Thursday, March 31, 2005


...can't think straight to post properly at the moment because I have a nasty cold. None of my usual remedies seem to be working (lemsip, whisky etc). Anyone know any good ones to recommend (available or creatable in UK)?

Meanwhile, my sympathies to the person who found my blog through a search on the words "fell in love with my violin teacher"...

Tuesday, March 29, 2005


Every so often, I write about Wagner. It's always a tad daunting because so many music writers spend their whole lives delving into this extraordinary world; I merely dip a toe in the water. But a commission from my boss at the Indy led to this article focusing on Wagner's women which came out yesterday (but the Indy's website didn't put it up until today). We currently have two Rings on the go in London: the Royal Opera House has got as far as Die Walkure, while ENO is about to start Gotterdamerung. My interview was with the latter's director, Phyllida Lloyd, and lead soprano, Kathleen Broderick.

It's easy to think that the Ring carries some kind of curse - mainly because it's so expensive - but anyone who does believe in a celestial conspiracy theory around it would have found grist in their mill yesterday. For the first time EVER, the BBC decided to televise a complete Wagner opera live - Walkure from the ROH, (it showed Rhinegold, not quite live, the night before). So guess what? Wotan - the redoubtable Bryn Terfel - went sick. And they only showed Act 1, which of course doesn't feature him. Acts 2 and 3 will pitch up at some point when Bryn feels better and the Beeb can clear another slot. I was most upset as I'd kept the evening free for the treat of seeing this - and the first act was absolutely stunning.

I hope that the Curse of the Ring leaves ENO in peace on Saturday's opening night, because I have press tickets for once. I haven't seen Gotterdamerung live since the week after Margaret Thatcher resigned...

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Heaven is... Oxford, and it's called Blackwell's. I can't work out exactly why this bookshop is different from all other bookshops - something to do with the layout - but I could spend all day in there, being tempted by all kinds of different books that don't leap into the hand in quite thesame way in any other shop.

I came out with a volume of Mallarme poems, but arranged so cleverly that it's hard to understand why it's not done more often. As well as copious notes, it includes both the original French AND an English translation, printed side by side. It makes perfect sense. Standard practice for opera libretti and Lieder in CD booklets, of course, but not elsewhere. Normally we have to buy just one or the other; and, if you're me, you either miss all kinds of words and nuances in the original through not knowing the language well enough, or you feel the lack of the poem's native music when it's lost in translation. I had a quick hunt to see if anyone had done the same for Rimbaud or Baudelaire, but they hadn't.

Oxford is wonderful. I often wish I'd gone there instead of the other place, where the wind comes straight from Siberia.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Fiction schmiction

I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who got 'stuck' trying to read JD Landis's 'Longing' - Richard responds to the book quiz by wondering how I got along with this. While I'd hate to throw cold water over a book that has evidently taken so much research, immersion and general blood and guts from its writer, I just can't get into it. That started me thinking back over the handful of novels I've attempted to read that are based on the lives of composers. The results are not encouraging - not least because I've always kind of fancied writing one myself.

I ploughed through Janice Galloway's 'Clara' - like 'Longing', it is of course about the Schumanns. I had my doubts about it, though most people do seem to have loved it and it is a great achievement, exquisitely written too. I felt that she dodged all the difficult issues, however - whereas Landis jumps straight in with both feet, speculating almost immediately about whether Brahms could have been the real father of Felix Schumann. My main complaint over 'Clara', however, was that although it is poetic, it is also over-intellectual and pretentious and although it paints the most fabulous picture of a Schumann who is totally, utterly, stupendously nuts, it never truly touches the heart. The same is true - as far as page 60 - of 'Longing', which on the other hand tries to be poetic but never quite makes it. Its self-conscious intellect, clumsy sexual symbolism and a style that attempts much but doesn't flow easily prevents any real identification with the characters. What's more, unlike Clara, the writer doesn't seem to have managed to assimilate his research into a fictional world of his own. Footnotes that take about third of a page spin you off at a tangent and there's nothing more offputting in fiction than constant reminders that it is based on fact. It's like flying a plane without retracting the wheels.

Most other novels about composers that I've read have been about Beethoven and Mozart. I hated Leslie Kenton's 'Ludwig' so much that it put me right off even trying John Suchet's multi-volume effort, though I've been told it's rather good. There was a book about Mozart writing Don Giovanni in Prague that was quite fun but, in writerly terms, somewhat amateurish. I haven't ventured into Anthony Burgess's 'Mozart and the Wolf Gang'...or a more recent book called 'Igor and Coco' (what more can one say?).

Here's the nub of the problem: either the fictionalised biographies of composers appeal to the head and not the heart - perhaps because of a perception that their potential market loves to be intellectually pretentious - or else they are just plain awful. The question is WHY? Is that what comes of trying to base a novel on fact? Or is it more the case that in musical spheres we all have our own mental images of our heroes and don't particularly like to take on board someone else's interpretations of them? I don't know, but I do know that the tempting scenarios that whisper to me from the 19th century need to be handled with extreme care and are probably best left alone.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

A nice book quiz from Helen

Helen has put up a lovely book quiz and declared she's passing it to me next, so here's my take on it.

1. You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be? 

See Helen's excellent explanation of it. Safe to say, it involves memorising a single book.

I'd choose Dodie Smith's 'I Capture the Castle' - which I love so much that I've nearly memorised it anyway.

2. Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Yes. I think a few of the men in my past were actually fictional, because their real selves turned out to be very far removed from who I'd thought they were. If you see what I mean.

3. The last book you bought is:

'Longing' by JD Landis. A novel (yes, another one) about Robert and Clara Schumann. I'm currently stuck, around page 60.

4. The last book you read:

'Ferruccio Busoni: A Musical Ishmael' by Della Couling.

5. What are you currently reading?

'My Sister's Keeper' by Jodi Picoult.

6. Five books you would take to a deserted island:

Vikram Seth: 'A Suitable Boy'
Ian McEwan: 'The Child in Time'
George Eliot: 'Middlemarch'
Tolstoy: 'War and Peace' (though if 'Anna Karenina' could be appended to it, that'd be nice)
A very large book of poetry, including as much as possible of Keats, Yeats, Eliot and Ted Hughes, ideally with some Verlaine and Rimbaud and Baudelaire thrown in in the original French, and some Lorca, preferably translated...does this book exist or is it the poetic equivalent of iTunes?

7. Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons)? And Why?

Will think about this and do it later because the people I wanted to suggest have already done it!


Monday, March 21, 2005

In today's Indy...

I had a lot of fun writing this article about Hans Christian Andersen's musical associations, which appears in today's Independent. The CBSO is doing a new piece by Denmark's leading composer, Per Norgard, on 2 April...all is explained therein! I had an interview with the marvellous Norgard and also with the American professor and author Anna Harwell Celenza, who's just brought out a book about Andersen and music. And Tom, resident Danophile, is thrilled that I suddenly got interested in all things Danish! Especially ducks.

Very fired up today by Tasmin's glorious performance of the Elgar Violin Concerto last night with the LSO and Richard Hickox. What an extraordinary piece it is - with an intensity that transmutes from mood to mood but never really lets up. Tasmin really went for it: wonderfully secure, beautiful eloquent tone, deeply involved in every moment of the work, and with a particularly impressive sense of ensemble with orchestra and conductor. She did indeed make the piece very much her own, as I thought she would; the result was that it seemed part of her and she seemed part of it. Fabulous.

I just wish the Barbican was a nicer place to spend a Sunday evening.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Roger's rare bit of Mozart

A nice CD hit my desk yesterday: violinist Daniel Hope & pianist Sebastian Knauer playing Mozart with the Camerata Salzburg under Roger Norrington. Dr Philip Wilby has seen fit to 'complete' a concerto for violin and piano that Mozart left unfinished. It seems that after the first movement Wolfie decided to write a violin sonata instead, so the second and third movements of the concerto are in fact orchestrations of that sonata (D major K306). And it's gorgeous. The CD is on Warner Classics.

The press release contains a fabulous quote from Sir Roger:

"It's interesting to hear this kind of 'second generation' historically informed playing: modern instruments, but completely digested performance practice, with pure tone of course from the orchestra, a very slight and informed vibrato from the violinist, and phrasing from everyone in sight! What a joy to realise that you can play stylishly with any instrument, whether new or old, and that 'early music' is in the mind rather than the hardware."

So has Sir Roger Norrington JUST NOTICED that early music is all in the mind?! Some of us could have pointed this out 20 years ago, and indeed have been trying to do so ever since... Never mind, it's a lovely recording.

Dates for the diary

The BBC weather forecaster has confirmed my suspicion that Spring Is Sprung. And a lot is happening this spring. Here are just a few things that Tom and I and our friends are up to that may be of interest!

20 March (this Sunday): Tasmin is playing the Elgar Violin Concerto with the LSO at the Barbican, conducted by Richard Hickox. I think this just might be "her" piece to a T...Book here.

28 March: release date for Philippe's stunning new CD from Avie Records. Hear Ravel's Tzigane as you've never heard it before! More details when it hits the shelves.

9 April: the London Philharmonic is, quite incredibly, giving a concert at the RFH that includes BOTH Korngold AND Faure, with Ravel thrown in for good measure! I'm not sure that I've ever encountered My Two Boys sharing a programme before, let alone with my orchestra-in-law. Emmanuel Krivine conducts and the programme is Korngold's Schauspiel Ouverture, both the suites from Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe and, to close, the Faure Requiem.

5 May: oh boy, trust Jess to clash with the (likely) general election...I am doing an open interview with the pianist Robert Taub at Kingston University as part of the Kingston Readers' Festival. Our title (an inspiration from Bob!) is 'Beethoven, his ears and you'. Bob is in the middle of that piano Everest, performing the complete Beethoven sonatas, so we'll start from there and see where we get to. More details of venue and how to get there when it appears on the website.

22-25 May: Tom joins the Razumovsky Ensemble for three of their concerts in a festival deliciously entitled Bacchus & Apollo in the middle of a vineyard close to Bordeaux. Lucky Tom!

25 May: Rustem Hayroudinoff plays the complete Rachmaninov Etudes-Tableaux at the Wigmore Hall. Since Rustem is one of the most sincere and engaging pianists around, especially in Rachmaninov, this should be quite an event.

1 June: Tom and I give the official Elgar Birthday Concert at the Elgar Birthplace Museum at Broadheath in Worcestershire. Our title is Entente Cordiale and we'll be playing - yes! - English and French music, including the Elgar Violin Sonata, the Faure Violin Sonata no.1 and some lovely stuff by Delius and Debussy. Book here!

10 June: As above, but this time in Music at Woodhouse in Surrey, close to Dorking. Wonderful venue, gorgeous gardens, a spot well worth discovering...More details here.

9 June: Krystian Zimerman plays the Royal Festival Hall. Do NOT miss this concert!!!

That should keep you going for a bit. Us too, for that matter.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Booked up...

I spent yesterday afternoon at an event associated with the London Book Fair, which is in full swing from today through Tuesday at Olympia. The Daily Mail Book Club sponsors a set of 'masterclasses': a conference hall of would-be writers gathers to scoop up pearls of wisdom from those in the industry. (Oh joy! I no longer have to go to the one called How To Get Published!!) Yesterday afternoon, two of my favourite writers, Rose Tremain and Graham Swift, were there to talk about contemporary fiction, though in the event the questions were more about the process of writing a book, especially the inner processes and the emotions associated with them. About 300 of us lapped up every word as Rose Tremain described finishing 'Restoration' on a diet of toast, yogurt and sherry and recalled how the pencil-scrawled draft of her second novel met a leaking bottle of olive oil in a suitcase on her way home from holiday.

Asked about narrative structure, Graham Swift described his approach as musical. He feels his way through the structure according to emotions, he explained (this is a rough paraphrase, by the way), and suggested that the emotional charge associated with different parts of the book is something close to music because it is beyond the words themselves; it has to exist as a driving force before the words come into being.

This does ring some kind of deep bell at the back of my mind and somehow relates to my pre-caffeine musings about the relationship between music and writing the other day. Would a composer set out to write a piece of music without having a pretty good sense of the kind of structure he/she wants to create?

For my new book, I've mapped out a detailed skeleton of What Happens When to guide me through the maze. RT and GS yesterday both said that they don't do this, however. A novel is an adventure and must be approached with an adventurous spirit, suggested Swift. They both have a good idea of where their story is going, but are willing to be diverted to some extent as they make discoveries along the way. I was reassured to hear that Malcolm Bradbury used to go for the skeleton approach!

Meanwhile spring is beginning here in London. The daffodils are coming out and Solti the cat is going nuts (even though he's been 'done'). It's a time for hope and for clearing out the filing cabinets and for thinking ahead rather than back. Nice...

Friday, March 11, 2005

Preoccupied with poetry

Just found an incredible poem by Margaret Atwood at a blog called Blindheit: clarity is overrated. Most of the blog is in Spanish, which isn't exactly my best language, but the poem is in English and it's out of this world. Thank you, Evelio, wherever you are - it made my day.

Speaking of poems, I saw a terrific poem on the underground the other week - on the Jubilee Line heading for Waterloo after a Wigmore Hall gig - and now I can't a) remember the name of the poet, b) remember the name of the poem, or exactly how it went, c) find it on the Poems on the Underground website, d) find it anywhere else either. It's a recent poem and in it the poet is trying to rent out his heart, as if in a newspaper property ad. Is this a consequence of getting older - that one's brain turns into a Swiss cheese? If I encounter it again, I shall copy it out.

More consequences of The Book Contract: I am now allowed to acknowledge openly that poetry, literature, indeed fine writing generally, means every bit as much to me as music. The two are, after all, closely related. I'm not going to start analysing how and why, or waxing lyrical about it either, certainly not before I've had my second cup of coffee. But I do wonder if it has something to do with precision of structure - the way content and form unite in a unique manner to make a statement that is both entirely personal and entirely universal.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005


Huge, huge thanks to everyone who wrote in with advice about the laptop computer. My first choice is indeed 12" Mac Powerbook. I spent a happy afternoon the other day tapping away on keyboards in Tottenham Court Road and it was by far the best in terms of keyboard comfort, carry-around weight and ease of use. BUT...the other day I went back to try to buy one for real and found that there was not a 12" Powerbook in stock anywhere in central London! I'm obviously not the only person who wants one...Since then I've reassessed the situation and worked out that as I'm not likely to be going away for any length of time until September (ouch!), there's really no urgency about it after all. Hmmm...

I should really have been in the Royal Festival Hall listening to Mahler 6 right now, but the Tomcat has injured his back pulling the bag out of the kitchen bin (I kid you not) and has had to take some time off work. Bad backs are a nightmare, as I know only too well from my experience last May, and there's no way on earth I'm going to let him sit in one spot with fiddle at the ready for 6 hours' rehearsal a day in his current state.

More alarming is that I'm not so sorry not to be at this concert. Mahler 6 is Tom's favourite of Big Gustav's output, but it's one of those symphonies that leaves me thinking, 'Come on, Gus, go see Freud and stop inflicting all this angst on your poor old listeners...' And friends in the band tell us that the Maestro (or is it Madame Piano Soloist?) insists they play the Mozart piano concerto with no vibrato. Not even on the long notes, as is recommended by Leopold, if someone had but bothered looking.

How come Leopold provides exercises for practising what we today call vibrato, several years before Wolfgang was born, and gives ample indication that the fiddlers around him were using FAR TOO MUCH WOBBLE HABITUALLY, and conductors still come along bright eyed and bushy tailed telling orchestras to use NONE? Nine times out of ten, it sounds frightful. What I want to know is, how many of them have so much as glanced at this text, let alone dared to form their own interpretations of it based on facts rather than hearsay?!?!? To judge from the squeaks and moans being emitted by some of today's highest profile musicians, not a great many.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

On the town, on the news?!

Reeling slightly after seeing an item on the 10pm BBC news about ENO's new production of 'On The Town'. Apparently it is newsworthy that a national opera company is putting on a marvellous piece of music theatre by a 20th-century genius who happened to use clever lyrics, jazzy rhythms and lots of dancing. The thing is, 'On the Town', shock horror, is officially classified as A MUSICAL! And an OPERA company is doing it! And, horror of ultimate horrors, the tickets are selling well! Oh my Gaaaaahd, we're all going to die......not.

I mean, really. This is great stuff. Why on earth shouldn't an opera company do it? That way we can hear the music played as well as it ought to be, singing that is above the average school production (which was the miserable level of what I heard when I went to see 'West Side Story' in a major London venue a few years ago) and enjoy a wonderfully refurbished opera house without having to nod off while someone tootles through some bel canto twiddling, and without wanting to commit rapid hari kiri after subjecting oneself to Berg. I know what I'd rather see. And hey, I'm supposed to be educated and well-informed about opera. Some famous composer (whose name I can't remember at this time of evening) once said that there are only two kinds of music, good and bad. Implication, ditch the stupid classifications that cater only for the ubersnobs. I say, bring on the Bernstein!