Wednesday, December 27, 2006

book tags....

I've been a little slow in responding, but the other day Evelio tagged me for this:

Find the nearest book.
Turn to page 123.
Go to the fifth sentence on the page.
Copy out the next three sentences and post to your blog.
Name the book and the author, and tag three more folks.

Here goes...

"...There are directions for the printer and directions to be printed in the score. Messiaen said that the preface and all the fingerings had to be included. He also told the printer to mind the page turns."
(Yvonne Loriod talking to author Rebecca Rischin about preparing Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time for publication in 1942.)

The book: For the End of Time by Rebecca Rischin, Cornell University Press.

I'm tagging Viola in Vilnius, Helen and Jeremy.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Longfellow for Christmas Eve

(I was going to post a funny, facetious poem for Xmas. But this is so beautiful that I simply have to use it instead, even though it's not actually snowing...)


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Out of the bosom of the Air.
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent and soft and slow
Descends the snow.

Even as our cloudy fancies take
Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled heart doth make
In the white countenance confession,
The troubled sky reveals
The grief it feels

This is the poem of the air,
Slowly in silent syllables recorded;
This is the secret of despair,
Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
Now whispered and revealed
To wood and field.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

JDCMB CDs of the Year 2006

A few personal recommendations of favourite discs released this year - just in time for that last-minute Xmas shopping. Enjoy!

1. ELGAR Violin Concerto (original version). Philippe Graffin (violin), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by Vernon Handley. Avie Records AV2091. Glorious golden-age-style playing from Philippe, deep empathy from Tod on the podium, and fascinating alternative textual version evoking Elgar's original ideas before Kreisler got his hands on the piece and changed them.

2. STRAUSS Lieder. Jonas Kaufmann (tenor), Helmut Deutsch (piano). Harmonia Mundi HMC901879. When I popped this into the CD player and heard that voice I thought I'd gone to heaven. A real young Heldentenor! A singer who embodies the essence of German romanticism! It's not only that beautiful tone and its large spectrum - very dark, yet with an extremely powerful top range - it's also his intelligence, his fine enuciation, the sense of all-giving passion. If only he'd do some Korngold...

3. Canciones Argentinas. Bernarda and Marcos Fink (mezzo & baritone), Carmen Piazzini (piano). Harmonia Mundi HMC901892. An Aladdin's Cave of shadowy, aching, irresistible art songs from these musicians' native Argentina, including some Piazzolla gems and far more besides. Bernarda's honeyed tones, Marcos's gritty edge, the ever-compelling rhythms of tango and the heart-rending, bittersweet nostalgia made me listen to it three times through on the spot. Harmonia Mundi seems to have had a very good year.

4. RACHMANINOV Etudes Tableaux, Rustem Hayroudinoff (piano). Chandos 10391. Just out, and picked by BBC Music Magazine as its instrumental choice of the month. Colourful, powerful and idiomatic performances of these fabulous yet oddly underrated pieces, with illuminating insights into the inspirations behind them. (The concert went well the other day, incidentally.)

5. MIKLOS ROZSA Cello Concerto & Sinfonia Concertante. Raphael Wallfisch (cello), Philippe Graffin (violin), BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Barry Wordsworth. ASV GLD4018. Philippe in partnership with the inimitable Raphael Wallfisch: astonishing music by the idiosyncratic and immensely compelling emigre Hungarian Miklos Rozsa that simply must be heard. Glittering, imaginative, earthy, astringent, Rozsa's music found a happy home in Hollywood, but, as in Korngold's case, there was one hell of a lot more to him than that. This team will be performing the Sinfonia Concertante at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 1 May next year, together with Korngold's Sinfonietta.

6. ROXANNA PANUFNIK Beastly Tales. Patricia Rozario (soprano), Yvonne Howard (mezzo), Roderick Williams (baritone), City of London Sinfonia conducted by Sian Edwards. EMI 3566922. Roxanna's settings of three of Vikram Seth's rethinkings of Aesop's Fables are as delicious as the poems, evoking many astonishing animal noises amongst other kinds of sly and imaginative humour. For children aged 0 to 100.

7. JUAN DIEGO FLOREZ Sentimento Latino. JDF (tenor), accompanied by somebody who doesn't get a credit on the front. Decca 4757576. The arrangements are a bit cheesy, but That Voice goes soaring over the top and lifts one clear off the ground into the South American sunshine...

8. RENEE FLEMING: Homage - the Age of the Diva. RF (soprano), Mariinsky Theatre orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. Decca 4758070. This much-loved soprano in a programme of remarkably little-known arias from such luminaries as Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Strauss, Verdi, Janacek and, best of all, two Korngold ones that are hardly ever performed: the staggeringly beautiful 'Ich ging zu ihm' from Das Wunder der Heliane and the touching 'Ich soll ihn niemals, niemals mehr sehn' from Die Kathrin.

9. TCHAIKOVSKY Suite No.3. Russian National Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. Pentatone PTC5186061. I have a very, very soft spot for this under-heard Tchaikovsky Suite, a symphony in all but name. Its delicate and fearsomely challenging orchestration is beautifully conveyed by the RNO and Vladimir. Tchaikovsky's immense lyricism and virtuoso imagination is underpinned by a disturbing, sinister edge that is never overstated here but adds well-modulated depth to the whole picture.

10. SCHUMANN The complete string quartets. Fine Arts Quartet, Naxos, 8570151. Just out! The Fine Arts Quartet was my big chamber-music revelation this year: it's that golden-age edge that I adore, the intense sweetness of first violin Ralph Evans' tone, the beauty of the close-knit sounds and the completeness of their involvement in the music - as superb as ever in Schumann's personal, subtle and sensitive quartets which, again, are never played as often as they should be.

(The above links are via Amazon, in its infinite wisdom, has recently seen fit to make it impossible to search by artist, let alone composer and artist together, and has ditched proper catalogue numbers in favour of some unhelpful system of its own. It's become very hard to find specific classical recordings on that site. What are they playing at?!?).

Thursday, December 21, 2006


An unusual commission, perhaps, but I've written a short story in two parts for Classical Music Magazine's Christmas and New Year editions...

The Singewood Symphony Orchestra's future is already hanging in the balance when violinist Paul Brown accidentally discovers a new threat to its home venue: mice in the artists' bar. But does the beautiful Polish cellist 'Jackie Duprewski' possess a secret weapon? What exactly is the connection between her and the fierce music director Stefan Bach? Can Paul win Jackie's heart? Can Lenny save the day? Don't miss 'Lenny - the cat that shook an orchestra'!

Part 1 is out now (you have to buy the magazine to read it because there's no online version).

Meanwhule, don't forget Rustem Hayroudinoff's recital at the Wigmore Hall tonight!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Valentines already?

Tricky to think about Valentine's Day before Christmas is over and done with, but Muso Magazine is having an online survey to try to find out which musicians make the best lovers! Not specifically, you understand, just in terms of their choice of instrument. There's plenty of space to expound and it's safely anonymous. I've had a go and found myself rating violinists rather highly, for some mysterious reason. Follow this link and let rip...

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Rustem Hayroudinoff, Wigmore Hall, Thursday 21 December

Rustem Hayroudinoff is one of those musicians who knock the spots off overhyped oriental kiddies and wolf-keeping Europeans in terms of genuine artistry, but have had to struggle for much too long to achieve the recognition they deserve.

But at last I get the feeling that his boat is in sight of the shore: his latest recording for Chandos, Rachmaninov's Etudes Tableaux, is the instrumental Pick of the Month in the newest BBC Music Magazine and he'll be playing Rachmaninov's Third Concerto with the London Philharmonic on 14 January (Eastbourne, 3pm).

A big Russian-school technique - rich, glowing tone, layered voicing and spacious phrasing - plus an artistic awareness that encompasses painting, literature, cinema, jazz (which he plays jolly well), terrific intelligence and a great sense of humour, all add up to fresh, heady and colourful artistic results. Rustem is a Tatar from Kazan, trained in Moscow and London, where he now lives, and is the most vivid raconteur I know. Tomorrow (Monday) he's on BBC Radio 3's In Tune programme around 6.15pm. (Along with Juan Diego Florez!! no kidding.)

On Thursday next week he's giving a Wigmore Hall recital. Do come and hear him if you're in London.

Bach English Suite No. 3 in G minor

Debussy Suite Bergamasque

Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues op. 87

No. 2 in A minor

No. 4 in E minor

No. 15 in D flat major

Chopin Mazurkas:

Op.56 No. 2 in C

Op.17 No .4 in A minor

Op.63 No. 3 in C# minor

Scherzo No. 3 op. 39

Prokofiev Sonata No.7 op. 83

Tickets: £22 £18 £14 £10
Wigmore Hall box office: 020 7935 2141

These two...

... are at it again. Walking out of things. Yes, it's the Alagna & Gheorghiu Show (or no show). Read the Alagna files in detail c/o Milan-based Operachic here.

As far as surreal interviews go, my encounter with them several years back, pre-blog, probably takes the biscuit. Briefly, this is what happened:

7am train to Paris, with photographer, make-up artist and hairdresser. Taxi to posh hotel. A&G 45 mins late. We are all confined to a suite together. G's hair takes 2 hours. I interview A in hotel bar. He turns on charm, full of enthusiasm and ideas. When tape recorder switches off, so does he. We return to suite, where A sits on the sofa beside me but does not acknowledge my continued existence and responds monosyllabically to my attempts at chit-chat, preferring to talk in rapid French to the attending record company executive. G, still having her hair done, talks in rapid Romanian to her PA. I read a book. The TV is on, without the sound, showing female sumo wrestling. A&G don't appear to exchange so much as a look, let alone a word. Hairdresser finishes, photographer moves in to snap cover shot for Valentine's Day special and suddenly the stars turn on the twinkle and are all over each other. When photographer switches off, so do they. I interview G in hotel bar. She seems extraordinarily defensive, but at least remains consistent pre-, during- and post-interview. Sundown. Record company exec buys us a drink and I have civilised conversation with G. A continues to ignore everyone but self and record co exec. I bundle into taxi to Gare du Nord with photographer, hairdresser and make-up artist. On train they open a bottle of wine and let rip. Fast-forward a few months and A&G look stunning on cover of Valentine's Day/February edition. My article begins with the words: 'Paris: city of love...'

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Him again...

Still walking on air after my interview with Signor King of the High Cs yesterday. Just to preserve the nautical imagery: what a dreamboat!

(No wonder my husband wants me to believe that the world's best and loveliest tenor is Wunderlich, who's dead...)

Friday, December 15, 2006

On the other hand...

Tom pricked my Florez bubble yesterday evening, by a) assembling a group of friends to play the Schumann Piano Quintet in our front room (they made music and I made the food), and b) over dinner afterwards, saying 'Florez isn't a patch on this...' and putting on a CD of Fritz Wunderlich.

There are performances - like Florez's - which leave you clapping and cheering and full of superlatives. There are others which leave you speechless.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

King of the high Cs? Better believe it...

I'm high as a kite. Universal Classics held a little 'do' today for one of their best and starriest stars: Juan Diego Florez (above, photo credit: Decca / Johannes Ifkovits). Savoy Hotel; a collection of press & industry colleagues; and he sang three arias - the big whacks from Rigoletto and La fille du regiment (the one with nine high Cs) plus 'Granada' from his Sentimento Latino album, and I was standing 4 metres from him throughout. I nearly died of joy.

It's unbelievable. The security of that technique is, as far as I can tell, more comparable to Jascha Heifetz than any other singer I can think of. There's no shadow of doubt, but also no flaw in the pouring of the honey, just utter beauty and wonder and a hell of a lot of oomph, at least close to. Florez's voice is sometimes said to be 'small' or, better, 'small is beautiful', but it certainly didn't sound that way (beautiful, yes; small, no!) from 4 metres... It was hard to get the press & industry to stop applauding afterwards, and that takes a little doing.

I shook his hand afterwards. Yes, alas, I have washed since. But tomorrow I get to interview him (at least, 98% sure that I will), so maybe I can replenish that supply of wonder. And yes, he's drop-dead gorgeous - but with a voice like that, who even needs those sultry eyes?

He opens in La fille du regiment at Covent Garden in January.

Monday, December 11, 2006

It's my birthday...

...and this year my special present is seeing in print in The Independent something I've been wanting to write for 20 years. Voila.

Please excuse me for a couple of days while I push off to Paris.

Friday, December 08, 2006

An Independent Carmen

Here's my piece about Carmen which appears in The Independent today. Enjoy. The show opens at Covent Garden tonight, and someone who saw the dress rehearsal told me that Jonas Kaufmann as Don Jose was so marvellous that his big aria alone would be worth the price of the ticket. (I'm not going tonight, but will see it later in the run and report back then.)

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Please sign this if you like Korngold

I've just discovered that Brendan G Carroll's definitive biography of Korngold, The Last Prodigy, is out of print. As next year is the 50th anniversary of EWK's death and there is going to be A LOT going on to mark the occasion, it seems completely ridiculous that this book, which took Brendan 25 years to write, should be unavailable. It's an invaluable and irreplaceable resource. The Korngold website, run from Athens by another devoted Korngold fan, Eleftherios Neroulias, is carrying an online petition to the publisher, Amadeus Press, begging for the reprint of the book. You can read and sign the petition here.

My own rather more modest book still seems to be in print, but it's no substitute and I am the first to admit that.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Nina Milkina 1919-2006

The wonderful Russian pianist Nina Milkina died last week at the age of 87. I was lucky enough to meet her a few years ago for an interview about her long and fascinating career, and was much struck by her combination of qualities: humour with passion, intelligence with intuitiveness, delicacy with real gumption. She hadn't been at the forefront of musical life for a while, but her recordings are exquisite, displaying a rare sense of magic and nuance in such worlds as Mozart and Scarlatti as well as Chopin et al. This recording, live from the Wigmore Hall, is a treasure: contact details of how to get it are included on the musicwebinternational page. She was a much-loved figure among the younger generation of pianists here in London, where she lived; Leon McCawley (who introduced me to her) in particular cites her as an inspiration and mentor, not least in his impressive new set of the Mozart piano sonatas. She will be sorely missed. I wrote an obituary of her which was published yesterday and can be read in my archive, here.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Krystian Zimerman notches up half a century today. When I was 14, I went with my parents to hear him play at the Royal Festival Hall. He was 23 and I'd never heard anything like it. There was a world in his piano that rolled together everything that was finest about art, poetry and pure, white-hot energy. He played the Brahms F minor Sonata Op.5, the Chopin First Ballade and the 'Funeral March' Sonata. Nothing was ever the same again. Ten years later, I had a job on a music magazine and I suddenly realised that all I needed to do was sell him to an editor, call up his manager and fix an interview, and then I could ask him all the questions I wanted to about what made that musicianship tick.

That was quite a while ago, but to this day, this man gives me faith in human nature, because he is as special a person as he is a pianist. The finest musicians play as they are; listening to the playing, you listen to them speak. You can hear their essence, distilled, in their music-making. Krystian is no exception. Few pianists have this degree of sensitivity, tenderness, intelligence and visionary wisdom, and few people.

Here's his page at Deutsche Grammophon: follow the link to the discography...

Happy birthday, Krystian! Have fun!

Sunday, December 03, 2006


Good news before I get onto tonight's pseudoprofundities: the other day, I received a letter saying I've got a grant from the Authors' Foundation to help me write my next book! Would have opened champagne if I hadn't had food poisoning at the time.

Not sure whether that gliterati party really did try to murder a roomful of authors, agents and publishers with radioactive sushi the other day, but what's certain is that it's taken me the whole weekend to get back to normal and I missed a lunchtime recital by Philippe Graffin this morning in Norden Farm, Maidenhead, because I didn't feel up to driving the M4 - exceptionally annoying.

Anyway, tonight is the last night of Tom's tour, so I treated myself to one of several things I sometimes do when he's away. Pathetically innocent things, I hasten to add. Last time it was 'Titanic' and that wasn't long ago enough to do it again. So tonight I went for The Big Woody Allen Double Bill - 'Annie Hall' and 'Manhattan'. I saw them both for the first time more than 20 years ago, and goodness knows how many times in the intervening years, but still notice something new in them every time.

Glorious. Humour like that is the best kind: it shows up his serious points and makes them palatable. Who else could have dreamed up that scene with the skeleton, or the Planetarium, or the view of the bridge at dawn, in 'Manhattan'? Or the lobsters in 'Annie Hall'?

By the way, contrary to The Guardian and various other daft commentators, it IS possible and not yet illegal to do the following:

* Enjoy Woody Allen's films without condemning or condoning his action in marrying his ex-wife's adopted daughter;
* Enjoy Wagner without being a Nazi;
* Enjoy Chopin, Schumann and Liszt without being anti-Semitic;
* Enjoy Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess' without believing that it's supposed to typify and therefore stigmatise or misrepresent the whole of African-American culture, or to be patronising thereto;
* Enjoy the soundtrack of 'Manhattan' - Gershwin again - without condemning it for not being an original soundtrack;
* Enjoy Korngold's serious music even though he wrote original soundtracks for Hollywood and dared to use tonality after 1930.

(This could go on forever, but The Guardian has recently had it in for Gershwin in a big way - see Gary Younge here and Joe Queenan here - and I think it's all gone a little too far. He's a great composer, already, so leave him alone, like it or lump it.)

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Monday, November 27, 2006

Long live editors!

While Tom is away, I rent a lot of films on DVD. Yesterday I saw for the first time the 'director's cut' of one of my all-time favourites, Cinema Paradiso, and I was horribly shocked.

! During his return visit to Giancaldo, Salvatore not only finds that Elena is married to that really stupid kid from his class at school, but meets her again because he notices her daughter and follows her home. Then he has a steamy encounter with Elena in the car. And she won't go back to Rome with him, and the whole way they'd parted was a huge mistake though partly Alfredo's fault, because he'd decided that Salvatore had to become a great film director and if he and Elena stayed together, he wouldn't make any films. And her note to him is still pinned to the cinema wall with the invoices, although the cinema has only been shut for 6 years before the pending demolition, but they must nevertheless have last seen each other in the 1950s and the present day is 1980-something......I'm upset - by the implausibility, trivialisation, confusion and more. Whoever told the director that the film would be much stronger without this really, seriously, knew what he/she was doing.

Bravo for editors.

The Morricone score is still wonderful.

Saturday, November 25, 2006


...I've just finished the first draft of my third novel. I thought I'd never get there. Crikey. 540 pages, 145,000 words of...oh dear... well, if I get rid of 25,000 words, ie the length of three and a half reasonable dissertations on Hungarian music, Gypsy fiddlers and why one really shouldn't fall in love with violinists, then maybe I'll have something decent to work with. It's been agony. But now is when the real slog begins.

How weird is this?

A sleepless night found me surfing the internet around 3am [sad, I know]. I was startled to find a classical music forum in which a bunch of gentlemen were having yet another dig at my opinions about Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, expressed on this blog so long ago that I can't even locate it in my archive.

Those opinions were written in the way that blogs tend to be: rapidly and with the occasional strong view [oh, we're not meant to have those, are we?] emphasised in capitals - back then, I was using a browser that wasn't compatible with Blogger's editing features, and I hadn't yet learned how to do bold, italics etc with html code. Neither that post nor anything else in JDCMB was ever intended to be taken as academic gospel and I can't think why anyone would consider it suitable for quotation. Nevertheless, fellow blogger Steve Hicken saw fit to quote it extensively in a lengthy article about the work, twisting my words to make his point (the opposite of mine, of course). That sparked the discussion on the forum, where someone also took me to task about 'laying it on a bit thick' with said capital letters. Hey, chaps, I could throw some of my favourite Hungarian swear words at you, but I'll keep it simple instead: haven't you got anything better to do? I'm not trying to write the New Grove here. And if you have to quote daft stuff like mine, couldn't you have the courtesy to spell my name right? You'll find it at the top of this blog in, oh dear, big letters.

The declaration of love from another gentleman on the same forum was marginally more welcome. Dear sir, thank you, but I'm a married woman.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Hora of horas...

Tom and the LPO are off on tour today - they'll be arriving in Toronto late tonight, then heading for the East Coast of the States (small matters like Carnegie Hall), back on 4 December. So we spent yesterday evening doing what you might expect a fiddler and his wife to do on the last night home before a tour. You guessed it: gawping at Heifetz videos on Youtube. This performance of Dinicu's Hora Staccato is unbelievable:

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Sounds from South Africa

Philippe Graffin is currently in Cape Town coaching the Hout Bay String Project. A report from Jan-Stefan's Kloof Street Blog has some pictures and a brief but touching account of what it's been like. The project's own website has a fuller account of its aims and achievements. Here's an extract:

Our orchestra is a vehicle of social upliftment and change. It allows for fundamental communication between individuals. Our teachers have high standards and give of their best and expect the same of the children. We ask children to attend up to five lessons and rehearsals per week. They practice technical exercises and work at their intonation and interpretation, constantly striving to raise their standard of performance. The children experience adults who are willing to invest time and energy in them. Time and time again we see disruptive and angry children become motivated, disciplined, engaged and joyful individuals. These children then become involved in teaching activities at our Project, sharing their knowledge and encouraging others to progress. Some of our children have come from abused backgrounds or have been involved in violence and crime. Music provides drive, focus, passion and moments of beauty in lives where children are often forced to deal with adult issues like despair and abject poverty.
This is admirable and inspiring indeed: see also the astonishing ongoing activities of Buskaid, founded by Rosemary Nalden in Soweto.

I've recently viewed a DVD of a stunning South African reinterpretation of Carmen, U-Carmen, sung in Xhosa and set in a huge township - a version that transposes and sometimes even strengthens the drama, is wonderfully sung and acted, and proved totally convincing. Go see it

UPDATE, 27 November 11.30pm: Jan-Stefan has posted a report about the concert with Philippe yesterday. Great pics.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Salonen to cross the Pond

So Esa-Pekka Salonen is to be the Philharmonia Orchestra's new principal conductor and 'artistic advisor'! The Guardian broke this story the other day, but it seems that the secret had been so well-kept that a rumour began to go round that it was a hoax. A press release from the orchestra plopped into my in-box yesterday, though, so it's official and presumably true.

The appointment starts with the 08-09 season. It's good to see that London's orchestras are finding top-notch principal conductors with youth, health, high energy and big ideas on their side. The LPO has the stunning thirty-something Vladi Jurowski in place to take over next year from Kurt Masur who, though still occasionally capable of inspirational status, has been growing increasingly, well, elderly; it was time for the Philharmonia to bring in new blood too. Salonen, fresh from Los Angeles, is a fabulous catch for them and I doubt they could have done better.

Is it time to introduce a retirement age for conductors? Not that it can be easy for a distinguished maestro to watch a man half his age take over his job. Christoph von Dohnanyi, the Philharmonia's outgoing conductor, has been gracious enough to accept a title of 'honorary conductor for life' and made some kind remarks about Salonen. Good for him.

MEANWHILE - something completely different. The Guardian ran this piece on celebrity autobiographies yesterday. Guess what? My first novel has already sold more copies than Ashley Cole and David Blunkett's tomes put together. Not that that's such a lot, but nobody gave me 250,000 pounds for it.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Emanuel Hurwitz

Sad today to hear of the death of Emanuel Hurwitz, the inspiring violinist and teacher, aged 87. A good obituary in The Guardian from former Strad editor Anne Inglis: here.

I met Manny a few times: my fiddler duo partner at university was a student of his. We went to his beautiful Finchley home for coaching on various pieces including the Mozart B flat Sonata K454 and the Brahms G major (at 18 one can be arrogant enough to imagine that one can bring off that raw, tender, agonising and unperformable work. I wouldn't dare touch it with a barge-pole now.) It's a long time ago and my memories are not as vivid as they ought to be. But they do leave me with a lingering sensation of discovery, new perspectives and an inspiration that sprang from sound quality, musical exchange - sonatas are chamber music - and seriously hard work. One served the music, not vice-versa. It was a link with a fast-vanishing golden era of musicianship. Whenever I've come into contact with so-called 'golden age' musicians, I've been deeply grateful for the experience and this was no exception.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Why blog?

Norman Lebrecht's piece last week seems to have sparked a good few musical bloggers into some self-examination and reflection on why and how we do this. After all, we don't make money from it (I don't even run banner ads) and no editors are issuing directives.

I don't know about anyone else, but I know, sort of, why I have a blog:

1. I'm fascinated by this exceedingly 21st-century medium. A brand-new way of communicating with people you don't know, and some that you do, in every corner of the globe. I enjoy the more-or-less instant feedback, the freedom, the fluidity of the blogosphere.

2. A great deal of music writing is stuffy, sawdust-dry and elitist (oh yes, I'm using that word that I hate). Blogging is a way to present all kinds of thoughts about music - serious, critical, philosophical, narrative or downright frivolous - in a straightforward, non-stuffy and non-patronising way. And nobody can tell you not to do it (well, they can, but you don't have to listen).

3. It's FUN. If it wasn't, I wouldn't do it.

And now, some wonderful news: CHOCOLATE IS GOOD FOR THE HEART

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Here's the review from the New York Times of Pogorelich playing at the Metropolitan Museum a couple of weeks ago, which I finally got round to reading.

It's very upsetting. The photo is distressing enough - Kojak? - but I can well believe that Mr Tommasini is telling it how it was, since at the last concert I heard Pogorelich give in London, his playing fitted this description with appalling precision. It was a Rachmaninov piano concerto several years ago; I think it was supposed to be No.2, but what emerged was so distorted as to be almost unrecognisable. Yet a recital of his that I heard at London's Royal Festival Hall, probably the better part of 10 years back, was astonishing: so full of colour, nuance and brilliance that it was like watching a Kandinsky in a kaleidoscope.

I interviewed him in 1993, when I was the editor of Classical Piano magazine, as well as encountering him socially a couple of times. For the interview, I was asked to visit him at home in Surrey, where his spacious modern mansion included an exquisite wood-lined music room. He was charming, intelligent and well-informed, and as handsome as his photos (he was every piano student's pin-up). His motto was, more or less, 'no compromise': artistry had to be all or nothing. If I can find the article I'll post it in my permasite archive.

What has gone wrong? His wife, who was his former teacher from Moscow and to whom he seemed utterly devoted, died of cancer some time ago. It looks, from the outside, as if he has never quite found his feet again. Rumours circulated that he was ill and that he had given up performing; and the return journey does not appear promising. Perhaps it would be best if he did indeed bow out gracefully while and if he still can, leaving us with the memories of his artistry at its finest, untainted by this tragedy.

Sunday, November 12, 2006


I've been enjoying reading the Yahoo group devoted to Great Pianists , following a pleasing reference there to this blog the other day. One discussion springs from a review of Pogorelich playing in New York. Members have been responding with horror stories about music critics who arrived for assignments drunk/fell asleep and snored/left early/weren't there at all.

A critic from the local paper in St Nazaire turned up to Le Chant de l'amour triomphant at the Consonances festival. He failed to notice that it had anything whatsoever to do with the Chausson Poeme, presumably because he left before the second half and didn't recognise the extracts Philippe played off-stage during the first. He didn't notice that there was a script. And he spent half the review discussing the physical charms of the young female pianist who performed one solitary five-minute prelude by Chopin. Now, I may of course be biased, having put copious sweat and tears into the writing of that script, but I'd say that doesn't add up to professional reviewing. On the other hand, maybe that's why said critic hasn't quite made it into Le Monde yet.

Further back, I remember the instance of a critic who was sent to review a petite Japanese lady violinist playing a concerto in London. The soloist went sick and was replaced by a tall, broad-shouldered Frenchman with a pony tail down to his waist. The review was of the petite Japanese lady...

And hey, just as some music critics don't go to concerts, some literary critics don't read books. One of them managed to review Rites of Spring without noticing that the main character was a 13-year-old girl named Liffy, and decided, moreover, that I was having a go at the evil phenomenon of career women! I'm a career woman, so found that a bit puzzling. I'm not sure which book she reviewed, but it sure ain't mine.

If you give a bad critic enough rope, sooner or later they'll use it. It's just a shame when they have to hang a good pianist/violinist/writer first.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


Regulars may notice a few little differences today. Blogger has introduced some snazzy and mercifully non-technical design features and I've been having some fun with them instead of getting on with novel-writing. Please bear with me and be prepared for fluidity (= potential disasters) while I try to get it right.

TECHNOTWIT UPDATE: 8.09pm - two steps forward and one step back...thanks for all the positive comments about the new look! I'm now trying to get the comments to show up directly under the posts, as before, following pleas from as far afield as California and Tblisi. Unfortunately, I've pressed every possible button available and nothing seems to do it. Anyone know how? Viola In Vilnius would like to know too. Also, one person is having trouble with comment verification not showing up, but this seems OK on my browser...any tips greatly appreciated...

FURTHER UPDATE, SUNDAY 12 NOVEMBER 11.35am - unfortunately ACD's kind advice hasn't worked and reading the comments still requires an extra click. What's more, Beta has swallowed all my Meta tags and the Page Elements editor spits them out when I try to add them. The new colours are nice enough... but the bad news is that according to Blogger, there's no going back - once you've switched your blog to the new system, you can't change your mind. I should have taken to heart Wonderful Webmaster's recent words: if it ain't broke, don't fix it...

AND ANOTHER ONE: Thanks again to ACD for his second comment - much appreciated. My browser is still up to its old tricks, but maybe this isn't the case for everyone; and if you click on the title of the post, you can then read it and all its comments in one fell swoop.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Hey, that's my man!

Heck, The Guardian's done it Joe Queenan's Classical Music Primer has reached 'E is for English music, F is for FAURE'. Faure, according to Joe, is one of the few 19th century composers 'who wasn't a jerk' and he also says 'anybody who doesn't fall in love with Faure on first hearing has completely wasted his life'. You said it, buddy. I fell in love with Faure half way up the school stairs: the choir was rehearsing the Requiem, I had no idea what it was ...and I wouldn't be here now but for that. (Book still available, incidentally.)

I disagree with a few crucial points in Joe's piece: Faure IS one of the all-time greats, his music is not 'slight', just delicate and subtle, and he doesn't sound remotely like Chopin but does occasionally risk a rather peculiar similarity to, of all people, Elgar (in fact they had the same English patron and the same style of moustache, so the distance isn't as great as one might think).

Other 19th-century non-jerks include Brahms, who was a jolly good bloke if a bit brusque; Schubert, who didn't live long enough to become a jerk; and dear old Mendelssohn, who sounds as adorable as his music.

It ain't what you've got...

Double the usual number of visitors yesterday, following the mensh in the Lebrecht column, so here's a meaty topic to consider, something about which I have a considerable bee in the bonnet.

The other day I had an email from an e-friend on the other side of the world that began 'I know you don't like original instruments, but...'.

Ah, no. Not true. Thing is, it's not the instrument that matters, it's the musicianship. What upsets me is that third-rate interpretations deemed 'historically correct' - whether or not they really are - so often win recommendations ahead of others that may be profound, original and inspired, but happen to be played on a Steinway or a modern-set-up Strad. If a great musician is performing and the spirit shines through, that's what creates exciting music. An instrument, by itself, is really nothing more than a means to an end at best and a curio at worst.

Some absolute geniuses are playing original instruments. I'd go anywhere anytime to hear the fortepianist/harpsichordist Andreas Staier, the counter-tenor Andreas Scholl or the master of classical improvisation Robert Levin. These guys could make magic out of a tin can. (OK, I know Scholl's voice isn't an 'instrument', let alone 'original', but he's an inspirational interpreter of early music and that's the turn-on.)

Violins? More difficult, because producing a fine sound and accurate intonation while using no vibrato, as the 'authenticity' movement still seems to demand, is extremely challenging. How intriguing that in his book, written before little Wolfie was born, Leopold Mozart provides exercises for practising 'tremolato' [= vibrato] that any kid learning the fiddle would recognise. Hard to accept no-vibrato directives as correct when that's staring you in the face. Incidentally, for the total sound-spectrum of all that a violin can do, with vibrato applied as it should be, as an expressive device, albeit not exactly in early music, there's nobody finer than Hungarian Gypsy supremo Roby Lakatos. Meanwhile the best non-vibrato Bach I've heard comes from Ilya Gringolts, who's supposedly still 'modern'.

Perhaps the increasing number of superlative musicians in the early music field, and those beyond who are effectively beating them at their own game, will help to show up the over-celebrated botchers, half-bakers and candle-stick wavers at last.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

We're famous!

A big cheer for Norman Lebrecht, whose piece about classical music blogging in today's Evening Standard and La Scena Musicale turns the eyes of the British capital towards our little corner of the blogosphere and gives JDCMB a particularly nice plug, including Solti, who's purring all the way to the cat-food. Norman does finish by saying that we in cyberspace can't possibly hope to compete with proper newspapers, but I'm sure we can beg to disagree...besides, some of us are happily scribbling in both.

UPDATE, 10.32pm:...and it's not just the British capital. A rush to this blog of new visitors from the US and Canada prove that La Scena is reaching people much further afield. HELLO EVERYONE! CALL IN AGAIN SOON!

FURTHER UPDATE, 11.40pm: It is vital also to read the response posted by 'Pliable' at On An Overgrown Path...which makes it clear that there's more to Norman's piece than might initially meet the eye...

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Monday, November 06, 2006

Donna Anna

My piece about Anna Netrebko has a centrefold in The Independent's arts bit today. Will post a link to the online version as soon as it's available, but you don't get the photos with that.

UPDATE, 7.11.06: it's still not on the Indy site, but my wonderful webmaster has scanned the pages and added them to my archive, here.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Not trying to promote a rival paper, but...

...The Guardian has got hold of all Andras Schiff's lectures at the Wigmore Hall and you can listen to them online here. The Guardian isn't exactly my favourite paper (I'll spare you my views on the Lubianka of Farringdon Road) but occasionally they do turn up trumps with something like this.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Sheffield Saturday

What do 13-year-old Liffy Levy (heroine of 'Rites of Spring'), a rare stuffed bird, a missing baby, a Liverpool detective and a small boy in Glasgow in the 1940s have in common? They were the stars of the five books featured in the Readers' Day in Sheffield last Saturday.

Hodder & Stoughton sponsored the day, so the five of us were all Hodder authors. I spent the train journey up on Friday afternoon feeling distinctly jittery at the prospect of sharing a platform with writers I respect as much as Sophie Hannah (whose psychological thriller 'Little Face' is absolutely brilliant, as is her poetry) and Martin Davies (his first novel 'The Conjuror's Bird' was a Richard and Judy choice and is very beautiful, an expert interweaving of past and present). The others, whom I hadn't read before but am now enjoying very much, were the superb crime writer Margaret Murphy and Robert Douglas, whose memoirs of growing up in Glasgow are completely riveting.

All was well, though, after a curry and a few beers on Friday evening, and we kicked off bright and early on Saturday with a panel discussion, hosted by the fabulous James Nash - a performance poet and ex-boxer - about what books had been important to us as kids. A huge groundswell declared Enid Blyton a top favourite among writers and readers alike, but I was happy to get in a plug for my favourite book of all time, Dodie Smith's 'I Capture the Castle', which I must have read at least 250 times in the last 25 years. It turned out it was Martin Davies's favourite as well, so we had a good laugh about that. The hardest question, though, was 'Which book would you send to Room 101?' and my mind went a bit blank, mainly through deep upset when everyone else said 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin', which I adored... How on earth could I have forgotten about Jeffrey Archer?

Next, we were each put in a room on our own with ten to fifteen audience members who had read our book to discuss it for an hour. My group was lovely, with an age range from late twenties to mid eighties and some interesting opinions to offer. I asked them questions like 'How long do you give Adam and Sasha's marriage after the end of the book?' and they asked me questions like 'How did you think up the Earth Prince?' - and the hour flew by!

A splendid buffet lunch, then a talk between James and an expert editor from Hodder, Alex, who spoke very entertainingly about the whole business. Last but not least, we each talked a bit about our working processes and gave short readings from the books. Performing without having to play a piano - phew! I did the bit where the football goes through the seemed to be enjoyed...

It's wonderful to know that in the 21st century people still love books. The enthusiasm of the audience, the brilliant organisation, the care and attention and love of good writing and fascination about how it's done, all of this was incredibly encouraging. Even in this age of laptops, blogs, Blackberries, instant messaging and iPods, nobody has invented a better entertainment system than the paperback book: cheap, portable, practical, light, no battery, no troubleshooting helpline, no monthly charges and it doesn't disturb anyone else on the train unless you laugh or cry too loudly over the contents.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

More about youtube

Thanks for the concerned messages about my new method of time-wasting: fear not, nothing less than Heifetz will do! Latest find is a whole string of videos of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, which should keep me out of mischief for a bit.

But there's a good point to be made in the comment on the last post about a young violinist being dragged through something she shouldn't have been. Anyone can upload stuff onto this, so they do. I was quite disturbed by the rumours of the 'nightmare' video (which I never saw) of a Russian pianist who happens to be a dear old friend of mine: who would be so vicious as to upload such a thing and what had to be done to get rid of it? And whatever happened to copyright? Some of those films are, well, films. Made by film makers and TV channels. Now, I'd rather be able to spend my morning watching Michelangeli than not watching Michelangeli, and many of those films haven't been made commercially available; but I'm still a bit surprised this site is able to exist.

This morning, when I've finished indulging my taste for dead pianists and fetish fiddlers, I'm off to interview Anna Netrebko. And tonight I've been invited to be part of a discussion on live radio in New York (by phone, sadly) about Sting and Paul McCartney's classical forays. The programme is WNYC's Soundcheck and it goes out at 2pm local time in NY. Yikes.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

oh my goodness...

I've discovered at long last, and on it I found this. Roby Lakatos, live on Prinsengracht. Fiddle fetishists can find a whole new range of displacement activities to stop themselves getting on with their next book. At least I can now pass this off as research: Gypsy fiddling plays a part all its own in my book no.3. Then again, nobody should need an excuse to swoon over something as utterly, gloriously mind-boggling as this guy's violin playing.

And if Lakatos isn't your cup of string tea, you can also watch Heifetz galore and even some footage of Jacques Thibaud playing Szymanowski......

Heck, and I thought chocolate was addictive.

Friday, October 27, 2006


Eh-oop, I'm about to leave for Sheffield, where tomorrow I'm taking part in the Readers' Day at the Off the Shelf Festival of Writing and Reading. Hodder & Stoughton is sending five of its authors (Sophie Hannah, Martin Davies, Margaret Murphy, Robert Douglas & yours truly) and one of its editors and we're going to spend the day talking about books! The day includes lunch, fun and bookwormish goody-bags for all.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Singing for snorers?!

Apparently learning to sing can help stop you snoring, because it strengthens the throat muscles.

Maybe I'll have to pack hubby off to lessons. But when you weigh up the noise of snoring against the noise of hubby belting out his new exercises on a daily basis, which would cause the greater distress? I can cope with the violin, but...

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


... is now available to pre-order from Treat the blurb there with a little caution - Ali is only three (not four) when the story begins, and the plot traces her development from talented child to young woman and professional musician by way of some distinctly thorny relations with those close to her - most notably, her complex and repressed mother, Kate, who perhaps loves her not wisely but too well...

A lot has gone into this book. I was never a child prodigy, but I've experienced that pressure to some degree, the Russian scales, the need to please, the weight of expectation, the conflicts over schooling, the magic of making music at intense and overwhelming summer courses, the longing for a mentor, the loneliness until you finally meet your soulmates... The book represents, simultaneously, none of my own experiences and all of them.

The hardback will be out from Hodder & Stoughton on 8 March and the paperback sometime in the summer. A Dutch edition is also to be published by De Kern in the Netherlands in due course and we're keeping fingers crossed for sales of rights to publishers in Germany, Denmark and the States, among others.....

Monday, October 23, 2006

Google searches #2056

Some more of those wonderful Google searches that have produced hits on my blog, and what answers I can give:

DO YOU HAVE FULL LIPS - home cooking makes a difference.

GEORGE ENESCU DENTIST - A new career for Romania's finest violinist, composer and pianist, mentor to Menuhin, icon to generations? gosh.

JENUFA OCTOBER 20 WHAT HAPPENED - The Kostelnica murders the illegitimate baby in small-town Czechoslovakia. Jenufa has to marry the boy who loves her instead of the boy she loves, even though he'd slashed her cheek with a knife in Act I, and hope is finally restored. It's not a bundle of laughs, but it's still one of the great operas of the 20th century. If they changed the story, I'd like to know.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Literary prizes?

We can dream. Reality is different. This excellent piece tells it like it is. Also shows how daft publishers can be - how could anyone, let alone 30 of them, have turned down something as utterly brilliant as Lionel Shriver's WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN? Serves them right - she's sold 400,000 copies now.

UPDATE: 12 AUGUST 2008 - If you've landed here from Guardian Unlimited Books, click here to go to my most recent post.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Don't miss this

The Guardian's website has an audio report about Piers Lane's day of tributes to Dame Myra Hess and her wartime concert series at the National Gallery, held last month. You can listen online and watch a wonderful slide show, or download a podcast.

It was a fabulous day - memorable and moving, with three fantastic concerts, as well as some astonishing films of Hess herself. It left me wondering why the gallery has never bothered to do it before, since these concerts meant so much to so many people and have achieved a status in the minds of music-loving Londoners that's little short of mythical.

I've written it up in more detail for International Piano and will add the piece to my archive once it's out.

Monday, October 16, 2006


Here's the thing I wrote for the Independent about McCartney and Sting's latest classical efforts. It's been slightly cut, which means there's less of a sting in its tale (sorry, couldn't resist that!!), but the gist of it still comes across OK.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


After hearing Leonidas Kavakos give the most incredible performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto the other week, I went into to see which recordings of his I don't yet have. I was about to order the Ysaye Sonatas when I noticed that I'm not the only one to think of him as the Chocolate Fiddler: there's a sponsored link to Leonidas here for a feast for ears and blood-chocolate-levels alike.

ADDENDUM, 7.30pm: I should have said before: he's an appropriately and definitely sweet guy.

Saturday, October 14, 2006


The Guardian today has a LEADER about Janacek's Jenufa! And jolly good it is.

Lest anyone mistake this for a sudden cultural shift in favour of opera in the UK, I should probably add a reminder that that won't be indicated unless the Daily Mail follows suit.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Some very, very brave writers

If the pen is mightier than the sword and those that wield ink more intelligent than those with their fingers on the red button, one has to stand back and take a long, hard look at the world.

From today's press:

Orhan Pamuk wins the Nobel Prize for Literature (The Guardian)

Salman Rushdie speaks frankly to Johann Hari (The Independent)

Anna Politkovskaya's last, unfinished article is available to read here (The Independent), interrupted by her murder for telling the truth.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Funny how things turn out

When I was around 14, a few cultural bits & bobs expanded my mental horizons. Or, more accurately, exploded them.

1. Half way up the music block stairs at school, I heard heaven incarnate. It was the Ernest Reid Choir (our school contributed to the RFH children's concerts) rehearsing the Faure Requiem. Somehow - goodness knows how, because I can't sing to save my life - I got a place in that choir and found myself participating in the performance. I've been hooked on Faure ever since.

2. Being a ballet addict, I happened to see a one-acter by Frederick Ashton called 'A Month in the Country' - music by Chopin, dancers including Anthony Dowell (angelic dance hero) and Lynn Seymour. Story by a Russian chap with a long name. Soon afterwards, my mother gave me a slender book and said "You might like this." It was a black Penguin called 'First Love', by the same Russian writer: Ivan Turgenev. She was right.

I sensed even then that what I loved in Turgenev & what I loved in Faure was essentially the same: a particular sensibility, a slightly despairing yet more than usually acute sensitivity to the condition of the human soul. Of course, I had no idea they'd known each other.

3. Birthday treat: a trip to the cinema to see a French masterpiece from the 1940s entitled 'Les enfants du paradis', starring the genius mime actor Jean-Louis Barrault. It blew my mind. Still does.

4. Same cinema (Hampstead Everyman), which used to have this kind of thing all the time: Jacques Tati. 'Les vacances de M. Hulot'. Have I ever laughed so much, before or since? (hmm, maybe at 'The Producers'......)

Now, 26 years on, I couldn't help noticing that my script for St Nazaire involved the whole lot. 'Le chant de l'amour triomphant', after the story by Turgenev on which the Chausson Poeme is based. Turgenev is ever-present in the script. Faure, who sat at his feet for 4 years while courting Marianne Viardot, daughter of Turgenev's beloved Pauline, formed the climax of the first half. The actress performing it was Marie-Christine Barrault, niece of Jean-Louis. The town turned out to be virtually next door to Saint-Marc, the home ville of 'Les vacances de M. Hulot' (read more about it here).

None of that was intentional: it's been pure coincidence the whole way. To the extent that I could start wondering whether any of it was coincidental. Funny how things turn out....

Monday, October 09, 2006

Everyone's been writing about...

...this.... and this. Surprised to see pop stars gracing the covers of, respectively, BBC Music Magazine and Classic FM Magazine, I thought that as everyone else was getting their teeth into them, I could escape without covering either. My editor, though, has other ideas, so I've agreed to take about 48 hours to get to grips with the merits or otherwise of both, not to mention the principles (the which?) behind them. Watch this space.

Sunday, October 08, 2006


My article for International Piano about Grigory Sokolov is now available to read on my permasite. Click here.

Anyone who remembers me writing a few months back that I had just done an interview with someone who may be the world's greatest pianist will now know what I was talking about. I went over to Barcelona to hear and meet him back in March, in company with a valiant Russian cellist as interpreter; we heard a most stunning recital at the Palau de la Musica, interviewed the great man after his concert - around midnight - and even found ourselves having breakfast with him in the hotel the next morning. Sokolov's performances have been among the greatest revelations of my musical life. And I've had a few. Read on...

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Tour blues

Tom's back - briefly - from a European tour with the band. Last week they did Leipzig, Braunschweig and Hamburg. A week from tomorrow they're doing more Germany, plus Amsterdam at the beginning (15th) and Budapest - yes! - at the end (26th). Solti and I get a bit blue when Tom is away.

Speaking of blues, we finally met Maurice, sunning himself outside his front door. He's what my father would have called a 'real boofka' of a cat. Solti isn't the smallest cat on earth, but he basically doesn't stand a chance here. If Maurice is indeed a Russian Blue, he'd have been employed in the highest echelons of the KGB - indeed he looks not unlike a particular piano professor and frequent competition jury member whom I met in Salzburg years ago and who is rumoured, fairly or not, to have such connections (one way or another, his pupils do keep on winning things).

My thanks to Veronique, a music-loving vet from Paris, who wrote in with some sensible advice about how to deter unwanted feline visitors. Much appreciated! Meanwhile, I'm waiting for the Russian Blue to start putting in the bugs. I'll report back properly about life in music a.s.a.p....

Friday, October 06, 2006


Not Daniele. Mine. And one down the road. Fighting.

Solti is in a lot of trouble. He's been to the vet 4 times in 10 days and 'scarface' doesn't begin to describe it.

Does anybody know a good way to a) keep other cats out of one's garden without upsetting one's own, b) keep resident feline (neutered) from straying beyond the fence?

Of course, the rogue cat who's beating him up may be a reincarnated orchestral musician with a severe grudge against Sir Georg. A friend suggests I change puss's name to something more innocuous: Hickox?

Or, I guess, Gatti.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The agony and ecstasy...

... No. Just agony. In other words, proof-reading. ALICIA'S GIFT is done, packaged up & ready to go back to Hodder, covered in pen, pencil and, I'm afraid, paw-marks. But to the inevitable question from my pals, "Are you pleased with it now?", all I can say is that the more I go through my own work, the more agonising the whole business becomes. I've tidied up some crucial moments, spiced up others, neatened a sentence or two here and there, but the fact remains that when I finished writing the thing I was pleased with it, whereas now I'm finding holes of many varieties all over the ruddy place. Comforting words from publisher and agent, impatient words from husband ("Just send it off!") and get-this-in-perspective-cos-it's-suppertime miouws from Solti all do their bit to ensure that the pages will wing their way back to the Euston Road rather than hitting the shredder.

If you're giving a concert, you play the music and it's gone for good, unless you're fortunate enough to have a CD company present to record your every move. But if you're writing a book, that book is going to be on the shelves for ever. It'll be there - somewhere - long after you're taking harp lessons in the great conservatoire in the sky (or violin lessons in the other place). If you think about this too much, you can start going bananas. The manuscript stage is fine: it's your new book, it's real, you've done it, hooray! Even copy-editing is fine: you can change anything and everything, phew! But proofs...this is when you see the thing in print, laid out on its pages, and it's your last chance to change anything. And when you are still waking up at 2am thinking "Oh my God, is ABC what really happens when XYZ is starting?" and "How many instances do I have of W saying, 'HCHRTYSVDYE'? and should there be any at all?" and "Oh heck, can a dog can live that long?" gradually becomes clear that some of us are simply incapable of ever being happy with our own work, whether for a good reason or not. And then you have to "just send it off".

Waiting for the courier to arrive now.

Saturday, September 30, 2006


What a *&%$^&(&* week. Computer virus. Blown fuses in the light circuits on the 1st floor (not that I object to candlelit baths, but you can have too much of a good thing). Proof-reading that proves, as always, endless and frightening. And Solti is having trouble with a new neighbour - a Russian Blue named Maurice (no kidding) who has moved into No.1 and is causing serious diplomatic incidents among the local felines. Imminent change of name from Solti to Scarface...

And so I have missed doing my 'full report' on Le chant at St Nazaire; I've also missed writing up two amazing concerts. First, the Razumovsky Ensemble at the Wigmore, turning their hands to Schubert's 'Death and the Maiden' Quartet and the Mendelssohn D minor Trio, to their usual roof-raising standard. And the other was the LPO's opening concert at the QEH which featured Leonidas 'chocolate fiddler' Kavakos in the most astonishing performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto that I've ever heard. Plenty of violinists play like angels, but Kavakos plays like God.

Worth mentioning, too, some breath-of-fresh-air programming from Vladimir Jurowski - the second half was Schchedrin's Carmen Suite, a Carmen-goes-to-Moscow take on Bizet, clever, funny, powerful, and a fabulous orchestral showpiece, especially for the percussion. Brilliant.

Monday, September 25, 2006

good intentions scuppered by computer virus

It seems my attempts to blog St Nazaire are doomed. A computer virus somehow got through our expensive security systems and has ****** Tom's system, which means broadband is down. Our amazing and glorious webmaster was here until midnight fixing the machine last night - it's now working again - but new internet system isn't, so am relying on laptop with dodgy WiFi and slow dial-up connection for access. talk about from the sublime to the ridiculous, but there we go. I guess this is one thing Pauline Viardot didn't have to deal with.

A short report about Le Chant and a gallery of photos can be found on my permasite, however.

Friday, September 22, 2006

famous last words.... much for my laptop's WiFi, which packed in on our second day in St Nazaire.

Back now, walking on air after an experience of the is-this-really-happening-will-someone-please-pinch-me-to-check variety. Briefly, 'Le chant de l'amour triomphant' raised the roof. It proved better than I'd ever hoped or expected - entirely thanks to the phenomenal team of musicians and Marie-Christine Barrault who performed it with absolute empathy.

A fuller report to follow - watch this space..

Monday, September 18, 2006

Letter from St Nazaire #1

And here it is: my first post from anywhere other than my study. Magic, this WiFi business, once you work it out.

Here we are in St Nazaire, fresh off the train from Paris and preparing for evening no.1. Paris was wet, misty, oppressive - though, of course, beautiful as only Paris can be - but here the sea air manages to be crisp and mellow at the same time. The hotel has been wonderfully refurbished since my last visit 2 years ago and now Tom is practising his Mozart quintet. Avec le mute de practice, just in case some of the other string players are within earshot...and there are a few... We arrived just too late to catch the first concert of the evening - two per day, 6pm and 8.30pm - so acquaintance with the Quince Quartet will have to wait for the moment - but the later concert includes Philippe with his regular trio, Jeremy Menuhin and Raphael Wallfisch, in Beethoven's Op.1 No.1 and to close, the Dohnanyi Piano Quintet, which I haven't heard in decades.

My third visit here - so St Nazaire feels almost a home from home. It doesn't win on the Picturesque French Seaside Town stakes, since the Brits carpet-bombed it in the war trying to get rid of the German submarine base - the great concrete hulking eyesore of which has proved indestructible to this day. But there is atmosphere nevertheless; friendliness, enthusiasm for the festival and a flock of volunteers who support the festival with transport etc.

What I'm not used to, though, is feeling nervous. 'My' concert is on Thursday and with any luck I may meet 'my' actress, Marie-Christine Barrault, in about one hour's time. There's not much I can actually do, since the script is written, has been tweaked to accommodate the songs that Francois wants to sing and has now been translated into fine French too. Will the reality remotely match my mental image of LE CHANT DE L'AMOUR TRIOMPHANT? Or have I perhaps written - er - utter claptrap? Will Philippe actually want to walk from the back of the hall up to the stage, playing the fiddle, or is this unworkable? How are they going to get the string quartet on to the platform without holding up the action too much? Will Ruth like the Viardot song I sent her last week? It's all very scary, but up to a point all I can do is leave it to its own devices now....

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Good news!

Next week, more good news: the St Nazaire Festival, where my new 'literary concert' script 'The Song of Triumphant Love' is being performed for the first time on 21 September - in French. Philippe Graffin, Francois Le Roux and the actress Marie-Christine Barrault are at the heart of it and it's the 'story behind the story behind the Chausson Poeme'. St Nazaire gets a mention, we've discovered, in the immortal Jacques Tati classic 'Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot', in which a very genteel lady gazes along the French coast and remarks, "Is that St Nazaire over there?"

Yes, it is. If I can get the laptop to do WiFi stuff (technotwit-dom permitting), I'll try to report while there. If not, A BIENTOT...

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Pieces of news

Sad news from Edinburgh. Our deepest condolences to Sir Charles Mackerras, whose daughter died of cancer a few hours before he had to conduct Beethoven's 9th.

Steven Isserlis had the last word - or note - on the 11 September Newsnight yesterday playing 'Song of the Birds' following a few words from Jeremy Paxman about how musicians are in trouble because instruments are being banned from airline cabins. Thanks to Mark Elder, everyone knows about this now. I just wish news reporters didn't seem to think it was funny. I'd like to see their faces if the equivalent happened to them when they had mortgages to pay, families to feed and contracts to honour.

Lyudmila has the latest from Leeds on who's got through to the 2nd round - yes, Tom Poster made it, as did Italian Roberto Plano (already a familiar name) and Russian-Israeli Boris Giltberg, who's recently made a very impressive debut disc for EMI.

Over in The Guardian, Marshall Marcus, the new head of music at the South Bank Centre, tells us what happened when Haydn came to London. If anyone deserves a year to himself, it's Haydn - roll on 09. Also there, Charlotte Higgins speaks out about the new 'opera' at ENO about...well, you have to see this to believe it. I haven't been to it myself, having deep-seated allergies to rap, trendiness for its oww sake and the transformation of creative culture into an extension of the news. Probably ought to, of course, so that I could speak from a perspective of educated experience, but I've got a novel to proof-read.

Last, here's my own latest operatic effort, from yesterday's Independent, for some light relief. Apparently Gounod sold the rights to Faust for 6,666 francs...

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Full Marks!

Look what Mark Elder did with his speech at the Last Night of the Proms! Good man.

Unfortunately this report also shows the total intransigence and stupidity of the Department of Transport. Looks like the UK will soon be 'Das Land ohne Musik' once more.

UPDATE: Monday morning: Mark's high-profile broadcast has certainly attracted the attention it needed. For the first time there are serious rumblings that something may, at some point, be done, when anybody can be bothered to come back to Westminster and run the country. Here' The Guardian's report on the subject.

The Independent's report is particularly good.

And The Daily Telegraph has made it the subject of a leader today too.

Next, here's what The Times says.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Leeds is back

The Leeds International Piano Competition is underway again, and the full list of competitors can be found on its website here. With Leeds - actually, with most international piano competitions - I'm always struck by the dominance of pianists from Russia, China and, this year, Korea. But Italians have quite a history of doing well in this contest (especially ones with high cheekbones, for some reason) and there are even two British candidates for patriotic pianophiles to cheer on if so inclined. I will be interested to see how the hugely talented Tom Poster gets on.

Lack of numerous Brits in British competitions is a perennial grouch in this country, when anybody can be bothered writing about music competitions at all. But the explanation is really very simple. Pianists in Russia, China and Korea are valued highly, supported in their training by the state and taught thoroughly in a fine tradition and in a system of specialist music schools from the very beginning. Pianists in the UK, on the whole, are not. That's life.

My next novel, ALICIA'S GIFT, explores the life of a gifted young pianist growing up in Derbyshire. It's about what her talent does to her family, and what her family does to her talent. I am proof-reading it now. Writing this post is a displacement activity.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Gypsy fiddler and the Norwegian footy fans...

One of the many remarkable things we saw in Budapest, where Norway was playing Hungary in a football championship qualifier...

UPDATE: More pics from my Budapest trip appear on my perma-site: go to my news page and look for the link to Budapest photos near the top.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


Been here, seen last. I've been wanting to go to Budapest for decades. Friends who studied there would return with tales of stylistic expertise, pedagogical inspiration, extraordinary traditions, cheap music, cheaper opera tickets and excessively good cakes. Violinist friends flocked to Hungarian-born teachers living abroad (here or Canada); the great 19th-century violinists and the traditions they left behind sprang almost wholly from Hungary, including Josef Joachim and Leopold Auer and later Jelly d'Aranyi, who was Joachim's great-niece. As for Gypsy fiddling traditions, have you ever seen anything quite as astonishing as Roby Lakatos?

Now the place is an extraordinary melting pot of old and new, 19th-century Art Nouveau grandeur alongside communist-era concrete heaps, bullet-scarred, soot-covered buildings in downtown Pest contrasting with sleek, renovated, olde-worlde central Europe for tourists - but exquisite nonetheless - in Buda. Cranes everywhere. This is a city on the up, enchanting, atmospheric, disturbing, magical and irresistable. Grand yet gentle, forbidding yet vulnerable, the poetic soul of Budapest has got under my skin, and its continuity lies not least in its music.

More soon...

Thursday, August 31, 2006


The Guardian has a special offer today that could be good news for those of us who still have LPs, 33s, 45s and cassette tapes, but would like to transfer them into digital format. I hasten to add that I haven't tried this at home, so this post does not constitute a recommendation, just an indication of interest in the concept.

Could this be a solution to my archive of interview tapes? There are hundreds of the ruddy things, dating back more than 15 years, and although it's probably been crazy to keep them all, among them a few gems that I'd be sad to see rendered unplayable, eg Shura Cherkassky ("I don't know why I'm telling you all this..."); Witold Lutoslawski ("We played it through on the table edge..."); and Rosalyn Tureck ("I play Bach HIS way"). With my usual techno-uselessness, I've had no idea how to transform their outdated format.

Has anybody tried this system? Or any others?

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Thought for the day

Found this as Quote of the Week on Tasmin Little's website:

"People who make music together cannot be enemies,
at least while the music lasts."

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)

More where this came from.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Tango passion

Seems that Maureen Lipman, writing in The Guardian today, loves tango too. Wonderful. Good bank holiday Monday reading for those of us who haven't braved the Notting Hill Carnival.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

quick explanation

I've disabled & hidden the comments for the preceding post because I received a snide, personal, abusive missive from some total stranger hiding his/her identity (as such people always do); being short-tempered after a filthy week, I decided to publish it and respond with a strong 4-letter word, which it deserved. Then I got scared that the parent site might decide to blacklist this blog for bad language, and it just wasn't worth the risk.

It's odd, but it has never once occurred to me to post an abusive message on a blog. It has never occurred to me to write snide, personal, abusive anythings to anybody, however obnoxious I think they are (OK, the occasional fantasy now and then, but I don't do it). I just save up their characters for a future novel...

But hey, you don't like it? Don't read it. Spend your time getting a life instead.

The latest...

Now BA says they're not letting any instruments into any cabins, but they're saying it's BAA's fault (=British Airports Authority, which is being widely blamed for the security chaos last week). It seems that everywhere else in Europe is fine...just here... A violin soloist friend tells me that her various colleagues are taking Eurostar to Paris & flying from there. A report in yesterday's Independent said that the Musicians' Union is going to do its best but can't do anything much at the moment because Parliament is in recess (=sun-tanning in Rome while the fiddles burn...?).

SO: our holiday is off, we lose £400 (neither BA nor travel insurance can't be bothered with musicians needing to take their instruments) and I suspect that in fact we're getting off relatively lightly. There are musicians around who stand to lose a hell of a lot more in earnings if they have to factor in extra travel time and cost to get out of Britain before they can get anywhere else. I'm seriously wondering whether two years from now, I'll want to carry on living in this country.

The best thing about London - a crazy, mismanaged, exorbitant place - is that it is a hub of world cultural activity at the highest level. It's immensely multicultural and cosmopolitan, musicians and other creative types gravitate here from all corners of the globe and our friends include people from Italy, France, Canada, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, the US, Uganda, South Africa, Edinburgh, Finland, Hungary, Ireland and Denmark, to name but a few. If we are now going to turn into a xenophobic, paranoic, protectionist little island - as the USA appears to be doing its best to become - and our musician friends are forced to base themselves elsewhere, as may yet happen if this bloody mess is here to stay, then I just won't want to be here any more.

Of course everyone is delighted and relieved that this latest terrorism plot was caught in time: the security services did a fantastic job, the airports et al may have been in a mess but have probably done OK, realistically, given the circumstances. Of course all those cabin baggage restrictions are supposed to be for passengers' safety. But this degree of inflexibility is not reasonable. That's what's so frightening. Excessive, unreasoned, ignorant, knee-jerk reactions.

It would be very easy to say that the latest foiled terror plot was a result of Blair's support for Bush's insane policies in the Middle East - quite possibly it is. (I didn't vote for Blair, by the way, & wouldn't have touched Bush with a barge-pole.) That's too simplistic an explanation, but there's no doubt that this hasn't helped. Normally, I'm reasonably proud to be British, thanks to our amazing literary tradition, but frankly, at this moment, I am positively ashamed of it, something I never felt even in the darkest days of Thatcher.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Here we go, here we go, here we go...again

Late August, everyone's away on holiday and it's time to start blustering about the Last Night of the Proms. Yes, it's outdated, too British and pretty bloody silly. Yes, it's probably not the most appropriate programming at times when Tony Blair & co are helping GWB to blast apart his latest choice of adversary. No, it doesn't put people off music. Actually, it attracts thousands to imitation Last Night of the Proms concerts all over the place. And to some, it could also be classified as harmless fun. Naturally, the papers have to come out with the usual stuff all over again. Could that be because there's not much else going on here right now, bar a few nasty Russian operas, one of the most journalistically uninspiring Proms seasons I can remember

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

How not to write a book

Right now I should be battling my way through the difficult third quarter of my third novel. This is always a tricky point in the plot - how many operas, for example, founder exactly there? I'll save that topic for another day. Suffice it to say that I've been resorting to unfortunate displacement activities, and the latest I've discovered is the BBC Radio 3 Message Boards, onto which I had previously failed to venture.

I was amused by a discussion that had a good dig at's news section, which was a little slow at the Schwarzkopf obituary starting post. Readers commented on how annoyed they were that the site had posted next to no news for two weeks in July (er, was someone on holiday, perhaps?). Cue a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek contribution from BBC Music Mag editor Oliver Condy, inviting the said annoyed readers to try his online news section instead, and with a dry charm that few could resist. I think he won...

...You see how easy it is to get sucked in to this useless fun. You just pop a few details into the form, pick a user name (obscure composers are popular: in one sitting I found both 'Charles Valentin Alkan' and 'Sorabji'), click a response to the confirmation email they send you, and away you go. Did I come out better informed than before? Not sure. But I managed to while away a perfectly pleasant hour that should have been spent more productively elsewhere on my computer.

Still, with broadband it works out cheaper than your average 'Sex and the City' fan's retail therapy. And it's less fattening than chocolate.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


I'm sorry to say that the latest on carrying hand-baggage on flights to/from Britain is that violins appear to be a no-no.

Tom has been carrying his violin into the cabin as hand-luggage for 25 years. Yesterday we hung on for about ten minutes to get through to the airline on which we are meant to fly to France next month, listening to pre-recorded platitudinous messages about their wonderful customer service. Finally Tom was told by some idiot of a rep that he can put his violin in the hold. He explained that he can't: it's liable to be smashed by those shott-putting bag handlers, being 150 years old and worth a five-figure sum. 'In that case you can afford to buy another ticket for it,' said the rep, who evidently hadn't listened to the platitudinous messages about their wonderful customer service.

Another call to the same company, answered by a different rep, produced the information that the new regulations about the size of hand-luggage have been in place since 1 August. A visit to the website produced, after much searching, a kind of afterthought suggesting that they've been in place since 1 July. Nobody mentioned this when we bought our tickets to France. We have the distinct impression that the airline is using the current crisis to cash in.

We're supposed to fly to Nice for a week's long-awaited holiday, then to Nantes for the St Nazaire Festival (hence Tom's need for his violin), then home from Nantes. We may have to ditch the whole plan and drive across northern France to St N instead, thanks to the airline, which by the way is refusing to offer a refund even though this situation is their fault, not ours.

Apparently orchestras on tour should be OK because they have organisational clout and proper equipment. It's the individual violinist, travelling between small chamber music festivals, who is basically up s**t creek without a fiddle.

BUT even as I write, conflicting information is still emanating from every orifice of the airline in question: the latest this morning is that the 'new' regulations about hang-luggage size are the same as the 'old' ones and that the airline can be 'flexible'. Confusing, but promising. So, no panics yet, please...

UPDATE: 12 noon. I think Tom has got it sorted, though I'll only believe it when we are actually on that plane. There's no problem with the French internal flight from Nice to Nantes - the rep we spoke to there seemed to think that Britain and the US have gone completely bonkers, and she may be right. Advice in the meantime: check with the airline before you travel, be polite and persuasive and try to get something in writing about taking the fiddle aboard. A forum on earlier this year about problems on a particular US airline saw several ladies advocating tears as a suitable last resort!

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Violin - or out?

You may find the comments on this BBC site interesting re the problems musicians are now facing because they're not allowed to carry their valuable and delicate instruments on to the planes. The security guard who says 'if you don't like it, don't fly, there's more to life than music' is rather missing the point: music is a musician's livelihood! Get real yourself, Laura.

Dear friends who play violins, violas, or anything else that normally flies as hand baggage - please write in and tell us your experiences about travelling over the past few days? What are you going to do? I haven't heard any reports that terrorists are planning to blow up planes using fiddles, which are not liquid, but the blanket ban on hand-luggage nevertheless is playing havoc with musicians' plans. I sincerely hope that the Musicians Union will be able to tackle the airlines and work out something sensible, and fast.

UPDATE, MONDAY 11.45am: this is the latest on the hand baggage situation here in the UK - seems to be easing a bit. As far as I can tell, this means that flutes, oboes and, I hope, violins will be OK, but not sure about violas, cellos and tubas.