infuses the grey stone from which most of the city is built; and you can see the first hills of the Highlands in the distance from the centre of town.

Combine scenery, sunshine and the festival atmosphere with the rich acoustic in the Usher Hall, two concerts with the LPO at its very finest under principal guest conductor Vladimir Jurowski, innumerable wonderful cafes and fabulous vegetarian food (we particularly recommend Henderson's) and a fabulous party thrown for the orchestra by the sponsors last night in The Hub, a converted church on the Royal Mile, and - well, it was great. Even Tom felt as if we were having a glorified holiday, and he was working his socks off.

Of course, when everybody said that Vladimir set the Usher Hall alight with his electrifying charisma, they didn't quite mean the fire alarm to go off, which it did 10 minutes before the concert on Monday. Vladi was blameless, however: the culprit turned out to be an overenthusiastic tea urn in the ladies' dressing room... Earlier in the day I'd strolled down the Royal Mile, closed to traffic and boasting several fire-eaters juggling with flaming torches. Plenty of sparks flew in Edinburgh, one way or another.

The Scots don't always like to believe that life can be quite so marvellous and we found that the people we talked to were eager to point out that 'it isn't like this all the time!'. The Festival, they declare, is exceptional. A few weeks of intense, creative glory in which the place is packed with fantastic things to see, hear and do, and then back to normal: by December it's completely freezing and night sets in around 3.30pm. Tom complained that London doesn't have a festival - there are some fine local festivals such as Spitalfields, City of London and Hampstead and Highgate, not to mention the Proms, but nothing that unifies the city's lively arts scene across the board in the way that Edinburgh does. On the other hand, London is always full of things to see, hear and do - not just for three weeks of the year.

Still, COULD THERE BE a way to pull everything together in comparable fashion in London? Would it be sensible, practical or even desirable to have a London International Festival? Personally I reckon it would be virtually unworkable because of the sheer scale of the city, but I'm famously pessimistic. What does everyone think about this?