Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Chopin and the nightingale

Done your homework? Read the story? Good. Now read it again with the following in mind: the Emperor as the dying Chopin. And the nightingale as Jenny Lind. And, possibly, the artificial nightingale as Countess Delfina Potocka...

Have a look at this extraordinary stuff from Icons of Europe, under which auspices a whole book has appeared on the subject of Chopin's relationship with the great Swedish soprano Jenny Lind. It seems that Chopin was the love of the 'Swedish Nightingale''s life. Everybody loved her - notably, Hans Christian Andersen - but she wanted to marry Chopin; and after his death she put tremendous philanthropic efforts into raising funds to combat tuberculosis.

My only problem with the suggested interpretation of The Nightingale is that the story was published in 1843 and Chopin didn't die until 1849. But was this a case of life imitating art? Such things happen...Either way, it's a fascinating notion.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Please follow this link and read this exquisite story by Hans Christian Andersen. Tomorrow I'll explain why.

Philling up the Coliseum

If you fancy going to see Philip Glass's opera about Mahatma Ghandi, Satyagraha, free of charge at the London Coliseum on 5 April, Sky-Arts-sponsored bloggers ArtsWOM have some comps to give their readers. Have a look at their post & email them direct for more details & tix.

More info about the opera & the ENO production here. It's the opera's London stage premiere and the composer's supposed to be there in person. ArtsWOM tells me that their only condition is that anyone taking up the tickets should please talk about the show on their own blogs/outlets/forums.

So, will Glass generally induce a glacial glare, or gleaming gladness? Either way, it should be an event...and I may have to give it a go, too, having (blush) never heard any Glass live in concert, at least not since a CD launch in a converted cavern somewhere in Docklands, back in the days when CDs still had launches like that. Maybe it's time to face the music and reflect...

Saturday, March 24, 2007

a bit of fun...

Matthew/Sohothedog has some fun for the weekend with this unusual quiz! Here goes:

1. Name an opera you love for the libretto, even though you don't particularly like the music.
Tosca. I'm not kidding.
2. Name a piece you wish Glenn Gould had played.
Michael Nyman's music for The Piano.

3. If you had to choose: Charles Ives or Carl Ruggles?
Would compromise and go to The Ivy for lunch instead.

4. Name a piece you're glad Glenn Gould never played.
Debussy, La plus que lente.

5. What's your favorite unlikely solo passage in the repertoire?
The tweetybird unaccompanied violin passage in Enescu's Impressions d'enfance.The cuckoo ain't bad either.

6. What's a Euro-trash high-concept opera production you'd love to see? (No Mortier-haters get to duck this one, either—be creative.)
Wagner's Ring performed according to the composer's instructions with designs taken from Arthur Rackham's drawings. Wild!

7. Name an instance of non-standard concert dress you wish you hadn't seen.
Jean-Yves Thibaudet's red socks.

8. What aging rock-and-roll star do you wish had tried composing large-scale chorus and orchestra works instead of Paul McCartney?
Whatstheirnames from Abba.

9. If you had to choose: Carl Nielsen or Jean Sibelius?
Sibelius, but my husband might kill me for that.

10. If it was scientifically proven that Beethoven's 9th Symphony caused irreversible brain damage, would you still listen to it?

Reality check

Nothing like a baby bear for bringing back a sense of perspective. This is Knut, the polar bear cub that is being hand-reared at Berlin Zoo after his mum rejected him, despite "animal rights" activists saying he should be killed rather than let a hellable horralump of a human anywhere near him. The pic (photo by Franka Bruns/AP) can be found at The Guardian, which, if you're friendly towards bears, has ten more. Have a nice weekend.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Can't find my Russian dictionary

But need it for an appropriate expletive in response to this alarming story reported by Matthew Guerrieri yesterday, with a link to the Arizona Daily Star which has the details. It seems that Rachmaninov's great-great grandson is planning to have his famous forefather's works rearranged so that they can be re-copyrighted. This is deeply unsettling.

I'm not convinced that Jane Austen's descendents would have been quick to scribble adverbs all over Pride and Prejudice in order to declare it a new work and pull in even more £££s. And can you imagine a member of the Shakespeare clan rewording for similar purposes - "To exist or to exist not, that is the decision..."

Though I'm as prone as any writer to get stewed up about authors' and composers' rights, a sensible line does need to be drawn, doesn't it? Shades of the Hyperion-Lionel Sawkins case...where will the issue go from here?

Thursday, March 22, 2007


David Hurwitz at Classics Today has succeeded in writing the article I've been trying to write for 20 years about the deeply misguided modern practice of forbidding vibrato in violin playing of certain eras and types. You'll need more than two cups of coffee - it's 115 pages long.

To celebrate, here's George Enescu - one of my personal heroes - playing Corelli (audio only, though from Youtube).

Kiri wins her case

The Indy tells us today that Kiri has won the court case of the flying knickers. The promoter sued her for breach of contract, wanting £820,000 in damages. Turns out she hadn't signed a contract, so she couldn't have breached it. Duh.

"Dame Kiri is obviously a dame, and I mean that with great respect," said the head of the promotion company.

If you can't beat 'em...

... join 'em! A warm welcome, please, for NORMAN LEBRECHT'S brand new blog on Artsjournal, linked to his new book, with the priceless title SLIPPED DISC. Welcome to the blogosphere, Uncle Norman, and we hope you enjoy the roller-coaster you're about to discover!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

'Too Much Mozart'

Too Much Mozart, a short story I've written to accompany a new CD of the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, is now available to read online at my permawebsite: follow the link from the news page. The recording will be released on the Avie label later in the spring and features Philippe Graffin (violin and director), Nobuko Imai (viola) and Het Brabants Orkest; the story will be published in the CD booklet.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Adieu, Ernst Haefliger

The wonderful Swiss tenor Ernst Haefliger has died, aged 87. Obituary from Playbill Arts here (thanks to Rich at High & Low Notes for the link). Another at The Guardian here.

A time of things turning up

First it was a Rachmaninov manuscript in a Co-op bag. Now it's Chopin's piano. His long-lost Pleyel has pitched up, lurking in the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands (above) in Surrey, identified by the excellent Chopin scholar Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger (editor of Chopin, pianist and teacher as seen by his pupils - a.k.a. my Chopin Bible). The story was in The Times the other day, but [cue my Technotwit signature theme] I couldn't find it on their website, so a magazine-based friend with his finger on the pulse has kindly sent me this link to the article (in English) from Turkey. Time to head for Hatchlands to hear it! In general, their programme of concerts is well worth checking out.

The journalist comments, with accuracy, 'Chopin died long before his own performances could be recorded'. Shades of a sorry occasion when a magazine that shall remain nameless ran a nice little trick on 1 April, declaring that an early cylinder recording of Chopin playing his own Minute Waltz had turned up buried at the bottom of a garden belonging to an unfortunate, unrecognised pioneer of recorded sound. Said mag had included it on their cover CD. Guess who fell straight into the trap...

Monday, March 19, 2007

Good morning

Woke up to find my name and Elgar's splashed all over the business section of today's Indy. Stephen King argues that poor old Edu should never have been on the £20 note at all and represents 'a peculiar celebration of mediocrity'. I got very excited for a second, thinking a world-famous thriller writer was reading my work; but no, this Stephen King is head of economics for HSBC. He says that Elgar would never have got onto a banknote at all if Mozart, Beethoven or Bach had been British. He accuses all British composers of being second-rate, with the exception of Lennon & McCartney.

He's right in that we've had a handful of worthwhile composers, but never anybody to touch the top-notch greats (I still think Elgar's concertos are top-notch, but I take his point). The question is: if Elgar's mediocre but the best we have (King doesn't appear to mention Britten, let alone Orlando Gibbons), why should that be? I've been thinking this over for the last three hours and have a number of ideas on the subject, but after drafting a lengthy post at least five times I reckon they require a book, not a blog, and would upset an awful lot of probably blameless people. Come on, folks: your ideas, please!

By the way, I wouldn't dream of trying to write about economics, though I deeply regret having missed director Adam Curtis's new series The Trap so far.

UPDATE, 5pm: Blimey, guv'nor, my Elgar story has made it to Italy - Operachic found it in Milan's Corriere della Sera... Mille grazie, amica! [sorry, my Italian is hopeless...]

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Prikrastna! E bellissimo!

Blimey! The missing manuscript of Rachmaninov's Second Symphony has turned up, in a Co-op bag. Geoffrey Norris authenticated it and has the story in today's Daily Telegraph. Big thanks to Anna/Robin Hill for the tip-off.

Meanwhile I'm still wiping off smudged mascara after seeing La Boheme at English National Opera last night, in their now classic production, set in the 1950s, by the late Steven Pimlott with the sparkling translation - now viewable in surtitles - by Jeremy Sams. Odd thing about opera (Lieder too, for that matter): it's pure masochism. The more you cry, the better it's been. Hmm. Boheme gets to me every time, but this was simply superb, with ace performances all round, especially from Mary Plazas (Mimi), Peter Auty (Rodolfo), Giselle Allen (Musetta) and Mark Stone (Marcello). Before the show I was too busy talking to our congenial companions for the evening - some of the staff of a new blog sponsored by Sky Arts, ArtsWOM (=Word Of Mouth) - to notice who was conducting, but was very impressed by the pacing, sensitivity and use of silence. It turned out to be Xian Zhang, clearly a maestra to watch out for in future.

When Steven met Slava

Ace cellist Steven Isserlis has a personal tribute to Rostropovich in today's Grauniad. Steven's one of those rare musicians who writes so well that he could put the rest of us out of a job. Here's a tempting extract:

Not surprisingly, considering the energy and passion with which Slava approaches every aspect of his life, he has a fearsome temperament. Once, his younger daughter Olga, who was studying the cello, thought her father had gone out, and settled down to read when she should have been practising. Unfortunately for her, Slava returned unexpectedly. Furious, he picked up her cello, brandished it and started chasing her with it, telling her to stop so that he could kill her (a request that she not unreasonably chose to ignore). Eventually, she ran out of the house, but he kept after her - and goodness knows what would have happened had they not passed Shostakovich, who happened to be walking nearby. He pleaded with Slava to calm down, and order was eventually restored; but I'm sure Olga learned to practise more diligently after that - or at least to lock her door.

Read the rest here.

NOTE: This is Post No. 501 on JDCMB.
EXTRA NOTE TO LONDON READERS/SELF: Don't forget to show up at Sheen Library for talk tonight.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


I'm doing a talk about ALICIA'S GIFT at East Sheen Library tomorrow evening, with readings given by the actress Geraldine Moffatt, who does the different voices better than I ever could. 7.30pm start, wine & nibbles included in the £2 ticket. All welcome! Full details here.

well done

DJ Mills is right: it's Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, in an article written in 1911, the year before his untimely death.

I liked Steve's suggestion of Prince Charles, though! I find it intriguing that, apart from the gently archaic language, the sentiments SCT expresses here are seen as something that could still be said today, nearly a century later (albeit just by one relatively isolated part of the audience).

Must dash - am having an Indy Panic, results in paper (I hope) on Friday.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Who said this?

Who said this? Answer tomorrow. Suggestions welcome in the interim (no prize offered).

"...few recent compositions really move one - though many of them astonish. It seems as if the composers would wish to be classed with the flying man in his endeavours to 'go one better' than the last...much of the music of the period reminds one of the automobile and the airship. It is daring, clever, complex and utterly mechanical.

The question is - Should an imaginative Art follow such lines? Should it not rather come from the heart as well as the brain?

Of course, a fine technical equipment is a very desirable thing, and nothing of worth can be accomplished without it; but should 'What do you think of my cleverness?' be stamped so aggressively over nearly every score that we hear?

The lack of human passion in English music may be (personally I think is) merely transitory. It is being pushed aside only while the big technical Dreadnought is in its most engrossing stage of development. Soon the builders will have the time to love again - when the turmoil is hushed somewhat - to give the world a few tender and personal touches amidst the strife, which will 'make us feel again also'."

Monday, March 12, 2007

Speaking of new music...

In the light of the Gant/Wordsworth debacle, here's another take on attitudes to new work of debated quality.

In today's Independent, I have an interview with Simon Keenlyside, who is singing Prospero in the revival at Covent Garden of Ades's smash-hit opera The Tempest, which opens tonight. I believe he's one of today's most fascinating baritones, a man with a brain as astute and analytical as any scientist, maybe more so than some.

Some of you may remember that Keenlyside took the leading role in Lorin Maazel's 1984 at Covent Garden a couple of years ago. Now, that opera must have been among the most critically reviled creations to hit the London scene this decade, partly because Maazel was known to be funding its staging himself, partly perhaps because some people knew something that others of us didn't until we heard it. I was willing to give it a chance, but Tom and I were both so disappointed with the music that we voted with our feet at the interval. But the production team and the cast nevertheless gave that opera everything they had. The standards were world-class in every respect. One audience member has since assured me that it was the best evening he'd ever spent in the theatre.

I asked Simon Keenlyside about 1984 in the interview, but in the end decided not to include the topic in this article, since space is limited and of course we were focusing on The Tempest which is a very different kettle of Calibans. His answer was still very interesting. I don't generally include what you could call out-takes of interviews here in blogland, but under the circumstances, I will - because he found countless positive things to draw out of the experience. Here is a slightly edited transcript:

JD: I saw you in 1984 and thought you were magnificent, but I must admit I had some problems with the piece.

SK: My job, if I accept the job, is – what’s that expression? Put up or shut up... If you’re booked to do a job, why would you want to pull the carpet out from under your own feet? If you’re on a stage, you’ve got to commit yourself 100%. And I’m not going to comment on the music, you wouldn’t expect me to of course, but I once read an old soldier saying that he always went to a man’s weaknesses through his strengths, so I’ll go as far as the strengths. I thought it was a good evening in the theatre. Whatever you think about the piece, I found a lot of worth in it and found it very enjoyable to do. Also I had Robert Lepage to deal with, which was an absolute privilege. Maazel is a brilliant man – just to be under his baton is a privilege. I’ve never seen anyone with such control, such ability to run a recipe like that and still have room in his head to talk to you. It’s great... Besides, people pay a lot of money for those tickets, and how can I argue my corner about opera, about music, if I think 'These people have paid a lot of money, they‘re in an uncertain state and we’re not committed to it?' I think most people are committed on stage, even if you didn’t like it. All of us have to take part in productions we can’t bear, we have no control but we’ve still got to give it our all...

UPDATE, 5.55pm: Over at On An Overgrown Path, Pliable casts some extremely interesting light on the background to the Gant/Wordsworth story. It seems that the political leanings and writings of the work's commissioner, R Atkinson frere, may be not irrelevant and will be highly uncomfortable, not to say repugnant, to much of the British arts community. Pliable applauds Wordsworth's decision. He may be right.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Yesterday The Times carried a most extraordinary story. It seems that on 25 February the estimable maestro Barry Wordsworth decided at the last moment to drop a world premiere from a concert with the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra. The work, entitled A British Symphony, had been commissioned from the composer Andrew Gant by Rowan Atkinson's businessman brother, Rodney.

Gant is organist, choirmaster and composer at the Chapel Royal, inviting comparison with some of the most distinguished British composers in history - Byrd, Gibbons and Purcell were official organists there. One GF Handel wrote Zadok the Priest while he was in post as official composer to George II.

Wordsworth had decided he 'did not believe' in the piece. But was this unprofessionalism, a middish-life crisis, something vaguely political (the title suggests a patriotism deeply unfashionable on these shores) or real artistic integrity? Unfortunately, we haven't heard the piece, so we can't say.

Can you imagine the works that would never have been performed if their conductors had decided not to believe in them? Tannhauser might never have hit 1860s Paris. Otto Klemperer might have ditched some Korngold (I remember reading he refused to take a bow after conducting Die tote Stadt for the first time. That's his problem.) On the other hand, we might never have had to suffer a single note of...well, don't get me started.

If we don't hear new works, though, we can't assess them - finito. Any artistic 'age' is going to produce mountains of dross and a few really great pieces, and while sometimes it's clear which is which, sometimes also it is not. So it's worth sitting through the occasional piece of c*)p - and conducting it, if that's your job. Who knows, someone somewhere might like it.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Waters of March...

Home again and all of a sudden it's spring.

Waters of March by Antonio Carlos Jobim

A stick, a stone,
It's the end of the road,
It's the rest of a stump,
It's a little alone

It's a sliver of glass,
It is life, it's the sun,
It is night, it is death,
It's a trap, it's a gun

The oak when it blooms,
A fox in the brush,
A knot in the wood,
The song of a thrush

The wood of the wind,
A cliff, a fall,
A scratch, a lump,
It is nothing at all

It's the wind blowing free,
It's the end of the slope,
It's a beam, it's a void,
It's a hunch, it's a hope

And the river bank talks
of the waters of March,
It's the end of the strain,
The joy in your heart...

I adore this song. See Elis Regina and Tom Jobim sing the bossa nova classic here...

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Publication day!

ALICIA'S GIFT is out today! And I am sitting, unexpectedly, on a balcony in the sunshine, gazing at the Atlantic Ocean. British Airways, in its infinite wisdom, managed to change the time of our flight home yesterday without letting us know. Could be worse...

Sunday, March 04, 2007


I'm in Madeira, so not much proper blogging - sun, swimming pool, madeira, more madeira, fresh seafood and more madeira...mmmmmm... But many, many cheers to The Sunday Times for today's referral to this blog re Hattogate! They have an interview with William Barrington-Coupe about What Really Happened. Read it here.

If you've found this blog via that referral and want to see why, follow the Joyce Hatto label at the bottom of the post. Meanwhile regular readers can lie back and think of Canciones Argentinas, playing on the iPod by the sea.

Back sooner than I'd like to be.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Rachmaninov did have big hands

People keep writing to tell me that Rachmaninov had big hands, and this is why:

1 March

I'm fond of seasonal things, fruit, veg, flowers et al at the Right Time of Year, so trying out some seasonal colours for the blog. Blues and silvers for Jan/Feb; but now it's March and the daffodils are out.

Thanks to Stephen Pollard and Brian Micklethwait, who are both as bowled over as I am by Sokolov playing Prokofiev. Stephen reminds us that GS is playing at the Wigmore Hall on 6 June, but concert is sold out. Tickets still available for the Barbican concert next year...10 May 2008.