Showing posts with label Andras Schiff. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Andras Schiff. Show all posts

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A knight at the piano


Sir András Schiff went to Buckingham Palace today and was officially knighted by the Prince of Wales. Gratulalok! 

Monday, December 30, 2013

Andras Schiff goes gold



This was the moment on 21 December when Andras Schiff was presented with the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society at the Wigmore Hall. Receiving it makes him the successor to such figures as Rubinstein, Horowitz, Curzon and only a scant handful of other tip-tip-tip-top pianists. He had just given a remarkable recital consisting of Bach's Goldberg Variations in the first half and Beethoven's Diabelli Variations in the second. It was his 60th birthday that very day.

The citation is inspiring and his response touching, humble and rather heart-rending. He went on to play a short piece written in memory of his mother, Klara Schiff, by his teacher from Budapest, Gyorgy Kurtag, who has also been presented with the RPS's Gold Medal this month. The RPS has been celebrating its own bicentenary this year, as it happens, and the bust of Beethoven is on the stage in memory of the Society's commissioning of his Ninth Symphony.


Friday, September 27, 2013

Beethovenfest Bonn 2: Ludwig Lives!


Bonn is roughly the size of Cardiff in terms of population (about 350,000). Yet the musical riches within this pleasant and manageable Rhineland city have to be seen to be believed. 

The day before my pilgrimage to the house where Schumann died, I visited the one where Beethoven was born, only a short pootle away in the town centre. Here you can see two of Beethoven's pianos, his viola (yes, Beethoven was a viola player - get used to it...), his ear trumpets, his conversation books, his spectacles, his magnificent walnut-veneered writing desk - which Stefan Zweig later owned for a while - and the Heiligenstadt Testament, among many other exhibits; and I can thoroughly recommend the detailed audioguide. 

But the Bonn Beethovenhaus is much more than a shrine to the great Ludwig. It's a vital centre for musicological research, on the one hand, and a fine location for concerts, on the other; and it owns a raft of terrifically important manuscripts, notably that of the Diabelli Variations, acquired from a private collection after numerous fundraising concerts by the likes of Andras Schiff and others; there's a magnificent digital archive of huge value to scholars, yet also online resources to help introduce children to Ludwig's world. Do go onto the site and have a good old explore.

All of this was possible because I had to go and interview Andras, who has a big birthday coming up and needs writing about, but isn't in London again until well after my deadlines have passed. He is currently in the middle of a series of Beethoven sonata recitals in the Bonn Beethovenfest; I was fortunate enough to arrive in time for the programme that involves the Op.31s and the 'Waldstein'.

Listening to Andras play Bach or Schubert has often seemed the aural equivalent of swimming in Walchensee: you're immersed in cool, soothing, pure waters that run very deep indeed. Yet over the past decade his Beethoven journey has opened up new pianistic vistas: a different variety of deep heat, if you like, with a phosphorescent edge that makes the soundworlds of Op.31 No.2 in D minor or the mighty 'Waldstein' shimmer in a visionary way, while Op.31 Nos 1 and 3 bounced and swung with humour and clarity. Bonn's Beethovenhalle - a sizeable Rhineside creation from the 1950s - was packed to the nines and provided a standing ovation. The next morning we talked for two hours (pic above) about matters musical, technical and Beethovenian. Beethoven, Andras says, has given him new courage. More of this in the official outlets in the months ahead.

Huge thanks to the Beethovenfest for making this remarkable 36-hour trip possible. Really have bought the t-shirt - a purple one with a Beethoven portrait and the words LUDWIG LIVES, in which you might someday spot me jogging around Richmond Park. Prost!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Look who I'm off to see tomorrow



OK, it's not much to do with Schubert, the trip tomorrow. It's the Beethovenfest in Bonn and Andras will be playing a programme of sonatas including the D minor Op.31 No.2 and the 'Waldstein'. I haven't been to Bonn before and am a little excited at the prospect of seeing Beethoven's birthplace and also - unexpectedly, as I didn't know until yesterday that it existed - a Schumannhaus museum at the former asylum in Endenich (a suburb of Bonn), which is where our unlucky and much-loved Robert died in 1856. With Andras I'll be talking Beethoven, Bach, Bartok and big birthdays.

Meanwhile, enjoy his beautiful film about Schubert.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Hot Bach in freezing hall

 "HEY, YOU! TURN ON THE BLOODY HEATING!"

My gosh, but it was cold in the Royal Albert Hall on Monday. The Bach-loving faithful assembled for John Eliot Gardiner's nine-hour marathon (as trailed on JDCMB here) - some of us, heeding anxious tweets from the orchestra saying we should please dress warmly, realised what was going to happen and restricted our attendance to the evening.

Blasts of chill wind bowled down upon us in the stalls. A friend among the performers told us afterwards that she was wearing six layers on stage. And, most regrettable of all, the performance suffered: the English Baroque Soloists use original instruments, natch, and the delicate, valveless horn and trumpets made their opinions of the situation felt even if their players did not - tragic, because eminently avoidable. I'm informed that the day itself was better than the day before: apparently when they arrived to rehearse, the heating wasn't working at all.

What on earth is the matter with the endemic attitude in UK institutions towards people and  temperatures? I've never, ever, in any other country, seen an audience sitting through a two-hour unbroken performance (or any other performance, for that matter) in their overcoats and scarves. And we wonder why people cough? It was an absolute disgrace. I suspect the management is now being told so repeatedly by disgruntled punters who had forked out a lot of money for the privilege of freezing their butts off for nine hours. OK. RANT OVER.

All the more credit to the Monteverdi Chorus and Orchestra and JEG for pulling off a tremendous occasion with such aplomb. The atmosphere was ecstatic, despite the cold. Promenaders in the arena (much less crowded than for the Proms proper) clustered at the front, hanging on every word and note. And when one speaker declared that though Bach has been accused of all manner of personal failings, handicaps or faults, he was actually a really good bloke, there was applause. The hall was really too large for the occasion - it was about half full, which would translate in the RFH or Barbican into queues around the block - yet it's hard to think of any other London venue in which such an atmosphere can be created. This was a Prom in all but the calendar.

The talks, led by Catherine Bott, were fascinating: the final one, featuring Howard Moody, John Butt, Raymond Tallis and JEG, focused on Bach the human being and raised questions such as whether he was as supportive to his daughters as to his sons (answer: "he was no better and no worse than anyone else"), whether he eschewed opera or was influenced by it, and whether he had any idea of just how good he really was.

Everyone had been mesmerised by Joanna MacGregor's Goldberg Variations; there was much enthusiasm for the singalongaBachChorale for Christ Lag in Todesbanden and the way JEG led the audience rehearsal; and violinist Viktoria Mullova, cellist Alban Gerhardt and organist John Butt had all drawn many plaudits. But the B minor Mass can only have been the crowning glory.

It was a celebration of a performance, one that stirred rather than shook, but stirred greatly: if there is ever to be a procession into heaven led by angels, saints and composers, the Sanctus - stately, airy, magnificent, blazing - would surely accompany it. The strangeness and mystery of the work shone out, too: the chromatic harmonies of "Et expecto resurrectionem", hushed, legato and translucent, evoke sometimes Mozart and sometimes Wagner, and the final alto aria seemed a humanising plea of doubt and guilt before the "Dona nobis pacem". The bizarre nature of the Lutheran Bach's Catholic Mass stood out as well: soon after the belief in one Catholic thingywhatsit been proclaimed there's a chorus in which a Lutheran (or quasi-Lutheran) chorale is unmistakeably embedded, in true Bach Cantata/Chorale Prelude fashion. All the more reason to appreciate it as pure music that can speak to us all, if we allow it to.

A very different performance from Andras Schiff's at the Lucerne Easter Festival a year ago, of which I adored every minute. At Gardiner's, I missed the intimacy and collegiality of Schiff's Cappella Andrea Barca - though smaller forces would have been insane in a space as large as the RAH; also, sometimes the consistency and audibility of their more modern instruments. An oboe d'amore is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, but they were often hard to hear, being so quiet. Still, Gardiner's sheer magnificence, the sense of 'rightness' in the tempi, and the fierceness of passion that underpinned the whole interpretation, all of this was in a class of its own.

What an achievement. What a way to celebrate your 70th birthday. Someone, please give that man some champagne, the world's finest Easter egg and a good hot bath. Me, I think I'm coming down with a cold - but at least if I do, I can listen to the rest of the day on the iPlayer.

(Photos: Chris Christodolou)


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Andras Schiff and a different kind of holy grail

If there's a holy grail for pianists, it is probably Beethoven's 'Hammerklavier' Sonata, Op.106. Those performing the Final Three Sonatas are plentiful these days, but ask any pianist about their Beethovenian inclinations and mostly it'll be the mighty H that they will treat with the most  respect/kid gloves/freakin'terror. It is a Missa Solemnis of the keyboard, a Grosse Fugue for ten fingers and one brain. If you hear a good performance - one that shows the intricate mastery of the counterpoint, the searching existential embrace of the adagio and the strength of the core spirit that must win through, to say nothing of the seeds of nearly a century of music that followed it - it can feel a little like seeing a unicorn, so startling, unbelievable and inspiring is the result.

There was indeed a unicorn at the Wigmore Hall last night.

Continuing his series of the complete Beethoven Sonatas, Andras Schiff, tackling them in chronological order, has reached the late works and put together Opp.90, 101 and 106 in one programme, performed without a break. After bowing a couple of times he sat down to play an encore. What could follow the 'Hammerklavier'?

He stayed silent, smiling to himself and Wilhelm Backhaus's Bechstein for a moment longer than was comfortable, just long enough to think "Andras, nooooo..." - but happily it was a yes, for what comes after 106? Why, of course...109. Whole of it. Light relief, perhaps, after the unicorn? We still remember the time Schiff played the whole Wanderer Fantasy as an encore while giving the complete Schubert Sonatas 15 or 20 years ago. Those attending his Final Three Beethovens on Friday are in for a treat.

It can take a Bach expert to bring out certain truths in late Beethoven. This music isn't primarily emotional, but spiritual, philosophical, wise and human on the grandest scale. All of this Schiff is ready for in a way that few others can match. Sensibly, he waited until his fifties to tackle the complete Beethovens and his tone has deepened, strengthened and broadened to encompass the sonatas' demands. There's seriousness of purpose yet no portentousness in this playing; a powerful spirituality matches a deep affection, and respect is gently tempered with character-enhancing flexibility.

In Op.90 Schiff brought out the tense, unresolvable dialogue of the terse first movement and the Schubertian expansiveness of the songful second (cue a sense that this is where Schubert's D959 finale came from); for Op.101 the contrasts of counterpoint and recitative bounced and sparked off one another. This exquisite work was one of Wagner's favourites, incidentally. Though it seemed out of vogue for a while, I've heard at least two other pianists perform it just in the past few months, and good it is to see it returning in force.

Even a pianist who can memorise and whirl through the complete Bach 48 will admit that the 'Hammerklavier' is a tough call, but in Schiff's hands it is, first and last, all about counterpoint; and it's also a sonata that exists, metaphorically speaking, not in three but eleven dimensions, allowing us to time-travel through the parallel universes of musical creation in a matter of moments. The first movement and scherzo had a fiery, elemental energy that never scorched or scarred the grass beneath the feet; the adagio was a monumental exploration, with many questions and the tragedy invoked of few answers; and the vast final fugue...well, any hats in the hall were duly doffed. 

And for the whole sonata you listen in awe as the history of music flashes in front of your ears, feeding in and out: Bach's immeasurable treasure in The Art of Fugue, Brahms's Piano Sonata No.1 and Symphony No.4, Liszt's spiritual questing, Schumann's close-knitted multilayers and wondrous battiness, Wagner's Parsifal (yes), entire structures of Mahler, and the thorniest moments of Schoenberg, everything seems to spring from this mighty well that is the deep, nourishing and insatiable fount of Beethoven's genius.

Odd to think that the word 'Beethoven' apparently means 'beetroot field'. There's an example for the wonders of human potential.

The clarity of Schiff's touch was enhanced by the olde-worlde tone of his ex-Backhaus Bechstein (coming home to what used, of course, to be the Bechstein Hall before British Deutschophobia around the First World War forced a name change to Wigmore). It's a strong, beautiful old piano, with that woody, characterful Bechstein sound (I wrote about it rather fulsomely after the Lucerne concert in November) that offers a distinctive personality in virtually every octave; over the course of the cycle in many cities Schiff has fused his vision with the instrument's tone and brings out the best in it.

Oh yes, and Op.109. A chance to relax in its intimacy, ineffability and transparency after the rigours of the 'Hammerklavier'; yet the wonder remains undiminished as the variations - close indeed in spirit to Schiff's beloved Goldberg Variations - gradually unfold from simple sarabande to floods of dazzling stardust, before enwrapping them again in an almost matter-of-fact recapitulation. As if to say, "Now you know what's hidden inside this modest exterior, you'll never look at anything in quite the same way again."

Here is Andras himself, talking about the 'Hammerklavier' at the Wigmore Hall in his lecture series there (2004-6).




Friday, November 30, 2012

True love and piano heaven?

Fairly perturbed by London reactions to Andras'/Backhaus's Bechstein - the upper register "cold", "colourless" - ?  As they say on Twitter, WTF? Nothing could be further from my own impression over in Lucerne.

I fell in love with my own Bechstein when I played it at a friend's wedding. Before deciding absolutely to give myself over to my midlife crisis and commit the necessary large sum to buying it, I wanted to be sure I really loved it as much as I'd thought I did. So I went along to Steinway's and played every grand piano in the shop.

They were all perfect. And they didn't do it for me. OK, they also cost a heck of a lot more, so it was just as well I didn't take to them, but there was more than that to it. Where was the character, the depth of sound, the individuality? Back to the Bechstein. Heaven. My beloved model M/P grand has a particular sound, a particular woody deliciousness that you can really get your teeth into, and a different colour in each register. Where does it come from?

It's all about the balance of the tension in the sound-source, especially the soundboard. The way the pieces of wood bond together. The relatively dryness of them. And a lot of passion and dedication goes into producing it. This is all explained in this film, which offers a bit of insight into the Bechstein processes and includes plenty of examples of that special quality of tone. It's called C BECHSTEIN - A LOVE STORY.

Andras's London concerts, by the way, are taking place in the Wigmore Hall which, excuse me, was originally called the BECHSTEIN Hall. The name was changed at the time of the First World War, when anything with a German name became mud in Britain. Is it possible that the ongoing prejudice against some of the most wonderful pianos in the world goes back to that?







Monday, November 26, 2012

On fire at the Lucerne Piano Festival

How I wish that that title were metaphoric, but for once, dear readers, it isn't.

There I am in the foyer of one of those beautiful hotels with the piano bars, leafing through a newspaper and leaning against a convenient ledge while waiting for a jam session to start in which the likes of Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Simon Mulligan and friends are to play the night away. And I smell burning. And my back begins to feel hot. For there, behind me, is a candle, and it may be Christmas and it may be pretty, but it's nevertheless a naked flame and it has set light to my inexpensive yet smart and brand-new black lace jacket, and another 30 seconds and JD will be toast. With rapid brain-to-hand connections honed by typing and piano-playing (or in this case schnozz-to-hand connections, perhaps) I manage to whip off the jacket and save myself and the smartest hotel in Lucerne from spontaneous combustion.

All's well that ends well. The jacket is a write-off, but I escaped with only a whisker of a singe, if a bit shaken. Missed the jam session and slunk back to my own hotel for camomile tea and a stiff whisky. It's not a bad place to slink back to.


video


The jazz element is one of the nicest things about the piano festival. You find scenes like this - Jan Eschke in the KKL foyer entertaining the concert-goers at a scarlet Steinway created specially for the festival...








 Or this - Simon Mulligan in residence for Saturday afternoon at the Schweizerhof:

The big concerts, meanwhile, went on on Saturday night with Jean-Yves Thibaudet in the Ravel Left Hand Piano Concerto, partnered by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Bernard Haitink. The maestro gave us some gorgeous Mozart in the second half: the G minor Symphony No.40 with judicious tempi, beautiful long phrases and plenty of heart. Ravel, though, didn't seem quite their thang, emerging a bit ploddy and metronomic, while the inimitable Jean-Yves did his very best to insert some sparkled into the proceedings beyond his trademark diamante belt. I am still cross about missing his jazzathon - he can do a mean Bill Evans turn when he wants to.

Last but by no means least, possibly the most gorgeous piano recital I have heard all year. Andras Schiff is very busy with Beethoven at the moment, and having missed his Wigmore Hall recital last week, it was a treat to hear him in the much larger KKL with its warm and exquisite acoustic. His programme included the sonatas from Opp.14 to 28 - all of them - and involved the special atmosphere that Andras's mega-traversals of repertoire tend to have, plus some.

This total-immersion experience is a little like a meditation. Instead of grabbing us, shocking us and bashing the hell out of the instrument, as some pianists do, Andras leads us into another world through silken beauty of sound, absolute love for every note and a temperate attention to the purity of the music. The hall lights are darkened and he plays under a spotlight - a very good idea, since it stops the audience rustling pages as they try to read the programme mid-flow.

He is currently touring with a Bechstein of 1921 that was used often by Wilhelm Backhaus - implicitly aligning himself not so much with the "HIP" movement as the "Golden Age" of pianism. In my case, of course, he's preaching to the converted by choosing a Bechstein. I grew up with one, then bought a new one about eight years ago. I love the character of the Bechstein sound, the woody plangency of the tone, the distinctive nature of the different registers. Andras himself has perhaps the most recognisable personal sound of any pianist working today - it isn't comparable to any other pianist I've heard, other than recordings of Bartok himself. Over the years it has grown and evolved to suit Beethoven every bit as well as Bach - and it is difficult to imagine a more ideal vehicle for it than this instrument. This playing was not like Beethoven that you'll hear from anyone else - and it is revelatory, allowing those underrated  Op.14s, Op.22 and Op.26 to glow as the masterpieces they are by stripping them to their essence and, with total empathy, focusing on nothing but that. I could have listened to him forever.

I urge you to seek out this unique artist and hear him at every possible opportunity. He plays a lot - and here in London, I fear that it has perhaps been too easy to take his presence for granted. Tonight he is playing the same programme as in Lucerne, this time at the Wigmore Hall.

Here's his American website and schedule; and the UK one.

And here he is talking about Op.111. You can hear all his lectures on the Beethoven sonatas via The Guardian, by following these links.



Monday, April 09, 2012

Swiss snapshots


Here's my review for The Independent of two rather amazing concerts in the Lucerne Easter Festival. Plus some snaps. (And more soon...)



*****
LUCERNE EASTER FESTIVAL: Cappella Andrea Barca/András Schiff, 29 March 2012; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons, 30 March 2012


Outside Lucerne’s lakeside concert hall, the KKL, a boat ride offers itself as the “Whisky Schiff”. Inside the auditorium, though, stood another Schiff: András, in maestro mode. With his hand-picked chamber orchestra, the Cappella Andrea Barca, plus the Balthasar Neumann Choir and a fine complement of soloists, he presided over a rare Bach treat for the Lucerne Easter Festival: the B minor Mass, the composer’s last choral masterpiece, never heard as often as it deserves compared to the ubiquitous St Matthew Passion. 

Schiff, one of today’s pre-eminent Bachians, encouraged his colleagues through a heart-warming celebration of the Mass’s multi-faceted spiritual world: the infectious dance rhythms, the exultant grandeur of the Sanctus, the almost graphically word-painted Crucifixus, and a subtle, sober Agnus Dei from mezzo-soprano Britta Schwarz which turned the music inward towards its reflective close. At two hours without a break, despite spry tempi, it still seemed over too soon.

The next evening the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra packed an extravagant number of players on to the platform, and their quality of sound – with galvanising seriousness of purpose from their conductor, Mariss Jansons – hit clean between the eyebrows. This was the orchestral equivalent of the Munich Oktoberfest, larger than life and almost scarily well organised.

The 26-year-old Norwegian rising star Vilde Frang was soloist for Bartók’s Violin Concerto No.1, a bittersweet work that the composer produced as a love gift for the violinist Stefi Geyer (she reciprocated affection for neither him nor the piece and never played it). Frang offered a suitably intimate interpretation, displaying a fresh and intuitive sense of timing, besides evident intelligence, wit and grace. She has won this year’s Credit Suisse Award, which gives her a concert in the summer Lucerne Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic. We’ll hear much more of her.

Jansons’s account of Beethoven’s Overture Leonora No.3 was a transfixing paen to liberty. And what a luxury it was to hear Brahms’s Fourth Symphony played with 18 first violins, ensemble exceeding the merely exemplary, and section principals worthy of concerto status – flautist Philippe Boucly delivered a profoundly moving solo in the passacaglia. The symphony became an all-out monument to Brahms’s tragic view of life. Jansons embraced the full measure of it, body and soul.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A few more thoughts after the Sir Colin interview

The response to my interview with Sir Colin Davis has been fascinating to say the least. Those who have written/tweeted/blogged about it (special thanks to Boulezian and Unpredictable Inevitability) have been polarised, naturally, into those who agree with his words about the early music movement and those who don't. Though the latter have declared his words "insulting" and said they find his classical repertoire "boring" etc, there have,  to my surprise, been many more declaring themselves in full accord with him.

I have the impression his statements have been cathartic: many of us have been feeling this way for 30 years. But it needed a grand maestro to step up and speak out about some of the idiocies that have gone on in the name of "historical correctness" before anyone would take it on board.

Here's my own little journey. Back in the early to mid 1980s, as a student I found myself in places that now seem to me quite astonishing. By an odd series of coincidences I spent a lot of time in university holidays sitting, metaphorically, at the feet of people like Andras Schiff, Richard Goode, the Emerson Quartet and some experts on Schenkerian analysis in New York...



Then, come term-time, I was back in Cambridge being told that I was not allowed to play Bach on the modern piano - unless I would agree to play it with no dynamics, no pedal at all and a mode of expression only appropriate to a harpsichord. I promise this is not an exaggeration. That was rather a shock to the system, since - as you can well imagine - all I really wanted to do by then was to learn the Goldberg Variations.

Not that there was much chance to practise anything at all: so academic was the course that it involved a performance option only as one-seventh of one year of one's final degree, and the faculty seemed to believe - honest to goodness - that if you were going to play L'Ile Joyeux in your third year, there was no need for you to practise in the first two! All this accompanied by the immortal words "WE ARE NOT A CONSERVATOIRE". (Matched only by those of a London music college that I later attended for what turned out to be three weeks: "Well, we're not a university, you know - you can't just pick and choose..." Upon which, exit, pursued by a bear.)

The impression that lingered from that time was so negative, provincial, blinkered and anti-musical that it still rankles a quarter-century later. Today, though, I can recognise the good things I learned there too. These include a passion for Monteverdi (well, I already had that beforehand, but never mind); a familiarity with the Bach Cantatas that I would never otherwise have acquired; an inspirational course on German Romantic opera from Weber to Tannhauser (thank you, Prof Deathridge!); close-knit seminars on Gershwin and Schubert's Winterreise with Robin Holloway; and analysis with the late Derrick Puffett, the man who steered me - again by coincidence - towards Die tote Stadt.

Forgive the digression. In short, I found that the concentration on superficial details of instrument, articulation, lack of vibrato, etc, risked losing sight of the most important thing: the actual content of the music itself. There seemed an implicit assumption that nobody wrote music in order to express any form of emotion before about 1780. This is not to say that those superficial details of articulation, instrumentation et al are not important to some degree. They are. But they became an end in themselves - when they should have been only a beginning.

That was the 1980s for you: the era in which appearance became more important than substance. The era in which spin-doctoring, marketing and the hard-sell took over priority in place of quality content. The ingredients didn't matter, as long as you could sell it to the unsuspecting public. And all the government cutbacks at that time meant that it was far more practical - ie, cheaper - to use smaller ensembles so that you didn't have to pay so many musicians. If you could convince people that this was correct, so much the better. The giant performance of Handel's Messiah in Westminster Abbey that inspired Haydn to compose The Creation was quietly and conveniently ignored. Richard Taruskin has written much more eloquently than I can about how the HIP movement tells us more about our own time than it does about the 18th century.

But I don't believe that over time human nature has changed that much; music and its impact upon us hasn't changed that much either ("If music be the food of love, play on..." - Shakespeare); and if anyone doubts the importance of emotion in music, why don't they just listen to a bit of Monteverdi? Hear Orfeo's great aria 'Possente spirto', then try telling me its composer didn't write to express emotion and see if your ears don't turn red.

What counts most, ultimately, is authenticity of spirit. That means a full 360-degree understanding of the music's workings in terms emotional, spiritual, textual, historical, analytical, communicative, songful, expressive, harmonic, progressive, instrumental, linear, contrapuntal, technical, sonic, philosophical, inspirational and much, much more. It means acquiring the instrumental/vocal/conducting expertise to get this across without a struggle - which, as Sir Colin said, is where freedom really begins. Essentially it means fusing one's own powers as a musician with those of the composer, to empathise with a work and bring out the best in it, in a spirit that is faithful to its world.

I just listened to 30 different recordings of Schumann's 'Spring' Symphony for a piece in the April issue of BBC Music Magazine. My favourite? [drumroll]: John Eliot Gardiner with his Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. This choice took me almost by surprise. But after listening to Bernstein, who made the slow movement sound like Mahler, Solti, who made the opening sound like Wagner, and Karajan, who just sounded like Karajan all the way through, here was a performance that sounded like - well, Schumann. (Buy the magazine to read more...)

I may be a HIP sceptic still. There is no doubt, sadly, that the movement has sometimes advanced the wrong people for the wrong reasons; it has promulgated approaches that may be radical, but that are often misleading, mistranslated or misinterpreted into going against the very grain of what it purports to do (see Sir Colin on Geminiani, or just read Leopold Mozart, to see how the words on 18th-century violin playing have been distorted for dubious ends).

It may have shaken away the Karajan-ness of Karajan, who (let's face it) was disliked for more than his music-making... But it has had the unfortunate side-effect of ghettoising the works of Bach, Haydn and Mozart so that few mainstream conductors dare touch them without applying supposedly "correct" mannerisms of phrasing, articulation and so forth - which often are not all that correct, especially when applied simply because they're a sound that's expected, rather than a concept that is properly thought through. Nothing is more dangerous than a little knowledge. I despair of ever hearing my favourite Mozart symphonies being played with any real gumption again, or without drums that sound like cornflakes packets, or without wince-worthy vibrato-less string tone - it's possible to make a good sound with no vibrato, of course, but frequently it doesn't happen. I am deeply unhappy about this: it's like being thrown into exile.

Thank almighty God that the odious phrase "authentic" was jettisoned after Rosalyn Tureck and her friends proved in the mid 1990s that there was no such thing anywhere, in any field. Still, there's also something inherently patronising in the term "Historically Informed" since it implicitly pre-supposes that everybody else is not. This is not true. The many great pianists who play Bach on the modern Steinway, Bosendorfer or Fazioli are perfectly well informed, often more so than their counterparts - they just choose to play on an instrument that can actually be heard in Alice Tully Hall. I'd defy any early music specialist to be better informed about Bach than, for instance, Angela Hewitt.

And soon I am going to Lucerne to hear Andras Schiff conduct the B minor Mass and I can't wait, because his performance of the St Matthew Passion with the Philharmonia a decade or more ago was the most inspiring, exciting performance I've yet heard of this work, shining out in technicolour with all its inner conviction, passion and spirituality.

I've often felt that too many supposedly "correct" performances are based simply on an orchestra turning off its vibrato and stringing up with gut. Bingo: two strokes and you're HIP.  On the other hand, hearing the OAE with Sir Simon Rattle doing Fidelio at Glyndebourne was simply magnificent. Besides, HIP orchestral musicians are often far better informed about the music they play, more passionately committed to their task in hand and generally more intelligent, upbeat and contributive than certain other strata of the profession who sometimes veer towards "Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die..." (Tennyson).

When HIP works, well played and deeply understood, it is fabulous. I would like to be the first to applaud JEG for his Schumann and his amazing Bach Cantatas series, which I'm potty about (I've also heard him screw up a couple of romantic operas over the years, but there is no reason why every conductor should be equally good in all repertoire, is there?). Ditto for Norrington: I'm a hundred per cent with Sir Colin on that total lack of vibrato - yowch! - and remember with sorrow an absolute carwreck of a Dvorak Cello Concerto at the RFH... Yet I've attended performances in which he's conducted Haydn's The Creation, Mozart's The Magic Flute (a Prom about 25 years ago), Schubert's Ninth and the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique - all of them thrilling, vivid and loving.

As for harpsichords, the playing of Andreas Staier has been a revelation. Just listen to the warmth, generosity and nobility of this:



Now, Staier plays equally wonderfully on a harpsichord, a fortepiano or a modern piano. And there's the rub. If the musicianship is good enough, the instrument stops mattering. Great musicianship transcends its medium. But if that great musicianship is not present, no amount of superficial "correctness" can ever replace it. So where does that leave HIP?


I'm sure there's a lesson in there somewhere. If there's a rapprochement taking place, if we are all starting to pull together rather than against one another, that is laudable. Chamber music playing is now being taught in Oxford (I don't know about Cambridge), while the music colleges today offer proper degrees, not just diplomas (or will do as long as they can continue to exist under the present government). Andras Schiff has recorded on early pianos and sometimes conducts from a harpsichord.



Alina Ibragimova plays solo Bach and more with inspired musicianship, great tone, yet no vibrato.



But the Emperor's New Clothes, even if they're looking a bit faded, are still being worn nonetheless. If Sir Colin's words can help to pull away the last remaining veils of illusion and refocus us on what really matters - the deep substance of the authentic musical spirit - then I'm happy to have been a channel through which he was able to do so.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Friday Historical for Mozart's Birthday, plus some news

First of all, I'm delighted to announce that I have "a new gig", contributing to The Spectator Arts Blog. My first piece is out today and it's a look at six of the best young opera singers I've come across in the last year or so. First up is Sophie Bevan, who will be singing her namesake in Der Rosenkavalier for ENO from Saturday. And five more budding superstars... Read it here.

And it's Mozart's birthday, and it's Friday, so here is some Friday Historical Mozart: the first movement of the Concerto for Three Pianos, with Sir Georg Solti (conducting and playing), Daniel Barenboim and Andras Schiff, and the English Chamber Orchestra. Happy 256th birthday to our darling Wolferl!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Hannibal hits the high notes... plus the Monty Python of music, a mountaineering composer and a brand-new piece by Brahms

"I thought I'd end up in the steelworks in Port Talbot for the rest of my life," says Sir Anthony Hopkins. Is he the most open and straightforward person I've ever interviewed? Certainly one of them. And it was rather touching to hear that familiar voice speaking to me from Los Angeles, and to realise that his own, natural accent remains distinctly Welsh. As you'll know by now, Classic FM is bringing out an album of music by Hopkins. Today my interview with him about it is in The Independent. Read it here.

More light reading for Friday morning: I have an interview with the fantabulous and very funny pianist Jonathan Biss in the JC this week, which is here.

And back at the Indy, we meet the young Italian composer who went up a mountain to create a tune with a view...

That should hopefully entertain you over your coffee. And here's a bonus: a "new" Brahms piano piece has turned up in America and is to have its world premiere on BBC Radio 3 on Music Matters, 21 January, played by Andras Schiff. Christopher Hogwood apparently stumbled upon the work which looking through a collection of manuscripts in the US that had once belonged to the director of music at Göttingen University. The piece, a complete Albumblatt about two minutes long, was written in 1853 when our Johannes was all of 20 - the year he met Schumann and Clara for the first time. Perhaps it would have been amongst the pieces he performed to them on that first visit in Dusseldorf. It is apparently an early version of what became the trio section of the scherzo in Brahms's Horn Trio. The Guardian has more on this, here.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Ivan Fischer on the future of the symphony orchestra

I just found Ivan Fischer's video blog on the Budapest Festival Orchestra's website. Here he talks about the future of the symphony orchestra - and reveals in a few succinct sentences exactly what he thinks of 'crossover' and why.



While Hungary's political and economic situation goes through what looks increasingly like hell and high water don't forget why it matters everywhere else. Let's hope that this towering musical tradition, with its purity, clear-sightedness and intensity of purpose, won't be subsumed by yet another destructive ideological steamroller. The riches of that tradition are exemplified today by Fischer and his brother Adam, Andras Schiff, Gabor Takacs-Nagy and many, many more.

A year ago Andras Schiff alerted everyone to the Hungarian political situation with a letter to the Washington Post. But of course a lot of people said what they usually say when musicians talk about politics, to the effect of "shut up and play the piano", and now he doubts he will ever return to his native land. This is extremely unfortunate, because he was right and he should have been listened to - but the opportunity to make a bigger stand early enough was effectively lost. The truth in the overview of such situations can often be astutely commented upon by those who are outside it - people who care, but whose interests are not vested - and as great musicians tend to be intelligent, passionate people whose gifts have earned them a world stage, sometimes we really ought to take some notice of what they say.

In Senegal, another world-renowned musician, Youssou N'Dour, is running for president.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

JDCMB INGEFAER STRIBENDE PRISEN 2011


That's JDCMB Ginger Stripe Awards 2011 in Danish, or sort of. This year we have abandoned the usual Cyberposhplace - too many people around there to whom we don't wish to be polite - and booked instead a very special CyberScandinavian venue: a Virtual version of the Sjette Frederiks Kro, tucked away in the beech woods by the sea in Aarhus. Please come in and thaw out by the log fire. And don't miss the hot chocolate. It's the best in the whole world - even better than the Cafe Europejska in Krakow - and they bring you a goloptious full-up pot of it... Prepare to sing, too. The Danes always sing at parties.

This has been the year in which the Sleeping Beauty woke up (see choreographer Matthew Bourne's project for Christmas 2012) - and didn't much like what she saw. This year it was revealed, loud and clear, just how intensely, insidiously and pervasively big money rules the world and the music world with it, trampling on all and sundry that are left behind. This year, too, we've seen - on our own doorsteps - the danger of all ideologies that put the imposition of their dogma and the crushing of dissent before any notion of basic humanity. Heaven alone knows what 2012 will bring, but my words to you today, on the Winter Solstice 2011, are these.

Beware of anything that threatens the democratic nature of the places, societies and organisations in which you function. Never sign away your rights - someone will try to convince you it's in your own best interests, but it never is. Remember that constitutions exist for a reason, and if anyone wants to change yours, take a good, hard look at who, how, why, and who gains (case study: Hungary). To quote this article from Spiegel Online about culture in Hungary - where journalists this week have been on hunger strike against press manipulation - "to gain complete control over a country, one has to control what people think." This doesn't only apply to countries. Now that you're awake, keep your eyes wide open.

In a skewed and shaky world, it's more difficult, yet also more important, to keep up the celebration of the Ginger Stripes. Solti is back on his silken cushion today, and I've promised him a lot of fresh Danish fish.

This year's awards are taking a slightly different format from the usual. Instead of specific categories, we've just chosen specific people. Through 2011, more than ever, my interviewees have been a source of great joy and inspiration. I've been lucky enough to come into contact with an astonishing succession of individuals; with each of them there is much to learn, nuggets to nurture, jewels to treasure. I've also attended some unforgettable performances. And writing a little more about dance - which was my first love, you know - has brought a welcome new dimension and a different type of challenge. You think it's difficult to write about music? That's a piece of cake by comparison...

Now, to business! A round of applause, please, for our special guests: some of this year's top interviewees. As they approach the silken cushion to stroke the ginger stripes and claim their prize purrs from Solti, plus a VirtualSarahLundSweater, meet them, love them and thank them.

Anna Caterina Antonacci - the Italian mezzo/and/or soprano whose artistry stands out in today's operatic scene like a George Eliot novel surrounded by chicklit. Is she the nearest thing we have to Pauline Viardot? I believe so. Article from Opera News. Below: as Cassandre in Les Troyens - which she will be singing in London next summer.



Martha Argerich. Interviewing her was a challenge I never imagined I'd meet, but...somehow...did. In the words of Yannick Nezet-Seguin, who conducted the concert in Rome that I attended: "...is she still playing as well as ever? Of course she is. Why wouldn’t she? To me she is not 70, or 60, or 20. She is just Martha.”





Gustavo Dudamel. Cometh the hour, cometh the Dude. Again, it was all touch and go, but in the end we touched. What energy. What charisma. Go, Gustavo, go: be the next Bernstein. We need one. Better still, be the first Dude.



Valery Gergiev. Speaking of energy...




Andras Schiff. A great man as well as a great musician: speaking out about the rise of the racist far-right in his native Hungary has landed him with a backlash that's made him wonder if he can ever return - though that does rather prove the veracity of what he said. Meanwhile, Beethoven is eternal...



Benjamin Grosvenor. This has been his year. Let's put aside the many landmark events he's experienced - we've marked them amply on JDCMB - and simply consider this: Benjamin's playing leaves me wondering why not every pianist plays like that, and why anyone would think, for a moment, that anything less will do. Here he is having some fun with an encore at the Prom...



Eva-Maria Westbroek. Interviewed her, loved her, loved her singing. I heard her in three astounding performances. First, Anna Nicole, which threw her into a spotlight the size of the Millennium Dome but with rather more substance within - and not only silicone. Then Sieglinde in the Met's cinecast of Die Walkure, singing opposite Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmind. And finally Il Tabarro at Covent Garden, part of Richard Jones's magnificent production of Il Trittico, which I didn't actually write up, but which was a major highlight of this year's opera-going. Here she is in one of her favourite roles, Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.



Sergei Polunin. The 21-year-old Royal Ballet star really does want to open a tattoo parlour. The day after the cinecast of The Sleeping Beauty last week, JDCMB was carpet-bombed by Google searches for this dark-lord-in-waiting of British ballet. In this clip, Lauren Cuthbertson as Aurora is equally poetic.


Zofia Posmysz. The author of The Passenger, a novel based on her own experiences in Auschwitz, could not be more radiant or less embittered if she tried. She came to London for the UK premiere of the opera by Weinberg based on her book. Talking to this remarkable woman was a very humbling experience. Film below in Polish with German subtitles, except the bits in English from David Pountney, and provides a taste of the opera's furious, devastating music. (It got panned in London, but I couldn't care less.)




Rolando Villazon. First I heard his marvellous Werther at Covent Garden; then, at the crucial moment in September, I went to Paris to meet him. He gave me a red foam nose. It is now on my desk lamp, where it has helped to keep me sane these past months. This song from last week's Royal Variety Performance sums it all up. Thank you, Dr Rollo.



And performances? It's a golden age. It really is Joseph Calleja at close quarters at a Decca launch in the ROH Crush Bar; Jonas Kaufmann in recital at the Royal Festival Hall. The Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer at the RFH (the best Beethoven Pastoral Symphony ever) and the Proms (Mahler 1 and the fun, engaging, wonderfully played Audience Choice event). The cinecast from the Met of Die Walkure, where the cast - Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde, Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund, Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde - had us all pinching ourselves to make sure it was true. Despite my reservations about the detail of cinecasting, it's a great new medium that's transforming our experience of opera, theatre and ballet; and through this medium the Met also brought us Rossini's fabulous Le Comte Ory, with Juan Diego Florez, Diana Damrau and Joyce DiDonato. At the ballet, Osipova and Vasiliev rawked Ashton's Romeo and Juliet; and, as I couldn't interview Tchaikovsky about The Nutcracker, Joby Talbot was a fascinating alternative as he told me about his new score for Alice. Another major highlight: revisiting the Dartington Summer School of Music. It's always strange going back to a place that meant so much to you so long ago - but the old magic is still alive and well.

Huge treats, too, in performances of my own stuff, some on the other side of the globe. Roxanna Panufnik's beautiful choral work Let Me In, for which I scribbled the words, was premiered by Chanticleer in San Francisco in the spring and is now out on CD. In July, Piers Lane's Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville gave the first performance of Sins of the Fathers, my words-and-music project about Liszt, Wagner and Cosima (it's not quite Lisztomania, but hey...). Hungarian Dances with Bradley Creswick and Margaret Fingerhut at Potton Hall and Old Swinford Hospital School, was huge fun - and I'm happy to say we're taking it to the Buxton Festival next year.

A reading of A Walk Through the End of Time - my Messiaen play - at East Sheen Library bore fruit: an enthusiastic impresaria was present, liked it and is currently arranging a new lease of life for it, featuring two superb actors - Susan Porrett and Patrick Drury - as well as the considerable massed talents of Viv McLean (piano), Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin), Matthew Hunt (clarinet) and Gemma Rosefield (cello), starting with a showcase concert at Bob Boas's central London salon on 9 January. More news soon, I hope.

And in case you wondered - yes, I am writing another novel. Slowly. It's different. It's historical. It's unbelievable. And it's all true.

Dear readers, we live in interesting times. I hope that we can make them turn out for the best. Please raise a glass as our stars of stage and page step forward and lead us in a rousing, celebratory Danish Xmas song. Now, come on, everyone - we have to dance round the tree. Did I mention that? No? Well, we do...

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Artists Against Racism.EU

Andras Schiff tells me that following my interview with him in the JC about the rising tide of racism in Hungary, he has been on the receiving end of a new slew of virulent anti-Semitic abuse, some of which extends to Holocaust denial.

I'd like to draw your attention to an organisation founded by the conductor Adam Fischer, who has recently resigned from the Hungarian State Opera. Artists Against Racism has an excellent website that, amongst other things, highlights the incidents that somehow do not always make our news pages. It is largely but by no means entirely focused on Hungary. It is described as "a union of artists opposed to racism and intolerance in Europe and the world" and it has come into being not a moment too soon.

Less than two weeks ago the conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi (grandson of the composer Erno Dohnanyi) cancelled some appearances in Hungary in protest at the appointment of a new intendant and artistic director with far-right associations at the New Theatre, Budapest. Read more here. Artists Against Racism has further information on this situation and publishes an open letter to the mayor of Budapest, as well as a link to a petition.

Fischer founded the organisation in April. This is his introductory message:


Dear colleagues, dear friends, 
I would like to welcome you on this website. Together with other Artist colleagues I have written an open letter, published in early January in Brussels, calling for more tolerance in Europe. In this letter we expressed our concern about growing intolerance and increasing racist tendencies in Hungary and in Europe as a whole. I would like all artists who feel the same way to start building a network that helps us to coordinate and stand up together against this growing wave of intolerance. In times of economic crisis, it is easy to direct peoples’ frustration against the more vulnerable in society and to use them as scapegoats. Demagogic politicians, due to opportunist and short-sighted reasons, will often stir up hatred against minorities. I think that artists must use their fame to work against such demagoguery. On this site, I would like to create a forum where we can share our thoughts and ideas. I would ask you, first of all, to simply get in touch, so so that we know how many of us who share these ideals. I look forward to your letters and I wish you all the best.
Adam Fischer

This is not an isolated matter. Hungary is not a small East-European basket case, despite its impenetrable language. It's a major European centre bang on the Danube. And in many fields, in many countries, in many ways, there are signs not only of rising racism but also the repression that usually goes hand-in-glove with it. In the US, National Public Radio has just jettisoned an opera show because its host, Lisa Simeone, took part in the Occupy movement. Nor is she the only one to lose her post because of her personal outlook: more info and some interesting, disturbing questions in The Guardian

I am still haunted by Maria at Wexford and its evocation of the brute force to which totalitarian states almost invariably resort sooner or later. How do they take control? Their populations, eyes wide closed, let them. They do not notice what's happening until it's too late.


You will find a permanent link to Artists Against Racism in the JDCMB sidebar section entitled MUSIC INSPIRATIONS.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Strong stuff from Andras Schiff



He's a great artist and a brave man... Given the content of this interview, in which he does not mince his words one bit, I can barely imagine what's going through his mind as (above) he plays Schubert's Hungarian Melody, his encore at the Proms earlier this year.

http://www.thejc.com/arts/music/55892/interview-andras-schiff

I'm writing a longer article about him for International Piano Magazine, which will go into more depth about the Schumann he's just recorded and will also look at why he's the only Hungarian pianist (as far as we both know) who just doesn't get along with Liszt.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Bach to basics

Saturday Bach time again, and here's a masterclass with Andras Schiff to show us how.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Schiff shape!

One of the delectable things about writing booklet notes for CDs is that now and then you're assigned a task you like; and you get the disc at the end of it. This morning a box of dizzying delights hit my desk as a result of one such job: a set of reissues from Warners of Andras Schiff playing concertos and chamber music - no fewer than nine discs.

OmG, which to play first?! The Bartok piano concertos with Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra? Schubert trios with Yuuko Shiokawa and Miklos Perenyi? The Dvorak Piano Quintet with the Panochas? Beethoven, Mozart and the fascinating Sandor Veress... Solution: close eyes, shuffle discs and pick the one at the top. It's the Dvorak. Heaven.

"...Schiff always puts the music first and last. In a world obsessed with superficiality, image, anti-intellectualism and short-term thinking, Schiff continues to stand proudly for the opposite, offering a voice of reason and artistic integrity."


A couple of weeks ago Andras was awarded the Royal Academy of Music Bach Prize. He'll be starting his Beethoven sonatas cycle in the States this October - Ann Arbor, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York - I've recently done an interview with him about this for Carnegie Hall's Playbill, which I'll post as soon as it's available online. And you can still hear his lectures about the sonatas from the Wigmore Hall on The Guardian's webcast.

Please excuse me while I gloat, worship and purr, all at the same time.