Friday, October 29, 2004

Unheard melodies...

Apologies for rather quiet week for blogging, or lack of... It's a busy time of year, however, for CD issues and consequently for reviews. An extraordinary number of new releases come out around now in order to be In Time For Christmas. And Christmas has a lot to answer for. That's another story, however. Meanwhile, I've been extremely taken with the latest CD by the Swiss/French flautist Emmanuel Pahud, which is a disc for all seasons.

The disc includes, however, only one original piece for flute and piano, Widor's Suite Op.43. The rest is Franck and Strauss - their violin sonatas, transcribed for the flute. I've often been wary of such inter-instrument transfers, but here it not only makes perfect sense but sounds phenomenal. Violinists might even be jealous, especially as Pahud plays the Strauss Sonata with all the passion of one of Strauss's amazing soprano heroines - the breathing and phrasing are pure opera. I've never been convinced by the Strauss as a violin sonata, but here, in Pahud's own transcription, it seems to take off as never before. Eat your heart out, Marie-Therese.

In the light of this, I've begun to think that over-fussiness about instruments being 'correct' or 'original' can lead to missed opportunities and a general narrowness of outlook. Bach, after all, could write exactly the same piece for one single violin as for full orchestra, choir and organ (best known as the opening movement of the E major partita). And anyone who has heard Myra Hess or Dinu Lipatti playing the former's piano transcription of 'Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring' would be likely to take it to a desert island for a reminder of the meaning of life.

But isn't all music a transcription to a certain extent - a transcription, for the composer, of what he or she hears inside and has, somehow, to get out?...Who knows whether what reached Brahms's manuscript paper was exactly what he had imagined, or whether something was lost in translation from mind to hand? However amazing music sounds to us, perhaps it would have sounded less good to the composer compared to the first concept of the sound inside his/her head? As Keats said, 'Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter...'

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Why info matters

Greg Sandow has this on creating the 'concert companion' - rather like an audio guide for going around art exhibitions.

I'm always amazed by the number of people in the musical sphere who think that knowing something about the music's background and structure can add nothing to one's enjoyment, or who think alternatively that only the most specialised academic labels will do for such matters. In the art world, audio guides are taken for granted. You'd be surprised to turn up at an exhibition, pay for your ticket and not be offered one. And would you try to put together a bookshelf together without reading the instructions? (well...)

In music, even top orchestras still sometimes print dry, useless, outdated programme notes, some concerts provide none at all - it costs money to print them - and many recitalists are still scared witless by the idea of talking to their audiences. What in heaven's name is so alarming to the establishment about accessible, non-patronising background notes? And what's so alarming to a musician about saying a few words before you play? It's nowhere near as frightening as playing the piano!

Seriously, though, an audio-guide 'concert companion' sounds like an exceptionally useful tool. I wonder how long it'll take British orchestras to catch up with the idea. Sweepstake, anyone? I say five years. Ten if we get a Tory government next.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

End games

To the Festival Hall last night to hear Stephen Kovacevich playing Beethoven (Op.31 No.2 and Op.109) and Schubert (B flat D960). Glorious, soul-enriching music-making: intimacy, inspiration and gentle philosophy that didn't shout at the back row but instead pulled the attention quietly in towards the platform.

But one major bugbear: a small number of people insisted on clapping a) before the last chord of Op.109 had died away, before Stephen had even lifted his hands from the keyboard, and b) after the first movement of the Schubert B flat.

I don't care if this sounds 'elitist' (the most dangerous and misused word of the English language over the last decade). If you clap between movements in a work which your programme clearly tells you has four of them, you are stupid. But if you break the magic spell of music before the artist does, you are an insensitive, moronic idiot. You are wrecking the experience for everyone in the hall, including the musicians themselves. Music isn't only about sound. It is equally about silence and its magic lies in its use of silence - during, before, after and in between.

After a post-recital drink in the People's Palace, my friends and I came downstairs to find the pianist in the foyer, happily munching his way through the world's best-earned Big Mac. Stephen, we said, how do YOU feel when people clap in the wrong places? He told us that it didn't worry him so much after the first movement of the Schubert, but at the almost-end of the Beethoven sonata it made him absolutely furious. You might expect it to be more bothersome between movements, but no: it's the quality of silent rapture that carries a work away back into the ether that is most precious and vulnerable.

Can't halls bear to make announcements about this? Yesterday we had to sit through a five-minute speech about fundraising before they let Stephen onto the platform (any thoughts of donating money to the South Bank Centre must have evaporated instantly). Why could they not add, 'Make sure your mobile phones are dead and please do not applaud until the music has come to a complete stop...'?



Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Asking for trouble

If you name your cat after a fierce Hungarian conductor, you can bet he'll get into trouble. Solti appeared this morning with a cat war wound on his face and had to be taken to the vet to have the abcess lanced. Now he looks like an extra-mean feline Long John Silver, minus parrot (wouldn't put it past him to catch one, though).

Tom is currently in Brazil with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (he normally plays for the London Philharmonic, but these things happen sometimes). He reports that Sao Paolo in the rain looks like Manchester, Rio has great food, and Leonidas Kavakos, who's the soloist for Berg and Sibelius violin concertos, is one of the three top fiddlers on earth.

I've adored everything I've heard Kavakos play, and I find it most encouraging to reflect that here is someone who matches none of the International Star stereotypes yet knocks the spots off the majority of those that do. He's Greek. He has a moustache. He wears glasses. He is (I think) about 40. He doesn't have to be photographed in jeans or hugging wolves. It's not just technique, it's what you choose to do with that technique. This man doesn't only have a fiddle - he has a brain. And also, I think, a sense of humour. Read my review of his Ravel and Enescu CD on ECM here (scroll down to January 2004).

Incidentally, in case anyone is wondering why I have a violin fetish despite being a pianist, it all goes back to when I fell in love with my violin teacher in 1984...Talk about asking for trouble.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Latest violin epiphany

A friend recently lent us a DVD of a violinist whom we knew by name but nothing more. We sat transfixed, watching the film of him playing Sibelius in the mid 1950s. This man has a sound that can slice through your abdomen like the world's finest butterknife; the intensity is heartbreaking, the consistency silky and substantial from foreground to background, the integrity total. We read the booklet and first discovered he was born in 1933 - a moment of excitement realising that he could, should, still be alive - until a paragraph later came the shock that he committed suicide at the age of 49.

Little clue is given to his character, his motivation, his problems. All that remains is the testimony of his musicianship. I sent off at once for a set in the EMI 'Les introuvables' series (EMI being EMI, you have to get it from France, but that's easy with It arrived yesterday, including two different recordings of the Faure A major sonata made a few years apart - the first as tender and delicate as a mountain stream, the other smouldering and sparking like a volcano, yet each perfect in its own way - but they are almost upstaged by his account of Faure's Second Sonata in E minor, which is often thought 'difficult' yet which he lights up with visionary luminescence, generous tone and intuitively perfect phrasing. One senses from such white-hot playing that for this person life and music were serious matters - that perhaps his sensitivity and personal standards were too high to allow him to deal with reality.

His name is Christian Ferras.

This is the DVD. This is the CD set.

Meanwhile, Alex Ross has the most eloquent words about Korngold I've seen in a long time here.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Damsel in major computer distress

HELP!!!! Any computer wizards out there? I came back late last night in the middle of what's been the Week From The Depths of Hell to find that my internet connection won't work. I am a technoignorama [good word...] and Tom (who, to be fair, isn't much better) is away on tour in Brazil.

It isn't as simple as it sounds. My computer and Tom's are networked together on a single broadband connection in which Tom's is the closest to the telephone source. His works fine, hence I am on it now. All I can get out of my Internet Explorer and Entourage, though, is 'The Specified Server Could Not Be Found'.

What's going on? Is it my computer hardware? Software? The network? (yes I HAVE checked that the wires are plugged in.) Do I need to reinstall all my software, will it help, will I lose all my info if I do so? Who do I call? The Mac man? The friend who set up our network, which worked absolutely perfectly until Tom and his suitcase and violin vanished Heathrowards yesterday? I think actually I need Superman.

Anyone out there got any SENSIBLE AND HELPFUL SUGGESTIONS? ***PLEASE?!?!?***

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Strange stats

So far I've had hits on this blog in 36 countries, including via a few very odd google searches. My favourites are:

General anaesthetic symbolism
Danish blondes
Hungarian communist apartment disgusting
Where can I find magic mushrooms in Scunthorpe
Latkes en francais

I think that a latke is a latke is a latke - except perhaps in Lithuania, their homeland, where they're called something else since 94% of the Jewish population was killed 60 years ago.

My first English-language article about my Lithuanian trip is out now in the Jewish Quarterly.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Getting into Korngold

A Comments note from Ken Nielsen in Oz asks where to start with Korngold. Here we go:

START with the films - Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Deception. You'll probably find you've heard them before, somewhere in your distant past. Next, the Violin Concerto is the best-known orchestral piece: try Gil Shaham with the LSO and Andre Previn. Happy? Now for his best opera, Die tote Stadt, in the recording by Erich Leinsdorf (don't bother with el cheapo Naxos, recorded live in Sweden complete with stage clonkings and swingeing cuts). If you get along with that, move on to Das Wunder der Heliane, the most ambitious of the operas and the work he regarded as his masterpiece - and turn the volume up high! If you can swallow Heliane, you are truly a Korngold person...

In which case, you can gorge happily on all those beautiful but underplayed orchestral works like the Sinfonietta, the Abschiedlieder, the Symphony in F sharp, the Cello Concerto (here with hot young cellist Zuill Bailey), and the Piano Concerto for the left hand (with the glorious Marc-Andre Hamelin); and the songs, gloriously sung by Anne Sofie von Otter (this recording also features some of the chamber music, which is interesting, but not really the best place to begin).

Er, Ken, do I take it you've read my book already? If not, here's the Amazon link...

Sunday morning in blogland

Did you know that Saint-Saens has the same birthday as John Lennon? It was yesterday. This pithy info is from Ionarts, where there's also a wonderful picture of Cantankerous Camille playing the organ.

There is more useful information to be gleaned almost everywhere today. There's news of a production of Zauberflote in New York by Julie Taymor - she's a producer unfamiliar, I'm afraid, to me here in London, but apparently this is so stunning that both Alex Ross and ACD are in agreement (unusual in itself!) that she must now do The Ring. Zauberflote is notoriously difficult to bring off. Glyndebourne has had two disasters with it, the worst when Peter Sellars set it under a Los Angeles motorway, in an Ashram seemingly dependent upon sign language. The Covent Garden production has its moments, but is set within a distinctly gloomy background. ENO's is so successful that they've stuck with it for years and years and YEARS. And that is before you even start wondering what to do with the music - to vibrate or not to vibrate...

Meanwhile Helen Radice has an alarmingly interesting post about whether something called Il Divo is any good (not). She has also learned how to switch on her oven (sorry, hob!).

Given that TV news on a Sunday morning consists of wall-to-wall football coverage, utterly depressing pictures from Iraq, Egypt and Israel and robotic people telling you that personal debt in this nation is over a trillion pounds, if you want to keep up with the latest in the arts, there is now only one way to do it. Read the blogs!

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

It was 20 years ago today

Well, yesterday. That was the day I went away to university. Thinking back I can't help noticing how much has changed in that time, not only in the world in general but music in particular. But the most obvious thing is that I well remember how chilly the weather was in early October 1984. I wandered around college in thick sweaters (including some knitted by my mother). And there'd be frost on the grass by the river when we walked back after concerts across town. Today the forecasters say it'll be 17 degrees and I'm at home in a tee-shirt. Makes you wonder what global warming will have done to us after another 20 years.

Otherwise, here are my top 10 musical changes:

1. The buzz-word then was 'authenticity'. Nobody talks about 'authenticity' any more because the concept has been so severely discredited. Now it's called 'historically informed performance' instead - a term that snobbily implies that any other kind of performance must be historically ignorant, which is nonsense. But in those days also, you could still hear a normal orchestra play Haydn and Mozart under great conductors in a style that didn't require toothgritting (some of those early instruments have the same physical effect on my teeth as chalk on blackboard). Today that is almost impossible - they are too frightened.

2. The buzz orchestra was the CBSO, rising and shining with Simon Rattle. If there is a buzz orchestra now, it's probably the LSO, though my ears tell me the only absolute edges they have over certain other bands are lots more money, a fantastic horn section and very classy PR.

3. My next-door neighbour in college used to put on recordings of Sibelius 5, Mahler 2 or the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony with the volume RIGHT up and we'd have a good wallow. I have a horrible feeling that music students today would probably say 'Who's Saint-Saens?'

4. A paradox, this, after No.3: rare repertoire was - well - rare. Hardly anyone had heard of Korngold and if they had, they weren't interested. Musicians just wanted to churn out the war-horses. Underrated composers are viewed, happily, in a far more upbeat way now.

5. There weren't many foreign music students, and in the orchestras there weren't many foreign players. Now, at least in the orchestras, they are pouring in from Russia, Poland, Hungary, China, Romania, not to mention France, Germany and Japan. Standards have rocketed commensurately as competition has increased. I was talking the other day to a young girl who is finishing her uni course and wants to go on to music college. She told me the postgrad entrance requirements - vastly more demanding than anything I had to do in 1987.

6. Conductors still alive included Tennstedt, Solti, Bernstein and Karajan. Pianists Richter, Arrau and Gilels (just). Violinists Milstein, Szeryng and, er, Menuhin. Special note for P: Krystian Zimerman had already made the big time and was 27 years old.

7. 20 years ago there was a massive split between academic music and practical music in this country. Each looked down its nose at the other. These days you can take a BA degree at the Royal Academy or specialise in playing an instrument at a university (though not at Cambridge, surprise surprise.)

8. It was quite difficult to find historical 'golden age' recordings in those days. Today they are as important as new ones and many young musicians cite them as their favourites.

9. The record industry was booming.

10. We did not yet have Symphony Hall Birmingham, the Bridgewater Hall Manchester or the new hall in Glasgow. Today most of Britain's major cities have a top-class, full-sized concert hall. Except, of course, for London.

Any more contributions to the list?