Sunday, May 30, 2004

Back to the future

With apologies to any of you who might believe that the Almighty created the human being Perfect, I have to report that THERE IS A SERIOUS DESIGN FAULT IN THE HUMAN BACK.

Last weekend, in a flurry of 'Beloved Clara' anxiety, I spent three happy hours gardening. Monday morning I woke up and could hardly move. I've done nothing useful this week except lie on my back in 'Alexander Technique' pose trying to straighten out my spine, which isn't broken but feels as if it is. Back pain is vile. It not only scuppers you physically, but also mentally. I've written nothing (except Dulwich blog entry, pretending all was well!), read nothing, listened to nothing, been no further from the house than Waitrose (3 mins gentle stroll) and only watched one French film (Jean de Florette, which I've seen 5 times already).

When things get you down this way, you can become 'half in love with easeful death' - at least with the notion of an anaesthetic to knock you out for a few weeks. But there is one thing to live for. Music, of course.

I've spent two hours this afternoon gritting my teeth and playing the piano. I've played through the Franck violin sonata to make sure I can still play it (yes!), brushing up the Debussy 'Clair de lune' (my party piece since 1981) and reading through some of my beloved Faure's abominably tricky nocturnes. Even if my back isn't better, my soul is on the mend. As long as there is music of such overwhelming beauty in the world, it's worth being here.

Having nothing better to do, besides practising, than surf the internet, I've just come across a blog by Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker, which is excellent - link under Music Friends. Alex, sorry you knew about my blog before I knew about yours, but better late than never!

Of course, one of the other things worth living for is good food. I've had some major successes with Nigella Lawson's recipes, especially the ones from 'Forever Summer'.

Actually, there's plenty to live for, isn't there!

Friday, May 21, 2004

Matzo pudding competition winner

Looks like nobody else knows how to make a matzo pudding any more than I do. But the prize goes to Marion Gedney of New York City, who e-mailed me to say that although she doesn't have a recipe, she thinks she knows what my father meant and hopes that it was supposed to be funny.

Marion is a clinical psychologist...

Marion, e-mail me your postal address and a CD will be on its way to you shortly!

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Glyndebourne, plus newsy bits

Dress rehearsal of Pelleas et Melisande at Glyndebourne yesterday. One of those rare occasions when the first trip down of the summer is on the sort of cloudless, hot day on which the place is basically paradise. The leaves are bright May green, the hawthorn flowers are out, there are sheep in the field on the hillside. In the interval the lawns are so covered with the company friends and relations picnicking that it's like a scene from Renoir. This is my seventh year of hanging out there with Tom and I still have to pinch myself to make sure it's real. I love the dress rehearsals because the family atmosphere is so excellent. Yesterday I was in the front row of the stalls right next to the violins - had to resist the temptation to pull silly faces at Tom and to throw his colleagues sweets over the railing. Not a good idea.

Pelleas is a revival of a stunning Graham Vick production, with gold panelled walls, a floor of flowers and an incredibly claustrophic atmosphere. John Tomlinson as Golaud is the central figure and his charisma makes the story work much better than usual. Marie Arnet is a gorgeous, delicate Melisande and the lovely Louis Langree takes a robust approach to the score which I like very much. I don't believe Debussy (or Faure, for that matter) should be all elusive and floaty. This stuff comes right from the gut. Highly recommended.


Tasmin Little has recorded the Karlowicz Violin Concerto on Hyperion and if you don't know the piece, you should get a copy right away. Karlowicz was a Polish composer of the early 20th century who died terribly young and has only recently attracted much attention. About 13 years ago, I visited Krystian Zimerman in Switzerland and he played me an old Polish recording of this concerto; I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever heard. Marvellous that it's now new-minted on a mainstream label. Bravo, Taz.

Marc-Andre Hamelin's new Kapustin disc is a complete delight from start to finish. Kapustin is a rather retiring Russian who prolifically composes piano music in traditional classical forms but fills them with an astonishing, idiosyncratic, energetic jazz idiom. Charming, dizzying and virtuosic, it shows off super-cool Marc to the manner born. Also on Hyperion.

Susan Tomes has written a book called 'Beyond The Notes' about life as a travelling chamber music player. Insights into what Domus was all about and why it had to give up its dome - that was the early 80s - can you imagine anyone daring to leave a concert dome unattended overnight in the Pavilion Gardens in 2004?! Susan's a deep thinker and her philosophical reflections about the nature of musical communication and relationships in a chamber group are fascinating. From Boydell Press.

You can get all of these from Amazon via the link box on the left.

Dear readers, my web-counter doesn't tell me who you are but does give me a rough idea of where you might be. One reader particularly intrigues me. You've been checking in roughly twice a day. You are in France. You are logging on from UNAPEC, which Google tells me is a university. Please, whoever you are: if you can bear to, write a comment box and identify yourself! S'IL VOUS PLAIT, ECRIVEZ-MOI! The suspense is killing me!

Thursday, May 13, 2004

If you were...

In cover features for PIANIST magazine, I have to ask my interviewees a particular set of questions. 'If you were....... - what would you be?' I get some interesting responses - it can be surprisingly illuminating. So I thought I'd have a go at it myself. Here's the result


Franz Liszt. I think he had fun. I do NOT want to have been any of those patient, long-suffering women who struggled all their lives to be creative, like Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn or Charlotte Bronte! (Emma Bardac is a better option, as she sang well, hosted a progressive Parisian artistic salon and slept with both Faure and Debussy...but even that had its drawbacks...)

'I Capture the Castle' by Dodie Smith. My favourite book. I've read it about 350 times and never get tired of it. (Available via Amazon, link on left.)

'Les enfants du paradis' - French masterpiece from the 1940s starring Jean-Louis Barrault and Arletty. Now available in snazzy DVD (see Amazon).

Unfair!! But - on balance - Faure's Piano Quartet No.1 in C minor

Chocolate - preferably Green & Black's Organic, absolute minimum 70% cocoa solids

An excessively fine 1976 red Bordeaux



What about you? Try it and put the results in a comment box!

Sunday, May 09, 2004

The morning after

A certain air of smugness prevails in the Duchen-Eisner household this morning - and it's not just Solti the cat.

The concert went fine. Lovely atmosphere, gorgeous church with warm, pleasing acoustic, small but terrifyingly knowledgeable audience and on the whole we played pretty well.

Odd difference between how things feel and how they sound. The second movement of the Franck felt about half the speed that it actually went, to my astonishment, and the whole concert had a nice 'seat-of-the-pants' feel to it. Tom sounds gorgeous in the chuch acoustic, the balance seems to have been just right, the heating was on, the piano stayed in tune and everyone hugged us at the end.

Strange, too, to remember that I've not done anything remotely comparable to this since 1988. When Tom started doing little recitals three or four years ago, I was too scared even to attempt to play things like the slow movement of the Grieg C minor Sonata and the Dvorak Sonatine. I don't know quite what happened in the interim. But it certainly feels like progress. Perhaps there's something to be said for walking up those mountains...

And no hangover this morning - simply the need to sleep for a week. Which we can't...because Tom is rehearsing Pelleas et Melisande for 6 hours today and I have 3 features to finish by next weekend. Back to real life!

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Climb ev'ry south London

When we go on holiday, we usually head for Swiss mountains, which Tom immediately wants to go up. I love mountains. I love the air, the atmosphere & the views. I don't much like having to walk up such steep slopes, though, often in intense summer heat, for hours on end. Somehow it's always the same: Tom striding on ahead in his Thomas-of-Arabia anti-sun headgear, with me gasping along behind, trying to keep up and stopping for water every 10 minutes. And the question hangs in the air: why walk when you can take the cable car?

Playing the Franck sonata feels somewhat the same. This afternoon, with just three and a half hours to go before Our Concert Begins, I'm wondering who is the bigger sadist: Cesar Franck or my husband? Why am I doing this when I could sit back and listen to someone else instead? Why did I let him cajole me into this in the first place?

Seriously, guys, how do you do it? How do you COPE? My shoulders hurt, my arms hurt, my hands hurt and a good night's sleep without waking up at 5am thinking 'Oh My God, Franck!' would be very welcome indeed. I'm behind on my feature-writing and keep telling various e-mail correspondents that I'll get back to them after 8 May when I can think straight again. There are musicians out there who play 80 concerts a year - some do more - and to have to feel this way one day out of every 4, on average, would be my idea of living hell. Perhaps you get used to it if you do it all the time? Or perhaps you simply have to be the sort of person who enjoys it. The sort of person who will always walk up a mountain instead of taking the cable car, however hard it feels at the time, for the sheer thrill of Knowing You've Done It.

The things you have to contend with and remember to do...Making sure the heating is ON in the church (it may be May but it's all of 12 degrees out there today, and raining), taking in lamps, an adapter and an extension lead, trying to get the most out of what is really a very nice, rather elderly Bluthner without making the poor thing collapse, attempting to rehearse Franck while the church flower ladies do their stuff with cellophane and bubble-wrap and their children run athletics races unchecked among the pews. Making sure your brother, his heavily pregnant girlfriend, his 11-year-old son, his new Italian mother-in-law who speaks no English and the honorary auntie who introduced you to your husband leave Hampstead together in plenty of time to get to Clapham (to Hampstead dwellers, Clapham=ends of earth). Wondering how you can even go to a piano, let alone touch it, when the audience contains at least three concert pianists and the editor of Classic FM Magazine. Remembering to pack chocolate, bananas, spare tights, a cardy and a portable blowy heater.

Never mind. It'll all be over soon. Except...Tom wants to do Faure next.

Oh my God. Faure...

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Winners and losers?

To the Dorchester last night for the Royal Philharmonic Awards. Each year the ceremony is held there, along with a rather fine black tie dinner. The glitterati of the London musical world mostly show up, even if the musicians who win the prizes are generally busy giving concerts somewhere else. It's always fun to bump into your ex-bosses, meet people you've known by sight or repute for years, and some who you haven't, and discover that you're wearing the same dress (if in a different colour) as the 'acting editor' of BBC Music Magazine.

The line-up of prizewinners this year was relatively inspiring. Among them, the late Susan Chilcott won the singer's award - she died about six months ago of breast cancer, only in her early 40s, leaving behind a small son and some stunning recordings. Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra took the large ensemble prize, and so it should have; an Israeli pianist and Palestinian violinist stood side by side on the platform to accept the award and got a tremendous ovation. Lump in throat time.

I'm on the chamber music panel. Our winner, the Belcea Quartet, was taking the prize for the second time, but it's well-deserved: they're an extraordinary young group, each one sensitive and intelligent yet together somehow greater than four individuals. I'm not sure what happened to our citation, however. The speeches may have been truncated for the benefit of Radio 3 (the awards will be broadcast tonight), but on reflection it would have been nice to point out that the Belceas got the prize not only because they do education work and commission new music. They won also because they are bloody marvellous musicians who inspire everyone who hears them.

There's political correctness and political correctness, of course. This was a mild case. But the thing that really got up my nose was something that the excellent LSO Animateur said, accepting his Honorary Membership of the RPS. Apparently it's a wonderful thing that the LSO has put its finances into appalling shape by building St Luke's, its new educational/rehearsal centre in the City.

I don't think that's a wonderful thing at all: I think it's shameful that a great orchestra is forced to spend its money in this way. Such facilities should be the right of every orchestra - and the government should be paying. In fact, the government should be providing proper, consistent, across-the-board musical education in schools in the first place - instead of forcing musical organisations to put their energies (and money they can't afford) into work that can only reach a few kids for a limited time. The much-vaunted education and outreach trend is little more than an apology for the lack of good musical education in this country. It's trying to fill a round hole with a square plug; even if it inspires the few it reaches, for a short time, it can't do the job that's really needed.

I shall get on the subject of English Amateurism, Lousy Music Courses and the rest of it - not to mention cowboy building contractors - another time. But while we're on awards, I should report that little Benjamin didn't win Young Musician of the Year the other day. The prize went to a gorgeous 16-year-old violinist, Nicola Benedetti, who played Szymanowski exceeedingly beautifully, performs like a seasoned professional and is absolutely ready for a career. General consensus seems to be that they made the right choice. Benjamin got the necessary exposure but won't be subjected to undue pressures of prizewinning too early. Who knows, perhaps he'll come back and win the next one.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Matzo pudding competition!

One or two of you have asked 'What on earth is a matzo pudding?' and - other than the obvious Fuss Over Franck - I have to admit I've never tried one. SO: the person who posts on the blog the best-ever Matzo Pudding Recipe will receive a free surprise CD from me! Closing date: 21 May 2004.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Cesar Franck and the matzo pudding

Is giving a concert simply all in a day's work to most pros? For those of us who do a handful of concerts a year and really ought to be doing something else, it sure isn't. Our Clapham gig is next Saturday and I do find myself wishing that I could fast-forward through to Sunday morning (well, maybe Monday, to avoid hangover) - to have the satisfaction of having done the concert without having to experience the excruciating mental pain of sitting at a piano in front of an audience, being obliged to play the Cesar Franck Violin Sonata straight through, up to tempo, without too many wrong notes...

Last week, the pianist Paul Hamburger died; he was one of the great accompanists. His obituary in The Guardian quoted him as having said that the hardest thing he ever had to play was the opening of the Franck's second movement. So there we are, it's not just me creating what my father would have called (bless him) 'a matzo pudding'.

Yesterday, however, produced something intriguing. We watched a programme on TV about the BBC Young Musician of the Year - a sort of condensed version of the semi-finals, showing the winners of each section and filming them at home, etc etc. There was little Benjamin, practising his Ravel G major concerto with a metronome and looking completely calm. Next, just as the percussion was coming on, the phone rang: it was Daniel Hope, who I'd been trying to get hold of for an interview earlier on. I talked to him for a while and got some amazing stories of the things he has to deal with on a day-to-day basis - among them, replacing the Berg Violin Concerto with a Brahms sonata at the last moment because an orchestra in South America had copied out its own parts for the concerto and the publisher was threatening to sue for music piracy...Blimey, as if playing the violin isn't tough enough in the first place! Evidently he has never a dull moment - indeed, perhaps he thrives on the adrenalin. It's all about attitude in the end, isn't it?

When I'd finished talking to Daniel, Tom was practising. He declared he'd been inspired by the kids on TV and wanted to play the beginning of the Franck again. We started with the intention of playing 2 pages, but before we knew it we'd gone through the entire thing and played it better than ever before. At the end, Tom said: 'It's amazing how much you can learn from watching an 11-year-old!'

SAD NEWS - an e-mail yesterday from pianist Lars Vogt telling me of the death of Boris Pergamenschikow, the Russian cellist. Quite a shock - Boris was 55 and had been very much in the thick of musical events, tremendously sought after as soloist, chamber music player and teacher. He had had cancer for two years. Another lesson in attitude. Don't go around making 'matzo puddings', because you are wasting energy you could be putting into achieving all the things you want to achieve in what is necessarily limited time.