Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Proms news

Oh, I do like to stroll along the Proms Proms Proms...the launch party is one of the schmoozing highlights of the musical calendar. This year's was held at Tate Britain yesterday evening. I had alarming visions of someone missing a step and a glass of wine zooming rather too vigorously towards a priceless Pre-Raphaelite, but it didn't happen; instead everyone seemed very mellow and unusually up-beat. Proms director Nick Kenyon cracked some jokes that actually made people laugh and declared his optimism for the future of classical music: Proms audience figures were up last year, while this year the harnessing of various technologies will make them even more accessible than they are already. The lunchtime chamber music series got too popular for its own good and has been shifted from the V&A museum to the larger Cadogan Hall. Here's the full website for the 2005 BBC Promenade Concerts!

I came the closest I have ever been to embracing 'Old Nick' when I turned to the very last page of the listings. There, under the heading LAST NIGHT OF THE PROMS, I saw a magic word I never expected to see: KORNGOLD. Yes, they are doing Korngold at the Last Night - the suite from The Sea Hawk! And they are starting the second half with it, which means that it will be broadcast live on BBC1 and all over the world to an audience of millions if not billions. It would have been very undignified to turn a cartwheel in the middle of the Proms launch, but I can't say I wasn't tempted.

As if that wasn't enough, Philippe has his Proms debut on 9 August, playing the Coleridge-Taylor Violin Concerto, which, if I'm right, is getting its first Proms airing since its British premiere in 1912. About time too - for both of them. Paul Lewis is also in an overdue spot: he'll be playing Lambert's The Rio Grande on the Last Night, something he was scheduled to do in 2001 but was bumped out by the replacement programme that was put on after September 11.

Otherwise, plenty of goodies to tempt us all to Kensington through the summer: 'themes' include Fairy Tales, especially Andersen (why couldn't they have told me this 6 weeks ago?!), The Sea, the End of the War (they'll be playing Gorecki 3 for the first time) and some Big Stuff including a Royal Opera prom of Die Walkure, complete (and oh my, it stars Placido Domingo and Waltraud Maier). The first night features Tippett's A Child of Our Time. New(ish) works by Turnage, Ades, MacMillan and Sørensen, to name but a few, and prime-time soloists include Leif Ove Andsnes, Christian Tetzlaff, Viktoria Mullova, Manny Ax and Anne Sofie von Otter.

No doubt there'll be complaints from everyone else about why there isn't more of this, that or the other, but I reckon the Proms team, generally speaking, is doing a fantastic job against all the odds.

ADDENDUM: 10pm. I knew it: here we go, here's what Norman Lebrecht has to say about English music or lack of it. And it's a darn good read: I for one never knew that Alan Rawsthorne got together with Constant Lambert's widow... Stormin' Norman asks why everyone else has forgotten about these guys' centenaries falling this year and, of course, blames British orchestras for ignoring them. Isn't it more the case, though, that Certain Bigwig Composers, even long-dead ones, now have entourages rooting for them with guns blazing, while others aren't so lucky? Or didn't build the appropriate power-base while alive? Or upset the wrong people in the wrong way (drinking like a fish and getting sacked for it doesn't help). The truth is that composers need someone to fight their corners.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Monday again

Sorry for lack of updates recently - have been feeling ill for two days. No idea whether it's a virus or a result of overenthusiasm on exercise bike (or, possibly, allergy to practising?). Not much to say at the moment other than that I have been distracting myself from general malaise with total immersion in Dickens's The Pickwick Papers - something I've intended to read for years. What spurred me on was playing the Debussy prelude entitled 'Homage a S Pickwick Esq' - extraordinary that Debussy evokes in five pages an atmosphere that Dickens extends to around 800. Reading the book does make a difference to how I'm playing the piece. Especially since I found a paragraph describing Pickwick gradually falling asleep at the table during/after a very merry dinner that fits the prelude to sheer perfection...

Meanwhile, it's come to my notice that several artists' websites have quoted my reports on the relevant people's performances - a Sokolov site is the latest (though I can't read it on my Mac). If blogging is now so quotably quotable, what does this mean for the future of music critics in newspapers?

Friday, April 22, 2005

showing off dreadfully...

...but nevertheless I've got something to shout about today. Opened The Independent this morning to find that my piece on 1984 the opera is the Review section cover feature; and also that my piece about Faure and Turgenev has been turned into a sort of column on Review p18. Was going to put up the links here, but my computer has problems with the Indy website and for now all I can suggest is going to the music section here and scrolling down FEATURES to a) The Original Big Brother and b) Talking Classical. Or, of course, you could buy the paper. :-)

Wednesday, April 20, 2005


Ilka Talvi has some marvellous reminiscences about his studies with violin professors who seem to have had a penchant for breaking their pupils' bows, intentionally or not. At least Heifetz gave the poor Japanese girl he victimised in this way a new one. There's been a fair bit of controversy about Mr Talvi's blog - various forums ask what he hopes to achieve - but as someone who is a little too close for comfort to orchestral life, not to mention the violin in the front room, I find what he has to say fascinating. And I love stories about those Golden Age fiddlers.

I met another fiddler the other day - one with a difference. This one grew up to be a conductor. And the conductor turned into a composer. Now 75, he is about to have his first opera performed at Covent Garden and very scarey it sounds too. I got an emergency call last week asking me to interview him the same afternoon...well, I dropped everything and legged it to the Royal Opera House. The maestro was singularly charming (rather more so than a certain other gentleman I interviewed not long ago who answered questions monosyllabically - usually with "no" - before I'd finished asking them) and I read the libretto with hair standing on end. "1984" doesn't sound like an obvious subject for an opera, but the dramatists have certainly done Orwell proud; now we'll have to wait and see what the music is like... My article should be in the Independent on Friday or Saturday. Meanwhile, the Royal Opera House website has more details. Lorin Maazel's 1984 opens on 3 May.

Afterwards, I told Tom that this is what a violinist can achieve if he puts his mind to it. I don't think he was too pleased.

ADDENDUM, 21 APRIL 9.30am: here's another view on Maazel's 1984 from the inimitable Norman Lebrecht. He's concerned with rather different matters, but I agree with him that there should be far more of a buzz surrounding this event than there has been so far. Not sure exactly when my Indy piece will appear - it may not be tomorrow after all, since they are running something else of mine.....

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Sokolov: this is what it's all about

The long-sold-out QEH recital by Grigory Sokolov yesterday has left me sleepless most of the night.

Do you remember what tomatoes are supposed to taste like? Sometimes you go to the Mediterranean - Israel, Italy, the south of France - and you eat a tomato that has just come off its plant, as red as a garnet and with a flavour as rich as if it's been ripened inside a volcano. And you think 'ah...I remember now...that's what it should taste like.' Not the pallid greenhouse (conservatory?) ones we buy in the supermarkets here. Somehow you know - as if you're remembering, even if you've never actually eaten one like this before - that this is the real thing and that nothing else passing for a tomato can ever taste as good, because this tomato has grown to be everything a tomato can and should be.

Sokolov's playing is like that.

It's difficult even to decide where to begin. Tone quality, I suppose, is as good as anywhere. Sokolov is a hefty fellow and he uses big gestures. His tone is massive and mountainous when he lets rip, but at every dynamic level it keeps its richness and beauty. In the first arpeggio of the Schubert A major Sonata D 959, the first piece on his programme, the quality of tone was so pure and smooth and magical that I found tears in my eyes from that alone. And although he's a big bear of a man, he can be as graceful as a ballet dancer (take the hand crossings in the Schubert) and create sounds as delicate as a hummingbird. He often chooses to play slowly and deliberately, to the point of idiosyncrasy; but the most rapid, filigree, spidersweb playing of the Chopin Fantasie-Impromptu proved that he does only what he chooses to do.

Then there's the way he orchestrates at the piano. If every piainist played this way, we'd have no need for orchestras, because this instrument turned into a one-man Berlin Philharmonic (or perhaps Moscow). Who knows how he does it - but the subtlest shift in weight or nuancing brings in a new character, a newly invented instrument, a new notion or emotion that can suddenly cast everything you've just heard in a revelatory new light. The second half was all Chopin: the impromptus, the two Op.62 Nocturnes and the Polonaise-Fantasie; the G flat impromptu, taken about half the speed most people take it, had a tenderness and profundity that could stop hearts and the B major nocturne glowed from within, filled with deep, unimaginable colours.

But then, just when you thought you'd heard it all, he unleashed the Polonaise-Fantasie. It was like listening to an entire Tolstoy novel compressed into a few pages of music - so expertly structured that when the climax arrived it emerged as a shattering apotheosis that blew the emotional horizon away into something resembling heaven. I wasn't the only one moved past reason by this - one of my dearest friends, a piano-world professional, tells me she simply burst into tears at the end because she had never realised that the Polonaise-Fantasie could be played like that. Nor, I reckon, had the rest of us.

This was an evening that showed what art is for and what art truly is. It's all real; it does exist; it is possible. Every shade of nuance, every grand-scale emotion that you never quite believed in, is absolutely true; to experience them is the ultimate reality of being human; this is love in its most pure and ecstatic form and to transmute it into artistry is something worth living for and worth dying for. This is why we have great art and why we need great art. Nothing else should do.

ADDENDUM, 17 APRIL: Here's a review of the concert. from Ying Chang at

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Hotting up in the blogosphere

They're coming thick and fast, these music blogs. Today I've come across the first one devoted to ongoing life with an orchestra, namely the St Louis Symphony Orchestra - they can be found here - and also a blog named Of Music and Men by an individual who signs himself simply 'Talvi', but whom I understand from a bit of quick internet research is Ilka Talvi, the former concertmaster of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. I felt that the tone of his blog seemed inordinately familiar to me...oh, sing hey for orchestra life...or not! Fiddlers of the world (and their spouses) unite! I've added both of these to the blogroll, as well as On an Overgrown Path, whose author's thoughtful comment here the other day had unfortunately to be deleted along with the post to which it was attached.

I wonder whether our own LPO has thought of having its own blog.....A few years ago, long before blogging had really begun to take off, I began to write a little book called 'Married to the LPO'. I wrote about 100 pages and my agent kindly sent it off to a few publishers, all of whom said thanks but no thanks, it's too much like a diary. I didn't realise that what I was writing was, effectively, a blog! Sadly, it ended up joining the stack of manuscripts confined to the attic.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Fab CDs

My last post has been removed due to circumstances beyond my control. Sorry. I thought it was nice. Anyway, here are two wonderful new CDs for you instead.

As promised, details of Philippe Graffin's new recital disc: release date is now 18 April. Entitled in the shade of forests: the Bohemian world of Debussy, Ravel, Enescu, this is a disc that could only have been devised by a violinist with more than his fair share of intelligence and creativity, and the musical result is just as exciting, with Philippe's improvisatory sense of fantasy and glorious tone expertly partnered by the French pianist Claire Desert. The programme's inspiration is the image of the gypsy wanderer so long associated with the violin in its purest, most instinctive form, and the way that that image has inspired the three composers involved.

Enescu's Impressions d'enfance begins the disc, imbued with the notion of the wandering minstrel fiddler that Enescu carried with him to maturity; then there is, of course, Ravel's Tzigane, but played as you've never heard it before. Philippe and Claire employed not only the 'lutheal' - the mechanism, akin to a prepared piano, that provides the piano with a range of stops to evoke the sound of the cimbalom, the guitar and many stranger beings - but the original lutheal, fitted into a small 1919 Pleyel grand in the Musical Instrument Museum in Brussels, on which the piece enjoyed its very first recording. Sounds completely different from Dan Hope's also excellent recording ('East Meets West'), which involved fitting the machine into a modern Steinway. The 1919 instrument sounds more like a guitar than a harpsichord and meshes into some extraordinary, mesmerising soundworlds with the violin. Then comes the Ravel 'posthumous' sonata (a beautiful early work written for the composer to play with Enescu while both were students of Faure) and, last but not least, Debussy's complete works for violin and piano: not only the wonderful sonata, but also an early Nocturne & Scherzo that Philippe has reconstructed himself, and a batch of lovely pieces - two preludes and two songs - in arrangements, approved by Debussy, by the American-Hungarian violinist Arthur Hartmann. With superlative presentation, a thorough and fascinating booklet written mostly by Philippe himself and, above all, matchless, poetic, 500%-committed playing from both artists, this is Avie Records' latest must-have.

Marc-Andre Hamelin has an amazing new CD out: Albeniz's Iberia, complete, filled out with more treats from this ever-underrated but truly astonishing Spanish composer-pianist. Albeniz himself realised just how difficult Iberia was - apparently he considered it virtually unplayable and almost destroyed the manuscript for that reason. Thank heavens he didn't. And thank heavens for Marc, someone who can not only play it but can imbue it with the poetry, evocativeness, warmth, passion, earthy rhythm and sheer, lush gorgeousness that it deserves. I couldn't get enough of this, especially since I once entertained fond ideas of learning 'Triana', only to find my eyes crossing in front of my nose at the sight of the termite-heaps of notes that comprise the score. You'd never guess its fiendish complexity from this apparently effortless rendition, filled with wit and colour and dreamlike beauty bringing out every inch of the extensive French influence on the composer. If Debussy liked to sound Spanish, then Albeniz liked to sound like a French symbolist (except that he, of course, had just a little too much of a sense of humour!). Iberia is a one-off - there is nothing else quite like it in the piano repertoire - and I think this new recording is likely to be regarded as definitive for some time ahead. It's Hyperion's Record of the Month, and they're not wrong.

More soon.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

A warm welcome... everyone who's logged on from the Octobass link at The Llama Butchers. Hi guys. I loved "Double-stopping is futile". Probably more like 'double-stopping is impossible'...What I would like to know about the Octobass is HOW IT SOUNDS. Anyone ever heard it being played?

A little while ago, I wrote a short piece for SOUTHBANK magazine about a sort of concert-experiment in which the performers were planning to use a machine to produce Infrasound. This involves soundwaves of such low frequency that the human ear can't hear the result. But, apparently, you can feel it. One theory suggested that this weird experience is the physical reality responsible for sensations of being haunted. Wouldn't surprise me if the Octobass was just one step along from this.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005


A succession of somewhat cataclysmic musical experiences over the weekend has left me reeling for a few days, in the face of the mystery of how on earth a human being with the usual human functions can create such marvels. The combined brick-on-head consisted of 1)Gotterdamerung (well, Twilight of the Gods), 2)an interview with Daniel Barenboim, who has proved beyond a doubt how the power of music can achieve healing effects that no politician would dare to touch, and 3) Philippe Graffin playing Ravel's Tzigane with the white-hot energy of some possessed, shamanic worker of black magic; the little Conway Hall didn't know what had hit it.

Of course, one is very, very lucky to experience even one of these three bricks, let alone the whole lot, within around 24 hours. It's not that I'm complaining. I've simply been lost for words.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Meet the Vuillaume Octobass

Originally uploaded by Duchenj.

My blog stats tell me that I've had a few hits from various people seeking information about the Vuillaume Octobass. So here it is. We visited it last November in Paris, where it lives at the musical instrument museum in the Cite de la Musique. (We did NOT use a flash to take this photo!) It's a most extraordinary contraption and its controls work via pedals which unfortunately aren't quite visible here. Apparently the famous French luthier Vuillaume made it according to specifications from Berlioz (I think). I'm not entirely sure why Berlioz wanted one - but if anyone was going to, it WOULD be him, wouldn't it?! By the way, I share his birthday.