Thursday, May 31, 2007

And more Schumann...

Here's a super little promotional video from EMI about Jonathan Biss's Schumann album, which gives a good taster of his playing and personality and has handily found its way onto Youtube.

Shoo, man

My poor old piano has been a bit neglected lately. Last week my editor (novels) went on holiday for half term and I can't make much progress on the revision of Hungarian Dances until I have her feedback. Instead, with an hour or two to spare, and Tom safely shooed away to Glyndebourne, I took the plunge and opened the lid.

The great thing about being an official amateur - no concerts, no lessons, no exams, no pressure - is that nobody can tell you what to do, or, more importantly, what not to do. No-one can say, "Don't you dare touch the Schumann Fantasie, it's too hard for you!" So I dare. I touched the Schumann Fantasie. I read through the first and last movements and as much of the March as I could manage without going cross-eyed, and nobody could hear me or stop me. And it's heaven. Surely no piece represents pure romanticism more than this one. To touch Schumann is to hold starlight in your hands, even if only for a second.

Here are two favourite recordings: Marc-Andre Hamelin (Hyperion), full of wonder and tenderness and fleetness; and Jonathan Biss (EMI), replete with good sense, empathy and a deep, pure humility in the representation of genius.

Achtung, piano fans: Jonathan Biss is playing the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday afternoon, 3 June. Beethoven, Webern and Mozart, and guess what? The Schumann Fantasie.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Hough rejected from Vietnam

The other day, the Telegraph revealed that the pianist Stephen Hough has been forced to cancel a performance in Vietnam because the authorities 'could not guarantee his personal safety'. The report suggests that Hough's writings about the Catholic church's attitude to homosexuality may have sparked this extremely unfortunate reaction. The Telegraph's site has a video clip where you can see Hough playing some Mompou and talking about the incident. Frankly, it's Vietnam's loss. Stephen is one of the finest British pianists ever. End of story.

Go west, young woman

One of the most excellent people in the UK recording business is about to join the brain drain and head for the US. Melanne Mueller, who's been the marketing and PR half of Avie Records with her partner Simon Foster, is off to NY this weekend to become vice-president of the core classical division of Universal. Melanne is a real musician - she started out as an oboist and played professionally in the States before going into the record industry. Nice to know that a big label is still capable of taking on someone who knows something about music, musicians and people as well as products. She'll be much missed in the London scene.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


Erich Wolfgang Korngold: born 29 May 1897 in Brno. A nice round 110 for a nice round composer! The 'unofficial' Korngold website has a very good front page full of 2007 events commemorating the 50th anniversary of his death, and if you're a fan it is well worth exploring. I have just finished listening to a super new double CD set about to be released on Naxos of the complete music from The Sea Hawk, plus hefty chunks of Deception: William Stromberg conducts the Moscow Symphony Orchestra.

Composer in Baghdad

Thanks to Alex Ross for the pointer to this blog by Daniel Todd Currie - a composer who's now serving as an engineer in the American air force in Iraq.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Radiant Leonore, but trouble down t'pit

Karita Mattila must have been born to sing Fidelio. Opening afternoon (a Sunday matinee) found the Finnish soprano conquering Covent Garden at one stroke. She's about six foot tall with a knock-em-dead stage presence; this was the first time I've been convinced that poor little Marzelline could have been taken in. Her voice has the strength and purity of a laser. Never mind that The Times ran one of the bitchiest articles imaginable about her the other day (no wonder artists don't like talking to British journalists - this was so unnecessary, I don't see the point of writing pieces like that, I mean, really...). She's one of the greats; I doubt that Leonores get better than this.

A pity that the rest of the show wasn't consistently up to her level. First, the opening bars of the overture revealed some nasty stuff in the pit, namely the horns. I suspect it was widely assumed around the house that they'd spent Sunday lunchtime in the pub, but this morning Tony Pappano told me that it was more serious than that: the first horn had hurt his lip and as a result there'd been a last-minute cabinet reshuffle, with first horn playing third, etc. I'm not sure that the rest of the orchestra recovered from the experience; there was some uncomfortable ensemble (or lack of) and generally the effect felt lacking in tension, especially compared to Mark Elder's recent account at Glyndebourne. But there were some fine moments - a wonderful hushed tone at the beginning of the magical Quartet - and perhaps things will settle down as the run progresses: the ROH hasn't done Fidelio for around 15 years.

Production: fresh from the Met, directed by Jurgen Flimm and set in a prison in the 1940s or 50s. A world where guns are casually tossed about, where Pizarro wields a champagne bottle in one hand and a pistol in the other; the prisoners are kept in cages three storeys high. Leonore, not Rocco, takes it upon herself to let them out for the King's name day, and they emerge in absolute silence before the chorus begins - the effect is both touching and startling. Anyone hoping for the Leonore No.3 Overture before the last scene will be disappointed - but the opera works perfectly well without it, since the duet between Leonore and Florestan acquires a climactic significance that can sometimes be dissipated by the interpolated orchestral work.

Ailish Tynan is a fantastic Marzelline, Eric Halfvarson and Terje Stensvold excellent as respectively Rocco and a ferocious, neo-Con-style Pizarro. The big surprise, literally, was Endrik Wottrich as Florestan. He's huge. Massive, like something out of Lord of the Rings. He looks like he spends his life body-building. And then he opens his mouth and out comes - this rather odd voice. Bizarrely small, given the size of the soundbox. Unfocused, tight and lacking resonance, with rapid continual vibrato but no real centre to the tone. A physical match for Mattila, but certainly not a vocal one.

Of course, anyone who was anyone was there, my dears. We ran into Elgar expert Michael Kennedy, Sunday Times critic Hugh Canning, politician-turned-presented David Mellor and the inimitable Sean Rafferty from Radio 3's In Tune, and said hello to fellow blogger Stephen Pollard, who's already written up the show...we have some pretty different opinions, but are in perfect accord over Mattila.

UPDATE: Tuesday, 1.30pm: Fellow London music blogger Intermezzo, whom I've shamefully neglected to add to the blogroll until now, was at Fidelio too, struggling with the sightlines, feeling seriously scathing about the orchestra and has no time for the first horn...

A damp bank holiday

I have a piece in today's Independent about Britten & Aldeburgh - rather content to see that it made the Editor's Choice listing on the website. Not sure I did work out what it was about Suffolk that inspired him, but I found some fascinating stuff by Hans Keller, and tried to give a plug for the excellent local fish and chips, though that has been cut.

Off to Covent Garden to interview Maestro Pappano this morning. More about yesterday's opening performance of Fidelio later on...

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Sticking up for Edu

Everyone else is busy writing about Elgar now. His birthday isn't until next weekend, but here's conductor Sakari Oramo in The Guardian with a ream of good sense. What Elgar needs, he insists, is foreign champions. Dead right. With the same peculiar nationalist whateveritis that insists you have to be Russian to play Rachmaninov, English musicians have tended to prevail in Elgar - whose fault? Promoters? Record companies? Elgar's perceived 'Englishness'? Sakari says something I've been saying for a while, which is that Elgar's music is not particularly English: his principal influences are Strauss, Schumann and Wagner.

Michael Kennedy takes the Englishness line in a different direction in The Telegraph, but I guess he/they would. He begins with 'Windflower', Alice Stuart Wortley, talking about Elgar coming from the heart and soul of England etc etc.

Oh lordy, and The Times says we're wrong to downplay his love of Empire. That's all he needs... but at least they are offering free downloads (only short ones, mind).

Pay your money and take your choice. Or alternatively have a look at my angle on the matter in my archive.

Tasmin Little is going off to the Far East and Australia next week to tour the Elgar Violin Concerto around Kuala Lumpur, Perth, Adelaide and, appropriately enough, Tasmania (which is what will take over Launceston and Hobart when they hear her play!). Meanwhile I missed Philippe Graffin's performance of the piece in its pre-Kreislerised version in Liverpool with the RLPO and Tod Handley on Thursday night. I had to give about a talk about Schumann and Brahms down the road in Manchester at the same time - this went well, by the way. It was in the Bridgewater Hall, one of my favourite venues, combining good modern design, excellent acoustics and a relatively intimate atmosphere. My fellow Indy journalist Lynne Walker and I discussed the cross-currents between the composers and persuaded the resident CD player to cooperate with illustrations now and then.

I'm still overwhelmed with relief when I walk on to a concert platform and find that I do not have to play a piano.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Sevdah at the Barbican

Next week (1 June) the Bosnian sevdah singer Amira is playing the Barbican, part of a celebration of Gypsy (and Gypsy-influenced) music and film. She's also at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester the next day. Good piece about her in today's Guardian:

All who survive a war remain scarred, each in their own way. For Amira, who was studying economics when Yugoslavia brutally disintegrated, war pushed her into song. And not just any song, but sevdah, the ancient lyric ballad of Bosnia. Sevdah - the word is Turkish and suggests desire, yearning, thwarted love - has existed for hundreds of years in this region, often composed of just a voice and a saz (a Turkish lute). Yet it took Bosnia's suffering to focus the world's attention on this small nation's music. Sevdah bears comparison to Portuguese fado and Spanish flamenco; all three are vocal arts rooted in Arabic courtly love songs from a millennium ago. Amira, who comes to the UK for the first time this week and whose debut album, Rosa, is a recording of startling beauty, looks set to do for sevdah what rising Portuguese star Mariza has done for fado.

I am going to Bosnia on 7 June and will hopefully be learning much more about sevdah, the war and musical healing.


Big cheers for shoutout to Stephen Pollard who, along with the tremendous Clive Davis, has now had his blog taken under the fold of The Spectator. His opinion is that here we do what we say on the tin. And he's got an eye for La bloggerissima Opera Chic too.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Red Shoes - a.k.a. Cosi fan tutte

Phew - I have something in common with Dorabella, even if I can't sing. Opening night of Cosi fan tutte chez Glyndebourne yesterday; there's Fiordiligi in blue and Dorabella in red and cream with marvellous red suede shoes, and as coincidence would have it I'd donned my favourite scarlet tango heels for the occasion. I hope this serendipitous little incident helped to dispel the dazzlement of the delectable Rinat Shaham upon my starry-eyed resident fiddler, who had a rare night in the auditorium (some of the violins are doing job-shares in Cosi, as it requires too few of them) and was keen to see the reincarnation of his favourite Carmen.

Besides the shoes, Cosi is a treat: a period production by Nicholas Hytner with a light touch and some superb moments - notably that the men in their disguises get nowhere wooing their own fiancees, but when they swap, the sparks begin to fly, rather to their dismay. And soon after giving the girls the advice to 'have your cake and eat it', Despina brings in tea with a real cake - chocolate. Dorabella tucks in. Fiordiligi stares at it in horror, as if one mouthful might kill her...

The cast was largely unfamiliar to me (apart from Rini); particularly striking was the powerful tenor of Pavol Breslik as Ferrando and the characterful Despina of Ainhoa Garmendia. Rachel Harnisch as Fiordiligi hadn't been feeling well for the dress rehearsal and had marked the role, with her understudy singing; it could be that yesterday she wasn't quite at full strength. I hope to hear her again later in the season.

Best of all, though, was the orchestra. Our own LPO - conducted by the newest and youngest of all the baby Rattles on the circuit. Robin Ticciati has recently been appointed music director of Glyndebourne On Tour; he has a post in Gavle, Sweden, as well; and he looks all of 12 years old, though is around 25, with copious Simonesque curls. A few seconds into the overture, I found myself sitting forward thinking 'heck...?!' This was truly musical conducting; airy, smooth, stylish. Joined-up thinking and moving was taking place on that podium. Ticciati looks like a dancer, phrases like a singer and balances his ingredients like a masterchef. In terms of preparation and polish with cast and chorus, he maybe has some way to go - but I reckon his destination includes some interesting, exceedingly high-up places.

A video of the production is available, filmed last year with Ivan Fischer conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

At some point, I'll find a knife to stick in the notion that the plummiest of vibrating singers (and this lot are plummy) must be accompanied in Mozart by that lean-mean-string-thing, that silly period-practice-equals-no-vibrato tokenism... But for now, Dorabella must have left the knife in her cake; and the sun shone. It was a great evening.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Vengerov and the healing power of music

Speaking of organisations that enable music to change lives, Maxim Vengerov has just given a recital in a neurological hospital in Putney, celebrating the 30th anniversary of Live Music Now. Richard Morrison went along to report for The Times. Vengerov tells him, among other things, the following:

“This kind of work is my first passion. This is where I think music belongs. And it has a wonderful effect on me, too, not just on these people here. You see, when you talk to severely brain-damaged people, they may not understand what you are saying. But once you start playing music, you are speaking to their subconscious. And what happens is that the effect of that bounces back. So I, as a musician, get in touch with my own subconscious. It goes in both directions, this therapy.”

Read the whole thing here.

And while we're reading Richard, here's his review of the Glyndebourne Macbeth, which will tell you a little more about those cardboard boxes. Also see Ed Seckerson in the Indy.

Monday, May 21, 2007


Apololgies for thin-on-the-screen blogging. Heavy week ahoy. But if you're in Manchester on Thursday (24 May) and fancy hearing a wonderful concert of Brahms and Schumann, come to the Bridgewater Hall and pop along to the pre-concert talk at 6.30 when Lynne Walker and I will be be discussing 'Mystery, Mastery and Madness' - the cross-currents between the lives and works of the two composers. In the concert, Gianandrea Noseda will conduct the BBC Philharmonic in the Brahms Double Concerto with Olivier Charlier and Alban Gerhardt as soloists, plus, appropriately, Schumann's 'Spring' Symphony.

Saturday, May 19, 2007


According to Scott Spiegelberg, JDCMB is now officially no.15 out of the top 52 classical music blogs. I'm not entirely clear how this is calculated - it involves Technorati and maths, and my strong points do not notably include understanding of either. Still, 15 sounds all right to me. Scott has the full list.

Friday, May 18, 2007

New section

I've added a new section to the sidebar entitled MUSIC INSPIRATIONS, linking to the websites of organisations that enable music to change lives. I've started with three, but there will be others in due course. Please explore!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

OMG. She's back

The sensational Rinat Shaham returns to Glyndebourne to sing Dorabella in Cosi fan tutte, opening next Tuesday, 22 May. I fear I shall have to put an electronic tag on Tom for every single performance.

Here's 'Rini' as Carmen...need I say more?

But hey. I can get my revenge: Rini has a brother, Hagai Shaham, who's a fabulous violinist (=prerequisite), and looks my kinda guy. Here he is with his answer to the Gypsy:

Cold showers all round.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Giuseppe MacVerdi

It's going to be a hot summer. Whenever the first Glyndebourne dress rehearsal is cold & wet, the weather for the rest of the season is glorious. Yesterday, we pinicked in the car with a thermos flask of soup.

Suitably atmospheric, of course, for the Scotland of Verdi's Macbeth. Hmm. Last year I thought that Betrothal in a Monastery was about to become the hottest ticket in town, but it wasn't, so I won't risk my luck this time. Suffice it to say that IMHO Richard Jones's production is startling, fresh, original, clever and a treat for anyone who likes hairy knees. And I'll never be able to look at a cardboard box in the same way again. Vladimir Jurowski's conducting is red-hot, seat-of-the-pants stuff and the singing - Andrzej Dobber as Macbeth and Sylvie Valayre as his blonde-beehived Lady Macbeth - is top-notch.

Debate will probably rage over whether Macbeth is this full of irony and black humour, and no doubt many will think not...but, weirdly enough, the production suits Verdi's remarkably effervescent score and I found the second half both powerful and moving.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

An heroic family

Do have a look at this extremely touching short film from yesterday's BBC Newsnight in which presenter Gavin Esler and his daughter Charlotte discuss the impact on their family of Charlotte's diagnosis with Hodgkins Lymphoma last year, when she was 14.

My sister died of ovarian cancer aged 45 in March 2000. Today would have been her birthday.

The miracle of Melisande

Well, the miracle of Debussy. I've started to feel that Pelleas et Melisande is the most rewarding of all operas: every performance I've attended has been like hearing it for the first time because there's something special to notice on each occasion. The Royal Opera's co-production with Salzburg does leave a thing or two to be desired - notably, costume designs that don't induce the good punters of Covent Garden to titter audibly at every character's first entry - but with Simon Rattle in the pit, Angelika Kirchschlager, Simon Keenlyside, Gerald Finlay, Robert Lloyd and Catherine Wyn-Rogers on stage, and as Yniold a young boy named George Longworth so musical that he almost stole the whole show, it didn't really matter.

Angelika looks fabulous in her now famous Red Dress, but the others, in huge, white, padded, puffed and pointed clown suits (without red noses) seem to have walked straight out of a cross between Star Trek and Dallas, and the way that stagehands push the foldaway sets round and round in circles during the first half's interludes, with associated squeaks, could have been usefully cut back. There wasn't much wrong with the actual direction - the characters emerged as well-drawn and believable - but the design...oh well.

Rattle controlled the dramatic pace marvellously and the orchestra sounded super - detailed, transparent and balanced extremely well with the singers. Hard to believe it was the same band that played that mismanaged, lumpen Mayerling the other week (conducted by, oh dear, um, one Mr Wordsworth).

Pelleas remains a conundrum of an opera because - well, what do you do with it? Nothing kills it stone-cold dead as much as naturalism. It's a Symbolist work, a conceptual piece where nothing can be taken at face value. So it begs a conceptual rendition. At least, one would think so. The music is what really counts, though; starship outfits or none, I still went home floating.

Monday, May 14, 2007

A good way to start the week

A note from Korngold supremo Brendan Carroll not only alerts me to the presence on Youtube of this clip, but also explains that the pianist/comedian Great Dane was a tremendous Korngold fan and knew the composer in Hollywood.

This is, of course, Liszt...

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Bonne anniversaire, Monsieur Gabriel

Those eyes. That moustache. And oh, that music... Happy birthday to my beloved Gabriel Faure, born on 12 May 1845.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Vladi scoops the RPS!

Our own utterly glorious Vladimir Jurowski, principal conductor designate of the LPO and music director at Glyndebourne, has been named the Royal Philharmonic Society's Conductor of the Year! (Just in time to do Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane in November :-))). He's opening the Glyndebourne season with MacVerdi's Macbeth next week. Vazhazdarovye, Vlad!

Monday, May 07, 2007

Bach to basics...

...while I was up to my eyeballs in kitchen building site dust, Jeremy Denk had one of those moments of pure inspiration...see what happened when a certain composer answered his ad...

Angelic Angelika

Here's my interview with Angelika Kirchschlager from today's Independent. A glorious singer and a strong, expressive woman full of intelligence and intuition, she is about to take on Debussy's Melisande at Covent Garden. The piece doesn't really have much to do with trouser roles, despite the standfirst.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Violinist scuppers Iran-US rapprochement?!

The Indy today runs a startling news story about the curtailment of a Sharm-el-Sheikh dinner in which the Iranian foreign minister left in a huff - possibly because of a violinist in a red dress...

Friday, May 04, 2007

Classical Brits...

This peculiar awards ceremony took place yesterday. I don't think it quite matches up to what I was told a few weeks ago. A nice PR person called me and said that the Classical Brits wanted to go upmarket, that a certain Very Wonderful Tenor was going to be singing on the big day and that if the paper would take something then they'd fly me out to Vienna to interview him. Boss wasn't keen - we've probably had too much VWT recently - so (*sigh*) I didn't go. Now the results are out: guess what? Paul McCartney, Katherine Jenkins and so forth. Fine if you like that sort of thing; I didn't think Sir P's album was as utterly dreadful as some would have us believe. But it's not exactly going upmarket.

A couple of noteworthy notes, though: they gave a lifetime achievement award to Vernon ('Tod') Handley, who deserves a knighthood far more than most British conductors who already have one. And the young violinist Ruth Palmer won a prize, having had the gumption not only to raise enough sponsorship dosh to hire the Philharmonia and make her first recording off her own bat, but to play stupendously well on the disc.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Poor old Erich

Oh dear. I hate writing things like this.

I know Korngold is difficult to play, difficult even to decipher, and can be overwritten etc etc, but still I don't think that's any excuse for what I heard last night.

It purported to be the Sinfonietta that EWK penned at the tender age of 15 and which induced Sibelius to describe the youngster as 'a young eagle'. Of course it's great that they programmed it - but I couldn't think when I last heard a professional orchestra and conductor produce such a dreadful performance of anything.

Most of it went around half the necessary tempi. The balance was non-existent. The dynamic contrasts likewise. Light, shade, colour, ebb, flow, the white-hot energy that flows in Korngold's musical veins, all were spectacular by their absence. Some of the players seemed to be struggling and ensemble didn't really come into it. My companion put it well, saying she was astounded that such non-four-square music could be made to sound - utterly four-square. Korngold normally changes his time signatures and expressive instructions every few bars - flexibility is crucial... The best I can say is that they played it at all.

The culprits? The BBC Concert Orchestra under Barry Wordsworth. One didn't expect the Berlin Philharmonic, of course, but it was depressing, particularly as the concert was well sold and most people there would never have heard the piece before and won't know how beautiful it can be. Besides, Wordsworth is probably the only conductor in Britain who knows the work well, having performed it a number of times at the Royal Ballet for La Ronde. Perhaps it would have been better if he'd decided just before the concert that he didn't believe in it...

Before the interval our friends Philippe Graffin and Raphael Wallfisch did a splendid job with the Miklos Rozsa Sinfonia Concertante and afterwards we all went for a pizza, which was nice.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

1 May

The first of May, hooray, hooray,
It should have been a holiday
But Mrs Thatcher took it away,
So while in Europe people play
Here in silly old UK
We have to go to work today
Except for those who cause affray.

So here are some new colours, spurred on by lilac trees, late apple blossom and a few early roses that have been fooled by weeks of sunshine into thinking it's June.


The Royal Festival Hall is reopening in a grand bonanza on 11 June after a major refit that is supposed to fix its acoustics. They're working flat out to finish the thing on time and are now giving some acoustic test concerts to help them perfect the final stages. On Saturday night, the LPO performed a whole evening of Brahms with Vladimir Jurowski, starring the one and only Vadim Repin in the Violin Concerto.

I was BANNED from attending. No journalists were allowed in.

Not like word isn't rife on the ground - everybody I know seems to have been inside and heard something, even if not that concert, in the past few days. Tom, for once in his life, is too scared to say a word, but elsewhere rumour has it that the stage is much larger than before and that in the rear stalls underneath the balcony you can actually hear the orchestra.

London is now chock-full of journalists trying to source leaks - which might not have been the case if we hadn't been shut out.