Friday, December 30, 2005

Bring on the sunshine

It's so grey and wintery here in London that I thought I'd try and cheer everyone up with ten of the sunniest records I can find.

1. Haydn: The Creation. If you want to smile, this should do the trick. I've had some trouble finding a recording I like, though: the choice seems to be Old, Earnest, Stately But Beautiful or New, Period-Instrument, Sparky But Train-Chasing. In the end I stick with the old Karajan recording on DG because the tenor is the unmatchable Fritz Wunderlich.

2. Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe. Not only the dawn episode, but the whole score oozes Mediterranean azure. You can almost hear the sun sparkling on the sea. I am extremely fond of the Pierre Boulez recording with the NY Philharmonic. It was given to me years ago by a friend who knows what to recommend, and I've not found one I like better.

3. Schubert: Trout Quintet. There aren't many Schubert works that are pure sunshine but for a few leafy shadows - this, however, breaks the mould. I haven't yet heard this recording by the Hagen Quartet with James Levine, but the cover looks summery. Smell the country air, see the fish playing in the stream, then eat them in the open air with parsley, lemon and lots of butter...

4. Mozart: String Quintet in C major, K515. Mozart feeling spacious, relaxed and generous. Hear the opening and feel the clouds clear away. Alban Berg Quartett with Markus Wolf is a good option.

5. Dvorak: Violin Concerto. Dvorak is generally one of the most cheerful, sunny fellows in the catalogue - try keeping your feet still to the last movement of the violin concerto, among his loveliest 'Furiant' compositions. There are some super recordings, of which just two are Tasmin Little, Royal Liverpool PO/Vernon Handley (Classics for Pleasure) and Philippe Graffin, Johannesburg PO/Michael Hankinson (Avie).

6. Mendelssohn: Symphony No.4, 'Italian'. Felix kicks in with something that vaguely resembles a tarantella but goes much further in evoking the total thrill of arriving in Italy, soaking up the atmosphere and hitting the Chianti. Two minutes and you're basking in joy. Barbirolli conducts the Halle Orchestra in a classic.

7. Bizet: Carmen. Tragic the story may be, but if you want to feel the heat in Seville without getting on a plane, this is the best possible way. Try Cotrubas & Domingo with Abbado conducting and don't forget to sing along with the Toreador's Song.

8. Album 'Una furtiva lagrima' - Juan Diego Florez. Genuine Italian sunshine with Bellini and Donizetti, but the voice alone is enough to make you melt. Isn't he a dreamboat?

9. Manuel de Falla: The Three-Cornered Hat (with Albeniz Iberia, orchestral excerpts). If Carmen is just too, well, French, then go for the real Spanish McCoya. Falla stomps and sparkles his way through his irresistible ballet score, and the Albeniz makes this recommendation a neat two-in-one job. Find it here.

10. Abba Gold. Oh yes. It starts with Dancing Queen which brings out the sunshine like there's no tomorrow, if only because it makes me think I'm 13 again. (What am I doing? I hated being 13. Making up for lost time? Or mid-life crisis??...nah. I just like Abba.)

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Latest ENO indigestion

When I was a young girl, Enos was a remedy for heartburn. Now ENO is more likely the cause of it. Things are getting worse by the day at London's English language opera company, based at the capital's largest venue, the London Coliseum, and capable of great things when being properly run. After a dreadful run of rows, resignations and bad appointments that should have been investigated long ago, they've now dumped their recently appointed music director, Oleg Caetani, before he'd even begun. Whatever will they think of next?...oh, right...they already have: a strike over pay. Here's the latest as reported by The Guardian. And here by Norman Lebrecht.

Monday, December 26, 2005

The thingumyjig of Four

Apparently everybody's doing this and I have now been tagged for the MEME OF FOUR by Ariadne Obnoxious so thought I'd try it while the turkey goes down.

And I'm tagging Evelio, Helen and Jeremy.

Four jobs you've had (not in chronological order)

1. Piano magazine editor
2. Strad magazine assistant editor
3. Holiday assistant, school library
4. Proof-reading scale books

Four movies you could watch over and over
1. Annie Hall
2. Singin' in the Rain
3. Titanic
4. Intermezzo

Four places you've lived
1. London
2. Cambridge
3. London
4. London

Four TV shows you love to watch
1. Newnight
2. Newsnight
3. Panorama
4. Newsnight

Four places you've been on vacation
1. Switzerland
2. Australia
3. New York
4. Provence

Four websites you visit daily
1. The Independent
2. The Guardian
3. BBC Weather Forecast for Rio de Janeiro
4. (to see what number my still-awaiting-publication book is on the sales register)

Four of your favourite foods
1. Chocolate
2. Fresh fruit, preferably tropical
3. Mixed Turkish mezze
4. Sushi

Four places you'd rather be
1. Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Islands, Australia
2. Above Murren in the Bernese Oberland, looking across at the Jungfrau, Eiger & Monch
3. Listening to a recital by Krystian Zimerman
4. Le Gavroche, Mayfair.

Saturday, December 24, 2005




Is there something wrong with me?

I'm in despair. Not being the sort who can work with the radio on, I haven't been hearing very much of Radio 3's 'Bok' week, although I've heard some unbelievable stuff during car journeys (more of that shortly). So I was distressed when someone sent me an e-mail a few minutes ago saying, "Wasn't it great to hear Joachim and Ysaye just now?" I am chewing up the carpet & crawling up the walls with frustration at having missed this.

So I logged on to R3's invaluable Listen Again, for the 9am Bach Christmas slot. Unfortunately you can't fast forward - at least, I can't on my antiquated browser - so I found myself listening to the Suzuki brigade from Japan playing a Brandenburg Concerto or version thereof.

Is there something wrong with me? I couldn't STAND it. This ensemble is becoming vastly celebrated, the recordings get rave reviews everywhere, it's supposed to be the Big Hot Japanese Early Music Experts. Everyone seems to love it...except me.

The first movement was so breathlessly fast that I felt I was trapped in the rush-hour in the Tokyo metro. The second movement was so self-consciously expressive that I felt I was being lectured ("THIS is SOOOOOO SAAAAAD and SOOO expRESSSIve in a PURELY 18th CENTURY WAY and WE WERE THERE, YOU KNOWWWW, SO WE DO IT RIIIIGHT..."). I turned down the sound to sit it out until words of wisdom from Jonathan Freeman Atwood, for whom I have huge respect, would come on; followed, I hoped, by these two giant violinists who between them knew more about the spirit of music than all the rest put together. Then my antiquated browser crashed.

The Suzuki brigade is certainly Bach for the 21st century. It's so in touch with the spirit of our age that it almost doesn't bear thinking about. 'Big Brother' for Bach lovers...

In the car the other day, Tom and I switched on the Bok and heard a recording of the Chaconne which seemed to have been made in the 1930s. The intonation was a little wild, but there was so much fire, passion, intelligent structuring and total identification with the deepest spirit of this meaty work that we were transfixed. Nor was it a violin 'voice' we recognised - not Heifetz, Menuhin or Thibaud. At the end we discovered the soloist's identity: George Enescu in his sixties. WOW. THAT was incredible musicianship.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


Today, the Winter Solstice and shortest day, it's our very own music awards ceremony online. Welcome to the Cyberposhplace, enjoy a glass of Virtualvintagechampers and now let's have a big round of applause for each and every musician who has touched the soul of his or her audience during the past 12 months....Thank you! Quiet, please...and now would the winners please get ready to approach the podium where Solti will allow you to stroke the ginger stripes and will give you a very special purr...

Icon of the year: Daniel Barenboim, for his inspirational work with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. And his Bach playing on the piano.

Pianist of the year: Grigory Sokolov and Krystian Zimerman, who have to share this for two glorious London recitals between which I cannot choose.

String player of the year: violinist Philippe Graffin, for a phenomenal recital at Conway Hall, glorious Faure at the Wigmore Hall with the Razumovsky Ensemble, the beautiful CD 'In the Shade of Forests', and, of course, the Coleridge-Taylor Concerto at the Proms.

Singer of the year: Cecilia Bartoli. I will never forget that performance in Rome as long as I live.

Young artist of the year: pianist Simon Trpceski, who I am sure will be one of the 'greats' by the time he's 40. I can't do the accents in my browser.

Conductor of the year: Vladimir Jurowski. There's no hotter property on the podium.

Lifetime Achievement Award: Franz Schubert. This is cyberspace, so anything can happen.

Take a bow, everybody...Thank you. Thank you for your moving, uplifting, inspiring, life-enhancing music-making. You're wonderful. We love you.

And now a few personal highlights of 2005:

Proudest moment: Signing my book deal.

Next-proudest moment: Being The Times's Blog of the Week.

Another very proud moment: hearing from my editor at the Indy that Pete Townshend liked my article about The Who.

Most affecting moment: a friend playing a wonderful concerto in our front room a few days after the London bombings. A truly beautiful evening that I'll always remember with a hefty lump in my throat.

Most unfortunate moment: runthrough at Stephen Kovacevich's, when Tom fainted.

Biggest sigh of relief moment: the Elgar Birthplace Museum Concert, which we got through unscathed and with which we were pleased.

Memorable though questionable moment: when Solti brought in a live mouse during a dinner party and deposited it with pride and gratitude at the feet of Hodder & Stoughton's fiction publishing director.

Personality of the year: my nephew, Luca (current age 15 months).

Feline of the year: Sir Georg 'Ginger Stripes' Solti, who would never let me get away with voting for any other cat.

Man of the year: Tom.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005


Mozart year is coming up fast and I've written an article for the Indy about why it's all a bit much (will post when printed). But in the meantime, Tom and I have been indulging in the sort of idiotically privileged activity in which a childless couple of musos with time off at Christmas can enjoy indulging. We found a volume of Mozart violin & piano sonatas (NB, technically piano & violin sonatas) lurking in the music cupboard. Tom said "I don't really know these." I'd only played a couple before, at university, which is longer ago than I care to remember. So Tom, being a little German sometimes, decided we should be systematic and play one per day throughout the Xmas break.

I've quickly discovered several crucial things about these pieces.

1. They're not boring. They're absolutely astonishing. No.1, which I'd thought was nothing more than a sweet, jolly little number, is full of genius. Mozart's chromaticism, especially, is simply incredible. There's warmth, wit, flow, perfection. At least, there should be if one isn't sightreading... Which leads me on to:

2. They are Bloody Difficult. No.3 in D major, or part of it, has recently been orchestrated - Dan Hope and Sebastian Knauer recorded it with Norrington as a concerto for violin and piano - and having just bashed through the A major concerto K488, to see whether I could, I can vouch for the fact that this violin sonata's piano part is much harder to play!

3. The ensemble between violin and piano is much more intricate, demanding and subtle than that required in Franck & co. Numerous passages involving playing runs together in thirds or in unison; occasional written out trills in unison; all kinds of tricks in which Wolfi just wants to have fun trapping you!

4. The only reason one sometimes expects Mozart violin sonatas to be 'boring' is that a lot of violinists play them as if they ought to be - without enough spirit. There's so much by way of detail, humour and sheer 'temperament' in them that to approach them with undue reverence, or with the aim simply of getting 'authentic' articulation 'right', will not satisfactorily convey what they're about. A great many players today either lack the imagination or are too intimidated by scholarship and correctness, political or otherwise, to let themselves go, apply heart as well as brain and get to the core of the music. Mozart without heart isn't Mozart.

Today we'll be having a go at No.4 in E minor.

ADDENDUM, 21 December: Have just discovered an alternative viewpoint on Mozart by Norman Lebrecht, who I suspect has been having fun by being excessively provocative. I have just three things to say in response: 1. I LIKE Mozart and I don't WANT to listen to the Leningrad Symphony instead just because it's "historically important". We don't listen to music because it's historically important. We listen because we love it. 2. You wouldn't write a thing like this if you were a musician yourself and knew the music and its inner complexities from the inside. The inimitable Norman is a news journalist. 3. Slag off the Mozart industry, by all means. But please don't slag off Mozart.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Meet Sally Matthews

Sally Matthews
Originally uploaded by Duchenj.

Apologies for lack of blog posts this took a little time to recover from this particular birthday, never mind the associated hangover.

Having introduced one of the finest young pianists on the planet a few posts back, I'd now like to introduce one of the great sopranos of the century ahead. Sally Matthews sang Mahler 4 with the LPO yesterday (and is doing so again even as I write). She's been through some of the finest Young Artists schemes in the UK, including the Royal Opera House's, and was a huge hit in Gianni Schicchi at Glyndebourne last year. She tends to receive rave reviews wherever she goes and I think she's not yet out of her twenties. Last night was a prime example of why she is already so celebrated and why I reckon she will be even more so in ten years' time.

The voice is dark for a soprano - the richest vanilla ice cream swirled with dessert wine - and the clarity of the enunciation is exceptional. My German isn't brilliant, but I could hear the text and comprehend it quite well without even glancing at the words in the programme (I don't know this exquisite symphony intimately enough). Most magical of all, although her tone can be bright, large and glorious, were the soft passages: for a singer to create such absolute magic at PP level, while retaining all that beauty of tone and clarity of diction, is something special, unusual and marvellous. Given Sally's range and the richly romantic hue of her tone, I suspect that in a decade, or maybe sooner depending on her stamina and inclination, she might be Korngold's ideal Marietta...

The photo above is downloaded from her website.

It was just as well that Sally sang last night...Tom has threatened to have me assassinated if I say what I really thought about the conductor and the first half's piano soloist. Suffice it to say that there's a very, very kind review here, at Classical

Sunday, December 11, 2005


It's my birthday. Solti the cat brought me not one mouse but two. I don't understand how that cat just knows. Please excuse me for a day or two while I go and have a quick midlife crisis.

Huge explosions early this morning at an oil refinery at Hemel Hempstead, north of London, that supplies Heathrow Airport et al. We live probably 40 miles away, but there's smoke in the sky. They're saying it's "an accident". Not sure anybody believes it.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Bad marks no.2

Was watching BBC Breakfast news today when in clocked a trailer. A woman walks along past Christmas decorations carrying huge bags of parcels, wearing headphones. We hear: the theme of the Goldberg Variations. Gradually the scenery around her fades away and she is walking through a pine forest, the sun filtering between the branches. What are they advertising? Glenn Gould? Canada? In comes the voice-over: "Escape to bok." Sorry, to where? Is this a travel programme about a little-known Indonesian mountain resort, perhaps? ...Oh...woops...It's Radio 3's BACH week. But you would never know it because the BBC voice-over can't pronounce Bach properly. Very bad A level grades: B.B.C...


UPDATE, 6.50pm: Would everyone who has written in to tell me I'm a snob please note the following:

1. I know.

2. I don't care.

3. This blog no longer accepts anonymous comments, or those from people claiming to be 19th-century authors, composers etc, unless we have a good idea who they are really from.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Quartet alert

Nick writes from the US to inform us of this disturbing development in the life of a fine string quartet:

AUDUBON QUARTET Members About to Lose Instruments. If you follow chamber music, you probably know of the Audubon Quartet, founded 30 years ago, it was the first US string quartet to win international competitions. In the year 2000, though, three of the quartet's members fired the first violinist for behavior incompatible with the concept of a closely knit ensemble -- he had told the others that he'd initiated two lawsuits agains the cellist (and original founder) Tom Shaw.Upon being fired, though, David Ehrlich filed a series of lawsuits against the three and against the quartet as a corporation. One was thrown out, but somehow, he won a judgement against the other three, and now, more than five years later, they are about to lose their instruments and other worldly possessions. It is a grim story. The quartet was in residence at Virginia Tech in 2000. After the lawsuits, the university let their contracts expire (but has since re-hired the violinist). Now members of the community in Blacksburg are trying to get the university to step in and make Ehrlich cease his actions against the others. You can read all about this at , the website created by community members. There is also a petition you can sign there.I think this is a matter of interest to all of us who love classical music and especially to the community of players in ensembles small and large.

Nick sent this originally as a comment on a previous post, but it merits a section to itself. I'm afraid I have not heard about this before and I don't know the ins and outs of the background and history, but please explore the link. Litigation culture run mad? Or classic string quartet acrimony meets the 21st century? Oh yes, classic. If you think orchestral life is stressful, just try being in a string quartet. Stories from the orchestras can be 'hair-raising', but with quartets, 'blood-curdling' doesn't begin to describe it.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Meet Simon Trpceski

Simon Trpceski
Originally uploaded by Duchenj.

If you haven't already. Simon is one of the greatest young pianistic talents I've ever heard. He's 26 and hails from Skopje, Macedonia. About five years ago he shot to fame - like so many others - by NOT getting first prize in a piano competition (London) where most people thought he should have. Since then his reputation has been more than consolidated by such things as inclusion in the BBC Radio 3/Wigmore Hall New Generations programme and performances and recordings that receive rave reviews. He'd blown my socks off a couple of times - I think he plays Pletnev's transcription of The Nutcracker better than Pletnev - and when I interviewed him for PIANIST Magazine's latest issue I discovered he was also one of the most charming, engaging, warm, natural and unpretentious musicians I'd come across.

Sounds excessive? Then just hear him play. Yesterday at the Queen Elizabeth Hall he gave a recital of works that he'd told me were all new to his repertoire - Brahms Op.117 and one piece from Op.118, Scriabin's Second Sonata and both books of Debussy's Images. The Brahms was very slow but hypnotically beautiful, with exquisite tonal control and a powerful inwardness that you don't expect from an otherwise extrovert youngster. The Scriabin drew on the music's gentler, Chopinesque aspects, with perfect clarity and power that didn't make sensitivity concede - and proved that you don't have to go nuts with Scriabin as so many do. The Debussy was to die for: I can't imagine it played more beautifully (and I've played Book II myself so tend to pick holes in it whenever possible!). Meanwhile, he'd played Shostakovich's First Piano Concerto with the LPO on Friday evening and is doing so again on Wednesday - fab ensemble with Vladimir Jurowski and an atmosphere as if everyone was having tremendous fun. That's what orchestral concerts should be about but unfortunately often aren't. If you can get to the QEH on Wednesday 7th, GET THERE.

The photo above is by Jillian Edelstein and is printed with my article in PIANIST.

UPDATE, Tuesday 1pm: Here's Robert Maycock's review of the LPO/Jurowski/Trpceski concert from today's Independent.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Panda profundities

Comments on the panda pic are too true. You can adore a panda cub, but it's probably not a good idea to try cuddling it. A friend in a record company once told me she'd gone into an open-to-public cub enclosure in a lion park in South Africa, full of apparently cute, biggish kitties, where one little inhabitant took a liking to her and decided to attach itself to her leg with full complement of teeth and claws. She must be the only classical press attachee in town to have been mauled by a lion.

My fuzziest-ever encounter was with a koala in Cairns, Queensland, about five years ago. They let you hold him for about five seconds, just long enough to take your photo with him, before whisking him away to the next besotted tourist. Koalas don't much like being loved, so he's rationed to about half an hour in the morning and the same in the late afternoon and he didn't half look fed up by the time we reached him. I think he was doped up on gum leaves too. But he was definitely the softest animal I've ever met and I wanted to abduct him. Not sure he'd like the climate here, though. And even if we put a eucalyptus tree in the conservatory, I understand there could be a problem with koala pong.

The lesson to learn is this: the most desirable creatures, whether charismatic, exotic or fuzzy, are not necessarily the ones that are good for us or that we could live with successfully. I fear the same is true of human beings.