Showing posts with label Jonas Kaufmann. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jonas Kaufmann. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Opening tonight: this



Sick as the proverbial parrot this morning because yesterday a friend offered me a ticket for the first night of Andrea Chénier at Covent Garden tonight - and I can't go. And they're in short supply, to put it mildly. In this all-too-rare opera, Jonas Kaufmann stars as a poet during the French Revolution who takes up his pen against hypocrisy - and is killed for it. Sound familiar? Anyone who continues to worry about the "relevance" of opera need look no further.

Eva-Maria Westbroek
photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

For those of us who can't get into the real thing, there is a cinecast on 29 Jan.

Meanwhile, you might enjoy reading my interview with the fabulous Eva-Maria Westbroek, who sings the role of Chénier's beloved  Maddalena, in the January issue of Opera News. Follow the link here.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Who is the Johnny Depp of classical music?

Some would say it's Jonas Kaufmann.


Others suggest that my lovely Hungarian Dances violinist colleague, David Le Page, bears a certain resemblance to the film star.


But full marks to The Mozart Project - the producers of a superb interactive, multi-media e-book about the composer - for noting that in fact the mysterious hero of Hollywood appears to have been separated at birth from none other than...


...our very own Gabriel Fauré.


Friday, January 09, 2015

At the feet of guess who...

I'm officially on holiday - a long way off, somewhere hot and sunny that involves hammocks, trees and the sound of the sea. But there's WiFi, so I can still offer you, belatedly, some impressions of the two gentlemen above, whom I was fortunate to hear at Wigmore Hall last Sunday, at an extremely welcome last minute.

Yes, Der Jonas was back in our top Lieder hall, and there are few finer places in which to appreciate his remarkable qualities at close quarters, within a warm acoustic magnifying glass. Here, even from the back row, the ambience and sound quality are intimate enough to let us hear a degree of nuance that might not come over to the same extent in a larger, more impersonal space.

An all-Schumann first half from two highly sophisticated German musicians could scarcely be bettered. First of all, the partnership between Kaufmann and Deutsch - Jonas's Lieder Svengali - is something quite exceptional. The voice and the piano are so attuned to one another as to fuse into an indivisible sound, just as an orchestra at its best becomes a single entity. To call Deutsch an accompanist would be not just invidious, but unthinkable. They opened with five of the too-rarely heard Kerner Lieder, topped by 'Stille Tränen' - one of Schumann's most devastating songs, laden with the burdens of depression and intense longing, to say nothing of the glories of its melody. Kaufmann built up to this song as the climax it needs to be - and can hardly help being, given its quality - and unleashed the full power of his exceptional dynamic control.

Some musicians' sounds, whether they are singers, violinists, pianists or anything else, strike us at what certain New Age types would call the Chakra points. The vibrations might strike us primarily at the top of the head, between the eyebrows, around the solar plexus, clean in the stomach or guts, and probably one or two other spots as well - but whichever is the case, it becomes irresistible, setting off goose-bumps in some cases, tears in others, or simply the sense of rising far from everyday predictability into something rare, more sensitive, more extraordinary, that carries us with it to some measure of the beyond. Suffice it to say that this song did that.

Dichterliebe - the ultimate Schumann cycle, to many - is a work much maligned and misinterpreted, despite its phenomenal beauty and the perfectionism of its writing. This is not Schubert; far from the innocence and tragedy of Die schöne Müllerin and the desperation of Winterreise, this is Schumann's take on a love story - won, then lost - as portrayed by the poet Heinrich Heine, master of double-edged irony. Some suggest, oddly, that Schumann ignored Heine's detachment and cynicism. Yet the composer was a highly literary individual, one as adept (or nearly) with words as he was with music, constantly inspired by the poetry and novels of German romanticism at its peak. Kaufmann and Deutsch's Dichterliebe was as much Heine as it was Schumann; Kaufmann's gifts as storyteller were to the fore, backed by the refulgent tones of Deutsch's pianism; this was delicate, close-sketched life-drawing, leaving an emotional impact as subtle as the poet deserves - not head-butting indulgence, but something far more nuanced and colourful.

After the interval came the Wagner Wesendonck Lieder, Kaufmann bringing to the world of solo song the composer with whom he is perhaps most strongly associated. Studies for Tristan? If the third and fifth songs are indeed, Kaufmann will (hopefully) be a Tristan to be reckoned with if/when he gets round to singing the role. For the time being, this was a Wagner incarnation as rare and insightful as the Dichterliebe was to Schumann: a fresh, convincing and unexpected take that made complete musical and poetic sense. These songs, usually larger than life with a mezzo and an orchestra, became intimate and transparent, but in a world of their own, distinct from the Schumann; Kaufmann's perfect Siegmund tone shone at its steel-and-caramel best.

For Liszt's three Petrarch Sonnet settings - oddly, better known in their solo piano versions -  Kaufmann turned Italian. Like a religious convert who becomes more zealous than those born into a faith, he can sometimes seem more Italian than the Italians. The sound of the words becomes not only the inspiration for the music - instead, the words are the music, the latter simply a manifestation of a soundworld that is already there in Petrarch's dazzling love poems. If Dichterliebe was a set of keenly observed charcoal sketches, the Sonnets were as gigantic and perfectly wrought as Michelangelo sculptures. Petrarch gives his all in these poems, Liszt follows suit and Kaufmann and Deutsch delivered in kind. One encore - Schumann's 'Mondnacht' - quietened down to an exquisitely controlled, half-lit cantilena in which - as often through the evening - you couldn't help wondering when he manages to breathe.

Most Jonas concerts involve a substantial quantity of encores, but this one didn't. Whether that was because it was a huge programme and he is saving himself for the small matter of Andrea Chénier rehearsals at the ROH, or because the audience mostly didn't stand up, then started to make its way out while he was taking curtain calls, is hard to say. The Wigmore is the finest concert hall in London by a long chalk, but it is a notoriously difficult place in which to get up and yell and cheer, which is what we'd have liked to do and which is what this performance deserved. Not wishing to embarrass my colleagues in Critics' Corner, I resisted the temptation. What a pity one feels one has to. I've seen a place as staid as Vienna's Musikverein go totally, utterly bananas over a Jonas-and-Helmut recital and the fact that that didn't happen in London says more about us than it does about them.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

The unbearable lightness of...oh dear

Having greeted the idea of this CD with huge enthusiasm and given it some warm announcements right here, I'm sorry to say that a certain tenor's new recording, 'Du bist die Welt für mich' (English title is on the cover, right), has in its entirety proved a tad underwhelming. So I've written a piece for Amati's magazine about why a little lightness can't hurt. Read it here: http://www.amati.com/magazine/149-comment/comment-the-unbearable-lightness-of-jonas-kaufmann.html

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Jonas Kaufmann talks about...



...his lovely new disc.

I just want to add a few things. I love this stuff. It is very close to our hearts here at JDCMB, not least because some of these songs were associated with the Comedian Harmonists, that remarkable singing ensemble - pop group, indeed - who rose to fame in risqué 1920s Berlin, but were destroyed by the Third Reich since half the members were Jewish.

They all escaped the Nazi era, fortunately, but were scattered to the corners of the globe and never sang together again. One baritone with a gorgeously warm voice became a synagogue cantor. We stumbled across some reissued recordings ten or fifteen years ago and when we took them to my father-in-law - who was born in Berlin in 1921 and left forever in 1936, settling in Buxton - he still knew all the songs from memory and sang along, a faraway look in his eye...

There is also, as previously noted, some Korngold on this CD: the Lute Song from Die tote Stadt - but it's not on the trailer, so we'll just have to wait.

I'll leave you with this nice dose of Kaufmania as I am now off to meet some cats. This is not a euphemism.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

This is Jonas Kaufmann's next CD and look what's on it...



A note for the Kaufmaniacs: this little box of delights is due out in September, we hear, and features Viennese and German operetta-plus.

Du bist die Welt für mich will also enjoy a 2015 concert tour...but not to the UK, which is a crying shame. I would conjecture that this might be a poor reflection on how our tub-thumping tabloids affect British taste in music ("Germany 1930s, eew!"). Is it possible that the delights of Lehár, Kálmán, Tauber, Benatzky, etc, and, er, Korngold - and yes, there is Korngold (Marietta's Lute Song) - are still perceived as too hard a sell in Blighty for promoters to risk it? No matter that Jonas only has to step into a hall for it to fill on the spot. Many people would be glad to hear him sing the Heathrow flight arrivals.

Incidentally, for anyone who does indeed hesitate over music they think is "Germany 1930s, eew," a number of the composers on this CD were actually Jewish. And their origins include Hungary, the Czech/Slovak regions, Vienna and more.

The tour - next April and May - will go around Germany plus Vienna, Lucerne and Paris. Full details on his site.

For the utter and total Kaufmaniacs, here is the full track listing (from the Sony Music Spanish site, which for some reason is the only place I can find it). The red highlighting is mine.

Tenor: Jonas Kaufmann
Soprano: Julia Kleiter
Orquesta: Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin
Director: Jochen Rieder
1. FRANZ LEHÁR (1870–1948)
Girls Were Made to Love and Kiss (Gern hab’ ich die Frau’n geküsst)
from Paganini
Text: Alan Patrick Herbert & Harry Dexter
2. You Are My Heart’s Delight (Dein ist mein ganzes Herz!)
from Das Land des Lächelns
The Land of Smiles • Le Pays du sourire
Text: Harry Graham
3. RICHARD TAUBER (1891–1948)
Du bist die Welt für mich
from Der singende Traum
Text: Ernst Maríschka
Arrangement: Andreas N. Tarkmann
4. FRANZ LEHÁR
My Little Nest of Heavenly Blue (Hab’ ein blaues Himmelbett)
from Frasquita
Text: Sigmund Spaeth
5. ROBERT STOLZ (1880–1975)
Im Traum hast du mir alles erlaubt
from Liebeskommando
Text: Robert Gilbert / Armin L. Robinson
Arrangement: Andreas N. Tarkmann
6. EMMERICH KÁLMÁN (1882–1953)
Grüß mir mein Wien
from Gräfin Mariza
Text: Julius Brammer & Alfred Grünwald
7. WERNER RICHARD HEYMANN (1896–1961)
Irgendwo auf der Welt
from Ein Blonder Traum
Text: Robert Gilbert & Werner Richard Heymann
Arrangement: Andreas N. Tarkmann
8. HANS MAY (1886–1958)
My Song Goes Round the World (Ein Lied geht um die Welt)
Text: Jimmy Kennedy
Arrangement: Andreas N. Tarkmann
9. FRANZ LEHÁR
Freunde, das Leben ist lebenswert!
from Giuditta
Text: Paul Knepler & Fritz Löhner-Beda
10. PAUL ABRAHAM (1892–1960)
Reich mir zum Abschied noch einmal die Hände
from Viktoria und ihr Husar
Text: Alfred Grünwald & Fritz Löhner-Beda
Reconstruction: Matthias Grimminger & Henning Hagedorn
11. RALPH BENATZKY (1884–1957)
It Would Be Wonderful Indeed (Es muss was Wunderbares sein)
from Im weißen Rössl
The White Horse Inn • L’Auberge du Cheval-Blanc
Text: Harry Graham
Arrangement: Matthias Grimminger & Henning Hagedorn
12. PAUL ABRAHAM
Diwanpüppchen
from Die Blume von Hawaii
Text: Emmerich Földes, Alfred Grünwald & Fritz Löhner-Beda
Reconstruction: Matthias Grimminger & Henning Hagedorn
13. ROBERT STOLZ
Don’t Ask Me Why (Das Lied ist aus)
Text: Joe Young
Arrangement: Andreas N. Tarkmann
14. MISCHA SPOLIANSKY (1898–1985)
Heute Nacht oder nie
from Das Lied einer Nacht
Text: Marcellus Schiffer
Arrangement: Andreas N. Tarkmann
15. EDUARD KÜNNEKE (1885–1953)
Das Lied vom Leben des Schrenk
from Die große Sünderin
Text: Katharina Stoll & Herman Roemmer
16. ERICH WOLFGANG KORNGOLD (1897–1957)
Glück, das mir verblieb
from Die tote Stadt
Text: Paul Schott

17. FRANZ LEHÁR
Je t’ai donné mon cœur (Dein ist mein ganzes Herz!)
from Das Land des Lächelns
Text: André Mauprey & Jean Marietti

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Manon Top


The new production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, directed by Jonathan Kent, has already divided audiences into those who applaud the contemporary relevance of its updating and those who'd rather just see the beautiful Kristine Opolais clad in a nice pretty dress. Others still were so swept away by the music and its ravishing performance that they didn't much care what was going on on the stage in any case.

The Manon Top is not Jonas Kaufmann - well, he is, but there's someone else too. It's the conductor, Tony Pappano. That ROH orchestra blazed almost as if Toscanini himself had stepped out in front of them. The highlight of the evening was the Intermezzo before the second half, given to us with an urgency, sweep and intensity of tone that could raise your hair and crack your heart open. This rarely-performed opera is dramatically problematic - it could use an extra scene or two to make the narrative less patchy - but the music is some of Puccini's finest (personally I'd even put it ahead of Butterfly) and an interpretation of this quality is absolutely what it needs, restoring it to the front ranks where it belongs. Kristine Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann matched Pappano's glories turn for turn: Kaufmann contained and paced his ever-irresistible singing, saving the best for the last act, and Opolais infused every vivid note with her character's charismatic personality. The three together were a dream-team, inspiring one another to a level of artistic wonder that we're lucky to be alive to hear.

Now, back to the production. Manon Lescaut is not a nice pretty story. The book, by the Abbé Prévost, is light years away from big romantic tunes; it's a terse, nasty page-turner, an 18th-century thriller that careers at high speed through a hideous, greedy and depraved world which the clever Manon tries to use for her own ends, but which eventually destroys not only her innocence but her life.

Contemporary? Relevant? Just a little. Intriguing to note that there are no fewer than three different adaptations of the book on offer at the ROH this year: operas by Puccini and Massenet and, in the autumn, the Kenneth MacMillan ballet (including several performances with Natalia Osipova in the lead); four if you include the return of Turnage's Anna Nicole, which opens the season - the same kind of story, only real. This can't be a coincidence.

Jonathan Kent's production was booed on opening night - though it was cheered, too. It maybe needs time to warm up and settle a little more, but the concept is powerful and the tragedy overwhelming: Opolais and Kaufmann are stranded as if mid-air at the end of a collapsed and abandoned motorway in the middle of the American nowhere.

At the outset Manon arrives by car in a housing estate of pre-fab flats with a casino to hand; her wide-boy brother (wonderfully portrayed by Christopher Maltman) never flinches at the idea of selling his mini-skirted sister to the imposing Geronte. She becomes instantly an object, a blank slate for the depraved manipulation of all around her with the sole exception of Des Grieux.

Kaufmann's Des Grieux is a touchstone for other values, other worlds - choosing a book when others choose the gambling tables, holding on to the concept of love when it leaves others unscathed; however much the students sing about it at the start, they are clearly out for less exalted emotional encounters. Manon, meeting his impassioned declarations, responds like a rabbit in the headlights; such things are beyond her spheres of reference and when she runs off with him, she is running away from Geronte rather than towards her new life.

Puccini's opera, unlike Massenet's and the ballet, lacks a scene in which Manon and Des Grieux are poor but happy. Instead we cut straight to Geronte's mansion: Manon has abandoned love for luxury. Cue cameras: Kent turns Geronte implicitly into a porn king, filming Manon in a ghastly blonde wig and pink Barbie dress, the dancing master transformed into the director, instructing her while the visiting singer (Nadezhda Karyazina) engages in some apparently titillating girl-on-girl manoeuvres with her. There isn't much that any director can do to make her response more sympathetic, though, when Des Grieux arrives to rescue her and she hesitates too long because she doesn't want to leave her jewels behind.

The hypocrisy of this society, though, is underlined by the way Geronte and his friends debase, exploit and corrupt Manon, but then have her arrested and deported for prostitution. The scene by the ship in Act III turns into reality TV: Des Grieux's plea to go with her takes place under the lights and cameras. (Aside: reality TV is turning into an operatic trope and is on the verge of becoming a cliché: after seeing it in ENO's Götterdämmerung and, of course, Anna Nicole, I suspect that perhaps it's time to leave it for a while. One could say the same about staircases, spiral and otherwise.)

Act III, by the ship, is dominated by a huge poster: a beautiful face, a giant pink lily, the word NAÏVETE emblazoned across the image as if for a perfume advert. Later, the poster is slashed, across the model's cheek. This is a world that has gone beyond the romanticisation of naïveté, one that can only corrupt and disfigure beauty, one that experiences beauty only to squander it for greed. And when we see the blasted-out motorway in the final scene, it seems symbolic in the extreme. The crash barrier is broken. It is not only Manon that is dying, ruined and corrupted and learning her lessons too late; it is, quite possibly, western society as a whole.

Try seeing the production with open eyes. If you don't like it, close them and listen to the performance. But this Manon Lescaut succeeds because its director understands the story is too close for comfort.



Tuesday, June 17, 2014

TONY PAPPANO: MORE POWER TO HIS ELBOW


I had an excellent chat with Tony Pappano recently about Manon Lescaut (which opens tonight), working with Jonas Kaufmann (who's singing Des Grieux), what it's like to be music director of the Royal Opera House, why conducting gave him tennis elbow and what he has to say to our government about cuts to the arts. Article is in today's Independent.

"I say to these guys: be careful. This place [the ROH] is one of several crown jewels in the UK; internationally speaking it's a fantastic representation of our grit and our taste. And I think funding decisions are made so quickly sometimes, and so recklessly. It's the same approach in music education, which is facing enormous cuts. This is ridiculous. It's not 'my opinion' that people who study music develop their brains better for the future – it's proven fact. Take that on board!"

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Top ten happy things about the BBC Music Magazine Awards

1. It was a great honour that this year I was asked to be on the jury. I was only able to emerge around Christmas from underneath the biggest heap of CDs that has ever colonised my study (dividing brooms syndrome) - but there could be many worse things in life than listening to c250 five-star discs in quick succession and exploring them over copious quantities of tea with respected colleagues. We had a ball, really. Best, in most categories we pick three and it is you, the readers, who vote for the one you want to win.

2. Alisa Weilerstein's Elgar and Elliott Carter cello concertos - with the Berlin Staatskapelle conducted by Daniel Barenboim - won Recording of the Year. Very wonderful it is. Here's an introduction to it. (And here's an introduction to Alisa herself over at Sinfini.)



3. At lunch I "was sat" next to Igor Levit, who was voted Newcomer of the Year. Perhaps paradoxically, he is already jolly well known: his debut CD of late Beethoven sonatas for Sony Classical sparked the sort of superlatives you don't see too often. Last year I interviewed him for the cover feature of International Piano. He is one of a remarkable bunch of pianists currently zooming to fame in their twenties: youngsters who already know their own minds and musicianship so well that they play with the assurance of seasoned masters. It's arguably the most interesting crop of young pianists we've seen in a long time, also including Grosvenor and Trifonov - all very heartening. Presenting yourself on the recording scene for the first time with with Beethoven's last five sonatas indicates no small ambition, and in Igor's case gambling on this repertoire was clearly the right choice. He will soon be recording some Bach. And incidentally he has a very natty way with ties.

4. Plenty of accolades for Jonas Kaufmann, whose Wagner album won the vocal category, despite powerful competition from an amazing CD of Hanns Eisler by Matthias Goerne. JK wasn't there in person, but recorded a touching video message for us from somewhere on his Winterreise tour, in which he added that the fact that the choice comes from listeners rather than critics makes this the biggest prize of all. I was on Easyjet from Moscow while he was singing Winterreise here the other night, and am I sick as a parrot about missing it or what. (Below: spotted outside the Moscow Conservatoire the other day. Missed him there too.)

5. Additionally, that Tosca from the ROH starring Angela Gheorghiu, JK and Bryn Terfel, with Tony Pappano conducting, grabbed the Performance DVD category. Bryn, who's currently starring in Faust at Covent Garden, was there to collect the award and told us fulsomely about their week of rehearsals for the performances at the ROH at which it was filmed. Angela, he said, moved everyone to tears in the studio when she sang 'Vissi d'art'. Jonas had flown in from New York and promptly got sick, so Bryn didn't hear him sing out until they were on stage. We were treated to an extract of film from Act II, when Cavaradossi sings 'Vittoria!' and Jonas emitted the kind of long, high, off-the-leash note that can flatten the entire music business at a stroke. At that point, said Bryn, even his threatening Scarpia-stare turned into "a small, wry smile," which he was glad the cameras didn't pick up.

6. Chamber category winner: the Ebene Quartet's gorgeous, impassioned, searingly intense recording of Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn. You couldn't hope for a more convincing advocacy of the neglected sister in this family duo than this from the lovely chamber-music boy-band of Paris; besides, the F minor Quartet comes leaping off the page as Felix's musical mid-life crisis that should not have been his swan-song, but was. With my Mendelssohnian hat on, this was my Record of the Year.



7. Rachel Podger's fascinating and velvety solo album of baroque violin rarities, Guardian Angel, scooped the Instrumental category. The first time I encountered Rachel was nearly 20 years ago in a festival in Australia, when she and her ensemble played their way valiantly through more than three hours of Telemann in high heat... Since then we've been watching her growth as an artist and now she is in her prime and flowering. This is the album of hers I have enjoyed the most, ever; sophisticated performing filled with sensitivity, intuition, character and insight. Brava! I'd also like to put in a good plug for another shortlisted disc, Richard Egarr's Bach English Suites, which I adored (yes, you read aright: I loved a harpsichord album.)

8. Orchestral went to Riccardo Chailly's Brahms Symphonies with the Leipzig Gewandhaus. They don't come much better than that. Yet for some of us, the surprise wild card of the year was a blistering account of the Strauss Alpine Symphony from...the Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra under Frank Shipway. Fair blew my socks off, that one.

9. Other highlights included a gargantuan quantity of Britten wins, a Premiere award for George Benjamin's opera Written on Skin, a vast film about Cavaillé-Coll and his organs, and the first-ever App Award, which went to the Touchpress/DG exploration of the Beethoven Symphony No.9. You can see the full list of winners on the magazine's website, here.

10. Last but not least, two dear friends and colleagues whom I've known separately for years told me that they're an item. This was the news of the whole day that made me happiest. Cheers, chaps!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

THE GREAT TENOR DOUBLE

Why are great tenors like the London buses? You guessed it. I have for you today interviews with not one, but two of today's very best.

Here is Juan-and-only-Diego Flórez for your delectation, in today's Independent, talking to me about his first album for four years, the not-too-inner game of tennis (including the inspiration of Roger Federer), and why he is soon going to sing Werther.









And here, dear friends, is the new April issue of BBC Music Magazine, out today, with Jonas Kaufmann as the cover star. My encounter with him has the dubious distinction of being the only interview I have ever conducted while wearing snow boots. He talks to me about versatility, Winterreise and, er, Werther.

You have to buy the magazine as it's not online. Apparently the cover is Blippable, which means you can download an app, point it at the picture of Jonas and something ought to happen, though one isn't sure precisely what.

By way of a Kaufmannesque bonus, I couldn't resist asking him whether he might ever sing Paul in Die tote Stadt - a role that seems to be crying out for his voice and his dramatic abilities. He remarked that you need a sweet tooth for Korngold, but that he has recently sung the final duet and found it incredibly beautiful - so why not? We are glad that at least he hasn't ruled it out. And a message for the Kaufmaniacs? Well, he has found that you often ask him after performances to please go and sing wherever it may be that you live - but there is only one of him, so you'll have to keep on travelling...


Just for the heck of it, here are both of them singing "Pourquoi me reveiller?" from that Massenet. Flórez's is from his new, all-French album, L'amour. Kaufmann's is from the Paris performance a few years back as broadcast by Arte/Medici TV.  See what you think...



Sunday, March 16, 2014

Werther: the final scene, with Jonas and Sophie



I missed the Met's cinema relay of Werther yesterday, travelling home from Paris... Thank you to their website for making the final scene available as an "encore" to watch online, starring Jonas Kaufmann, Sophie Koch and a lot of blood. (Update: we hear that this scene is online now because there were technical problems in the cinecast across the US that meant most people didn't actually see it...)

My interview with Sophie from this month's Opera News is here. Keep watching this space for news of t'other one.

Left: the house where Jules Massenet died, close to the Jardins du Luxembourg in Paris's 6ème arrondissement, which I spotted the other day.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

JDCMB IS 10 TODAY!



It was 10 years ago today that I thought I'd investigate these strange new things called blogs. All of a sudden, you could write something and press a button and a minute later a total stranger could be reading it on the other side of the world. For a writer this was a) mind-blowing, b) irresistible. I started mucking about with a site or two and next thing I knew, I had my own blog. I didn't know you could give blogs fancy titles so I just called it Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. And here we are.

Celebration? Well, there's a Hungarian Dances novel-concert this afternoon at 3pm at the gorgeous St Mary's Perivale, with me, David Le Page (violin) and Viv McLean (piano). Admission is free, though you can make a donation afterwards. There will be cake, and there's a pub over the road.

So, how have things changed in these first 10 years?

First of all, and most obviously, we are still here. Many are not. I've recently overhauled the blogroll and am surprised by the number of writers who've stopped blogging in the past couple of years. Perhaps novelty wears off; perhaps pressures of time encroach too much. I've often considered closing down this one, but have never quite been able to bring myself to do it. It's often a sort of mental limbering up at the start of the day, a way of getting brain into gear - even though you should never blog before your second cup of coffee - and it's cheaper than therapy. More importantly, there are few ways to keep certain values going in this scary world, but JDCMB is one. If you are a regular visitor, chances are that you know them. That's why I keep on keeping on.

When the Internet was becoming ubiquitous, its gatekeepers - and its users - made two enormous mistakes. One was to allow anonymity. The other was to make everything free.

Ten years on, many gifted individuals are struggling to make ends meet because of the second; as for the first, this is why many of us have closed our comments facilities and never read "below the line". I closed the JDCMB comments facility not because there were regular trolls, but because it was always a worry that there might be. One needs to eliminate sources of avoidable stress whenever possible.

When Amazon started to allow anonymous book reviews, one of the first things that happened to my stuff was that someone wrote a vicious anonymous review of my Korngold (pictured right) biography. I was convinced I knew who'd written that review and sent a letter to the Society of Authors journal saying, essentially, that anonymity makes nonsense of the whole idea of reviewing. Apparently this was news and I got interviewed by The Guardian. That was 15 years ago, never mind ten; it's still true; and it's still not sorted. (I still think I know who wrote that review, btw, only now I think it wasn't the person I thought it was then. It's worse. Never mind.)

As for free...well, this blog is, obviously, free. Mainly because I haven't worked out a way to put up a paywall. If it becomes possible, I may do so. I've tried other ways to allow it to bring in an income, including, briefly around 2009, virtually selling my soul (it's back - thanks). Occasionally some of you kindly decide to sponsor Solti's cat food and receive a sidebar advert in return. You can still do this if you so wish. Thank you to everyone who's taken up the possibility, especially Amati.com, our latest long-term sponsor, for whom I now write a reasonably regular Soapbox column. Here's the latest, featuring one of Mr Buchanan's priceless cartoons: when should we applaud prodigies?

A lot has happened to me in ten years. I've written four novels, two plays and several words&music projects, joined the Independent as a freelance music and ballet correspondent, met and interviewed many of my heroes and heroines, become a bit of a campaigner for women's equality in the musical field and survived a Dalek invasion (my digestion remains a long-term casualty). I've travelled a lot and fallen in love with Budapest (right); I've trailed Martha Argerich to Rome; I've even found my way back from Munchkinland. And if you've enjoyed the novels to date, there IS another one, it is finished and it is musical (we just have to find it a publisher who doesn't think classical music is elitist...). But do read this article from The Observer today.

During the past decade we've watched the emergence of many glorious new artists: Benjamin Grosvenor, Daniil Trifonov, Juan Diego Florez, Jonas Kaufmann, Julia Fischer, Alisa Weilerstein, Joseph Calleja, Yuja Wang and more have risen to prominence. It's been a privilege to chart this. Here is my latest big interview for Opera News, with the glorious mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch (March issue cover feature).

But the most worrying thing at present is the reduction in freedom of expression that results from this bizarre climate of mass hysteria and free-for-all, line-toeing mudslinging, encouraged by the tabloids and a few bloggers who like high ratings. Such a climate has never happened before in my lifetime. "What do they want? Blood?" asked someone recently. I fear so. It resembles a primitive call for blood-letting - like The Rite of Spring, a ritual in hard times to bring back the sun. It is always the innocent who are sacrificed - whether it's an abstract force for good, like art music itself, or learning, or intellectual capability; or the Chosen Maiden of Stravinsky's ballet, who if you remember is a young, innocent and terrified teenage girl. Guess what? It doesn't help.

I believe we need nothing less than the Enlightenment. An embracing of reason, clarity, proportion, sense and sensibility; love to combat hatred; the power of laughter, which is also an endangered art; a note of sanity to restore rational thought against ideologies that have tipped askew under their own over-inflated obesity. This doesn't mean "a return to..." anything - because you can never go backwards. Nothing does. Time doesn't work like that. You can only go forward. Let's go forward to a fresh Enlightenment. Let there be light.

So, to celebrate JDCMB's tenth birthday, above is the ultimate Enlightenment masterpiece: Haydn's The Creation, a work that features all the qualities and values I love the most, in a performance from 1951 conducted by Eugen Jochum. Enjoy.




Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Jonas's Winter Journey

The CD you've been waiting for is out at last - the official release date in the UK was yesterday - and sure enough, it's a humdinger.

Winterreise is a piece that has scared us, devastated us and left us musing on Schubert's state of mind: why was he drawn to create art that evokes emotions so far beyond despair? I was in a seminar group for it during my student days and we analysed it every which way, but there is always a kernel within it that eludes such treatment. You can see how Schubert manipulates the key structure to carry you downwards with the protagonist; you can  understand that the dancing lilt of 'Täuschung' is a recycling - it pops up in his opera Alfonso und Estrella in a totally different incarnation (thank you, Christian Gerhaher, for recording this) - but do we really understand what drove Schubert, how his genius was fired by such snowy bleakness? Of course not. We know how he burrows into the dark recesses of the heart - but we can never truly know why.

There are of course many fine interpretations on record, some of which you need to feel very strong to hear - my previous "benchmark" is the one by Matthias Goerne with Alfred Brendel at the piano. But this new disc by Jonas Kaufmann and his pianist and mentor Helmut Deutsch can leave you wondering if perhaps it is worth winter existing, even with the snow in the US and the storms here and the wind and the rain and the darkness, just so that Schubert could write this work and they could perform it. It is not just the depth of Kaufmann's conviction that makes it special, but the skill with which he projects the meaning: his diction is of course magnificent, but he is able to fill each word and every phrase with colour that holds the entirety of its emotional import. This is truly extraordinary. I reckon you don't need to understand one word of German to follow this story. It's the clearest possible demonstration of just how music becomes a universal language in every sense.

Here are the artists to introduce it on film, on JK's website. http://www.jonaskaufmann.com/en/1/start.html

Intriguingly, the makers of this film are of the Wunderlich family. Yes, that Wunderlich. JK has plenty to say about the great Fritz in our interview, so watch that space...


Monday, February 10, 2014

Um, in case you were wondering where I was...


...I've been in New York and - in between shopping, museum-hopping and seeing all my oldest and dearest friends - spent a rather pleasant hour in a press room at the Met with a certain tenor, who recovered from his bout of flu in time for a good chinwag. I've been trying to make this happen for years rather than months...and it was worth the wait.

JFK - Jonas Fluey Kaufmann, natch - is in NY preparing for a new production of Werther, which opens on 18 Feb, directed by Richard Eyre and also starring the glorious Sophie Koch as Charlotte (see the new issue of Opera News, just out, for my cover feature about her). HD cinecast is on 15 March. Be there. You'll like it.

It was also wonderful to see Glyndebourne's production of Billy Budd - imported wholesale, orchestra, chorus, Marks Elder and Padmore and all - receive a massive ovation at the Brooklyn Academy of Music the other night. New Yorkers, you have two more chances to see it this week. Here's a rave review from the New York Times.

Just flew home from...JFK. Incredibly, only 5 hrs 40 mins.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A soapbox and an orange tree

A weekend full of anniversaries kicks off with a new weekly "soapbox" slot, which the stringed instrument dealers Amati.com have asked me to write. They've even drawn me standing on one!


You can read my first Soapbox tract here. It's about Great Britten, of course.

And so tomorrow it is the world premiere, as rehearsed reading, of my new play Sins of the Fathers, about Wagner, Liszt and Cosima, at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond. Info here. Call the box office for returns.

What does a playwright do all day once the thing is written and delivered? Well, I've been hunting for candle glue, preparing some labels for the bottle of magic wine and sourcing Wagner's dressing gown. Social media proved worth its weight in gold where the latter was concerned: an appeal on Facebook ("Urgent: need a silk dressing gown for Wagner, must fit John Sessions") has produced a friend - the real sort, not only the Facebooky sort - who inherited an antique silk red paisley number from her great-uncle that fits the bill to perfection. Now we just have to find the right something for Liszt to wear. A cravat should do the trick.

From this anniversary line-up, Verdi is missing. Only one thing for it: over to Jonas...






Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Verdi bicentenary: Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann in Don Carlo



It's Verdi's bicentenary today and as everyone is choosing their favourite bits, here is one of mine. I've been lucky enough to hear these two in this opera twice this year - once at Covent Garden, once in Munich. Life in music just doesn't get any better than that.



Monday, August 19, 2013

At the risk of being a bit predictable...

...here's JK making his new album of GV. You'll want to hear this, believe me, and you'll particularly want to hear the bit from Otello.



There's a moment near the start of the film where he clutches his phone rather pointedly. I reckon that's when a text arrived from his press agent saying "oh no, another message from that blasted English journalist begging us for an interview in Munich/Salzburg..." (Nah, just kidding... in fact they've all been really helpful, for which I'm grateful. But 0 interview for JD yet.)

I tried. I really did. But time was there none, it seems. More about Munich and the opera festival as soon as there's a little, er, time - of which I am very short at the moment too.

Monday, July 29, 2013

A very spoilt opera lover's home thoughts from abroad

So last night, here in Munich, I heard Don Carlo with Jonas Kaufmann sounding perhaps the best I've ever heard him (and you know how good that is), Anja Harteros sounding like a platinum-plated Maria Callas only possibly better, Rene Pape sounding like King Marke as King Philip II and a baritone new to my radar, Ludovic Tezier, as Rodrigo sounding like a presence who will dominate his repertoire to very fabulous effect for years to come. How many great voices can you have on a stage at any one time? It occurs to one that - perhaps unusually for a Verdi performance - one could reassemble the same team for a certain thing by Wagner to fine effect, one named Tristan und Isolde...

But oh dearie dearie dear... I went and missed Barenboim's Gotterdammerung at the Proms, and today have been inundated with messages full of overjoy, overwhelmedness or plain old Schadenfreude from those who were there, or heard it on the radio, or who are calling for a Ring cycle to become a regular feature of the Proms, please, something I will second with all my heart (provided it's done by the right performers). After a 20-minute ovation, Barenboim made a speech declaring that what the audience had been through with him and his musicians was something he had never even dreamed of. Can't manage to embed the code for some reason, so please follow this link to hear it: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01ddfdr

Extra plaudits for the Proms this year for having made me seriously question the wisdom of taking a summer holiday abroad while they're on.



Monday, July 15, 2013

Favourite things: Kaufmann sings 'Die schöne Müllerin'



The other day I was out for a walk in Richmond Park and I spotted a pair of shoes abandoned next to a Bächlein. While I doubt that Schubert or the young miller protagonist in this heart-rending song-cycle would actually have worn blue suede loafers (they're more Elvis, perhaps), I've had this music on the brain ever since. Who better to listen to than Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch?

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Jonas to the rescue!

The Munich Opera Festival, which is in full swing for July, is doing wall-to-wall Verdi and Wagner this year. Last night it was Lohengrin. The tenor went ill. Who can you get to replace that at short notice? Hmm, how about that local bloke who knows the role?


Text from my spy says simply: "Jonas sensation, audience went nuts."

Kaufmaniacs should log on tomorrow when the Staatsoper is webcasting Il trovatore, with JK as Manrico, a role he's just been singing for the first time, with Anja Harteros - another local - as Leonora. My spy says that's sounding a bit good too. Webcast is free and starts at 7pm over there (so 1 hr earlier in UK and 6 hrs earlier in NY).