Saturday, December 29, 2007

He's got plenty of strings

Sounds worth a trip to Leeds in the middle of winter to see the delectable Jonathan Dove's new opera The Adventures of Pinocchio. Richard Morrison in The Times says:
"Tidings of great joy: a Christmas miracle in Leeds! A modern composer has produced a new opera that is funny, poignant, tuneful, spectacular – and, best of all, stunningly conceived for all the family. To find an opera house full of eight-year-olds, held spellbound throughout a show lasting nearly three hours, is rare enough. To find that discerning adults – and yes, even grizzled old critics – are also grinning from ear to ear at the final curtain is pretty well unprecedented.

This must be Jonathan Dove’s finest hour. The Hackney-based composer has produced some entertaining community and youth-orientated shows over the past couple of decades. But with the help of a delightfully droll libretto from his long-time collaborator, Alasdair Middleton, he has turned Carlo Collodi’s classic fairytale into a surreal wonderland of music-theatre that leaves an indelible impression..."

I'm a great fan of Dove, having fallen madly in love with his community opera Tobias and the Angel when it was first performed in a converted church in Islington a few years back; much enjoyed Flight at Glyndebourne, too. It must have been a tall order to write a Pinocchio since every 5-year-old in this country still knows all the original songs, more than 60 years after the film's release. Pinocchio even pipped Korngold's score for The Sea Hawk to the Oscar post. Not much chance of my going north to hear the new opera at the moment as have to administer lemsips to ailing hubby, but with a reception like that perhaps the Dove will wing its way south before long.

More from composer and librettist about the opera in The Guardian, here.

Friday, December 28, 2007

8 reasons to spend Xmas in Paris

1. At Christmas, London dies, but Paris stays alive and has fun. The Metro runs on 25 December and you can buy flowers, a sandwich or a steaming glass of vin chaud if and when you need to.

2. Nobody insists that you spend 25 December cooking or eating turkey, Brussels sprouts and boiled plum pudding that takes three days to digest. Instead, try a little foie gras, chevre, la bûche de Noël (Xmas log-shaped cake)...

3. You can experience some of the greatest wonders of the artistic world. For example, the Monet Waterlilies in the expertly refitted Orangerie.

4. Another was Matthias Goerne singing 'O du mein holder Abendstern'. There were a number of world-class voices on the vast Bastille stage - not all of them covered in red paint (more about this later) - but when Goerne opens his mouth, you're in another world. He has a unique gift for 'innigkeit' - the more quietly and inwardly he sings, the more it pulps your heart.

5. That's before we mention the orchestra and Seiji Ozawa, or the fabulous Eva-Marie Westbroek, let alone the production by Robert Carsen - a radical reinterpretation of Tannhauser which naturally some people didn't like but which I thought worked an absolute treat. A clue: the programme cover showed Manet's 'Dejeuner sur l'herbe'.

6. The easygoing atmosphere in Paris makes Xmas here in the UK look like one big ridiculous shoe-horn designed to stress the population to crazy levels, forcing them to overspend and binge-drink until their livers and bank accounts pack up. Across La Manche, it's not quite such a big deal.

7. The Eurostar from St Pancras to the Gare du Nord now takes only two and a quarter hours.

8. Paris is Paris. Given a choice, why be anywhere else?

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Joyeux noel!

Merry Xmas & happy everything to everyone,

lots of love from me & Tom & Solti.

Back soon.


Xmas alternatives

Impending Xmas always causes a few ripples in musical spheres, mainly lousy 'Messiah' performances. Some of us batten down the hatches even if we love the thing, or the inescapable Nutcracker, or Cinderella ('Italian style' as the ROH bills its current Rossini). Anyway, I promised some alternatives, so for starters here are a few things to do.

Read, in The Independent, about Barenboim's plea for proper musical education;

Read this fascinating article from The Times by Dan Rosenberg, searching out Christmas music traditions from rural Sweden to Venezuela;

Also in The Times, experience Richard Morrison in a bad mood at Cecilia Bartoli's Barbican gig and Hilary Finch telling it like it is re Emmenuelle Haim's conducting of Bach and Handel (The One Where Dessay Fails To Show Up).

Tune into a roster of broadcasts of ballet and opera from Covent Garden on the BBC. We are promised:

Romeo and Juliet with Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta, BBC2, Xmas Day, 4.25pm (I was there at the show. It's glorious! Set your video if you haven't finished your turkey in time.)

Carmen starring Anna-Caterina Antonacci and Jonas Kaufmann - BBC2, Boxing Day, 1.45pm;

La fille du regiment, Pelly production with Dessay and Florez, BBC4, 30 December, 7.30pm. Still the best thing I saw all year.

And, if it floats your boat, The Tales of Beatrix Potter, with the Royal Ballet in animal masks, BBC1, New Year's Eve, 1.15pm.

Or come to Paris to see Tannhauser tomorrow (the strike is over). But what has Tannhauser to do with Christmas, you may ask? Nothing! Hooray!

Friday, December 21, 2007


Today is the Winter Solstice and shortest day of the year, so traditionally (well, two years ago) it became the occasion for our very own virtual music awards ceremony.

Welcome once again to the Cyberposhplace! Please help yourself to a glass of Virtualvintagechampers and the delectable canapes made by our very own Virtualcelebritychef. And now let's have a big round of applause for each and every musician who has touched the hearts of his or her audience during the past 12 months....

Thank you! Quiet, please. Now would the following winners please approach the podium where Sir Georg 'Ginger Stripes' Solti will allow you to stroke his fur coat just this once, and will give you a special prize purr.

Icon of the year: Mstislav Rostropovich, who passed away in April. A hero, an inspiration, and a bloody phenomenal cellist. Without him, the music of the past century wouldn't have taken the shape that it did. Adieu, dear maestro.

Pianists of the year: joint mad props to Marc-Andre Hamelin for his simply staggering recording of Alkan, and Piers Lane, who not only plays like the angel of the Antipodes but has also managed to turn the National Gallery's Myra Hess Day into an annual event. Last but by no means least, a special mention for Pascal Devoyon, whose pages I turned during the Messiaen Visions de l'Amen in St Nazaire. That was quite an experience!

Violinists of the year: Tasmin Little, for an unforgettable performance of Bartok's Solo Sonata a couple of months ago, but also for her gameness and good humour in agreeing to go busking for our Indy feature at just a few hours' notice. Watch out for her very exciting new project in January. And Philippe Graffin, as ever, and not only for commissioning stuff like plays and short stories from me: just hear that tone, that bow arm, those slides! Another interesting project is afoot, too, of which much more next year...

Singer of the year: Juan Diego Florez. What a knockout. What a dreamboat. Especially singing high Cs at the distance of 4 metres (or, even better, across the sofa in the ROH press office interview room).

Youthful artist of the year [NB I disqualify teenagers from this; too many artists are pushed too hard for being too young, so instead...]: the accomplished and adorable cellist Natalie Clein, whose new Elgar recording is happily nothing like Jacqueline du Pre's.

Conductor of the year: Vladimir Jurowski. Yes, again - but there can be no other contender, as far as I'm concerned.

Interviewee of the year: Pinchas Zukerman who declared, tapping my right forefinger, "I always say to my students: 'This is your bank account'." Close seconds: Cecilia Bartoli, Natalie Dessay and Sting (watch this space!).

CD of the year: Terezin, recorded by Anne Sofie von Otter with Bengt Forsberg, Daniel Hope and friends. This is one of the most extraordinary discs that's ever come my way, and the most devastating. Ilse Weber, a young nurse, volunteered to go with the sick children of Terezin to death at Auschwitz so that she could take care of them em route; her songs are the heart of this recording. It's said she sang 'Wiegala' with the children in the gas chamber. The CD also features music by Pavel Haas, Hans Krasa and the solo violin sonata by Erwin Schulhoff, plus some amazing, black-humoured cabaret songs.

Lifetime Achievement Award: British violist Rosemary Nalden, for her work in Soweto with Buskaid. Check back here for a reminder of their glorious appearance at the Proms.

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 2007:

Proudest moment: Standing on the RFH platform uttering the words "Welcome to the UK premiere of Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane!".

Next-proudest moments: publication of Alicia's Gift; and writing my first play, A Walk Through the End of Time, and seeing it performed in St Nazaire.

Most affecting moment: Attending the world premiere of Nigel Osborne's opera Differences in Demolitions in Mostar, Bosnia.

Most unfortunate moment: there've been a few, but I have managed not to sue anyone.

Biggest sigh of relief: realising that my dubious language skills had only seriously screwed up on one point in my first-ever French interview, with Ouest-France (I got 'journal' et 'magasin' muddled and the result was a lovely romantic article about how I first met Philippe in a violin shop!)

Personality of the year: Joyce Hatto. In one way or another.

Feline of the year: .....[ouch! Solti, get your teeth out of my ankle!].

Man of the year: Erich Wolfgang Korngold. (Sorry, Tom.)



Boldog születésnapot, Andras!

Happy birthday today to Andras Schiff, in Hungarian or otherwise. Here he is in a magical performance of his compatriot Bela Bartok's Piano Concerto No.3 with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra & Simon Rattle (1997). More of this can be found on Youtube.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

BBC Music Magazine Award shortlists!

The new issue of BBC Music Magazine includes the shortlists for next year's Awards. Visit to see the lot, hear extracts and vote for your favourites.

There are some real gems among them and I suspect the decisions aren't going to be easy. (I remember last year's fun and games on the jury with some pleasure, though it was quite hair-raising at the time! But in case you were wondering, they choose a different panel of reviewers each year.) Many of the people-of-the-moment feature prominently - Natalie Dessay leads in two out of three Opera nominations, La Sonnambula and Il trionfo di Tempo e del Disinganno; Mark Padmore soars forth in a Handel disc with The English Concert under Vocal, which category also includes what would be my personal choice for disc of the year, Anne Sofie von Otter's Terezin. And under Chamber it is nice to see a disc by the Nash Ensemble of quintets by Coleridge-Taylor. Meanwhile all the Orchestrals begin with S - Shostakovich, Saint-Saens and Schumann.

And what's this? The biggest photo in the whole section shows none other than Rustem Hayroudinoff, whose Rachmaninov discs on Chandos do keep being compared favourably to Richter's - once more for this one, "equal even to the greatness of Richter," says David Nice - and whose latest, the Etudes-Tableaux Op.33 & 39, has been shortlisted alongside Mitsuko Uchida's Beethoven 'Hammerklavier' and Steven Isserlis's Bach Cello Suites.

I won't have many fingernails left by the time they make the announcements.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A birthday present from OC

No, you're not on the wrong blog - this is JDCMB. But our dear friend Opera Chic is a dab hand with Photoshop, which JD ain't, and sent me this stunning birthday present last week, inspired by a press release I forwarded to her that was entitled, pricelessly enough, JOHN ELIOT GARDINER RE-OPENS OPERA-COMIQUE IN FRONT OF FRENCH CABINET. (Here in London I have a very nice French cabinet that we bought on E-bay. I think it's walnut wood.) Salut, Maestro Jean Eliot Jardinier! Et merci bien, chere OC!

The serious point, though, is that Paris's historic theatre was indeed reopened by said maestro on 13 December, in front of not a cupboard but probably more politicians than ever set foot inside London's opera houses separately, let alone together. The show was Chabrier's rarely-heard opera bouffe L'Etoile. According to the press release - tragically, I missed the event, being on the wrong side of La Manche - the opera includes "a trio about the use of tickling in foreplay" as well as dealing with the delights of green Chartreuse.

Gardiner and his attendant orchestra and choir are starting a yearly residency at the Opera-Comique and on other occasions will be performing Carmen and Pelleas et Melisande there - both operas which were first seen on that very stage.

Monday, December 17, 2007


Christmas cheer, anyone? The so-called Arts Council is about to undertake the "bloodiest cull in half a century" on England's cultural life. According to The Guardian:
In music, two respected chamber orchestras, the City of London Sinfonia and the London Mozart Players, have been told to brace themselves for the worst.

The word 'Olympics' does not feature in this article, but I don't think it can be far off. Odd to think now that when we first heard the news that London had won the 2012 'Orrific Games, we were actually pleased. Ho ho ho.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Viva Ida!

JD meets Ida Haendel in the green room of the Wigmore Hall. This was one of countless memorable moments during the visit of this doyenne of the violin to the Razumovsky Academy, organised by the inimitable Oleg Kogan, during which she gave masterclasses to the gifted youngsters and performed in their Wigmore Hall concert. She played the Bach Chaconne. Nobody who was there will ever forget it.

Go to the Razumovsky website for my full account of the day and lots more pics.

All the Razumovsky students and young artists are immensely impressive and maybe it's not fair for me to single one out - nevertheless, keep a look-out for the simply staggering talent of Anna-Liisa Bezrodny (left), the Razumovsky Academy's glorious 26-year-old violinist from Estonia. She has one of those all-giving and all-encompassing tones whose white heat can lift you right out of your chair. Hers was the last of the lessons - on the Sibelius concerto - and I've never before seen a masterclass which ended in a great big hug centre stage. Anna-Liisa recently won the Gold Medal at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she's been studying with Oleg among others. I am pleased, but not surprised, to see that on her Myspace profile she lists, under 'influences', the name 'Hirschhorn'.

Music censorship at the BBC

Yesterday The Independent ran a fascinating article by Spencer Leigh about the censorship of popular music at the BBC between the mid 1930s and 1960s. Here are a few nuggets:

In 1942, the BBC's director of music, Sir Arthur Bliss, along with other luminaries, had written wartime instructions for the committee and had allowed the banning of songs "which are slushy in sentiment"....

...Bliss, as might be expected, was staunchly against tunes borrowed from classical works. The application of Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu for the melody of "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" prevented it from being played. The instruction led to surprising bans: sometimes whole albums by Liberace, Lawrence Welk and Mantovani were prohibited. The score of Kismet was seen as suspect as it borrowed from Borodin, and so "Baubles, Bangles And Beads" was not played....

...The most unlikely record to slip through the net has to be B Bumble and the Stingers with their 1962 chart-topper, "Nut Rocker". The committee deliberated hard about it and concluded: "This instrumental piece is quite openly a parody of a Tchaikovsky dance tune, is clearly of an ephemeral nature, and in our opinion will not offend reasonable people."

Auntie's little committee appears to have been functioning in a faintly similar vein to Hollywood's Hayes Commission, which wrecked countless film scripts (though not for the sake of eliminating the 'slushy in sentiment').

I wonder whether these files may help to clarify a matter that has split the British musical community for years. A number of composers, some of whom are no longer with us having died in possibly unwarrented obscurity, insisted that their music had been rejected for broadcast by the BBC in the days when William Glock was controller of Radio 3 because it did not toe the establishment line on what was acceptable in new music. Others insist this was not true: no censorship, no party line, just a clever man refusing to broadcast bad music. As far as I'm aware we don't know, yet, what really happened. What's evident is that many composers had fallen foul of something or someone, and had their lives and careers wrecked by it.

Welcome to Little England, as was. Some day the truth will out, one way or another.

For the moment, prurience lives on in the very air breathed in the ivory towers of this green and pleasant land.

I can't help remembering all those critics blustering that Heliane was 'blasphemous' and 'degenerate' - dearie me, it has tunes, it has harmonies, it is intensely emotional and it advocates the divine approval of a loving sexual relationship between a man and a woman. Apparently this makes it horrific, and worth restoring Nazi terminology for. Yet today we're contending with Gangsta Rap glorifying across the airwaves extreme violence both racial and sexual. Maybe awareness of such cultural trends has never got past the college gates, the formal halls, the cellars of vintage Bordeaux. A sense of perspective has gone missing, no?

My high horse is going to pasture for the day now, while I head for the library to look up someone who became virtually the voice of the BBC in a totally different way...

Friday, December 14, 2007

This afternoon

I will be giving a reading from Alicia's Gift at Hampton Hill Library this afternoon at 2.30pm, and talking a bit about why I wrote a book about a child prodigy pianist. Admission free, refreshments provided, further details here.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

mad props to...

Opera Chic: 'Dessay + Duchen = YAY!';

Pliable at the Overgrown Path, following up the fascinating branch line around the gamelan and the work of Colin McPhee, with samples of this extraordinary and highly influential music online;

Erin over at Fugue State, for a lovely drink at the RFH yesterday just after I'd interviewed an awfully famous French pianist about the forthcoming Messiaen Festival, From the Canyons to the Stars, which opens in February. Erin goes to a very game orchestra for late starters in Mile End, which sounds like a lot of fun...but I'm hardly touching my piano at the moment, let alone my violin...

Yes, MY violin. Hey, dudes, you didn't know I had one of those, did you? Well, I do. The violin is my first love and I am a self-confessed fiddle fetishist. Unfortunately I get the fingering muddled above third position, and I can't do vibrato properly. Wobbles,'s not the same thing. I once asked dear hubby if he'd give me some lessons to get me started again. He said yes. Sadly, he thought I was joking.

But my God, I love that instrument when someone plays it like this, or this, or this.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Dessay today

Dark, petite and fiercely intelligent, with a quick, cutting sense of irony, Dessay is anything but a traditional diva. Indeed, she had never intended to become an opera singer at all. "It's not a choice. Opera chose me," she declares. Originally, she wanted to be a ballet dancer. "At 13, I realised that I wasn't gifted enough, and I was disappointed. But I thought, OK, I can go on stage as an actress instead."

Read the rest of my interview with the glorious French soprano Natalie Dessay in today's Independent. She will be singing in Bach's Magnificat and Handel's Dixit Dominus at the Barbican on 17 December, with Le Concert d'Astree and Emmanuelle Haim conducting; she'll be back in London for a recital of Italian operatic arias in January; and we can see her in the Laurent Pelly production of La fille du regiment on TV (with JDF) over Xmas.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

It's my birthday, so...

...if I can't post a last blast of Korngold today, then when can I?! Here is the beginning of the rarely-if-ever-seen Give Us This Night, with the incomparable Jan Kiepura singing his heart out in Sorrento. Enjoy.

In case you were wondering, my birthday present is an Enescu letter from 1947 to add to our autograph collection. We missed a Korngold one on Ebay by 2 seconds.

Speaking of Enescu, who taught Ida Haendel, there will be more very soon about the extraordinary day we spent at the Razumovsky Academy listening to Haendels' masterclasses on Sunday. There was also a surprise in the evening concert.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

RIP Stockhausen

It's the end of an era. Karlheinz Stockhausen, who for decades embodied the very meaning of 'avant-garde', died yesterday aged 79. Yet it's alarming that most people only seem to measure him by his unfortunate comment about 9/11. Whither his legacy? Here's the report from The Guardian.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Red Hedgehog, tomorrow evening

Tomorrow, Saturday 8 December, I'll be at The Red Hedgehog in Highgate to give a reading from 'Alicia's Gift' before a piano recital by Peter Donohoe. North London's new, vibrant and intimate venue for salon-style listening, The Red Hedgehog - named after Brahms's favourite Viennese inn - has a superb concert series and is almost opposite Highgate tube station. Tomorrow Peter will be playing music by Bach arr. Busoni, Liszt, Chopin and Brahms. Reading & book signing at 7pm, concert starts at 8pm. The Red Hedgehog seats just 100, so it's a good idea to book in advance: 020 8348 5050.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Ida Haendel again

UPDATED Thursday 9am: Mad props to my editor at the Independent who agreed to get something about Ida Haendel's London visit into the paper at incredibly short notice. Short and sweet, it's out today.

If anyone wants to read my 1986 article about her from The Strad prior to her Wigmore Hall masterclasses & the Razumovsky Academy concert this Sunday (or even after it) the piece is now in my permasite archive, here.

Happy birthday, Krystian

It's Krystian Zimerman's birthday today. Here he is playing Schubert's G flat major impromptu.

Tres bonne noel to everyone too

So guess where we're spending Xmas this year? And guess which Wagner opera we've booked to go to on Xmas Eve?

C'est comme ca que le biscuit s'emiette (as they probably don't say in France).

Monday, December 03, 2007

In the pink

Occasionally it's good to spend time talking to the kind of person whose words and aura can reconnect us with What It's Really About. Life, music, energy, communication - and all of it embodied in the incandescent tone of his violin (or in this case, below, viola). You come away feeling glad to be alive.

My interview with Pinchas Zukerman will appear in due course in The Strad.

Friday, November 30, 2007

In London on 9 December? Get down the Wigmore Hall, fast

Calling all music-lovers in London, but especially violin-lovers: at very short notice, Ida Haendel is to appear with the Razumovsky Academy at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday 9 December. The inimitable Oleg Kogan has pulled her into the Razumovsky fold; she's reportedly very enthusiastic about everything this remarkable organisation is trying to achieve with regard to providing top-level teaching for exceptionally gifted youngsters. She agreed to give masterclasses for them at another venue, but it turned out that a piano recital cancellation had left the Wigmore free that day, so the event has been moved straight into it. Masterclass is at 3pm and the student concert, in which Haendel will perform as well, is at 7pm. And thanks to the Razumovsky Trust, which is sponsoring the whole thing, admission is free. Tickets required, though - box office 020 7935 2141.

Ida Haendel is perhaps the last Golden Age violinist left on stage today.

Please spread the word! Notice has been so short that publicity in official media is going to be very difficult.

Here is Haendel playing Vivaldi's Concerto for 4 Violins with Isaac Stern, Ivry Gitlis and Shlomo Mintz, conducted by Zubin Mehta. I've heard of line-ups, but this takes some cakes.

Coincidentally, Haendel was my first-ever interviewee, back in 1986. (Talk about jumping in the deep end.) She was very keen to find out how old I was, but wouldn't reciprocate with equivalent info about herself! I last heard her in Verbier about three years ago, when she played the socks off everyone else in town with an unaccompanied violin solo drawn from Swan Lake. I utterly revere her. What more need one say? Here is my article from The Strad, December 1986.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

29 November: the anniversary...

In New York tomorrow, Thursday 29 November, cellist Sam Magill and his colleagues from the Met Orchestra will be playing Korngold at the Lincoln Center Library - the programme includes the Suite for piano left-hand and strings, and the Cello Concerto. The manuscript of the Suite lives in the NYPL as part of the Paul Wittgenstein Collection and the concert is part of the Treasures of the Music Division series.

In Vienna, also tomorrow, John Mauceri wields the baton over a film music anniversary gala at the Konzerthaus (link rather complicated and indirect). Hope they will wheel on a decent chocolate cake too.

And in London on Sunday week, 9 December, at the estimable London Chamber Music Society at the Conway Hall (of which more in the near future), the excellent Chamber Domaine plays the Piano Quintet. Sunday evening, 6.30pm (link superb, designed by Wonderful Webmaster himself).

Grieg plays Grieg

This exhilarating recording is of Edvard Grieg playing his own 'Wedding Day at Troldhaugen' - brisk tempo, fresh tone, a distant memory. It dates from 1903. This year, of course, marks the centenary of his death.

It took me a long time to recover from my first trip to Bergen about seven years ago. It was late May, but we got caught in a blizzard up a mountain, had to buy thick woolly jerseys in the harbour market and discovered that the town's slot machines, instead of chocolate, held umbrellas. And you cannot get away from Grieg. Every shop, every bus, every everything, pipes out Grieg until you start pitying the poor people who have to live with it.

And yet...his house at Troldhaugen is probably the most beautiful composer museum I've seen. It's preserved exquisitely - you imagine that he or his wife Nina might stroll in any moment, brush a soft note from the piano (on which Andsnes has recorded the appropriate music) and guide you down to the bottom of the garden, where the glorified shed in which Grieg liked to compose overlooks first the trees, then the fjord, at last eternity. His grave is embedded in the rocks, deep inside the earth that he loved.

You can assuredly have too much of the war-horses in the form we usually hear them. The piano concerto, the Peer Gynt suite, etc. But the reality goes further than this. A revelatory CD unfurls the full extent of the Peer Gynt incidental music, together with some of the Ibsen, astonishing and inventive when presented in its original form; the Lyric Pieces are intimate, gorgeous, incredibly imaginative slivers of perfection; and the violin sonatas and songs often drag an involuntary tear from the hardest of hearts (at least, I hope they do; the hearts of British critics are far harder than even I had imagined, but enough of that...).

The Wigmore Hall has a Grieg anniversary concert tomorrow featuring chamber music and songs: artists include the matchless Solveig Kringelborn, and our pals Philippe Graffin and Raphael Wallfisch will be strutting their stuff too.

The weather forecast, appropriately enough, is for rain.

And by the way, if anyone wants to glean schadenfreude from the way they imagine I may be licking my wounds over the Heliane reviews, they can't. My beloved colleagues are wrong. And I am proud to the last tooth of what the LPO and Jurowski achieved last week, and privileged to have been part of it. Nor was I the only person in the hall standing up to applaud at the end.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Can you imagine...

...any "normal" radio station taking a risk on broadcasting a four-and-a-half hour piano work by a contemporary American composer? Our friend Pliable has an outlet for just such a work, however, at Overgrown Path's slot on the internet-based Future Radio. The piece is Alvin Curran's Inner Cities, the date is 5 December.

Is the internet the future of music radio? If you are tiring of nose flutes on Radio 3 and sofa ads on Classic FM, if you would like to see broadcasting champion experimental, creative, thought-provoking work, even if it's niche, you may well agree that it is. I reckon this is just the beginning. Read all about it here.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Wilhelm Kempff, 112

Wonderful Webmaster, a fount of anniversary knowledge, writes to remind me that today is the birthday of Wilhelm Kempff, who was born in Juterborg on 25 November 1895. Here is the great pianist doing what he did best: profound Beethoven. The slow movement of the D minor Sonata Op.31 No.2, the 'Tempest', recorded in Paris in 1968.


If anyone logs on today after receiving an automated alert about a post called 'The Truth about Ingerland', apologies - it needed a lot more work and I've deleted it for the time being. More soon.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

And now for something completely different: Cecilia and Maria

Cecilia Bartoli has just brought out a fabulous new CD of music written for and by the legendary 19th-century diva Maria Malibran, Pauline Viardot's big sister and an inspiration to Bellini, Rossini and Mendelssohn, amongst others.

I went to Paris a few weeks back to meet her in her Malibran Bus - a converted lorry in which her ample collection of Malibran memorabilia is on display. It was parked on the Place de la Sorbonne, causing double-takes all round, and it's coming to London with her in December, when she has two concerts at the Barbican (both already sold out!). Here's my article from The Independent a few days ago. I think it ran on Wednesday. I regret to say that I was so busy with the 'Heliane' talk preparations that I hadn't even realised it had come out.

The disc is wonderfully accompanied by a Swiss period-instrument ensemble, La Scintilla, which brings a whole new colour to the bel canto world - it's like watching by candlelight. There's plenty of Bellini and Pacini, but also marvellous virtuoso numbers by Malibran and her father; and for me, the highlight of the disc is a substantial Mendelssohn concert aria 'Infelice', written for Malibran and her second husband, the violinist Charles de Beriot. Bartoli has drafted in Maxim Vengerov to play the solo. It's a masterpiece.

I first read about 'Infelice' a couple of years ago when I was researching Viardot for the St Nazaire 2006 project, and tried to track it down for the show. In the end we dropped the idea since it was rather tangential and much too long for the Viardot/Turgenev story - we already had way too much stuff. But I was sad not to see or hear it. What a treat to discover it on this disc, in the best possible hands.

Another interesting concept: you can get the CD and its associated printed matter in a standard edition, or a deluxe hardback edition, or a superdeluxe version with DVD thrown in for good measure.

Here's a video about it:

Friday, November 23, 2007

Heliane: the reckoning

So here come the reviews. Most are fair, one [correction, two or three once you pass the nationals and hit the Spectator and Musicweb] is monstrously unfair. As always, it's the story that puts most of 'em off, though I reckon I've seen worse.

Meanwhile, if anyone is wondering who the 'eminent German musicologist' was whom I mention in my programme notes, it is Prof Dr Jens Malte Fischer, a professor at the University of Munich who has written extensively on Mahler and Wagner.

Will add the write-ups as they come in. For starters, here are:

Ed Seckerson in The Independent: " succumbs to indulgence over narrative cohesion, and it does so at the same pitch of hysteria for much of its protracted duration. Even so, it's hard to resist the noise that it makes."

Neil Fisher in The Times: "Eighty years on, not just a necessary premiere: at best, an intoxicating one."

Alexander Campbell in "Being greeted with an orchestral layout that includes a piano, organ, celesta and harmonium in addition to an array of percussion, one gets some idea as to the scale of the London Philharmonic’s undertaking to present the piece. No wonder stagings in opera-houses are extremely rare. The real stars of the evening were indeed the orchestral players under Principal Conductor Vladimir Jurowski."

And if you want a good laugh, Rupert Christiansen in The Daily Telegraph: "Ye Gods! In all the annals, can there be an opera containing more unmitigated codswallop than Erich Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane?"

UPDATE: Tim Ashley in The Guardian.

UPDATE: Intermezzo (hiya, glad you didn't leave at the interval!)

ANOTHER UPDATE: Andrew Clark in the Financial Times.

Dear Rupert, I feel exactly that way towards Bruckner's symphonies, the whole lot of them. Bruckner was the biggest pompous, empty, pontificating, boring, overblown windbag who ever set note to paper - but just because I don't like it, that is not going to stop anybody playing the blasted stuff. After twenty-five years of 'giving him a chance' I just vote with my feet and refuse to go. And I won't go to Berg any more, either, because a few months ago I suffered an actual panic attack in the Three Pieces for orchestra - an aural torture that I suspect the prisoners of Guantanamo are spared.

Critics have always hated Korngold, so this guy is just one more poor lost soul who's not eating enough apricots. What the heck. Our reviews may no longer wrap chips, but they do end up being recycled into loo roll, which is where many of them really belong.

Here are some more backstage pics from the other night.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A night to remember

It's Thanksgiving, and there are lots of thanks to give...

Well, they did it! Das Wunder der Heliane was a knockout. The score shone out in all its glory, the drama raised the roof, the orchestra and chorus were utterly stunning. The work, and the performance too, started on a high and only went upwards. The last act, with the gorgeous Zwischenspiel intermezzo to begin, the wild crowd scene, Heliane's procession with offstage bells, and the ensuing transformations and resurrections, was absolutely hair-raising.

I've been so involved in this astonishing project that I don't feel I ought to write a review of it as such. Since there were around 50 press present, I'm sure there'll be plenty of write-ups. Still, by way of preparation for what may be said in the official crits: most of the singers were fabulous, but a couple weren't. Patricia Racette proved the Heliane of our dreams. Michael Hendrick as the Stranger and Andreas Schmidt as the Ruler didn't quite match up, though both improved notably in the third act (please do not trust any critic who doesn't discuss the last act - it was the best both in content and interpretation). To be fair, the role of The Stranger is a real killer and demands nothing less than a Kiepura...I can't help dreaming of Jonas Kaufmann. Willard White as the Porter sang exquisitely, ideally strong and sincere, and Robert Tear as the Blind Judge was the real tenor star of the night. Very fine performances too from Ursula Hesse von den Steinen and Andrew Kennedy (a pity he had only 2 lines to sing).

Some people had doubts about the positioning of the soloists - they were at the front of the choir section, behind and above the orchestra, with an acoustic screen behind them. I don't know where else they could have sat. The platform, which was already extended forward, was jam-packed. This opera was evidently designed for the Vienna Staatsoper and few other venues are the right size for it.

Thank you to everyone who came to my talk - there was a great turnout. It does feel weird to stand on the platform of the Royal Festival Hall, holding forth (thank almighty God I don't have to play the piano). Thanks to those of you who came to say hello afterwards, too - it's nice to know that you are real beyond cyberspace!

Thank you to Vladimir, Tim Walker, the South Bank Centre and every one of the performers for letting this evening take place. People flew thousands of miles to be there - and for all of us in the Korngold fan club, it was a night to remember and cherish forever.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

21 November 2007

No, your eyes are not deceiving you. Today, of all days, has been designated 'No Music Day'. A kind of protest about noise pollution. The poster above says only that it "exists for various reasons. You may have one," which isn't too helpful. As far as I can tell, nobody is taking a blind bit of notice, except for BBC Radio Scotland (and you know what I think of Scotland).

Fortunately no one has told Vladimir Jurowski, or the hundreds of Korngoldistas who have arrived from all corners of the globe for tonight's RFH performance, that today "conductors will not take the podium." Yes, he will. Or that "You will not take part in any sort of music making or listening whatsoever."

Who do these people think they are? The Taliban? Today, 21 November 2007, we are off to give the UK premiere of Das Wunder der Heliane. And it's Saint Cecilia's Day. So neurr. The performance starts at 7pm and I will talk for half an hour at 6pm. See you there.

(Anyone who feels so inclined can go to the National Gallery and hear a pianola of Dame Myra Hess instead (6pm). I've never bought into the player-piano brigade - I've yet to hear a machine play a piano and sound like a human being - but everyone needs to make up their own minds about this.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Switch on In Tune now!

Patricia Racette (Heliane) and Michael Hendrick (The Stranger) are speaking on BBC Radio 3's In Tune about the opera in a few minutes' time.

While waiting, have a look at this article about Patricia.

Dress-ish rehearsal sounded a million dollars in the RFH. And yet more percussion arrived: this time two metal sheets suspended from stands, lurking backstage ready to make whatever noise they make when thumped. I have the impression that the Heliane instruments breed overnight while everyone's away.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into Henry Wood Hall... they rehearsed Act III of Heliane and brought in 7 extra sets of tubular bells of different sizes, plus a bell piano that sat next the harmonium. Oh, and the chorus, and Robert Tear and Willard White and Andrew Kennedy. Finally they ran the act straight through. We were hanging on for dear life up in the balcony (as safe a distance as possible from the offstage brass). It was completely electrifying.

Dazed members of the orchestra wandered out afterwards, some of the older players declaring it the hardest thing they've ever had to play in 40 years, some of the younger ones threatening to move 6000 miles away and have ten babies to escape such ordeals. The horns are happy. The strings are stressed. The chorus has been brought over from Germany and has to be bussed to and from accommodation in Croydon. Vladimir remains ice-cool, zen-focused and totally in control: he has learned every atom of this piece, backwards. He finished the afternoon by explaining calmly that it sounds ideal now, but when we reach the RFH and its acoustic tomorrow, it will sound and feel utterly different...

Official: Korngold is sexy!

Ed Seckerson reviews the Znaider/Jurowski violin concerto performance in today's Independent:

Melodically and harmonically it lays fair claim to being the most erotic music ever written. Nikolaj Znaider intensified that feeling through his refinement, his beautiful sound, his insinuating way with the work's abundance of blue notes. With chromaticism once again a dirty word, Jurowski and the LPO laid down the orchestral textures (shimmering with vibraphone) like black satin sheets of adultery.

If you think the Violin Concerto is erotic, though, just wait till you hear the operas.

Friday, November 16, 2007

It all started with a piece of paper...

I'm just back from gatecrashing a Heliane rehearsal, reeling from the impact of the sheer quantity of sound and from the emotional shock of realising that it's all true. I never dared to hope I would hear this music live. But they are bloody well doing it, under the baton of my absolute hero Vladimir Jurowski - and it's going to be amazing.

There's a striking difference between reading about this work and hearing it on CD, compared to seeing it taking shape in the rehearsal hall. We know it has a huge orchestra. But there's barely room for everyone in the normally spacious Henry Wood Hall. Four keyboard instruments: piano, harmonium, organ and celesta. Two harps. Marimba, xylophone, tubular bells, drums-cymbals-triangle, tamtam. Sixteen first violins, I didn't count how many double basses, a whole extra brass section offstage in the balcony. Then, just when I thought I'd seen it all, in came a chap carrying a guitar. Then there are the singers. And the chorus wasn't even there today.

It all started with a piece of paper. Two and a half or three years ago, I realised this anniversary was looming and it was obvious that if someone didn't do something about it, nothing would happen. I put together my fantasy-football Korngold anniversary festival and took it to the head of classical music at the South Bank Centre, with the suggestion of three strands - concert music, cinema, opera - and the information that Das Wunder der Heliane was in need of a UK premiere. But I never imagined they'd actually do it.

It is a humungous undertaking. Just imagine the number of people involved... not just the 120-odd performers but their spouses soothing the fevered brows, their friends picking up the pieces, their neighbours hearing the practising; then the people who fix the dates, book the travel, shift the suitcases, coach the German, cook the dinners, hire the orchestra parts, rehair the bows, print the programmes, mend the computers, put up the microphones... This performance is going to touch literally thousands of lives in one way or another; every person's experience of it is going to be different. I could probably squeeze at least a trilogy of novels out of it. There's Korngold's granddaughter, welcomed everywhere with open arms, red carpets and chocolate; the singers, whether established stars or young supporting cast, getting to grips with new roles that will stretch them in new ways; old friends, new fans and the inevitable sceptics converging on London... And all because enough people have enough faith in this project to become cogs in the wheel that makes it happen. I sat in the balcony to listen (near the offstage brass) and could almost feel the ghost of Big Erich brushing by, having a good old chortle about it, and perhaps a little tear too.

Lots of coverage in the newspapers now, which is nice to see. You can read a piece in yesterday's Guardian by Andrew Huth and today's Telegraph by Ivan Hewett. Both pieces are well written but, be warned, phenomenally inaccurate. Here's my Composer of the Month piece from BBC Music Magazine which, I hope, gets the basic stuff right.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

...with lots of love from Fritz

"He makes it look so easy," grumbled the awe-struck fiddlers in the RFH artists' bar last night. And he did. There's no fuss about Nikolaj Znaider. Towering over the dusky Vladimir Jurowski, who is not short, he strode onto the platform and made the Korngold concerto look and sound...well, Znaider is one of only a handful of violinists who are, to put it bluntly, perfect. Not only is there never a note out of place, but while you listen you can't imagine the work sounding any other way: the logic, the phrasing, the tone are simply - perfection. In this category I'd include only Znaider, Kavakos, Tetzlaff and Repin.

...But what was that about tone? The Korngold Violin Concerto, as all of you assuredly know, opens with the soloist playing a wonderfully mellifluous and heart-twisting melody. My first thought, listening, was 'Wow, the acoustic really has improved in here'. Next thought: 'This bloke is fab.' And no.3: 'What is that thing he's playing anyway?' There was no undue effort about that playing; no forcing of sound, no histrionics, just complete focus and simplicity - hence he could 'make it look so easy'. That violin had to be something very, very special. From bottom G to the highest multiledgered stratospheres the tone soared, unencumbered, as powerful as a Steinway, honey-golden, Korngolden.

There's no point giving a lousy fiddler a multi-million-dollar Italian job to perform on because it won't improve him. The violin does not make the violinist; quite the opposite. Christian Tetzlaff, for instance, has a modern instrument that we hear costs only a modest five-figure sum, but in his hands it sounds like Stradivari's masterpiece [note - it is a very fine violin, it's just not an expensive Italian antique. It is by Peter Greiner and was made just a few years ago.].

Nevertheless, give a violinist like Znaider an instrument like the one he played yesterday - and time freezes while the music comes out. Yes, this instrument is special. It's [drumroll] Fritz Kreisler's Guarneri del Gesu, made in 1741 - the violin on which he gave the world premiere of Elgar's Concerto. And from it there seemed to stream all the wisdom and wonder of two and a half centuries, all the secrets of the instrument's creators, the performers who cherished it and the music it inspired... Goose-bumps? You should have been there. (but hey - you can be, thanks to the radio and the Internet.)

While we were being dazzled by Nikolaj and his magic violin, there was equal bedazzlement from the orchestra with Jurowski. He brought out the intricacies and subtleties of the textures, the flashes of glitter in the velvet, the imagination that's not only lavish and rich but studded with gem-like, fantastical detail. The tempi were spot-on - quick enough to fly, but airy enough to enjoy the luxury. Even the 'Korngolistas' were bowled over; we all felt we'd heard things in the concerto we'd never noticed before.

The rest of the concert involved Zemlinsky's Sinfonietta - in which one could tell how far his star pupil, young Herr EWK, had surpassed him - indeed, the aging Zemlinsky quotes from Korngold's Sinfonietta, written twenty years earlier. And to finish, a stunner of a Shostakovich Sixth.

Now please excuse me while I go and iron my party dress...

NB - You can hear the concert on BBC Radio 3 on Friday evening.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Onwards! Korngold returns!

Thought it was all over? Ah no, it's just beginning. The Korngold festivities over here will be getting underway once more tomorrow, when Nikolaj Znaider (left) (isn't he lovely?) will be the soloist in the Violin Concerto, with the LPO conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. The programme also includes the Sinfonietta by Korngold's teacher, Zemlinsky, and Shostakovich's Symphony No.6 - an interesting choice, since Shostakovich wrote music for many more films than Korngold did and the final movement feels a tad redolent of the madcap silent movies of the era (even if it's not a direct borrowing). Details and tickets here.

Now it's full steam ahead. Korngold's granddaughter is flying in from the States, there'll be parties and celebrations, music and films, hugs and tears and cheers, female fans will be swooning at the feet of Nikolaj and Vladimir (joint first place in the musical-woman's-eye-candy contest), Heliane rehearsals begin on Friday, and I have got to get my voice back in time for my talk, preferably a lot sooner. Also I'm facing a new dilemma: what do you cook for a Korngold?

Meanwhile, huge thanks to everyone who joined the Foulds discussions.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Remembrance Sunday

It's 11 November. Here's a favourite poem by Lawrence Binyon

The Burning of the Leaves

Now is the time for the burning of the leaves.
They go to the fire; the nostril pricks with smoke
Wandering slowly into the weeping mist.
Brittle and blotched, ragged and rotten sheaves!
A flame seizes the smoldering ruin and bites
On stubborn stalks that crackle as they resist.

The last hollyhock's fallen tower is dust;
All the spices of June are a bitter reek,
All the extravagant riches spent and mean.
All burns! the reddest rose is a ghost;
Sparks whirl up, to expire in the mist: the wild
Fingers of fire are making corruption clean.

Now is the time for stripping the spirit bare,
Time for the burning of days ended and done,
Idle solace of things that have gone before:
Rootless hope and fruitless desire are there;
Let them go to the fire, with never a look behind.
That world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.

They will come again, the leaf and the flower, to arise
From squalor of rottenness into the old splendour,
And magical scents to a wondering memory bring;
The same glory, to shine upon different eyes.
Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.

Friday, November 09, 2007

From the sublime to....

....I have received a E-Card from English National Opera, bearing the following message:

ENO has sent you an Aida e-card in collaboration with top British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes. This exclusive e-card gives you the chance to explore Zandra's costumes from ENO's spectacular new production of Verdi's Aida though an interactive dress-up doll. Click onto the e-card to try styling your own outfits and then send it on to a friend to share the fun!

Flex your style muscles!
Choose from a selection of exotic costumes and vivid colours from this unique production to create your own outfit. Forward your stylish results on to a friend and they can have a go too!

Try it here.

What an interesting idea. It must be at least 30 years since I last played with paper dolls. I shall spend the day colouring in, when I've finished my homework, then phone the box office and buy hundreds of tickets...

To be fair, Zandra Rhodes's designs are very nice and look suitably Egyptian. Fans can watch an interview with her here. But I can't help wondering who this redoubtable company thinks its audience is.

UPDATE (Monday): ...but this glowing review from The Independent should certainly shift some tickets even if the paper doll didn't.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The genius of John Foulds

I have a piece in today's Independent about John Foulds (1880-1939), the extraordinary British composer whose biggest work, A World Requiem, is to be performed for the first time in 81 years at the Remembrance Sunday concert at the Royal Albert Hall this weekend. The work was premiered at the Remembrance Day Festival in 1923 and was given for the same event for four years running, with 1250 performers each time, before being unofficially 'banned'. Apparently Sir Adrian Boult thought it was boring and the editor of the Express thought Foulds was a communist.

Foulds spent his life in a radical exploration of music and spirituality: he experimented with quarter-tones before Bartok did and with Indian music techniques before Messiaen got to them. With his partner, the musician, educator and fellow Theosophist Maud MacCarthy, he moved to India in 1935, becoming head of western music for the country's national radio and seeking a way to make a synthesis of Indian and European music, decades before anyone thought of terms such as 'world music fusion' (see photo). He died of cholera four years later. Most of his manuscripts were subsequently lost or destroyed, rotting in the heat or being eaten by rats.

The concert is a live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and you can listen to it on Sunday evening at 6.30pm local time. Be warned: there are 20 movements.

btw... and those who have trouble waking up in the mornings should pop along to Solti's blog to see this...

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Wot? Classical music on primetime tv? (or is it?)

(updated the morning after....) So are you following Classical Star on BBC2? This series, which brings the world of The Apprentice to a group of teenaged music students, is rather remarkable for how little serious coverage it's had in the national press. I guess nobody is taking it very seriously.

Cellist Matthew Barley, who's head honcho, is more Sugar than Sir Alan, and, with plentiful charm, charisma and a good way with youngsters, is possibly the only person in the country who could have pulled this series off with reasonable success. The thing is, the voyeuristic, ooh-aren't-they-nasty mentality of the Big Brother/Fame Academy/etcetc format is not exactly designed for hardworking youngsters who just want to get on with their practising. Also, the format itself is distinctly tired, music or none.

I'm fence-sitting. I can't decide whether I think it's A Good Thing because it gets music-making onto primetime TV for several weeks running (grand finale next week) or A Bad Thing because when it all goes belly-up afterwards it's the kids who will suffer. So here are a few reactions.

Hilary Davan Wetton in The Guardian:
A society that revels in others' public distress or humiliation, filmed in intrusive close-up, is a pretty sick society. Classical Star harks back to the worst excesses of the Roman arena. The children are exhibits in a human circus. The judges use the thumbs up/thumbs down technique of the Roman emperor; they offer us pretension, patronage and a deep sense of self-importance. We are all being coarsened by this continual diet of exploitation.

Anna Picard in The Independent on Sunday:
...the most enjoyable aspect of Classical Star has been seeing how fantastically resistant classical music is to being sexed up. What dreamy Emily, streetwise Tyler and the others have in common is their absolute respect for the craft they are learning. By the time most Big Brother contestants drag themselves out of bed for a snog or hair of the dog, the Classical Star competitors have been practising for hours. Indeed, the worst incidence of naughtiness to be seen on the series so far was when one violinist snaffled an extra 20 minutes of rehearsal time.

Will the series encourage more children to take up an instrument? Possibly, for it does at least show that kids who like Lutoslawski are not, on the whole, the freaks and geeks of popular imagination. Will it create a real Classical Star? No.

I think I'm inclining around 75% to the second. Any thoughts, people? Send 'em in!

Oops. Left out Lebrecht. Here you go:
Since the aim is to find a classical star, not a classical artist, the series is peripheral to anyone with a serious interest in music. It is mildly entertaining in the way the late-night weather forecast can be when seen through a bad head cold. I shall probably watch it again, with Lemsip. What it is doing on the BBC, I have no idea.

And if we do NL, we must also do Pliable, who's predictably with HDW on this, and adds in his Comments: "Jessica, did anyone ever tell you that public executions drew huge audiences during the French Revolution?" Pliable, did you read the other half of my point?

Not wanting to seem holier-than-thou, I'm surprised that nobody has discussed what's been done to the actual music. That is probably an indication of the degree to which it's been sidelined. We never hear any of the kids perform a piece right through. We can get a mild idea of how they might play, but we can't possibly judge properly on a few seconds at a time, and the way the music has been cut makes no sense. Clearly nobody at the BBC thinks the audience could possibly cope with hearing a whole movement of Mendelssohn - let alone knowing how f***ing difficult the D minor trio is to play.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

It's the anniversary of Fauré's death too

Gabriel Fauré died on 4 November 1924.

Here's a little extract from his Piano Quartet in G minor, apparently filmed in Apeldoorn by someone based in Bulgaria. The performers are Philippe Graffin (violin), Asdis Valdimarsdottir (viola), Colin Carr (cello) and Pascal Devoyon (piano). Because listening to Philippe playing Fauré is one of the great joys of life; because turning the pages for Pascal in Messiaen's incredible Visions de l'Amen in St Nazaire was one of the high points of my musical year; and because Gabriel 'The Archangel' Fauré is simply the best; I hope you like it too.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Meanwhile, in Hollywood...

...the writers are going on strike. Go, chaps, go! Tell it like it is! Because today's world doesn't know that without writers there would be nothing. No lines for those billion-dollar celebrities to mouth; nothing to make us think, reflect, laugh, cry, question the way we spend our time, deepen our understanding of the human condition, identify with in Grecian catharsis. No theatre, no books, no films, no philosophy, no politics, no poetry, no newspapers, no magazines and not much worthwhile stuff on the internet. Oh, and no TV. Yet individuals who would never steal a handbag or pirate a CD still can't imagine it's not OK to steal a writer's hard graft. The majority of writers are lumping along at the bottom of the heap, constantly exploited by everything from juggernaut studios to the all-powerful extortions that control chain store promotions, right down to small-time performers who think it's OK to palm them off without payment and sometimes without acknowledgment, let alone a fee that is proportional to the service they provide.

'Hollywood shakes', says the Indy's headline. I should think so too.

Here is 'Texts don't grow on trees': the Authors' Rights Awareness Campaign.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Constant Nymph

(Not my nickname, though should be at the moment! :-) ) No, The Constant Nymph is one of the rarest among Korngold's movies. How extracts found their way onto Youtube is a source of some wonder, as I'm told only one print exists, on 16mm film. When I last looked, there were 3 clips. All of a sudden, a whole lot more have appeared!

The film is based on the book and play by Margaret Kennedy. The novel is, as far as I can tell, virtually forgotten, but was a huge favourite of mine when I was about 12, when my mother - who adored it and Joan Fontaine and must surely have seen the film - bought me a copy that she stumbled across in a second-hand bookshop.

The story concerns an eccentric musical family, the Sangers; the 14-year-old daughter, Tessa, falls desperately in love with a gifted, unworldy young composer called Lewis who is in his twenties (he looks older in the film). But Tessa, though experiencing a woman's emotions, is still a little girl. Her heart condition includes not only intense passions but a physical weakness as well. Lewis doesn't take her affection seriously; he decides to marry her cousin, Florence, a sophisticated, rather too down-to-earth woman his own age. Disaster befalls the Sanger family and the all-but-uneducated Tessa is dispatched to boarding school. Eventually, if I remember correctly, she runs away; and ultimately Lewis realises his mistake, leaves his wife and elopes with Tessa; but it's too late. In the book, she attempts to open a very stiff window and the effort affects her heart. She collapses and dies in her beloved's arms. In the film, however, Lewis composes a cantata entitled 'Tomorrow', which goes through various permutations during the course of the action, its growth mirroring the progress of the composer's heart: first a piano trio, then a modernistic flood that Tessa loathes ("Banketybanketybang!") and ultimately the full-blooded Korngold work for mezzo-soprano and chorus that will have its FIRST EVER UK PERFORMANCE TONIGHT at the Festival Hall. And Tessa, listening on the radio, expires to its strains.

Excuse me while I go and find the Kleenex.
[snuffle. howl. sob. go back to the beginning of the book and read it all over again...]

...Here is Tessa, saying (among other things) 'Banketybanketybang!' The pianist on the soundtrack is Korngold himself. The musical attitudes espoused in the dialogue are likewise Korngold's - he had quite a hand in shaping the scripts and action of certain of his movies, was present at story conferences and made many suggestions. Especially here.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Going all Austro-Hungarian

Brendan Carroll gave a fascinating evening at the Austrian Cultural Forum last night devoted to Korngold's film music. With meaty extracts from Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1934) as well as Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk et al, and some rare interview recordings from those who were there at the time, the packed audience was transported to another world. Here's one of the stories:

Max Steiner, composer of King Kong and Gone with the Wind, among others, was a friend of Korngold's in Hollywood. One day he remarked to Korngold, "You know, Erich, since you've been in Hollywood, your music has got worse and my music has got better. Why do you suppose that is?" Without missing a beat, Korngold replied: "That's easy, Max, it's because you've been stealing from me and I've been stealing from you!"

I reckon it's time for a palette-cleanser before the LPO Korngold events kick in with tomorrow's film music bonanza at the RFH. I'm currently proof-reading novel number next, Hungarian Dances. So here, with an appropriately Danubian breath of fresh air, is Andras Schiff (evidently filmed some years ago and relayed somewhere interesting in the Far East) playing Schubert's Hungarian Melody. Just listen to that tone...

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Reviews coming in...

It's a mixed bag for Saturday, with most reviewers and bloggers (Intermezzo and Mostly Opera) focusing on the facts that a) there weren't enough programmes, and b) Pekka Kuusisto's clothing was somewhat unconventional. It was, of course - red & black trainers plus a shirt with sparkly sleeves - though not half as unconventional as his playing, the peculiarities of which went largely uncommented-upon, except for Robert Matthew Walker's entertaining write-up at Classical Source. Meanwhile the Daily Telegraph felt there was too much Korngold in the Korngold day, quite apart from reviewing the 'Nach Ensemble', and the Times thinks EWK should have copied Zemlinsky more (if the reviewer had come to our film and talk, he might have understood why Korngold didn't, 'nuff said). They can't agree on Anne Sofie's singing/sense of involvement, to which I can only add that she sang beautifully except for a couple of top notes, that as a very tall, blonde Swede she often comes across as aloof even if she doesn't mean to, and if you were disappointed at not seeing her shoes, assume that she was probably not in high heels.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Glaub, es gibt ein auferstehen

I'm happy to report that Erich Wolfgang Korngold is well and truly resurrected. Heliane herself, whose trial is to raise her beloved from the dead, would have been proud yesterday.

Korngold Focus Day was an even bigger success than I'd hoped. Attendance was excellent, a forest of hands went up to ask questions at the round-table talk, the Nash Ensemble played the socks off the Piano Quintet, Pekka Kuusisto and Bengt Forsberg made the Violin Sonata shine out as one of EWK's most extraordinary and original works, and after Anne Sofie von Otter sang the Lute Song, there wasn't a dry eye in the hall.

Presenting the discussion was extremely enjoyable. Huge thanks to everyone for their marvellous, insightful contributions.

Next Friday, 2 November, the LPO gives a Royal Festival Hall concert of film music conducted by John Wilson, including the UK premieres of 'Tomorrow' from The Constant Nymph and a suite from Escape Me Never as well as perennial favourites The Sea Hawk and The Adventures of Robin Hood, plus works by Korngold's Hollywood contemporaries and successors.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Queen Elizabeth Hall TODAY

Please come and celebrate Korngold at the Queen Elizabeth Hall today!

1.30pm - Barrie Gavin's documentary Adventures of a Wunderkind (free admission)

3.30pm - Round-table discussion with Brendan Carroll, Erik Levi and Ben Wallfisch. Yrs truly asks the questions. (Free admission)

6pm - The Nash Ensemble plays chamber music featuring Zemlinsky, Brahms and Korngold's Piano Quintet

7.45pm - Anne Sofie von Otter sings, Pekka Kuusisto plays the violin, Bengt Forsberg plays the piano. Programme includes Four Shakespeare Songs, the Violin Sonata, the Much Ado About Nothing suite and extracts from Die tote Stadt.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Ursula Vaughan Williams died on Tuesday. Here's her obituary from The Guardian.

Norman Lebrecht has written a big piece about Korngold. Taster:

Korngold, 110 next month and 50 years dead, richly deserves to be welcomed back to the concert hall. But he deserves even more to be recognised as a pioneer of an allied art, an art that now cries out for a new Korngold to rejuvenate its methodology. The time has come to erase the line between movie and concert music, to encourage the likes of John Adams, Thomas Ades and Mark Anton Turnage to try their hand at lifting film tracks out of the Korngold groove and into 21st century modalities.

Read the whole thing here.

And in The New Republic, Richard Taruskin has published a philosophical tract in the guise of a book review, declaring that classical music's problem is its defenders... and in the 24 online pages, I reckon he makes some very pertinent points. Rather than summarising it here, I suggest you read it and make up your own mind...

...The discourse supporting classical music so reeks of historical blindness and sanctimonious self-regard as to render the object of its ministrations practically indefensible. Belief in its indispensability, or in its cultural superiority, is by now unrecoverable, and those who mount such arguments on its behalf morally indict themselves. Which is not to say that classical music, or any music, is morally reprehensible. Only people, not music, can be that. What is reprehensible is to see its cause as right against some wrong. What is destroying the credibility of classical music is an unacknowledged or misperceived collision of rights. The only defense classical music needs, and the only one that has any hope of succeeding, is the defense of classical music (in the words ofT.W. Adorno, a premier offender) against its devotees.

PS - apologies for lumping all these different meaty topics together. I am up to my eyeballs at present with 400 pages of novel proofs plus preparations for Korngold event on Saturday.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Anne Sofie's Terezin CD

Anne Sofie von Otter's new disc of music from the Terezin concentration camp is one of the greatest CDs I've ever heard. Read more about it here. Then buy it here.

UPDATE: Sample it at her website here.
MORE UPDATE: More about the incredible and very personal background history to the disc here.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Bravo Solti

Wonderful Webmaster alerts me to the fact that Sir Georg Solti would have been 95 today. So by way of tribute, here's how he turned things round at Covent Garden.

For opera fans: indigestion

oh dear...English National Opera has set The Coronation of Poppea on a cruise ship. (Am also a tad intrigued to see this critic describe Monteverdi's tale of lust, murder and unscrupulousness as a 'comedy'.)

Sounds like ENO is giving its audience indigestion yet again, after what seems to have been a seriously gorge-sticking Carmen directed by Sally Potter, with Don Jose as a security guard. With the singers ENO has at its disposal - Kate Royal as Poppea, Alice Coote as Carmen etc - and a terrific orchestra, not to mention London's plethora of great talent right on the doorstep, the place really should be able to do better.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Korngold features today on Music Matters, BBC Radio 3

Presenter Tom Service features Korngold in BBC Radio 3's flagship magazine programme today at 12.15. Includes interviews with biographer and apostle Brendan Carroll, Academic Erik Levi (who is joining Brendan, me and Ben Wallfisch for the South Bank round-table discussion next Saturday), Andre Previn, Korngold's daughter-in-law Helen and archive material from the composer's sons Ernst and George. You can hear it online for 7 days after the broadcast. More info here.

UPDATE, 12.55pm: It was a great feature - with one bad mistake. The date given at the end for the UK premiere of Das Wunder der Heliane is wrong. Tom says '14 November' and it is actually 21 November. But if you turn up on 14th, you can hear Nikolaj Znaider play the Violin Concerto.

Also, I'm not sure that they made it clear that Korngold's sons George and Ernst are not actually alive - their interview extracts were from archive material which I believe was provided by Brendan. AND nobody mentioned the kick-off events in the QEH Korngoldfest on 27 October: 1.30pm, Barrie Gavin's documentary; 3.30pm, the discussion. Nash Ensemble is after that.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A Korngold rarity - countdown # 2

I found this on Youtube and could hardly believe my eyes/ears. This is from Korngold's mid-1930s Hollywood musical Give Us This Night starring Gladys Swarthout and Jan Kiepura, the great Polish tenor for whom Korngold created the role of The Stranger in Das Wunder der Heliane. Kiepura plays an Italian fisherman who is 'discovered' and transformed into an opera star, singing Romeo to Swarthout's Juliet. Here is the love duet that closes the opera-within-a-film and the film itself. And if you think this is OTT, just wait until you hear Heliane.

I have only ever seen this film once before, on a tiny reel-to-reel machine in the basement of UCLA in 1993. Some of the melodies are so delicious that if Pavarotti had got hold of them they'd have been world famous 20 years ago.


Friday, October 12, 2007

Korngold countdown begins

The amount of excitement surrounding the forthcoming Korngold celebration at the Southbank is absolutely fantastic. Latest news is that BBC Radio 3 is to feature Korngold in 'Music Matters' on 20 October and will be talking to people who were close to the composer in person; and on 26 October 'In Tune' will be interviewing musicians involved in Korngold Day on 27th, including Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg.

Here's a link to the details of 27th. (Not sure how/why he has been transformed into 'Eric' on this page, since his name is, was and always will be Erich Wolfgang...)

And here are links to the LPO's Korngold Focus concerts:

2 November: Film music, alongside works by Waxman, Newman, Rozsa, Williams etc. Includes the UK premiere of Korngold's 'Tomorrow' from The Constant Nymph. John Wilson conducts.

14 November: Orchestral programme conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, with Nikolai Znaider as soloist in the Violin Concerto. Programme also includes Zemlinsky's Sinfonietta and Shostakovich's Symphony no.6.

21 November: UK premiere of Das Wunder der Heliane, concert performance conducted by Vladimir Jurowski.

And finally, here is Renee Fleming singing 'Ich ging zu ihm' from the Prom on 6 August, on Youtube. Listen, watch and marvel. Heliane lives! (The embedding function is not available for this video.)