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...