Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Viardot reborn

Last night I attended an extraordinary concert staged by Opera Rara and Prima Donna Productions at the Wigmore Hall: a programme with narration by Fanny Ardent about the life and music of Pauline Viardot, the great mezzo-soprano who inspired everyone from Chopin to Berlioz to Turgenev, whose lover she may or may not have been (this account, twinkle in eye, suggested the former). It was quite a marathon, starring three stunning singers: fabulous dramatic soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci, classic Russian bass Vladimir Chernov and the legendary Frederica von Stade, as radiant as ever and in fine form at 60 - remarkably, it was her very first appearance at the Wigmore.

The narration, written by Georgia Smith, was witty, informative and sensitive, even if Ardent didn't always sound comfortable speaking in English. If you're in Paris, try to catch the same concert at the Chatelet tomorrow, 1 March, presumably in French - it may go with a little more pizzazz. But the real star was Viardot's music. I've heard a number of her songs before, but many of yesterday's were new to me - heavens, they're beautiful! The variety is astonishing - she set poems in four or five languages, including Russian; and the warmth, melodic flow, drama, sensitivity to words and imaginative flair mean that, programmed alongside her admirers Gounod and Berlioz (his gorgeous La Captive, for mezzo-soprano, cello and piano) and her friend Chopin, her music more than holds its own. For me, top spot was the gorgeous Die Sterne, again with cello: breathtaking lyricism and a profound soul shone out of it.

Viardot has been a special interest of mine for a few years, but until now, I must admit, mostly because I adore Turgenev. I wrote a piece trailing this concert for the Indy which was in last week (read it here), but came away from the event itself feeling I'd discovered a new dimension to a story I thought I knew. This concert wasn't merely a rare music faction trying to convince us that second-rate music is worth hearing. Instead, it revealed a composer of real genius.

Opera Rara recorded the concert live and the CD will be released in due course. Grab it when you can and hear these unsuspected wonders for yourself.

UPDATE: 3 March 2006 - read The Independent's review by Robert Maycock here.

Monday, February 27, 2006

I've got an iPod...

...and I'm gonna use it. I must be the last person on earth to acquire one of these little snazzcards, but it's worth the wait. It's a Nano, a birthday present from my brother, and it's taken a few months for me to get it up and running due to what is now a defunct computer. New computer works smoothly and beautifully with it, however (touch wood), and this morning I uploaded my current favourite CD and switched the thing on. A second later I was swimming in technicolour Chausson.


Now I understand why people wander about in worlds of their own while using their iPods. I well remember the Walkman effect in the early 1980s - when everyone went nuts for Sony portable cassette players, a friend of mine wrote a song for his band called 'Year of the Zombie'. The difference with the iPod is staggering. They're light, the sound quality is amazing and you can carry hundreds of pieces without resort to plastic boxes. But of course, everyone else knows this already...

It makes me wonder how we'll be playing our recorded music after another 23 years.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Time out

Apologies for lack of blogging at the moment - a lot going on - but I'm still here (kind of) and will attempt something nice, normal and sensible, like CD recommendations or a concert and/or opera report, over the next few days.

Friday, February 17, 2006


...my book arrived.

I have been waiting all my life to hold my first novel alive and printed in my hands. Today it happened.

To say this is a happy day would be rather an understatement!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

What do you mean, French horn?!

The latest issue of MUSO, the upbeat magazine for youthful classical musicians, has a nice article this month about blogging. Yours truly got interviewed for it (thank you!), as did Swen Emmerling and Zachary Lewis.

As I am distinctly longer in the tooth than the mag's target market, I must admit I don't always read this publication in detail, but my eye was caught this time by a quiz that aims to identify which instrument you ought to play by your physical and character traits. Results proved interesting.

Do you enjoy your own company? Yes, I quite enjoy spending time on my own
Do you enjoy reading? Yes, I read a lot
Do you have big hands? No, they're fairly small
Do you have full lips? No, my lips are quite thin

Eh??!? That's one instrument that never so much as occurred to me...

The quiz may upset others by declaring that if your answer to the question 'Are you clumsy?' is 'Yes, I'm always knocking things over,' then your instrument is the cello. Apparently if you're ill a lot you should take to the recorder. Are you a couch potato? Do you daydream all the time? Then play the flute. Do you have big teeth? Go for the guitar.

My beloved piano, according to this, would be removed from under my lilywhites just because they're smallish. But actually plenty of pianists have small hands - Pletnev's are almost the same size, or lack of it, as mine. That seems to prove that it ain't what you've got, it's what you do with it. Meanwhile I'm trying to recall whether I've ever spotted a horn player reading a book.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Possibilities of the Internet no.4826503

Tasmin Little is in Slovenia and she's writing reports on her progress there - yes, blogging - which you can read on her website here's the News page, follow the links to her Letters from Slovenia. She has just given the Slovenian premiere of the Elgar Violin Concerto - ! In her second letter, she describes her surprise when a member of the first violin section came up to her before the performance and told her how much he'd just enjoyed reading her first Letter from Slovenia on her website...

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Figaro on freedom of speech

The programme for Le nozze di Figaro at the Royal Opera House includes a meaty extract from Beaumarchaias's original: Figaro's controversial speech from the last act. It includes not only the part Da Ponte used, re fickle women, but also several passages which are more than topical at the moment. Such as this:

"The idiocies that appear in print don't mean a jot until someone tries to block them. Without the freedom to criticise, there can be no such thing as praise. Only little men are fearful of little scribblings."
-- Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais

PS - on a totally unrelated matter, I have just come across the blog of composer Alex Shapiro, which has convinced me I live in the wrong place.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

You had to be there...

[Apologies for lack of links in what follows...still trying to work out what should be simple technology on new machine!]

Terry Teachout's You Had To Be There memories are a must-read even if I'm a little late getting to them. Moments that you never forget; moments you know you are lucky to experience even as they're happening. Terry's been around slightly longer than I have and my list can't begin to compete with his, but I can boast the following top ten You Had To Be There moments:

1. Hearing Mieczyslaw Horszowski on several occasions, but most memorably at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1986, where he gave a staggeringly moving performance 0f the Franck Prelude, Chorale & Fugue. I 'got' the piece for the first time that night: its three-in-one Holy Trinity aspect shone out. Backstage afterwards with my then-boyfriend, we found Horszowski in an armchair with three people virtually sitting at his feet: Murray Perahia, Andras Schiff and Radu Lupu. Horszowski, cool as the proverbial cucumber, was reminiscing about how he had been present at the first performance of Franck's Piano Quintet at Franck's house.......... I approached to shake his hand and ask for an autograph. I was 20 and was wearing an Indian cotton dress I'd bought in Cambridge market. Horszowski's eyes lit up and he exclaimed, "What a beautiful dress!" If I could stop time, I'd have stopped it then.

2. Hearing Krystian Zimerman, aged 24, playing Brahms's F minor and Chopin's B flat minor Sonata at the RFH in London in 1980. That evening changed my life. I understood that music wasn't only about being coerced into practising: it was a gateway into another world.

3. A Royal Ballet anniversary gala at the Royal Opera House, which must have been in 1981 or 82. A programme of excerpts from their greatest hits, essentially, but the end of one section was the finale of Act 1 of Ashton's Cinderella, closing with Cinderella in her coach heading to the ball. But on board the coach were an elderly couple. A bemused whisper went around the house - then, as the audience realised who they were, the place went up in flames. People were on their feet, yelling... The culprits? Margot Fonteyn and Frederick Ashton.

4. Not exactly a performance, but something equally astonishing: a late evening at the St Nazaire 'Consonances' music festival 2004 when my husband briefly had his arm around Maya Plisetskaya.

5. Hearing Claudio Arrau in recital at a music festival somewhere in Switzerland when I was about 12. I've forgotten the venue, but still remember his tone, especially in the Liszt Dante Sonata. There was something about it that reminded me of the colour of rubies. It has stayed with me ever since.

6. The 10th birthday celebrations at Verbier a couple of years ago, in which the Bach 4 keyboards concerto was played by Argerich, Pletnev, Levine and Kissin, with an orchestra of 12 of the world's greatest string players. The results were captured on DVD...but you had to be there...especially when the strings, led by Gidon Kremer, stole the show playing variations on 'Happy Birthday'...

7. Sviatoslav Richter playing the Schubert G major Sonata at the Royal Festival Hall - the only time I heard him play live. The first note went on for about 9 seconds... and he took 40 minutes to play the first movement. Yet this, too, has stayed with me forever.

8. Mstislav Rostropovich playing three Bach suites in a 14th-century church in Ascona, Switzerland - must have been in the early 1980s. Pure magic. But what I remember most is glancing at the floor during a mesmerising Sarabande and seeing...a small scorpion scuttling around...right next to my foot...

9. Watching my favourite dancer, Anthony Dowell. Which ballet to choose? Perhaps a now almost-forgotten Hans van Manen ballet called Four Schumann Pieces (actually the A major String Quartet). It was created specially for Dowell and I drank in the sensuality of his movements, the glorious, soft plasticity of line, the sense of focus, the subtlety of emotion, the sheer, absolute beauty of the man. He was fabulous in Swan Lake, Romeo & Juliet, A Month in the Country or The Dream too, of course. But every time that Schumann quartet crosses my ears - as it does too infrequently - I glimpse him in that billowing-sleeved shir. And I am 14 all over again.

10. Becoming an unintentional extra in a Tony Palmer movie. I was invited to Sussex to report on the filming of his Chopin not-quite-biopic The Strange Case of Delfina Potocka and turned up with my notebook at the ready - only to find myself being bundled into a 19th-century crinoline and having ringlets pinned in my hair. In the film, I'm in the front row of the audience at Chopin's recital in Paris, sitting in front of George Sand.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Rio by the Sea-oh

My new computer is up and running and is deliciously compatible with Blogger. So here we go: a taste of Rio de Janeiro... From top left: the view from Corcovado; Jess & Tom join the Copacabana Beach Samba Band; and the girl from Ipanema...

Friday, February 03, 2006

Molto andante

In view of the comments arriving re the closure of Andante.com, I should mention that the message I referred to in my last post was a personal communication from the editor, not something on the site itself, and that apparently I'm wrong in referring to Naive as "new" owners - seems they've been on board longer than I'd realised. Time flies as you get older.

As time goes faster, articles get shorter, classical music has to fight harder for its minute corner, and the more TV channels there are on which to find nothing you want to see. I have just been out to see a marvellous French film starring Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, entitled HIDDEN (CACHE in French) and very refreshing it was. Sometimes it's good to escape. Or is it just the weather that's getting to me?

Top tips for surviving February in London:
Hot baths;
Camomile tea;
Rioja, the more expensive the better;
Home-made chocolate cake;
Concerts coming up including a recital by Piers Lane, Lucy Parham's Schumann Festival at Cadogan Hall and Frederica von Stade and friends singing Pauline Viardot at Wigmore Hall;
Piano practice: Beethoven Waldstein Sonata for energy, Mendelssohn Songs Without Words to get the fingers moving and Faure Nocturnes for transferral to magical, poetic universe far removed from the flight path.

Thursday, February 02, 2006


Looks like David McVicar's Figaro is going over rather well. I'm going to see it on Tuesday and will report back then, but for the time being here's Ed Seckerson in The Independent, Tim Ashley in The Guardian and the marvellous Richard Morrison in The Times, comparing Gerald Finley's Count to 'a cornered dinosaur who senses the impending Ice Age...' and pointing out pithily that Rinat Shaham (Cherubino)'s future 'probably doesn't lie in impersonating boys' (we well remember the shapely Rini as a simply sensational Carmen at Glyndebourne). David McV meanwhile has proved himself the sort of person who does win things - namely, the South Bank Show Award for Opera - and I bet there'll be more to come.

Meanwhile, less happy news from New York: a farewell note from the erstwhile editor of the online magazine at Andante.com, which has been killed by its new owners, the French record label Naive. How naive. How daft. How pointless. It will be sorely, sorely missed by its many readers.