Saturday, July 30, 2005

Dreams come true...

...in stages. The proofs and cover design of my book have turned up. The book will be 375 pages. The cover is perfect. I'm bowled over, because I have very little design imagination - when asked whether I had any ideas about how I wanted the jacket to look, all I could come up with was 'for goodness' sake, no lemon yellow, shocking pink, lime green or champagne glasses'! Now someone in that company, somehow, has come up with an image that is strong and simple and that says what needs to be said. The photo, font and entire style is very classy but entirely immediate. I can't quite believe how thrilled I am with it - yet have a seriously odd sensation that I always knew in some strange corner of the brain that my first novel was going to look like this. How? no idea.

Please excuse me for a couple of days while I go off to proof-read...in France.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Mountain excitement


Verbier tent
Originally uploaded by Duchenj.

Back from Verbier. Here's a picture of the scene outside the concert tent the other night. The tent in the picture is the Cafe Schubert, where lectures and pre-concert talks are held. It's quite some setting for music...

The quality of the performances was, as usual absolutely incredible (with one scarey exception). The highlights of our all-too-brief stay were Leonidas Kavakos, Mischa Maisky and Elena Bashkirova playing the Schubert B flat Trio; and Thomas Quasthoff, accompanied by Evgeny Kissin, singing a selection of dark-hued Schubert with a power and empathy that were positively spine-chilling.

During less than 48 hours we experienced all of this and much more. Cello masterclass with Ralph Kirshbaum, lunch & interview with the fabulous Kavakos (stopping on way into street cafe to say hi to Vengerov a few tables away), mountain cable car & glorious walk, amazing concert with Mozart played by Michala Petri, Janine Jansen, Julian Rachlin & various others, a scrumptious fondue, the Quastoff/Kissin gig and the most extraordinary party I've ever been to...

The only upset was a cellist called Alexander Knaizev, who - despite having Kissin as his pianist - gave the most horrible performance of sonatas by Franck and Shostakovich. I disgraced myself by getting the giggles, but I don't think I was the only one. He made the recent affectations of Anne-Sophie Mutter seem like reasonable interpretations. Half the audience loved it; many others fled the moment the Franck was finished. I hung on for the Shostakovich in case it improved, but it didn't.

Some claim to like his 'intensity' - but if someone TALKED to you like that, constantly fortissimo, milking E-V-E-R-Y W-O-O-O-R-D F-O-R M-A-A-A-A-A-A-X-I-M-U-U-U-M E-M-O-T-I-O-O-O-O-N A-A-A-A-L-L T-H-E T-I-I-I-I-M-E W-I-T-H-O-U-U-T A-N-Y V-A-R-I-E-T-Y-Y-Y-Y, you would either think they were crazy or you'd go crazy yourself. Sorry, but that's not intensity. It's emotional claptrap and it has nothing, but NOTHING, to do with Franck, let alone Shostakovich (and this guy, being Russian, should at least have known better there). Plus it takes some doing to make an audience come out of a cello recital in a tent feeling as if their ears have been assaulted by an electric guitar. I was particularly disappointed because I've heard some of his recordings and liked them very much, including his solo Bach.

Anyway, win some, lose some... Verbier is beautiful, thrilling and -given the amount of serious dosh there - remarkably human. This was my fourth visit (and Tom's first) and I hope I'll be able to go back next year.

I'm now about to do extra time on the exercise bike to burn off some of that fondue...

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Sunday

OK. I think that's quite enough about Wagner for a bit. My brain's getting twisted.

I'm off to Switzerland for a flying visit to the Verbier Festival tomorrow - back rather too soon. A couple of thoughts to leave you with in the meantime, including the promised Desert Island Discs in case anyone's interested!

First, though, for the literary-minded: in the wake of the bombings in London and Egypt and the continual suicide bombing insurgency in Iraq, how are we creatives to respond? I've often been annoyed by the way that much contemporary fiction seems to be an extended version of what's happened to be in the news - the result is a lot of books that date very quickly - and even my favourite books, which on the whole don't do that, can contain elements that become dated through their 'relevance to contemporary issues'. On the other hand, there's a lot of escapism too: historical novels that bury their concerns in the distant past (though I hasten to add that I love many of those!!). Is it possible for writers and, indeed, composers to handle the impact of our changing world in a creative way that doesn't become obsessed with relevance to these issues? I'm wondering how to make my new novel feel contemporary without getting too involved in such things. It's difficult.

Enough of that - here are 8 Desert Island Discs to enjoy. I've a nasty feeling I've done this before, but can't remember when - and the list has probably changed...

1. Krystian Zimerman plays the Ravel piano concertos - with LSO/Boulez (DG). Perfection.

2. Marc-Andre Hamelin's album 'Kaleidoscope'. All his recordings are brilliant, but this is the one I play most.

3. Mozart: The Magic Flute, conducted by Klemperer with fab cast including Nikolai Gedda, Gundula Janowitz and Lucia Popp. I grew up with this & may be where I am today partly because of it.

4. Tchaikovsky. Mravinsky conducts his own selection from The Nutcracker's most meaningful moments. Another world.

5. Peter Schreier and Andras Schiff in the Schubert song cycles. I was going to choose just 'Die schone Mullerin' but have now discovered that all three are available together!

6. The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Violin Concerto, played by Philippe Graffin in South Africa. This is meaningful to me for long, complex reasons that I've written about before.

7. Andras Schiff plays the Goldberg Variations. Definitely can't do without this.

8. Faure. It has to be Faure. I'd like to take my own compilation of Favourite Faure, but in the absence of that, This will do nicely: historical Faure, including Thibaut & Cortot in the Violin Sonata No.1 and the Calvet Quartet with Robert Casadesus in the Piano Quartet No.1. Having said that, my ultimate Faure choice has yet to appear on CD. I'm hoping that it will do so within the next couple of years.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Wagnerama

The result of my Wednesday Wagner crisis is in The Independent today. Read it online here. The commission began rumbling on Tuesday, was confirmed Wednesday morning & I had to get it finished that day by 5.30. Voila...

Yesterday more nutcases tried to set off bombs on the London underground - thank heavens they didn't kill anyone this time. This morning the pictures are on the front page of the Indy. In the top right-hand corner, however, is a little picture of Wagner. This feels extremely weird.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Blimey...

Beethoven has out-downloaded Bono, according to The Guardian today. This really is interesting. One correspondent quoted from the BBC's message board talks about 'the democratisation of high culture' and I think that's an excellent description.

It seems clear from the BBC's Beethoven symphonies download experiment, and also from a number of conversations I had with some very interesting people yesterday about Wagner (of which more shortly), that people DO want great classical music. They just need to be able to GET AT IT easily. That doesn't mean dumbing-down or doing crossover. It just means changing the means by which the best stuff is made available.

Meanwhile here's a review of that Walkure Prom from today's Indy.

I spent yesterday in the throes of a major, unexpected Wagner crisis which may have been prompted by that Prom (no pun intended!). More of this tomorrow...

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

aspiration? or perspiration?

I wish I could say that this great tango pic courtesy of George Hunka at Superfluities was me & Tom. Unfortunately it isn't. Picture to yourself a satirical cartoon version starring Pooh and Piglet and the Woozle and it will give you a better idea of how we look. Thanks for the kind words, George; they make me feel better!

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

This thing called The Proms

In answer to Andrea, here's a quick explanation of the Proms.

'Proms' is short for BBC Promenade Concerts. It's an annual summer festival in central London at the Royal Albert Hall - reputedly the largest music festival in the world. This summer there are 74 concerts, which began last Friday and go on every day until mid September. 'Promenade' = standing. They take all the seats out of the stalls and pack in 'promenaders' - you can also stand in the gallery. Over 1400 standing places are available at every concert, sold on the door for £4. There are also plenty of seats for those who want them. But it's more fun to prom because the atmosphere is fantastic and the sound quality is best in the arena! It's top-quality stuff from beginning to end: the finest orchestras, conductors and soloists and plenty of interesting programming too. There's a whole promming subculture which is to do with etiquette inside, queuing, buying season tickets to the whole lot, etc etc. ... As it's a BBC festival, they broadcast absolutely everything on BBC Radio 3 and now that they have some digital TV channels quite a lot of the concerts also go out on BBC 4. The Last Night of the Proms is when we get the Sea Shanties, Rule Britannia, Land of Hope & Glory and Jerusalem - it's always a bone of contention for those who don't like its 'jingoistic' element, but anytime anyone talks about changing it there's an outcry (...long topic, will save it up for another time). The Proms were founded by the conductor Henry Wood 110 years ago and the Beeb took over in 1927.

Last night's Prom was a concert performance of Die Walkure with the team from the current Royal Opera House production: Antonio Pappano conducting, Waltraud Meier and Placido Domingo as Sieglinde and Siegmund, Lisa Gasteen as Brunnhilde and Bryn Terfel as Wotan. It doesn't get better than that and you could get in for £4. I regret to say I didn't hear it - because I was backstage, interviewing Domingo during Act III once his role was over!!!! :-)))

He's LOVELY...

Here's what The Indy has to say this morning.

The great news for me is that each Prom is now available to listen to online for 7 days after it takes place! Further details of how to do it here!

We'll do Desert Island Discs next time, Andrea. A British phenomenon, by the way, dating back to 1942 and originating on BBC Radio 4, and here they do 8 records, not 2.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Women writing wonderfully

OK, I know I'm with the Indy, but there are two very special pieces in The Guardian today.

Here's Charlotte Higgins on the wonders of ballet - something about which I couldn't agree more! I used to go to the ballet all the time when I was younger...actually, I used to dance too.....and I MISS IT.

And here is my very old friend Anna Swan writing about the mother she never knew - a trail for her book Statues Without Shadows, which is being published by Hodder & Stoughton today (having not met up for a couple of years, we've only just discovered we are with the same publisher!). It's a brave book and a powerful history. Bravo, Anna - and encore!

Sunday, July 17, 2005

I am a newcomer to...

...TANGO.

We've been to three classes and have learned, kind of, to do a total of 8 beats. Between us, we seem to have 8 left feet. While the other 'beginners' have been in the class for several months, look relatively graceful and have the most fabulous shoes (! tango shoes are gorgeous!), we've been lumping about at the side of the room, trying to get the hold right, the stance and the attitude. The latter is the most difficult for me, because the secret of the whole thing seems to be that the man has to lead and must indicate clearly exactly what you, the woman, are supposed to do. I'm not used to this. In day to day life, I go and do my own thing and Tom joins in if/when he can. In tango, this is the biggest of all big no-nos! I reckon Tom absolutely loves this deep down and is trying not to admit it. For me, it's come as a big shock...but the music and the shoes, when I get some, are going to be worth it.

Have been listening to recordings of Piazzolla's own band from the 1940s and they are AMAZING (I can't find the CD I have on Amazon, but a quick search there on Piazzolla's name produces plenty to choose from). I don't know many dances that are that atmospheric by their very nature.

Anyway, we are absolute, absolute beginners. We have to ditch our classical tendency to do things by counting, not feeling; I have to ditch my long-buried classical ballet reflexes (20 years on, they still come back on a dance floor); we have to learn a softer, smoother method of crossing a floor, and somehow we have to learn to trust each other in a whole new way, which is very bizarre.

But it's like learning anything new: if you really want to do it, you persevere. You get inspired, not intimidated, by people who can do it already. You apply effort and commitment and time and take some lessons. And having a goal is no bad thing. We are going to Buenos Aires in January; my goal is that by the time we get there, I want to be able to hit the dance floor for an evening and not feel like a total idiot. I think Tom feels the same (hope so, anyway). It's not a crime for other people to have spent half their lives doing this, nor do I resent the fact that they have and I haven't. I just want the chance to learn now to the best of my ability, even if I'm abysmal.

Friday, July 15, 2005

BBC = undesirable A Level grades

Oh yes. Very much B-B-C grades to the BBC tonight. WHOSE BRIGHT IDEA WAS IT TO GIVE INSTRUMENTAL PIECES AT THE PROMS A RUNNING SUBTITLE COMMENTARY????? Whoever it is, I want them hung, drawn and quartered.

I switched on the First Night in some excitement this evening, looking forward to seeing the lovely Janine Jansen playing my favourite violin concerto - Mendelssohn - despite Sir Roger's attempts to get the BBC Symphony Orchestra to play without vibrato (oh boy, they're going to love that...). And what do we see? A purple strap along the bottom third of the picture, carrying little titbits of info and commentary on the music a la Wimbledon. Why? Is this called accessibility? It's not even accessible - what newcomer on earth is going to be turned on to music by the information that the violin is playing a virtuoso figuration over a lyrical counter-melody? Oh help. Help. Help. No. No. No. No.

The presenter was Alan Titchmarsh, of 'Gardener's World' - did someone get him mixed up with John Eliot Gardiner?!? And while the Wimbledon touch of showing a shot of Janine's partner in the audience is cute - Julian Rachlin, no less - why did we later have to see Rolf Harris? At least Alan didn't bother telling us who Nick Kenyon was when he was pictured. In fact I prefer Alan Titchmarsh as presenter to Charles Hazlewood, but maybe I'm getting older.

There is one very practical solution. Switch off the TV. Switch on the radio instead. Wonderful...

Better still, I guess, go to the concert. But, as Cole Porter said, it's too darn hot.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The ultimate consoling music

...is Schubert.

I may go on about Faure,Elgar, Korngold and the rest, but in truth, for me there is nobody to touch Schubert. He has a profound empathy with humanity's greatest conundrum - mortality - without having to hammer us on the head with it the way Mahler does. Schubert spent what few mature years he had (he died at 31) suffering from syphilis, knowing that his time would be short, knowing that he could never enjoy love without passing on a deadly disease. Read his letters and you feel the pain: a vast love for the wonders of life on earth and, at the same time, complete revulsion at the ugly side of humanity and, indeed, himself. Christopher Nupen's documentary about him is called 'The Greatest Love and the Greatest Sorrow' - a title that couldn't be more perfect.

The music? Divine. Nothing less. There can be nothing that carries one as he does into heightened awareness of life in the moment; nothing that furrows the brain more incisively; nothing else that taps to that extent into the endless longing that is both life's torment and possibly its meaning, without ever becoming remotely self-important or pretentious.

Schubert leaves extremely vivid images behind when you hear him. I remember my mother in tears over the G flat impromptu (I used to play it a lot), myself aged 13 encountering the String Quintet and being off school for two days afterwards, Andras Schiff playing the complete cycle in the Wigmore a few years ago and snow falling outside, Uchida playing the G major Piano Sonata in the Festival Hall, hearing the Notturno for piano trio at midnight in a Norwegian cathedral; the list is endless and the effects magical beyond description.

A few days ago a friend came round to play a concerto to us and a handful of other friends. The weather was glorious and we were all happy to be together after last week's tragedies. Our friend played exquisitely; afterwards I cooked what even I felt was a reasonably sumptuous dinner; and we sat around until after midnight listening to music and getting through a fair bit of Beaujolais. Finding the right music didn't seem to be easy, though; we experimented with Eddy Duchin (my famous relation!), Kapustin, Strauss, Debussy...and finally someone found the Schubert B flat Piano Trio in the recording by Thibaud, Cortot and Casals. This piece has a thousand and one associations for me already, but I doubt I'll ever hear it again without seeing my own lounge by lamplight, the doors wide open into the dark garden, golden reflections in the glass, the closeness of people I love, the awareness of loss lingering unseen amid all the sweetness.

I think that one reason I want to write is to preserve something of such experience.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Friday night

I'd like to tell you all about the spirit of London's music-lovers on Friday night when my friends of the Razumovsky Ensemble were unlucky enough to have their Wigmore Hall concert. The concert the night before - the day of the bombings - had been cancelled, but Oleg and the hall decided to go ahead as planned, although the audience was half of what it should have been, understandably enough.

I went along with a friend who feels, as I do, that we must defy terrorism and not let our daily lives be disrupted. We drove in, but I took the train home and had to get on the tube to return to Waterloo. If I couldn't do it that day, I might never have done it again. And, bolstered by the extraordinary music-making I'd been witnessing, it wasn't so difficult after all.

When the evening's total of four musicians took the stage for the Faure C minor Piano Quartet at the start of the second half (the first having been string players without pianist), Philippe turned to the audience and declared, "We'd like to thank you for coming to this concert tonight." Before he could say anything else, someone called back from the stalls, "Thank you for playing for us!!" Hugely appreciative round of applause followed; and then a transcendental account of the Faure, filled with elan, refinement, sensitivity, poetry and sensuality in perfect balance.

Life is very short, and often shorter than we could have imagined. Music is one of the best things we can experience during it. If we can clock in to that depth of beauty, that intensity of poetic vision, then something about life will have been worth living, despite the horrors around us. It's not just diversion, entertainment, escapism or something to do after work. Oscar Wilde wrote: "It is through art, and through art only, that we can realise our perfection." It is enrichment, defiance, assertion, power, but, above all, a form of love - a universal love that enters, draws out and re-expresses a deep-seated spirit shared, in some obscure corner of the soul, by most people on earth. We are, and in the modern world must struggle to remain, more than animals who go about daily life eating and sleeping and surviving and buying things. I feel it is our ability to appreciate and create art, in whatever form, that raises us to the apex of all that humanity at its best can be.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

A thought from Faure

"The work of the imaginatiion consists in attempting to formulate all that one wants that is best, everything that goes beyond reality... To my mind, art, and above all music, consists in lifting us as far as possible above what is."
(Gabriel Faure in a letter to his son, Philippe Faure-Fremiet, August 1908)

Friday, July 08, 2005

This morning

Things are working once again around London, but in a low-key manner. The count from the attacks yesterday is 38 dead, 700 injured and a whole city traumatised.

My friends of the Razumovsky Ensemble are not going to find it easy to recruit an audience for their Wigmore Hall concert tonight, wonderful though they and their programme are. I am determined to get there. I am not going to be afraid. At 7.30pm I shall be in that hall and if I have to get on the tube, then get on it I shall. I refuse to let a bunch of thugs stop me.

And so to some recordings to recommend, as promised yesterday.

What can one do but reach for the Elgar? The obvious thing, I suppose, is Jacqueline du Pre playing the Cello Concerto - her first recording of it, with John Barbirolli conducting. But the Violin Concerto is more consoling, more reflective, and, to my ears, more beautiful. Try the classic recording by the teenaged Yehudi Menuhin, conducted by Elgar himself.

Alternatively, this next one is extremely good value: Hugh Bean plays the concerto and the violin sonata, and you also get the Piano Quintet, the Serenade, the String Quartet and the Concert Allegro with John Ogdon. Hugh Bean's tone is incredible. I once heard him performing the Brahms Horn Trio at the Wigmore Hall and when he began the tune, his violin sounded like the horn.

While talking British violin performances, I mustn't leave Tasmin out. Her recording of the Delius Violin Sonatas with pianist Piers Lane is fabulous. I'm a secret Delius fan. It doesn't always do to admit this, mysteriously enough, but I think he's GREAT. The Walk to the Paradise Garden is one of the most exquisite pieces ever written by someone who was technically British. Here's The Halle Orchestra with John Barbirolli.

A close-run second is Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending, recorded here by our Tazza.

All of this is, however, very English although London is today a tremendously multicultural place - one of the things that we're proudest of here. Multicultural celebrations are rare in early 20th-century British music, and for a recording that celebrates the little that there was, turn to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Violin Concerto which is both stirring and gorgeous in this recording by Philippe Graffin. Philippe is playing it at the Proms on 9 August and I find it absolutely extraordinary that it should be buried in a programme of British Light Music - since it is neither particularly light nor typically British. Classical music gets a lot of stick for consisting mainly of music by dead white men. The one time we're treated to some extremely good music by a dead half-black man, however, it has to be presented either as a rarity (by Hyperion, who recorded it with Anthony Marwood) or a trifle (by whoever plans the Proms these days)! Ouch. This recording takes it as seriously as it deserves and, as I've said before, is more than the sum of its parts, since it's the first commercial recording made in South Africa since the fall of Apartheid and features the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra which struggles valiantly day to day for its very existence.

Ultimately, though, for songs of love and fun and quality and British creativity at its best, there has to be the Beatles... and Revolver is my favourite album.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

today

After the best day ever in London yesterday, today we have the worst.

We are all in shock, but there are a few positive things to say:

1. We will NOT be cowed by terrorists. London is, and will remain, the great capital city that it truly is.

2. The casualties are appalling, but we must be grateful that it wasn't worse than it is.

3. The emergency services have been marvellous.

My thanks to everyone who has phoned and written today - your concern is a signal of the solidarity we all feel in the face of such horrific and cowardly attacks on innocent civilians.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Chocolate heaven?

A couple of e-mails resulting from my comments about male & female rival visions of heaven raise a few questions. One lady in Lithuania is a tad confused because she loves Vilnius and dislikes chocolate. A friend from New York writes that his idea of heaven would be Bruges populated by leggy blondes, which sounds to me like trying to have your cake and eat it (or at least your chocolate)! But I suspect that Korngold would have agreed. His opera Die tote Stadt is based on a book named Bruges-la-Morte by the Belgian symbolist writer Georges Rodenbach - and there's no greater chocaholic in music history than dear old Erich Wolfgang K.

I'm wondering whether to change the heading on this blog to 'music, writing and food in London, UK'....

OH MY GOD

We got the 2012 Olympics!! This is ABSOLUTELY UNBELIEVABLE!!!

It could just be the best thing that has ever happened to London - this city is going to have to get its transport & infrastructure act together within seven years, and being obliged to do so is probably the only way it ever will.

It's wonderful to hear people on TV declaring that London's going to be the greatest city on the planet. As a kid, I was always convinced that that was the case; but through the 1980s, watching the place grow run-down, demoralised and neglected, it was depressing to feel that we were being relegated to what one well-known writer described during the John Major years as 'the bargain basement of Europe'. That's no longer true. Things have been on the up for some years now, speaking on average (there are, of course, still parts of the city which are horrendously deprived, including the eastern districts where the Olympics are to take place), but if this can't complete the transformation then nothing can.

The London bid seems to have succeeded not least because it talked about inspiring young people. The arts need to inspire young people with a similar world-class example - and in music, as well as in sport, it's only the combination of the finest practitioners, accessibility (not least physical accessibility) and solid media coverage that can provide it strongly and widely enough. Arts and music movers and shakers need to start thinking NOW about how we can join in most effectively.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Yum

One of the most interesting effects of performing is what it does to one's eating habits. Since we finished our little run of recitals, my chocolate consumption has reduced by 500%. Miraculous, but true. Does the chocolate produce the highs & lows associated with giving concerts, or does one eat it to forestall those dips in energy? (If the latter, afraid it doesn't work.)

I'm enjoying having my life back, as well as the healthier diet. Am cooking dinner for friends today, via my current favourite recipe book: Nigella Lawson's Forever Summer. It's a special treat to be confined to the kitchen late on Saturday afternoon because BBC Radio Three has jazz 4-6.30pm and I love Geoff Smith's Jazz Record Requests - there's always something wonderful or fascinating or rare, if not several of all three. So any guests who come over on a Saturday are more or less guaranteed a more elaborate meal than they'd get here during the rest of the week! ...oh well, so much for that healthy diet...

Speaking of which, here's a recent revelation about the nature of masculine & feminine alternative heavens. Apparently, for most man, the best alternative to heaven would be a place with an endless supply of leggy blondes (maybe this place?). Us girls think differently. Our alternative heaven has got to be Bruges: the town, I believe, that has the highest concentration of Belgian chocolate shops per square metre!