Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Stratford today

If you're in the vicinity of Stratford-upon-Avon today, you might like to come along to a fun panel discussion in the literary festival in which I'll be one of four commentators talking about romantic fiction, along with Katie Fforde, Mark Barrowcliffe and Louise Allen. The Civic Hall, 6pm. Our shebang is called 'Reader, I Married Him'.
Later you can hear Jodi Picoult, at 8pm.

I'll be back there next Monday for the Spring Sounds Festival, doing a pre-concert talk about Korngold. (Reader, I didn't marry him, but I love him anyway.) More details of that very soon.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Tune in, Philadelphia!

And everyone else! Vlad conducts the Verdi Requiem tonight at 7pm on BBC Radio 3 and you can listen to it by going to this page and clicking on the iPlayer. The all-star cast includes Barbara Frittoli, Ildiko Komlosi, Massimo Giordano and Ferruccio Furlanetto and it is, of course, our own and Jurowski's own LPO. (Gloats.)

It was recorded live at the RFH the other night and I wasn't there (will spare you the story of why) but do read Neil Fisher's review in The Times where he - advises you to cancel your other plans and unplug the phone.

I thoroughly enjoyed a classic Vladathon of string-and-and-things music from the 1930s last week - Britten Frank Bridge Variations and Les Illuminations with the splendiferous Sally Matthews, the Shostakovich Piano Concerto no. 1 with new German piano star Martin Helmchen, who is about 25 but looks 12, and to cap it all the Bartok Music for String, Percussion and Celeste. Two and a half hours, stress levels soaring and a rush for beer in the Archduke Bar afterwards, but it was fabulous.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Return of the King

Krystian Zimerman - to us, King Krystian the Glorious - will be in the UK next month for three recitals: Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, on 23 May, The Anvil, Basingstoke, on 25 May and in Southbank Centre's International Piano Series at the RFH, London, on 27th. His programme remained under wraps for some while but has now been confirmed as:

Bach: Partita No.4 in D major, BWV 828
Beethoven: Sonata in C minor, Op.111
Brahms: Klavierstucke, Op.119
Szymanowski: Variations on a Polish Theme, Op.10

I've written a cover feature about KZ for the latest edition of PIANIST magazine, which is out now. The magazine, edited by superwoman-dynamo-journo-pianist Erica Worth, is heartily recommended for all pianophiles at all levels. Here is the feature: read about his friendship with Rubinstein, his passion for ice diving and why he won't be going to America again until the Iraq situation is sorted.

And, stop press: the latest news is that he will be doing a pre-concert talk here in London before the 27 May recital and I will be asking the questions. :-)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Happy birthday, Rox!

A wildly HAPPY BIRTHDAY to the one and only Roxanna Panufnik - ace composer, daughter and musical heir to the glorious Sir Andrzej, and today celebrating the big 4-0 with a season including no fewer than 11 premieres. Visit her site for the full story, a sample of her music and a roster of events to attend and enjoy.

Rox's musical language is at once accessible and highly personal; she excels in wit, tenderness and imaginative sonic textures, and while she's been best known for vocal settings such as her Westminster Mass and Beastly Tales which set poems by Vikram Seth, her Violin Concerto 'Abraham', written a couple of years ago for Dan Hope, and her extraordinary Harp Concerto, for Cathy Beynon, are among the pieces that have most got under my skin.

For starters, don't miss the premiere of Rox's 'Spring in Japan', the first part of a new Four Seasons violin concerto for Tasmin Little, in Stratford-upon-Avon on 5 May - I'll be doing a pre-concert talk which is actually about Korngold and Shakespeare, but will be flying the flag for the present day too! And much looking forward to the premiere at Westminster Cathedral on 3 June by The Sixteen and Harry Christophers of Rox's choral work Stay With Me, a setting of a prayer by Padre Pio with words adapted by, er, yours truly. Book soon, as tickets (free) are flying.

(, I haven't converted to Catholicism, but I did love bashing some universally relevant and moving lines into singable shape, courtesy of the Genesis Foundation, which commissioned three different composer/writer teams to tackle the same task. James MacMillan and Will Todd complete the compositional triumvirate. More of this in due course...)

A tad perturbed to see on tonight's news that Padre Pio's body has just been exhumed and put on display in Rome - apparently this is 'normal' practice with saints. Though there's some controversy as to whether or not he faked his stigmata. !?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Baritone behaving badly

Erwin Schrott, La Netrebko's hubby-to-be and father of imminent child, is about to be sued for breach of contract by one of London's finest musical philanthropists.

We were all (especially us girls) looking forward to el hunko's appearance in the Rosenblatt Recital Series on 11 June. The series brings the world's biggest singers (and some valuable debuts) to appear in recital in London, incl JDF which I missed cos I couldn't get in last year; but Mr S has decided, for reasons best known to himself, that he ain't gonna show - for the second time. Here is what Mr Rosenblatt has to say on the subject. Fasten your seatbelts.

"For our audience to be treated with such gross unprofessionalism and disrespect by Mr Schrott, on two occasions, is something that shouldn’t be tolerated.

“This is a regrettable situation, but for the reputation of my Series I cannot allow artists, with no lawful excuse, to renege on their contractual commitments.

"In the seven years I’ve been running our recital series I have been impressed time and again by the dedication of singers to their art and their public. Singers such as Mr Schrott give opera a bad name and a reputation for not caring for the people that pay to hear them sing.

“I am disgusted by Mr Schrott’s callous disregard to his contractual obligations. His behaviour is cowardly and I can only wonder if he has the guts to appear on a London concert platform as this is the second time he’s backed out of appearing here.”


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Living Library: borrow a person

This is the best idea I've seen in ages. You can borrow a person of a particular background, inclination, religion or whatever, someone whom you mightn't normally have the chance to meet and about whose exterior you might have certain preconceptions, for a half-hour exchange of views.

For the 1925 silent movie of Ben Hur chez LPO on Saturday, I was with a group of friends whose "ethnic origins" were Italian, English, Polish and Palestinian. All of us, for one reason or another, have washed up in London. And there we were, watching that unbelievable chariot race in which Judah Ben Hur, a prince of Judea, driving a team of horses for a Sheikh, races their Roman occupier adversary to the death - just 11 years before Jesse Owen's famous triumph at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. We had a good chat about all this and we think people should talk to each other at grass roots level. Twin the towns, bus people in, make the tea and please, please talk - and listen. A living library is a first and inspired step towards that. According to The Times, the next one will be at the Idea Store, London E1 on May 31. For more information contact

Enough idealism already for a Tuesday morning? There's a good reason, of which more in a sec. First, mad props to some Wonderful Women: a piano quiz c/o the excellent Miss Mussel - in the form of a very beautiful and rarely played work; mad props to carissima Opera Chic; and Tanita Tikaram, who's made this site her music blog link on her cool new website. And break-a-legs to our own Tazza, who'll be playing music from her Naked Violin Project in a live internet streaming from Edinburgh on her website at on Thursday (24th), which will also be filmed for a programme that The South Bank Show is making about her! We hear she is also heading for an oil rig.

Finally: yes, there is a good reason. Today is the birthday (1916) of Yehudi Menuhin, musical idealist par excellence, not to mention one hell of an incredible violinist. Here he is in the opening of Bach's 'Erbarme dich...'.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Miklos Rozsa, I <3 <3 <3 u!

Thanks to WWM (Wonderful Web Master) for an alert to the fact that Miklos Rozsa, towering genius of Hollywood and much else, was born in Budapest 101 years ago today. Hear him out-Korngolding Korngold below in the opening titles of the 1959 Ben Hur.

Speaking of Ben Hur (and how's this for multitasking in one post), anyone who is in London and very on-the-ball should come to the RFH tomorrow night to see the original 1925 silent Ben Hur with Carl Davis's score - just as fabulous in a totally different way - played live by our own LPO. But hurry, because the Silver Screen Series is wildly popular and always sells out! The website is worth a visit as it's full of info, film clips and music to hear. Carl Davis gives a pre-concert talk at 6.15pm and the film kicks off at 7.30pm.

Back to Rozsa: for those of more purist bent, have a listen to Rozsa's concert music if you don't know it already: the Sinfonia Concertante and the Cello Concerto are full of thrills.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Meet Danielle de Niese - you will want to

Here she is: born to sing, the cosmopolitan crown-princess of opera who sent Glyndebourne up in flames when she took the role of Cleopatra there a couple of years back. She's back soon to be Poppea. My article about her is in today's Indy, but it had to be cut (mea culpa, it was too long - and more was requested on some topics, so less appeared on others), therefore I'm pasting the original below in its entirety. The story of her Glyndebourne audition, the inspiration of Dame Kiri and her insights into the character of Poppea should be worth a read. Indy website includes a clip of her as Cleo, so do take a look there too.

Danielle de Niese, a petite young woman with a big voice and an even bigger future, has an unusual problem with visa officials. “They look you up and down, and they’re like, ‘You’re an opera singer? You don’t look like an opera singer, you look like a pop star.’ And I’m like, ‘Thank you, but I am an opera singer! The stereotype is changing. This is 2008.’”

Anyone who thinks that a diva is a heavyweight in a winged helmet would be startled when confronted with de Niese, 29. She shot to fame here in 2005, singing Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne in David McVicar’s award-winning production: her exotic beauty and star-quality stage presence created shock-waves as she was instantly acclaimed as one of the sexiest sopranos ever to set foot to stage. Moreover, there’s a charisma that seems to emanate from her voice itself – a notably young but still extraordinarily powerful and bell-like soprano. Her debut CD of Handel arias is just out on Decca, and this summer she’s back at Glyndebourne to sing the title role in Monterverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea.

But now there’s a twist to the Glyndebourne tale: de Niese’s name is being linked with that of Gus Christie, the chairman of the whole Glyndebourne family package, which functions in a way not dissimilar to royalty. The legend goes that when Gus’s grandfather, John Christie, fell in love with the young soprano Audrey Mildmay, he promised to build her an opera house at the family home in Sussex if she would marry him. She accepted; he kept his word, and Glyndebourne’s operatic activities duly began in 1934. The opera house is still very much a family matter; Gus took over after his father George’s retirement in 2000. But when Gus broke up in 2004 with his wife of 11 years, Imogen, who took their four young sons with her, the future of Glyndebourne was thought to hang in the balance, so vital is the Christies’ participation in the opera house’s relationship with its patrons and the media.

It looks an unlikely combination – a glamorous, streetwise Australian-American in the land of English country picnics and sheep peering over the ha-ha; yet on one level, the romance is potentially a little like Glyndebourne’s history repeating itself.

“We are together,” de Niese confirms, “and we’re having a wonderful time!” She met Gus for the first time at her audition in 2004. “And in 2005 I was working here, but we didn’t actually get together until two years later. It’s a very surprising but wonderful thing.” She’s eager to emphasise that business and private life stay separate – “All the roles I’ve been doing were planned by Glyndebourne’s casting team, who obviously didn’t know what was going to happen with me and Gus. But I think everyone is very tickled – they’re all very happy for us. So far, so great!” But she’s not about to become the hostess of Glyndebourne corporate sponsorship functions; she makes it clear that she’s lodging elsewhere throughout her stay this summer.

De Niese’s first glimpse of Glyndebourne seemed less auspicious. She’d missed a plane after being directed to the wrong terminal in Paris and, following a nightmare journey, arrived just twenty minutes before she was due to sing. “The receptionist said ‘Do you want to go the long way or the short way?’ I went for the short way, which I didn’t know was over the lawns. It was grey and wet, I was in high heels and holding my pants off the grass, looking at the sheep and thinking ‘Where am I?’ But the gods must have been with me that day…”

Her astonishing looks derive from a background as international as her career. “Both my parents were born in Sri Lanka,” she explains, “but they are Sri Lankan Burghers – people of mixed descent from the island’s colonial days.” Her father had Dutch roots and her mother’s family was partly Scottish; they both left Sri Lanka as teenagers and moved to Australia. Danielle was born in Melbourne, where she started classical voice lessons at the age of eight.

“My great heroine was Dame Kiri te Kanawa,” she says. “It wasn’t only that she’s an incredible artist, but also she’s from New Zealand and I was growing up in Australia; besides, she was of mixed background. And for me, being of mixed background, that was such an inspiration. I thought: she’s made it, so I can do something in this field and make an artistic statement as well.”

When she was ten, the family moved to Los Angeles, not least so that she could study at the Colburn School, which specialises in educating talented children. There she studied more than just classical music – jazz and tap-dancing were also on the agenda. “I was there often at evenings and weekends, and performing a lot – I made my recital debut when I was 12. But at the same time I was very much a normal kid. Though what is normal? I don’t know!”

She insists that she was never pushed beyond her capabilities and that her parents were endlessly supportive. “My dad’s in banking, my mum manages the American branch of a Swiss vitamin company; they’re really busy, but they still come to all my premieres.” She tried her hand at TV as a teenager: after she was featured on a programme called LA Kids, she was invited to present the show, did so for several years and won an Emmy. Then, at 18, she became the youngest singer ever accepted onto the Lindemann Young Artists Programme at the Metropolitan Opera, where she made her debut as Barbarina in Le nozze di Figaro. “I wasn’t even of a legal age to have a glass of champagne afterwards!”

Her role in Glyndebourne’s new production of L’incoronazione di Poppea is, like Cleopatra, that of a powerful, sexy and self-aware woman embroiled with a Roman ruler: Poppea is the mistress of the emperor Nerone. Written in 1642, the work’s sophistication and psychological complexity hasn’t dimmed with the centuries. The story appears simple: Poppea and Nerone gradually do away with anyone who stands in the way of their love and their power, from their former spouses to the philosopher Seneca. They can come across as ruthless, power-crazed individuals; but at the end when the pair finally marry, Monteverdi presents one of the most beautiful love duets ever composed; we promptly forgive them everything.

So is Poppea is driven by love or by ambition? “For me, it’s both,” de Niese declares. “She happens to have fallen genuinely in love with someone who can help her ambition. She doesn’t only want power; she loves Nerone and cares about his interests. What’s so challenging is that it’s easy to go for the one-dimensional, superbitch character, cold and icy, or warm, seducing but manipulative and not fully engaged. But Monteverdi gave her some incredible music and therefore there’s a warmth, a sincerity to her that’s absolutely transparent. It’s much harder, yet much more natural, to go with that.

“She can be seen as a bad person. But bad people also fall in love, get married, have children and protect their interests. When Poppea betrays Seneca to Nerone, people think she wants to kill him so that he won’t get in her way; he doesn’t like her, so it wouldn’t be a bad thing for her if he died. But also he’s been undermining Nerone’s power – if someone is betraying you behind your back, of course you’re going to tell someone you love about that person. She’s completely justified in her own conscience. And how often does a woman fall in love with a man who says he’s trapped in a loveless marriage? It happens all the time. That’s what makes Poppea so relevant and timeless: it’s about human nature. I don’t think the audience should look at Poppea and judge her. It’s important to understand what makes her tick.”

There’s one danger with playing Cleopatra and Poppea in quick succession, plus a host of other Handel and Rameau heroines: de Niese could easily be landed with the label of Baroque Babe. “I won’t let myself be pigeon-holed,” she insists. Nor should she be – she’s sung Adele in Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus and Lauretta in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, amongst other roles, and she longs to sing Anne Truelove in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. For her next album, she says, “I would like to do Mozart”.

Top dream role? “Massenet’s Manon. I was completely bitten by the bug for that role when I first saw it at the Met. But for now I’m looking at some Donizetti, which is a good way to broaden from the early and classical repertoire, just to take another step into bel canto.” Naturally her voice is still developing and changing. “I’m a puppy growing into my skin,” she admits. “But even if I am a puppy, I still have a lot to say as an artist, and I want to do that to the best of my ability.”

She’s nothing if not committed to her life in opera; it’s not as if temptation hasn’t come her way. When she moved to New York, offers arrived from the directors of soap operas as well as opera houses. “My manager said, ‘If you leave opera for three years and become a famous actress, then come back, you’ll still be younger than anyone else.’ And I just said, ‘Are you kidding? I can’t be off the stage for three years.’ I’ll die if I’m not on stage! The itch is stronger than me. And I’m glad. I hope it never dies.”

She needn’t worry. With her Covent Garden debut in Handel’s Acis and Galatea next season, another Cleopatra at Glyndebourne in 2009 and a dream coming true when she works with her heroine Dame Kiri te Kanawa later this summer, it doesn’t look as if de Niese will be off the stage at all for quite some time. As for her off-stage association with Glyndebourne, she wisely refuses to speculate on what the future may hold.

L’incoronazione di Poppea is at Glyndebourne from 18 May. Box office: 01273 815000

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Saturday, April 12, 2008

In case you were wondering,'s why the Sokolov situation is so deeply depressing. Just try this.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Sokolov makes a stand

Here in Britain we can scarcely help but recognise that we live in a society increasingly driven by surveillance, paranoia and infantilisation, but even so I was shocked to read in today's Indy this leading article about one of the world's most miraculous pianists, Grigory Sokolov, who is refusing to come and play here because he hasn't the time to deal with the latest spate of UK visa idiocy.

The issue is explained at greater length here.

In the article, a spokesperson says:
"Some artists just can't quite handle that sort of intrusion into their music. For someone like Sokolov, who languished behind the Iron Curtain for years and his career in the West started very late, having suffered at the hands of that regime, to find all this obstruction to playing in a country he's played in for 18 years is very distressing."

More uncomfortable news, too:
The visa regulations are soon due to change again to a points-based system, raising more concerns over the cost of entry to the UK for classical musicians, who are often poorly paid. Atholl Swainston-Harrison of the International Artist Managers' Association, said: "Our concern is that, in the classical music world, many acts are not well-paid. With the cost of a visa, it's not going to be worth coming to the UK." Iama is campaigning for visas to be extended from one year to two to cut costs.

It can take a great artist, rather than a politician, to speak up about unpalatable home truths. I will shortly post a link to my recent interview with Krystian Zimerman, just out in Pianist magazine, who utters some very strong words about why he doesn't intend to go to America for a while.

(Update: here is my article from International Piano about Sokolov, from Sept 06)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A big day at the Beeb

Such is the excellence of our national broadcaster's communicative power that it managed to schedule two of its biggest music-biz bashes for the very same day (yesterday). First, the waterborne BBC Music Magazine Awards went off with the usual splash on the Thames. There's a full list of winners here, and I can promise that there are some absolutely fantastic recordings to sample on it.

Among them: Mitsuko Uchida's Beethoven 'Hammerklavier' (which scooped Record of the Year too), Natalie Dessay and Emmanuelle Haim getting a Handel on Il trionfo del Tempo e Disinganno, tenor genius Mark Padmore in more Handel, the Jerusalem Quartet in Shostakovich, Martha Argerich in more Shostakovich, Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites on DVD, and much more.

And don't forget to check out the runners-up. Voting between the final three can be a close thing, involving flying fur and chocolate biscuits in meltdown in the bowels of the Beeb's conference rooms (I remember well from last year), and very often the other two are just as deserving of a prize. For instance, this year's instrumental category shortlist also featured Steven Isserlis's stupendous Bach Cello Suites and JDCMB favourite Rachmaninov-player Rustem Hayroudinoff making total magic out of the Etudes-Tableaux.

Don't get me started on the issue of more deserving discs that, generally speaking, don't make shortlists, or longlists, because some critic somewhere might have preferred to give five stars to something second-rate yet English (I am not alleging that this took place this year, since I wasn't there, but it's something that does occur in the British music press from time to time). This line-up is a worthy list and I look forward to feasting on the ones I haven't yet heard.

Meanwhile, over at the Proms Launch in South Kensington, apparently there were scenes outside the Royal Albert Hall when Nigel Kennedy turned up to play his violin (watch him here, courtesy of, er, Hello Magazine). Yes, he will be back at the Proms at last (after 21 years), to perform the Elgar Concerto, conducted by Tod Handley. And after the rave reviews he got for his recent rendition of it in the RFH, I wanna be there.

We hear that Murray Perahia is also to perform in the series for the first time in something like 20 years (you wonder where he's been all this time...and then start thinking about all the other great musicians who have also not been there for 20 years...or ever...) and that Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra will give two concerts. Vaughan Williams features in a big way to mark the 50th anniversary of his death, as does Messiaen for his centenary (on the organ), and Helene Grimaud, piano virtuoso and a stunning-looking lady well suited to the cameras, has made it to the last night. There's also to be a Dr Who Prom. Is this a step up from Michael Ball? I'll reserve judgment until the night. Oh, and there's a folky Prom involving a spot of Maypole dancing.

I didn't make the Proms launch party, because the absolute priority last night was listening to Tasmin Little and Piers Lane giving a terrific recital together at Cadogan Hall, that undersung star of London concert halls. Bravo, chaps - your Elgar Sonata had me succumbing to serious snuffles, and we won't forget the 'Banjo and Fiddle' encore in a hurry!

Mad props meanwhile to Blogged, which has rated this blog 8.6 on the Sviatoslav Richter scale; Classical Music Magazine, which sent its estimable Hornblower along to the Hungarian Dances launch and kindly put in a picture and report on the Diary page (featuring Solti the cat, naturally); Pliable on the Overgrown Path, who featured Korngold and some wonderful pictures of Bruges the other day; and some marvellous Hungarians doing interesting things in Budapest, of which more, I hope, soon.

Saturday, April 05, 2008


I'm off for a while, so recommend that you have some extra fun with the blogroll for a few days. And here is a truly astonishing voice to enjoy - from a slightly alternative sphere that isn't as different as you might think. Please welcome: Tanita Tikaram.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Meet Christine Rice

The rise and rise of Christine Rice is proving that she's one of the best mezzos about, and not just in Britain. Thoroughly enjoyed interviewing her for the Indy last week about her role as Ariadne in Birtwistle's brand-new opera The Minotaur, coming up at Covent Garden from 15 April. Article is out today. Hear her singing some Brahms via the link on this page.

Meanwhile I'm still reeling from the surprise of a lift to Lewes station from Glyndebourne yesterday courtesy of my next victim, whom you wouldn't expect to be the kind of lady who'd drive herself around Sussex, let alone to Waitrose, let alone let a journalist into her car. Watch this space.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Please come to our HUNGARIAN DANCES concert

Tuesday 17 June 2008, 7 for 7.30pm


Philippe Graffin (violin)
Claire Désert (piano), Jessica Duchen (author)

Queen’s Gate Terrace Concerts, 49 Queen’s Gate Terrace
South Kensington, London SW7 5PN

We're delighted to announce that Philippe Graffin is planning to record a fascinating programme of Hungarian and Hungarian-influenced music to complement my novel Hungarian Dances. This very special fundraising concert to back the project will be held in the beautiful music salon of 49 Queen's Gate Terrace. It's a one-off opportunity to hear him and Claire Désert perform music that will feature in the recording, and I will be reading extracts from the book.

The programme includes works by Bartók, Brahms, Dohnányi and Ravel.

Tickets are £40, to include wine and Hungarian canapés, payable in advance by cheque or PayPal. Early booking recommended, as places are strictly limited.

To book, please email me.

Download a PDF flyer here.

(Philippe Graffin photo: Benjamin Ealovega)