Monday, December 22, 2008


This is my last post of 2008 - I'm taking a break for a couple of weeks. So here's a little Christmas present for everyone: how better to finish this year than by hearing the 95%-cocoa-solids violinist Toscha Seidel play 'Hejre Kati'?


A bientot!

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Once again, the Winter Solstice signals that it is time to welcome you to the JDCMB Ginger Stripe Awards!

2008 has been a peculiar year, full of the crunching of credits, the blurring of boundaries and the bouncing of an occasional Czech not to mention a lot of Hungarians. I regret to say that Sir Georg has put his paw down and banned me from presenting musical awards, however much deserved, to Philippe Graffin (who as you know made the CD-of-the-Book), Tasmin Little (who played at my book launch), Andras Schiff (even though today is his birthday! but he kindly endorsed the novel), Vladimir Jurowski (who just kept on and on winning the conductor slot), and several others. When I pointed out that the ban must extend to Feline of the Year, he gave a cat-shrug and said that as he alone can present ginger stripes for stroking, that was "bearly" relevant.

Our Cyberposhplace, being virtual, is still in business. The Canard-Duchen bubbly, being imaginary, flows unabated and our Virtualcelebritychef has made some Hungarian canapes, which are very filling, hence economical. Please help yourselves, but go easy on the garlic sausage... And now let's have a round of applause for 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 Solti, ensconced upon his silken cushion, will allow you to stroke the ginger stripes and will give you your very own prize purr.

Icon of the year: Vernon Handley, who along with Richard Hickox is among 2008's tragic losses. Our Nods for Tod went sadly unheeded; now it is too late. He and Richard live on, however, in the hearts of their admirers. Please pause for a two-minute silence.

Pianist of the year: Daniel Barenboim for his Beethoven cycle, which mobilised musical London like nothing else in years. I am startled to find that even now, after 10 months, I can remember the way he played almost everything in Op.111 - and suspect I will remember it forever.

Violinist of the year: since Solti has banned me from giving this one to Philippe and/or Tasmin, the prize is divided between Christian Tetzlaff for his Brahms concerto in London and Vienna with the LPO...and that dazzling virtuoso, the utterly gorgeous junior violinist of Taraf de Haidouks.

Singer of the year: the divine Jonas Kaufmann, whose performance at the ROH nearly renamed Puccini's most dramatic opera Cavaradossi.

Youthful artist of the year: Chloe Hanslip, who has grown up from prodigydom to become a really lovely musician. Her CD of Bazzini overflows with joie de vivre. I hope she'll go on to great things.

Conductor of the year: Claudio Abbado, who scooped the JDCMB conductors' poll hands down, so to speak.

Interviewee of the year: the maverick French violinist Devy Erlih, whom I interviewed in July for The Strad (they won't let me put it online until January, so watch this space). His mind-boggling story is the closest I have found in real life to that of Mimi Racz... You can, however, read a special web extra here in which he talks to me about Bach.

CD of the year: Stephen Kovacevich's new recording of the Beethoven Diabelli Variations and Bach 4th Partita. His old disc of the Diabellis on EMI was great, but this one is absolutely breathtaking: musicianship so fiery and profound that it exists on the very edge of bursting its banks. And the Bach - especially the Allemande - found me sinking to the floor and nearly chewing the carpet because I have always dreamed it could sound like this yet had never heard it do so... Enough already - just go and hear it.

Lifetime Achievement Award: Alfred Brendel, who is retiring. Read this beautiful tribute to him from Imogen Cooper in The Guardian; treasure the memories of that deadpan humour in Haydn and Beethoven; and read his book, an Aladdin's cave of musical insight.

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

And a few personal highlights:

Proudest moment: Launch of Hungarian Dances, 4 March. What an evening!

Most affecting moment: Philippe's Hungarian Dances CD becoming real - probably the most touching thing anyone has ever done in association with anything I have tried to do. Saying 'thank you' isn't enough...

Most startling moment: finding myself the foil to Krystian Zimerman's astounding comedy classic at the RFH.

Biggest sigh of relief: successful conclusion of the Hungarian Dances fundraising concert.

Guest star of the year: Sir Alan Sugar.

Felines of the year: I am hoping to meet some large stripy creatures (at a safe distance) on a mountainside in India next week. If we give them a prize now, perhaps they will deign to appear.

Personality of the year: my nephew Luca (age 4), who has developed an obsession with different types of weird and wonderful musical instruments and recently announced that he wants to play the 'doodah'. "How cute, a doodah-whatsit" was the general mystified response - before he told us yesterday that actually the duda is a type of bagpipe and he thinks it comes from Hungary... !?!

Wonderful Webmaster of the Year: this essential prize once again goes to Herr Horst Kolo, without whom nothing would be possible.

Thank you, everyone. Now please relax, socialise and enjoy the music...

Korngold podcast

With the UK stage premiere of Die tote Stadt at the Royal Opera House only about 5 weeks away, things are hotting up - if mildly - for the occasion. The ROH has loaded up a podcast in which a couple of us discuss Korngold's life and work and influence on film music. I haven't managed to download this one to add to our own podcaster, so do have a listen to it here.

Booking is open now for the opera, Willy Decker's much-acclaimed production already seen in Vienna and Salzburg, which stars Nadja Michael, Stephen Gould and Gerald Finlay. The first night is 27 January - the other Wolfgang's birthday. I'll be there on 2 February and will report back after that.

Friday, December 19, 2008

JDCMB The Apprentice, #2: The Tomcat's first CD

Those winter nights were long and quiet while the orchestra toured, and I've been having a recurring nightmare about the events of the past summer...Team JDCMB is back in The Apprentice!

(Flashback: July. Summer skies, sunshine and tweetybirds. Music: Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet gives way to woogly Apprentice sounds. Scene: The House. Phone rings. Jess answers)

Secretary: Sir Alan is assigning your next task, team JDCMB. He'd like you to meet him at the EMI studios on Abbey Road. The car will be here in half an hour.

(Cut to: limo stops by the Beatles' zebra crossing. Sir Alan stands outside the studio, where Elgar stood with Menuhin...)
Tom, Jess: Morning, Sir Alan.
Philippe, Claire: Bonjour, Sir Alain.
Sir Alan: Morning all. We're outside the most famous recording studio in the world. This is where dreams are made, and now, even decades later, you can still hear the results. A recording can be an icon: it can capture the whole mood of its times. Now, team JDCMB's next task is to make the Hungarian Dances CD. Please pack your suitcases - you're going to Holland to record the disc. Tom, you need to be there on 19 July to play the Bartok Duos with Philippe.
Tom: You having a laugh, mate?
Sir Alan: Not at all. Philippe has booked the studio specifically for a day when you're free from the orchestra, and he'd like you to be there at 5pm. Right, Phil?
Philippe: Oui, d'accord.
Tom: But I've never recorded anything before except in the orchestra...
Sir Alan: Now you're going to. Get used to it. Jess, you can go along to make the sandwiches and provide moral support.
Jess: Sir Alan, I have a problem. On 19 July I'm doing a pre-concert talk at the Cheltenham Festival. Ben and I are discussing Hungarian Dances and Hungarian Gypsy music before Taraf de Haidouks plays.
Sir Alan: You can't go?
Jess: Sir Alan, it's great book promotion, and we can mention the CD is being made...
Sir Alan: Don't be cheeky. It's cheeky enough to talk about Hungarian stuff just before a Romanian band plays. Haven't you ever heard of the Treaty of Trianon?... Still, if you've got a prior engagement, I suppose you'll have to honour it. There wasn't much you could have done anyway, other than the sarnies. I seem to remember your violin playing wasn't up to much 25 years ago.

(Cut to: Tom frantically practising Bartok. Cut to: Philippe and Claire on plane heading for Holland. Cut to: very early on a sunny July morning in The House.)

Jess: Good luck, dear, see you tomorrow.
Tom (late and packing): frwzhgrhwrs...

(Cut to: half an hour later. Jess's mobile rings.)

Tom: I missed the train! It was pulling out of the station when I arrived. I'll have to drive to Gatwick.
Jess: Oh no. Don't go too fast.

(Cut to: Tom bowling down the M23 at 99.7mph. Cut to: Jess exploring 18th-century terraces of Cheltenham. Phone rings.)

Tom: I'm in Amsterdam. Hours early! Just having a nap...

(Cut to: Tom slumbering peacefully in hotel room; then waking and looking at schedule.)

Tom: S***!

(Close-up of schedule: the recording address is not in Amsterdam.)
Tom: Where the f*** is Deventer?

(Tom at station, talking to friendly Dutch stationmaster who directs him to train to Deventer. About to board, Tom slaps hand to head. Cut to: taxi pulls up outside hotel. Tom jumps out of car and runs inside. Emerges holding music of Bartok Duos. Clockface: an hour has passed. At station, Tom boards next train. Cut to: train stalled in field. Heavy rain. Clockface: 4.30pm.)

Announcement in Dutch: Due to an accident on the line, this train will now be returning to Amsterdam.
Tom: Please could someone translate?

(Clockface: 5.30pm. Train pulls in to Amsterdam. Tom's shoes have turned orange.)

Stationmaster: The Amsterdam-Deventer line will be down for the rest of the day.

(Cut to: Jess in Cheltenham, having tea and cream scones with Ben, Katie and Desmond. Mobile rings)

Tom: Jess, I'm stuck! How do I get there without the train?
Jess (mouth full of scone): What did you say it's called?
Ben: Is there a bus?
Desmond: Can you hire a car?
Katie: Have you got a map?
Tom: Help! I'm late! Jess, what shall I do?
Jess: I don't know, dear. Ask a stationmaster?

(Cut to: Philippe in studio under flashing red light, holding violin in one hand and mobile phone in the other)

Philippe (into phone): Don't worry, Tom, just get here when you can.
Sir Alan (off set): Oh lordy...

(Cut to: stationmaster talking to Tom, writing down long list of instructions. Clockface: hands whirring round and round. Pan to: three trains in succession as Tom gets on and off them at small stations beside windmills. Clockface: 7.30pm - a bedraggled Tom walks through rain past board marked DEVENTER. Cut to: red light in studio. Tom and Philippe play very fast.)

Tom: Ouch...
Philippe: Tom, you sound great.
Tom (fumbling for headache pills): I've been practising it at half that speed!

(Cut to: Cheltenham Town Hall, big audience assembling: Jess shaking hands with Taraf de Haidouks's extremely handsome youngest violinist and talking happily with him in French. Mobile rings.)

Jess: Tomcat, how's it going?
Tom (freaked out): I can't do this, it's impossible.
Jess: Stop worrying, dear. You've had a terrible journey, of course you feel bad.
Tom: But now I have to LISTEN to myself on the tape!
Philippe (distant): Tom! One more take!
Tom: How am I going to get back to Amsterdam if the trains are down?

(Clockface: 10.30pm. Red light switches off. Tom throws violin into case and pulls on raincoat.)

Philippe: Aren't you staying for a beer?

(Cut to: Tom legging it to station through the rain. Cut to: Jess and Ben in Cheltenham Town Hall, dancing and cheering Taraf de Haidouks, which is onstage playing everyone's socks off. Cut to: morning after. Jess, hung over, on train from Cheltenham to London. Mobile rings.)

Tom (forlorn): I'm at Gatwick and now I can't find the car! It's the last staw!! HELP!!!!
Jess: Oh blimey, guv...

(Cut to: The House. All candidates asleep. Phone rings. Everyone is too knackered to take the call.)

Secretary (on answering machine): Sir Alan would like you to meet him in the boardroom in an hour.

(Woogly Apprentice music. Jess, Tom, Philippe and Claire troop into boardroom.)

Sir Alan: Well, well, well. You look as if you've been dragged through a hedge backwards. Tom, what have you got to say for yourself?
Tom: Sir Alan, that was one of the most crap days I've ever had in my whole life (sob).
Sir Alan: Philippe, how did Tom do in this task?
Philippe: He was great. It wasn't his fault the trains broke down.
Tom: Sir Alan, it was one of those days where everything went wrong and (sob sob) none of it was my fault!
Sir Alan: Jessica, where were you through all this?
Jess: Er, as I said, I had to do my talk with Ben in Cheltenham, so I couldn't...
Sir Alan: Yes, yes, you were running away with the real Gypsies, weren't you? "She's gone with the Raggle-Taggle Taraf-oh..."
Jess: It was a contracted engagement, Sir Alan, I couldn't let them down.
Sir Alan: You were having a high old time, bopping away in Cheltenham Town Hall, chatting up that dishy violinist, helping the cimbalom player find cotton to coat his beaters! While your husband was fighting his way against all the elements and all the odds to record seven minutes of music for a CD to go with your book?! And all you could say was: "I don't know, dear, ask a stationmaster?"
Jess: But Sir Alan...
Sir Alan: Claire, you've been a tower of strength. Philippe, you've bust all your guts over this project. Well done, you're both stupendous. You can go back to the House.
Philippe and Claire: Merci, Sir Alain. (exeunt)
Tom: Sir Alan, I know I played absolutely dreadfully and I couldn't bear to listen to myself on the tape, and it really wasn't my fault that it went so horribly wrong and I wish I could feel that I deserve to win this task, but I don't. And it was all Jess's fault because she didn't help me at all!
Sir Alan: Tom, listen. All musicians feel that way when they hear themselves on tape for the first time. You're not the first and you won't be the last. Philippe was pleased with your playing, wasn't he?
Tom: Yes, but...
Sir Alan: You want proof? I got proof. I've got a surprise for you. Look at this.
(Close up of The Independent on Sunday's review of the CD, in bold letters: "Pick of the Album: Bartok's spare, angry 'Sorrow' for two violins").
Sir Alan: See? They picked out one of your duos as the best bit! What do you say to that?
Tom (pink-eared): rflghrrfhgwl...
Sir Alan: Jessica, having a conflicting engagement isn't an excuse. You were no use to your team whatsoever. Indeed you've induced your husband and your friends to go through hell and high water. If it wasn't for that bloody book, none of this would have happened.
Jess: But Sir Alan, the CD is wonderful and Tom's first non-orchestral recording has been picked out by the Indy on Sunday...
Sir Alan: The fact remains, someone has to go, and there is one person in this room who is - completely - bloody - useless. (sarcastic) I wonder who it could possibly be? (points finger): Jessica, you're...

(Cut to: Jess wakes up in a cold sweat. Front door closes.)
Tom: Jess, I'm home from tour!
Jess (recovering): About time too.
Solti: purrr.

Cyberlin Phil

The Grauniad has news today that the Berlin Philharmonic is planning to stream most of its concerts live on the Internet. It'll cost you E89 to watch a season of 30-odd concerts plus the archive (probably £88 in pounds....), and is being sponsored by a bank. Thinking about being constantly on camera, Sir Simon says: ""We'll have to make sure we shave properly and powder our red noses."

I have yet to enjoy watching *anything* on my computer. It constantly stops film broadcasts to 'buffer' them, offers a lousy picture and dubious sound and requires me to sit on my office chair surrounded by my usual chaos, while Solti meows constantly for attention. So I can't say I fancy this much. I'm convinced that the only way to appreciate a thing like the Berlin Philharmonic is to hear it live, preferably in the Philharmonie, in a case of total commitment and absorption. I would rather appreciate them once in a while, but do it properly. Still, good luck to 'em. Perhaps British orchestras will go down this route too, if there are any banks left to sponsor them.

(Update: please note altered cost above - a note from a reader in Germany who has already signed up for the season webcasts tells me that the Grauniad got it wrong when they said E149. She adds that you need to run a test from the site to make sure the concerts play to your liking on your computer before you pay.)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The one who got away: Leroy Anderson

What with the fuss about Messiaen and Carter's centenaries, one wonderful man has been slightly overlooked in this sceptered isle, probably because he was just too successful. This is Leroy Anderson, American composer of light music, best known for his Sleigh-Ride (the one we can't get away from at Christmas, anywhere, ever). Born in 1908 to Swedish parents in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he studied at Harvard with, among others, Walter Piston and George Enescu and spoke six languages besides English and Swedish. Read his full biography here, part of an excellent website devoted to him and his work, with a superb selection of sound clips.

Meanwhile, you have to hear this...

Business as usual

To reassure you, dear readers, it is business as usual at JDCMB - the Felixcitations blog is As Well As, not Instead Of. There will be a 2-week hiatus over Christmas & New Year, but this is coincidental.

And to reassure one or two from Sniffsville, East Anglia, I have no intention of compromising my independence. Just because R3 has invited me to write extensively about a composer I love, that does not mean I will be reverently tugging the forelock here to the channel's ecstatic reviews of new early-music CDs, unless I can stand the way said discs sound.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Fiddles in the Library!

THURSDAY 22 January 2009, 7.30pm

We'll be talking about our collaborations and especially the book & CD of Hungarian Dances. I'll read from the book and Tom will join Philippe to play Bartok Duos. Come and meet us!

East Sheen Library, Sheen Lane, London SW14 (2 mins from Mortlake station, South-West Trains). Booking in advance is advised via the library: 020 8876 8801.

The day before, Wednesday 21 Jan, you can hear Philippe playing the Chausson Poeme, among other things, at the Wigmore Hall with members of the London Sinfonietta, in a special concert devoted to the memory of Charles Darwin.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Hooray! I've found a podcast player on Blogger. So, if you missed the podcast the other day of Philippe and me talking to Bob Jones of Classic FM Arts Daily, you can listen to it right here on JDCMB by selecting the one and only podcast in the box at the top of the sidebar.

Hickox's last interview

Broadcaster, film-maker and writer Tommy Pearson (check out his excellent blog, One More Take) discovered that his interview with Richard Hickox was the conductor's last. Three days after their meeting, Hickox suffered his fatal heart attack. The interview is strong on Vaughan Williams and English music in general. It's illuminating, fascinating and good humoured - and leaves one with a distinct lump in the throat, given the hindsight. It's now available to hear on Tommy's latest podcast for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra's website; you can hear it here. The programme also includes a substantial discussion of the glorious Carl Nielsen with Stephen Johnson.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Poetry by Erich Fried

It's the day when I start to feel longer in the tooth than before, and I'd like to mark it not with music but with poetry. The other evening we went to a beautiful soiree at the Austrian Embassy dedicated to the Viennese-born poet, political commentator and author Erich Fried. His widow Katherine presented extracts from her memoirs and several close friends of his spoke about him and read some of his poems. They are concentrated and focused. They go straight to the heart. Here is my favourite.

What It Is

It is madness
says reason

It is what it is
says love

It is unhappiness
says caution

It is nothing but pain
says fear

It has no future
says insight

It is what it is
says love

It is ridiculous
says pride

It is foolish
says caution

It is impossible
says experience

It is what it is
says love.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Today is Messiaen's centenary!

I just couldn't choose a piece of his on Youtube to celebrate here - there's a shortage of first-class footage and questionable online sound quality does Messiaen few favours. Instead here is the man himself talking to his analysis class at the Paris Conservatoire about the work he described as his greatest influence: Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande.

Tom Stoppard, Andre Previn and...

The latest newsletter from the National Theatre here in London tells us that rehearsals are underway for Every Good Boy Deserves Favour by Tom Stoppard and Andre Previn, opening on 12 January. It describes the work as "a chilling play for actors and orchestra" about "a patient in an asylum who believes himself to be surrounded by an orchestra".

I wonder if it's based on me?! ;-)

More workshops!

Following a terrific inaugural day on 1 November, I've now scheduled four more KICK-START YOUR WRITING workshops in the new year:

Saturday 24 January
Sunday 1 February
Saturday 28 February
Saturday 21 March

All workshops are held here in sunny East Sheen and run from 10.30am to 5pm. If you've always wanted to write but find it difficult to get started, these are for you!

Please email me for further details.

I'd also like to know if anyone would be interested in a workshop devoted to writing about music?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Hirschhorn, 1967

Following a special mention from Sebastian in the comments the other day, here is a clip of the great Philippe Hirschhorn playing in the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels in 1967. Hirschhorn, who died of a brain tumour aged only 50, was a huge loss to the music world - one of the artists I most wish I could have heard. Just take in that tone. Very occasionally, you find a musician whose sound and ethos feel too good to be true - too good, perhaps, for this world... On one of the other Youtube videos of him there's a comment from listener who says simply: "I believe he returned to where he had come from."

There's a touching tribute to him from our Philippe, Monsieur Graffin, in my profile of him for The Strad a few years back, including a lovely photo of the two of them together. As a teenager, Philippe G used to travel from Paris to Brussels for lessons with Philippe H every couple of weeks. (Due to technotwit difficulties I can't copy the pic from the PDF, so please go to the page to see it...)

Thank heavens for recordings. Before the classical recording industry succeeds in committing suicide, someone should please reflect on the number of extraordinary musicians whose artistry we now know only because someone switched on a microphone.

Saturday, December 06, 2008


At the Lake District Summer Music Festival, Bob Jones of Classic FM recorded an interview with Philippe Graffin and me about our collaborations, especially A Walk Through the End of Time, which had its British premiere that day, and of course Hungarian Dances. The podcast is now on the Classic FM website - listen or download!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Happy Birthday, Krystian!

It's Krystian Zimerman's birthday. To celebrate, here's something astounding I found on YouTube: footage from the 1975 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, which he won aged only 18. Enjoy this wonderful mazurka.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Bravo, Alex!!

Three cheers for Alex Ross, whose masterpiece about 20th-century music, The Rest is Noise, has scooped The Guardian's First Book Award. Great stuff and so much the right winner.

Heil Carmina...

I have never been able to stand Carmina Burana. I loathe every bloody note. Call it schadenfreude if you like, but when Tony Palmer invited me to a sneak preview of his amazing new documentary, O Fortuna, I couldn't help feeling pleased to learn that Carl Orff was indeed a nasty piece of work.

Palmer's film, which premieres on Sunday at the Barbican Cinema, is nevertheless expertly non-judgmental: he allows the story to tell itself. And the great paradox is that though Orff sucked up to the Nazis and so on, he also invented a system of music education that is working wonders all over the world and is now helping children with such ailments as cerebral palsy - unfortunate innocents who would have been condemned to death under the Third Reich. A redemption if ever there was one.

The DVD will be out in January. Meanwhile, here is my article about the whole caboodle from today's Independent. And much as I hate the piece, I am intrigued by the giant O2 performances coming up in January...

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The curious case of Andre Tchaikowsky's skull

The past week or so, various newspapers have carried one of the most startling you-couldn't-make-this-up stories of the season: that the Royal Shakespeare Company has decided not to use the skull of the pianist Andre Tchaikowsky in its forthcoming run of Hamlet, starring David 'Dr Who' Tennant, in London next week.

So why would they have used it? Because the great Polish pianist, who died of cancer aged 46 in 1982, bequeathed his body to science and his skull to the RSC for theatrical use. The skull has already been used in performances in Stratford-on-Avon.

Alas, poor Andre - I knew him, dear readers, at least on the concert platform. I heard him play a recital at the QEH only two years or so before his untimely death and even now I remember the tenderness of his tone, the absolute love with which he infused every note he played, but especially Chopin. As it was his last wish that his skull should be put to theatrical use in Hamlet, it seems a little churlish of the RSC not to carry on, but they seem to think that using a real skull would be too 'distracting' for their poor attention-challenged audiences (so having arguably the best-ever Dr Who play Hamlet isn't 'distracting'?? OK, he's a great actor, but still...).

There is, however, an excellent Andre Tchaikowsky website, on which you can read in PDF format an entire book about him by David A. Ferre. His life was as extraordinary as it was short and this is well worth a read. (The creators apparently thought it would 'find its own way' to a publisher or, OMG, the which we can only add the words 'blimey' and 'oy vay').

"A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy." And according to Stephen Kovacevich, "the best musician of them all."

Monday, December 01, 2008


The JDCMB Poll of the World's Greatest Conductors has ended with a clear vote giving CLAUDIO ABBADO the laurel wreath, streets ahead of everyone else.

Readers wrote in with their nominations and the final ten on whom we voted were those who received the most nominations - four or more. 303 votes were placed and the interesting results make me wonder whether I may have a strong clique of readers up in Manchester.

Abbado, whose performances with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra last year drew reviews of the kind you do not read more than once a decade, finished in first place with 27 per cent of the vote. Bernard Haitink was second, lagging considerably, at 15 per cent. A surprise third place went to the young Gianandrea Noseda, principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, with 9 per cent; Charles Mackerras was snapping at his heels fourth with just two fewer votes. Gergiev and Levine tied fifth, Rattle was just behind at sixth, and then (!) Pierre Boulez. My condolences to Muti, who pulled in eighth with 4 per cent, and valiantly bringing up the rear was John Eliot Gardiner, who won just 3 per cent with ten votes.

Noseda was the wild card and the reason that polls like this can be so interesting. Neither of the Southbank supremos, Jurowski and Salonen, receiving two nominations apiece, made the final ten. Such eminences as Eschenbach and Temirkanov were not even mentioned at stage 1; Masur, Sawallisch and Maazel each had only one nomination. Barenboim, with three, fell just short of the final list.

The idea of this contest was that it should be an utterly transparent People's Poll, in which I serve only as initiator and moderator, nominating just four names to start things off and voting once like everyone else (Haitink, since you ask). Thanks to everyone who joined in.

So, bravo Abbado! And we're left wondering whether Noseda is the face of the future...

Saturday, November 29, 2008

I love Lenny

No, not that one (though, I love him too).

This one. This waltz.

Howard Jacobson, one of my favourite columnists, writes this super article today in The Independent about his visit to a Leonard Cohen concert at the O2.

I love this paragraph:
"I like it that he doesn't jig about. Such a change to see someone on a stage, immobile – as still as thought. We have the attention span of children. A thing will interest us only if it sparkles and moves. Madonna, Michael Jackson – people come back from their concerts raving about how well they move as though moving is a virtue in itself. I don't get it. If you want moving ring Pickfords. Leonard Cohen barely stirs, limiting himself to crouching over his microphone into which he whispers with hoarse suggestiveness."

The same is very often true of the finest classical performers: think of Heifetz and Oistrakh on the violin, Barenboim at the piano, etc. The focus is the music. The energy is not dissipated by unnecessary movement and histrionics. It's very much in keeping with Alexander Technique principles: eliminate excess muscular effort and concentrate the energy where it is most needed. In Cohen's case, the voice. In Heifetz's, the instrument in his arms. Each mite of force that goes into extraneous movement is a morsel removed from the core of what the artist is trying to achieve. That is not to advocate stiffness: just concentration and good sense.

I would have liked to go and hear LC too, but it is almost quicker to get to Marseilles from where I live than to the O2, and the great man's Albert Hall gigs were a) ROH prices, b) sold out but for a few restricted view tickets at £55 each. Technically this makes Leonard Cohen into Heifetz and Rolando Villazon at the same time. Not to mention Lorca.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Philippe & Claire on IN TUNE today

Philippe Graffin and Claire Desert will be on BBC Radio 3's IN TUNE today, playing and talking about some of the pieces on the Hungarian Dances CD. Those within bowling distance of Cambridge can go and hear their recital at Kettle's Yard Art Gallery tomorrow, Thursday. I'm told they are on near the start of today's programme, so switch on at 5pm and listen out for a searing violin and some lovely French accents. And stick around to hear the phenomenal tenor Mark Padmore. The programme will be available on Listen Again for a week, for those in the UK.

UPDATE: Link to Listen Again for another 6 days

UPDATE: apologies to our overseas would-be listeners trying to access this broadcast from places like New York and Bucharest - I think Listen Again may only be available in the UK, even in this day and age...

Beautiful times among the Titians

A touching and tender day at the National Gallery for the Dame Myra Hess commemoration. Tasmin Little and Piers Lane (pictured) gave the evening concert, with powerful performances of Elgar and Poulenc; in the middle, Piers performed Hess's arrangement of 'Jesu Joy' which had everyone in tears - not least because he sounded not unlike Hess herself. The Gallery commissioned a new piano piece from Nigel Hess - great-nephew of Dame Myra and an award-winning film composer who wrote, among other things, the score for Ladies in Lavender (including that gorgeous pastiche violin concerto that always leaves everyone wondering what it is and why they don't know it). He produced an 'Improvisation on Jesu, Joy' which Piers played with the same tenderness as the Bach itself. Beautiful - pastel-coloured, nostalgic, heartfelt.

Lunchtime saw an extraordinary performance by the Contiguglia Twins from New York, who played the socks off Howard Ferguson, Schubert and Beethoven. They came to Britain to study with Hess as young boys and played the Schubert Variations on an Original Theme for their Wigmore Hall debut. And... I've heard of identical, but this was quite something. I'm reliably informed that you can tell them apart when you know them well.

Celebrations followed among the Titians. On days like this, listening to world class music in historical surroundings then sipping rather good wine next to iconic Renaissance art, it's great to be a Londoner.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

National Gallery Myra Hess Day

Today is the now-annual Dame Myra Hess Day at the National Gallery here in London. Piers Lane - a Hess 'grand-pupil' via his teacher, the late Yonty Solomon - is artistic director of the event which commemorates Hess's daily lunchtime concerts held in the Gallery during World War II, with music performed in the Barry Rooms where her series took place - though we have the paintings back now.

This year's event also celebrates the vital contribution to that series of her friend Howard Ferguson the composer, whose Partita for Two Pianos will be performed at lunchtime by the Contigulia Brothers from New York, themselves former pupils of Hess. There's a discussion chaired by Piers mid-afternoon, and this evening he and Tasmin Little will play war-scarred violin sonatas by Elgar and Poulenc.

We couldn't have this day without this:

Monday, November 24, 2008

Polling open

Blogger's template has reduced us to ranking the top 10 conductors rather than the top 20, so I have selected those who have received four nominations or more. Please see the poll in the sidebar and get voting!

Please note that you may vote ONLY ONCE and for ONLY ONE CHAP! Polling closes at five to midnight on Sunday 30 November, so we will have the final result first thing next Monday morning.

Richard Hickox, 1948-2008

We're shocked by the news this morning that the conductor Richard Hickox died yesterday of a suspected heart attack.

The music director of Opera Australia, associate guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, founder and music director of the City of London Sinfonia and much more, he was also a great champion of British music. Yesterday he had been in Wales for a recording session, adding to a discography that numbers more than 300 items.

I only met him once or twice socially, but emerged with the impression that he was a heck of a nice guy.

His agent, Stephen Lumsden of Intermusica, says: “The shock of Richard Hickox’s sudden and unexpected death will resonate right around the globe and has robbed the music world of one of its most popular and respected musicians. It also takes away from his beloved family a deeply devoted husband, father, son and brother. Literally thousands of musicians who were touched by his talent, energy and that remarkable generosity of spirit of his will feel that loss as well. Richard never wavered or faltered in his commitment and support for others even when faced with the most daunting challenges. His ability to inspire the best through his passion for the music he conducted created countless memorable performances in the concert hall, on the opera stage and on disc.”

UPDATE: Tributes: The Telegraph; a very touching memoir from Tom Service in The Guardian; producer/broadcaster Tommy Pearson at his blog One More Take. No doubt more to come.
TUESDAY: From The Independent. Stress? (Do not get me started on the effect of stress on musicians' lives and health. This issue needs a whole blog all to itself.)

Friday, November 21, 2008

And some light relief for Friday afternoon

Sebastian sent me this, and it has brightened my day. You don't really need to understand the German to appreciate it, though it's worth noting in advance that this lady's parents are both opera singers......

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Violinists blogging and jogging...

The LPO is currently on tour in Germany and Tom has been asked to write for the official tour blog! The news that their indefatigable concertmaster has put down his violin for long enough to go for a run is some indication that everything must be going well. Tom also has some useful information on how to handle a violin, a bow and a beer glass at the same time.

It's good to have some fun news. Today I heard that the newspaper I write for is shedding a raft of jobs, while my publishers are being sued for libel by the mother of a Misery Memoir author. Oyvevoy.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Double Dutch courage!

Pliable at the Overgrown Path has good news today from our friends in Holland: the culture minister has stepped in to save Concertzender! Pliable suggests that this has not a little to do with the power of blogging to marshal support.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Dutch courage...

...but no happiness: the independent classical radio station Concertzender has been forced off the internet-air. A tragic waste of the passion, energy and commitment that went into its existence. Overgrown Path has a full report here.

Elephants like Elgar

Personally I'm convinced everything started going wrong in the economy when the Bank of England kicked Elgar off the £20 note. But it seems that elephants still like him.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Words & music, shaken or stirred?

OK, so the novel and the CD work side by side, like good friends with independent lives who get together to party. But now they're shacking up: we have some actual Hungarian Dances concert invitations for next year. The concert-of-the-book, invented for the Queen's Gate Terrace event last June, therefore needs rethinking and repointing.

Squeezing a 400-page novel that covers three generations, 80 years and a sackload of characters into extracts totalling about 20-25 minutes out of a 75-min event is not so simple. What works best? Three biggish chunks of reading at the beginning, in the middle and near the end? Or an ongoing exchange of smaller chunks, with nothing longer than about 10 minutes, perhaps assisted by lighting effects to smooth the transitions and provide a modicum of theatricality without my walking backwards and forwards in precarious heels?

Next, how closely need the music match the extracts? It should be easy to work in some pieces like Hejre Kati that aren't directly mentioned in the book; and to shoehorn in Bartok's cameo appearance alongside the Romanian Dances; later, when Rohan plays Tzigane, there can be no substitute. But is it too obvious first to describe someone playing a piece, then play it, and use this as a blueprint throughout? Or is obviousness necessary if we're to get through to a book-clubbish audience as well as existing fiddle fanatics?

The mixing of drinks sometimes requires a good cocktail barista to work the magic. In this case, we want the audience to be stirred without the performers being shaken. Feedback needed, please, from Mr Bond, Ms Moneypenny and anyone who was there on 17 June and has sensible and helpful thoughts on the subject.

Friday, November 14, 2008

What Botox is meant to do

Before my father's untimely death in 1996, one of his last research projects was to explore the use of Botulinum toxin in the treatment of conditions such as muscular dystrophy, focal distonia etc - in which muscles go into spasm and cannot function.

This, as everyone knows, morphed rather grotesquely into Botox, the beauty treatment by which women allow themselves to be injected with a deadly poison in order to straighten out the odd wrinkle. This fantastic article from The Times today, however, proves how worthwhile that research really was: it has given Leon Fleisher the use of his right hand again, after 35 years. Fleisher is the most glorious musician - an artist of true humanity and integrity - and now he has a new lease of life at the piano.

You can hear him at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday afternoon. If you're not within concert-going distance, hear this CD.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Viva Sergei

After reading this depressing tract from Norman re China and notably the rivalry of Yundi Li and Lang Lang, retreat into the pianistic past is all that's possible, especially when seeking evasion tactics from copy-edit of novel. Last night I fell in love with Rachmaninov all over again, thanks to Vladimir and the LPO playing the socks off the Symphonic Dances. So here, for the Dead Pianists Society, is the second movement of Rach's Suite No.2 for two pianos, played by Alexander Goldenweiser and Grigory Ginzburg. Welcome to another world...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

by the way... not even think about posting spam or unwanted adverts to the comments boxes on this blog. I have a comment approval facility, so your efforts will not appear and you are wasting your time. If you wish to advertise on this blog, it will cost you money. The rates are very competitive and you may email me for details.

Sarah Palin's new career: jazz singer

This is brilliant!! Thanks to a very wonderful pianist who sent it to me yesterday with the words "I wish I'd thought of it first..." The musician 'accompanying' La Sarah is New York jazzer Henry Hey. Enjoy. There's more where this comes from, too, so check it out on Youtube.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Meet Boris Giltburg

This is Boris Giltburg, the 24-year-old Russian-Israeli pianist who is making his Southbank Centre recital debut tomorrow night. He is rather wonderful. Listen to this Bach - the fugue from the Chromatic Fantasy And...: deep, well-modulated touch, terrific concentration, intelligent shaping and voicing, and finely paced build of intensity from start to finish.

Since winning the Santander competition in 2002 he's been enjoying high-profile debuts with top orchestras around the usual circuit (eg, the world) and tomorrow he kicks off an ambitious programme at the QEH with nothing less than Beethoven Op.111. You don't tend to do that unless you are going places. The rest of the programme involves Scriabin, Rachmaninov and Schumann.

I will be interviewing him in a pre-concert event at the QEH at 6.15pm, so do come along and meet him. But if you can't, I suspect that there will be many more opportunities to enjoy his playing in future!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Farewell, Miriam Makeba

"Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa and the people without even realising it."

Miriam Makeba, 'Mama Afrika', died this morning, apparently of a heart attack after an anti-Mafia concert in Italy. She was 76.

Her singing was some of the first I ever heard: my late parents, South African anti-apartheid emigres who left the place in the early 1950s, treasured, and frequently played, their LPs of her songs.

This video of her singing 'Under African Skies' with Paul Simon, is not just an excuse to hear one of my favourite numbers from the Graceland album, but also demonstrates how Makeba brought the sounds of South Africa to a universal public and, with them, the awareness of Mandela's imprisonment and the atrocities of life under that odious political system.

She will be much missed, but remembered forever.

Friday, November 07, 2008

I am in Hungarian!

Same book, different worlds... Here - for anyone who is lucky enough to read Magyar fluently - is HUNGARIAN DANCES in Hungarian, translated by Agnes Simonyi and published today by Kossuth Kiado in Budapest. A quick whizz of the catalogue blurb through a translation tool reveals that it speaks of the book's "overwhelming passion", its "mix of civilisations" and "battle against racial prejudice", and I am told that it is going to be advertised on the Budapest subway in a week's time. I always dreamed of such a thing, but never imagined that it would happen in Hungary...My profound thanks to Kossuth for taking this novel as seriously as I hoped it would deserve.

Today, Metropol - the Budapest equivalent of London's Metro - ran this interview with me. English translation promised in due course.

Kozena uncut

I have a piece about Magdalena Kozena in The Independent today. While other writers have grumbled that she can be 'frosty' or gives them 'don't go there' looks on the mention of hubby, I found her utterly charming and adored her sense of humour. And my God, what a voice. Don't miss her new album, which is sensationally gorgeous. As for Sir Simon, well, he persuaded her to sing Mahler sooner than she might have otherwise.

The piece is shorter than my original - I'd thought it would run on Wednesday, the Indy's usual classical feature spot - but I guess it's not every day one's piece gets moved because of the election of the USA's first black president so that is OK by me. Here, comme d'habitude, is the director's cut.


With her dazzling looks and a career trajectory second to none, Magdalena Kozená is surely one of the most glamorous women on the operatic stage. That’s even before she opens her mouth. And when she does – well, you can’t argue with that voice. Melt down an ingot of 40-carat gold, then filter it through a finely trained larynx and the result may resemble her focused, pure, flexible and shining tone.

Yet traditionally, it’s the sopranos who enjoy the most glitzy operatic roles, with the image to match; Kozená is a mezzo-soprano, a ‘fach’ [voice type] that composers all too often relegate to the roles of sisters, young boys and mothers-in-law. Perhaps inside every mezzo-soprano there is a dramatic soprano longing to get out. “Of course, if I were a dramatic soprano there would be some wonderful roles to sing and I’m a bit jealous,” the Czech singer, 35, admits. “But one should be happy with what one’s got.” In her case, that’s not bad: Kozená, who gives a recital in the Barbican’s Great Performers series on Sunday, has got everything.

Four years ago, though, she hit the headlines in another way when it emerged that she and the conductor Sir Simon Rattle were leaving their respective spouses to set up home together. A frenzy of unwelcome media attention followed. Now, though, scandal has subsided into domestic bliss. The pair have settled just outside Berlin (Rattle is the chief conductor and artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic) and have two sons, Jonas, aged three and a half, and Milos, four months. And Kozená, happy with the quieter schedule she has adopted for the sake of her family, seems as warm as her voice, relaxed and very ready to laugh.

Maybe that’s why it’s the national sense of humour that she misses most about her native Czech Republic. “Even if you translate it into another language, it’s never the same, because people abroad don’t have that way of thinking,” she says. “Every time I go back, I feel we laugh at things that nobody would laugh at in Germany where I live, or in England, or anywhere else. Sometimes I laugh and everybody thinks I’m crazy!”

Those high spirits illuminate much of the repertoire she’s bringing to the Barbican, which also features in her new album: Czech songs from Dvorák and Janácek to Petr Eben, entitled Songs My Mother Taught Me. The music also contains a gentle but deep vein of pathos. “Some of these songs are very witty yet sad at the same time,” she says. “I think the melancholy is very Slavic – we have some heartbreaking melodies.”

Much of this can be attributed to the music’s folk roots. In the album’s opening number, an unaccompanied traditional folk song, Kozená adopts a raw-edged, back-to-the-earth timbre rarely heard from her. Is this a new direction, or something that has been lurking all along under her usual refinement? “I think that if you sing this music with too much vibrato or too prettily, it doesn’t sound authentic,” she explains. “I tried to sing it in the way that a folk singer would; you can allow yourself a bit more roughness in your tone, with colours that you couldn’t possibly use in Mozart. Still, there’s not too much repertoire in which you can afford to experiment this way. I wouldn’t do it every day because it can interfere with your technique, but from time to time it’s fun.”

The title, Kozená says, is more than appropriate: “I used to sing this repertoire as a student and some of the songs even as a kid.” Born in Brno, which was the home city of Janácek, she was singing before she could talk: “I don’t remember it, but my mother told me I used to imitate every sound I heard on the television or around me in the street. It was always a big passion.”

Music could have taken her in a different direction: “When I was three, I fell in love with the piano because my kindergarten teacher played extremely well. I decided at once that I was going to be a pianist, and I was very stubborn about it.” Fate intervened when Kozená broke her hand just before her entrance exam for the Brno Conservatory: “I had always sung in children’s choirs, so I decided to enter as a singer instead.” Eventually she studied both, which was unusual. “But singing won, and I am very glad,” she says, twinkling. “I think it was the right decision!”

By that time, she was virtually a professional already. Aged 16, she and a lute-playing friend began to give concerts of renaissance and early baroque music in the historic castles of the Czech Republic. “Sometimes I was criticised by teachers who thought I should just study and not be distracted by giving concerts so young,” she recalls, “but I learned so much from doing this – and that was the moment I decided I wanted to be a singer, not a pianist, and when I began to think I can actually earn my living this way.”

She first steamed up the hearts and minds of music fans internationally when Deutsche Grammophon brought out her album of Bach arias in 1997; she was only 23. After that, she says, “A lot of things seemed to happen at the same time.” The Bach CD went down a storm and as well as winning her an exclusive DG contract it helped her to find a manager. A rewarding creative partnership with the baroque specialist conductor Marc Minkowski was a highlight of those early years: “He’s a very ‘alive’ musician, and passionate about theatre,” she enthuses. “He gave me a lot of work and some extremely interesting projects.”

Today, though, there’s no doubt as to who the most important conductor in Kozená’s life is. “Some people don’t like to work with their spouses,” she remarks. “They prefer to separate professional from personal life. But I think that if you know someone so well, then working with them becomes even easier because you don’t have to discuss things: you just have this knowledge of the person and their music-making and things happen naturally. It’s easier than working with anyone else.” Rattle has also led her towards repertoire she had hesitated to tackle before. “Simon encouraged me to sing Mahler, and I think that was a good choice. I always wanted to, but I was scared that it wasn’t quite the right time. Now I’m singing this repertoire more and more and I feel very happy in it.”

Home life in Berlin is proving more than satisfactory too. “I love Berlin because there is so much green and you can easily be with nature,” she says, “but at the same time you have all the advantages of a big modern city with its culture and concerts. I love nature, and if I had the choice between living in the centre of a city or living on a farm, I would choose the farm every time. But that isn’t practical if you have children who need to go to school, so Berlin is a good compromise.”

With the centenary of Mahler’s death approaching in 2011, there should be much to look forward to from her in this direction, and around the same time there looms the possibility of her debut in the most celebrated of all mezzo roles: Carmen. Meanwhile, next year she will sing the greatest of the ‘trouser’ roles for the first time – Oktavian in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, at the Berlin Staatsoper.

This rich, romantic repertoire is some distance from the baroque and classical sphere where she made her name. Not that she’s abandoned it – her next album will be of operatic arias by Vivaldi – but inevitably over time, she says, the voice moves on. Motherhood has made a difference, physically as well as emotionally. “Going through those hormonal changes, the voice becomes a bit richer, rounder maybe, and stronger too,” she says. “It’s not been as great difference for me as it can be for others, though. Some women go through huge changes after giving birth, they even change their fach [voice type]. Unfortunately,” she jokes, “this didn’t happen to me. I thought that maybe when I had kids I’d become a dramatic soprano! But no…”

She need not worry: her fans love her just as she is, and next year contains innumerable highlights including an artist-in-residence slot at the Lucerne Festival and a project involving staged cantatas at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. And meanwhile, the songs her mother taught her are ready to pass on to the next generation.

Magdalena Kozená sings at the Barbican on 9 November. Box office: 020 7638 8891. Songs My Mother Taught Me is out now on Deutsche Grammophon

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Turn up the volume!

We all burst into tears at 4am London time when the figure rocketed past 270 - the world's most vital and emotive moment since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bravo, guys, you did it, you elected the first black President of the USA and it looks like you also elected someone who is intelligent, idealistic and convincing. So turn up the volume, sit back and have a good celebrate...

Monday, November 03, 2008

Well, now I've seen it all... today's Grauniad: Germaine Greer, yes GERMAINE GREER, she of The Female Eunuch, defends - wait for it - VIOLA PLAYERS.

I am not joking. She has been exploring paintings of Orpheus. She has picked some viola jokes, albeit not the best ones. She clearly evinces no understanding whatsoever of the balance of sound in an orchestra ("British orchestras generally follow the dictum of Sir Malcolm Sargent, who thought that violas should be seen and not heard, and may have as many as four times as many violins as violas." Like, wow.) And she has had an encounter with the delectable Maxim Rysanov - who admittedly can twist most of us round his little finger within a well-turned single bar of Brahms. Even so, from the author of the afore-mentioned book comes the following description:

"Tall, handsome, dark-eyed, Maxim Rysanov looks Byronic; on stage, he accentuates the look by wearing stove-pipe trousers along with sweeping tails. But it is the thrilling sound he draws from his viola that is the authentic voice of Byron's and Strauss's young hero."

Well, what I can say? You go through years, nay decades, of controversy and celebrity. You write books and inspire new generations of feminists. Yes, you change the world. And then perhaps it just takes one gorgeous guy playing a bowed instrument to change yours all over again. Blimey, guv.

Sunday, November 02, 2008


...and the course is over, apparently successfully so. The only downside, as far as I can see, is that I ate far too many of the chocolate shortbread biscuits that were intended for my students. We'll do it again, but maybe with only one box of those next time. Suggested dates are 24 January and 1 February, but please watch my news page for further details.

Mad props meanwhile to's Richard Gehr (yes, I nearly misread that one too - wishful thinking...) for picking JDCMB as his favourite music site, and to the one and only Opera Chic for the shoutout in her interview with Artsjournal's Life's A Pitch. OC is on a Katherine Jenkins roll at present...

What with one thing and another, I haven't plugged Vladimir Jurowski's Revealing Tchaikovsky festival as much as I should. It's a knockout. Iolanta, with the LPO, Tatiana Monogarova and a similarly luscious cast, moved a number of us to tears - gorgeous, life-affirming and deeply touching. This week, catch the Manfred Symphony with Vlad at the RFH on Wednesday and the Second Piano Concerto and Suite No.3 with Rozhdestvensky & Postnikova on Friday.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Course on Saturday

There is still ONE place left for my Kick-Start Your Writing one-day intensive this Saturday, 1 November. Please see my news page for full details, and email me PDQ if you want to attend.

Monday, October 27, 2008


Here it is: Philippe Graffin, Claire Desert and several friends including Tom, in a new CD that is the disc-of-the-book, yet a great deal more besides. Get it now from Onyx Classics as a disc or a download.

Philippe has taken the novel's violin music - much of it concerning cross-currents between Gypsy violin playing and classical - as a starting point for a concept album that encompasses some truly extraordinary stuff. The programme begins with Dohnanyi's Andante rubato alla zingaresca - the closest thing I have come across to my fictional Marc Duplessis's lost concerto movement. We move on to Kreisler, initiating the journey with the Marche miniature viennoise (in New York, the violinist/composer meets our Mimi), and Monti's Csardas with the additional cimbalom effect of Ravel's piano-lutheal, expertly delivered by Claire.

Brahms and his great violinist friend Jozsef Joachim punctuate the programme with four virtuoso Hungarian Dances. And there's Liszt - in the form of something that Philippe suggested by saying, "it is Hungarian, and it is a dance..." - nothing less than the Mephisto Waltz No.1 in a dazzling arrangement for violin solo by Nathan Milstein, who apparently declared it the hardest piece he'd ever played. The gorgeous Romance Oubliee follows.

The disc is effectively a tribute to the great Hungarian violin tradition of the 19th/early 20th centuries - notably Joachim, Hubay, Vecsey, but implicitly also Auer, Flesch and d'Aranyi. Vecsey, who gave the premiere of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, is represented by his own Valse triste, and Hubay by the stunning Hejre Kati, again with piano-lutheal cimbalom effects - the melody is said to date back to the great Gypsy violinist Janos Bihari. And Scarlatescu's Bagatelle, a glorious Romanian Gypsy-style work, is mesmeric, a piece that builds up from a gentle lilt into a trance-like frenzy - it was a favourite of Ginette Neveu, but has been rarely recorded by solo violinists since.

Bartok is absolutely central: the Romanian Dances (which in the book Mimi plays with the composer in 1940) and five of the Violin Duos with Tom (they are played in the novel by our heroine Karina and her would-be lover, Rohan, but for their sake Tom experienced a railway journey almost worthy of Karina's friend Lindy's worst nightmares...that's another story...).

Finally, Hungary goes to France: Debussy's La plus que lente - a long-standing favourite of Philippe's, which was inspired by a Gypsy band performing in a Paris hotel; and a world premiere recording, L'amour - valse bluette, by Arthur Hartmann, an American violinist of Hungarian origins who was a close friend of Debussy's, went with him to hear that Gypsy band and arranged some of his songs for violin and piano. It's muted, decadent and deeply nostalgic. Programme notes by yrs truly can be read on the Onyx site.

Now, as far as I know, it's the first time that anyone has done anything like this: an international soloist making an original recital recording to exist alongside a new contemporary novel. Let alone a programme that is so chock-full of ideas, character, daring, imagination and poetry. It's quite an overwhelming thing... I'm deeply grateful to Philippe and Onyx for the tie-in - but the CD is an amazing production in its own right.

We hope that you will enjoy it.

UPDATE, 2 November: Review from The Independent on Sunday by Anna Picard

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Mon surprise hero

Across the Manche, just two and a half hours away by train, there's an exhibition about Serge Gainsbourg, who would have been 80 this year. Not that one needs an excuse to visit Paris, but I would dearly love to see this. In the meantime, this article from The Indy is well worth a read, plus video below...

Gainsbourg is one of my surprise heroes for a few reasons.

1. He was a latter-day Renaissance man who, though most famous for his songs (especially the scandalous ones), wasn't tied down by one artistic medium but experimented with many.

2. He thought outside the box. Pushed the boundaries. Pushed out the boat.

3. He played a seriously cool jazz piano.

4. His daughter is a fabulous actress.

5. In a pop world that looks (from where I am) obsessed with semi-naked teenagers on one hand and beastly violent rap on the other, he's now one of the ones, along with the Beatles and Leonard Cohen, who proves that the good stuff lasts.

6. What a voice. Limpid, seductive, simple and sinister all at once.

Here is the Chanson de Prévert from the recording session in 1961.

"...Et chaque fois les feuilles mortes
Te rappellent à mon souvenir
Jour après jour
Les amours mortes
N'en finissent pas de mourir..."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

First sight...

I've got some advance copies of Philippe Graffin and Claire Desert's new Hungarian Dances CD. I'm bowled over and a bit wobbly.

The disc is much more than just the music of the book: rather, it's as if we've dived into one pool and surfaced with different finds, independent entities that share the same 'soul'. And Onyx has done a fabulous job. The release date is 29 October, so more then.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Happy birthday, Sir Georg!

Having been taken severely to task by a friend of the ginger variety for a) forgetting, b) not remembering at once, I hasten to report that today would have been Sir Georg Solti's 96th birthday, and am pleased to have discovered this video of him conducting Beethoven's Egmont Overture in Cagliari in 1996...with the London Philharmonic.

Heavens, they all look so young... Tom is sitting 3rd row of 1st violins, 3rd player in. He's the tall dark handsome one with thinning curly hair. At least he had hair then to thin.

Solti fans within easy reach of Cambridge will be interested to hear that Lady Valerie Solti will be giving a talk about her husband's work on 18 November at 3pm as part of Cambridge-Szeged Week, of which more very soon.

Cheers, Sir Georg. You were the best.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Saturated fads

Ready meals in British supermarkets carry 'traffic light' markers to show you the level of sugars, fats etc in what you are about to receive. If you see a red blob next to 'saturated fat', at least you know in advance that you're going to clog up your arteries. I think it's time CDs started carrying traffic-light warnings about the level of saturated fads they contain.

A violin can sound like many things, but I for one would rather it didn't sound like the dog next door. I have just listened to one new disc too many: a clearly gifted and imaginative violinist who nevertheless seems compelled to hack through romantic-era sonatas either Very Fast, Loudly and Aggressively or very slow, playing with around two hairs of the bow to make a wispy vibratoless pianissimo that you can barely hear against the piano (NB it is not the pianist's fault). And full, of course, of those ugly bulges and barks and stops and starts (an effect much like drivers who accelerate after a speed camera, then slam on the breaks just before the next one) that masquerade as expressiveness; the ideal violin territories of beautiful tone, colour through varied rather than absent vibrato, and songful and speaking phrasing are apparently forbidden to any hapless young artist who wants to be noticed.

It reminds me of hearing one of the most depressing piano concerto performances in living memory - either Very Fast and Loud and Aggressive or so excruciatingly slow that I suspected the pianist in question was about to stop altogether. The audience went nuts, of course, but I think the composer, a man of exceedingly discerning taste, would probably have sent in the polonium sushi. This event would have been less depressing if it hadn't been action-replayed numerous times by other pianists in other concertos.

This style of playing has nothing to do with the composers and their music, but everything to do with fashion. Some musicians are inspired enough to pull these stunts off convincingly, but most just seem desperate to do something 'different', exaggerating to project ideas that actually don't exist. Besides, it's not different any more. It is the same as everyone else who's trying to be different...

Such trends have risen to the fore through certain exponents heavily promoted by their record companies, though many are good enough musicians to know better. Younger artists are trying to emulate them, to very little effect.

Why should music leave the listener feeling irritated, infuriated and occasionally nauseous if that isn't what the composer intended? Couldn't a red cardboard blob warn us off?

Now may I please direct you to one of the most wonderful piano CDs I've heard in ages: Maurizio Pollini's brand-new Chopin recital, on DG. This is truly great, fad-free musicianship, delivered with authority, humility and absolute integrity. In case you'd forgotten - many have - that's what it is all about.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Lipatti plays La Leggierezza

Since I'm having a phase of preferring dead pianists to living musical politics, let's make the most of it and mine Aladdin's Cave, aka Youtube, for its latest and rarest gems. This performance by Dinu Lipatti of Liszt's La Leggierezza is apparently a 'copy of a lost BBC recording from 1947' (where do people find these things?!) and the poster is not kidding when he says the performance is 'a miracle'.

There is more where this comes from. I thought I'd heard all Lipatti's surviving recordings, but evidently not...

Speaking of politics, here's John Adams

The Observer today carries strong words from composer John Adams about his life post-Death-of-Klinghoffer. It's an apposite moment: his opera Dr Atomic opens at the Met tomorrow and his musical autobiography Hallelujah Junction is published this month. The report draws on an interview with Adams on Radio 3's Music Matters yesterday and those in the UK can access this on the Listen Again facility.

Interviewed on BBC Radio 3's Music Matters yesterday, Adams said he was now 'blacklisted'. 'I can't check in at the airport now without my ID being taken and being grilled. You know, I'm on a homeland security list, probably because of having written The Death of Klinghoffer, so I'm perfectly aware that I, like many artists and many thoughtful people in the country, am being followed.'

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A voyage around my father

Today should have been my father's 80th birthday. He died in 1996.

He was a neuropathologist, but his greatest passion in life was for music. I owe my knowledge of the classical repertoire to the fact that he used to listen to Radio 3 every morning and every evening, and would spend Sunday afternoons happily ensconced in his favourite armchair comparing a pile of LPs of Brahms's Second Symphony just for fun. Our family holidays often consisted of driving through France to the Swiss mountains; I think those long twisty days on the road were his excuse to spend eight hours at a stretch listening to tapes of the great pianist Julius Katchen. That is where I first heard the Brahms piano music, including the Hungarian Dances (below).

Katchen - the nearest thing the piano had to a literary philosopher - would have been just two years older than my father, but died tragically at the age of only 42. Fortunately for us, he left a wonderful legacy of recordings. I'm thrilled to have found copious film of him on Youtube.

Happy Birthday, Dad. I miss you.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Off the Richter scale

Another one for the Dead Pianists Society. I was looking for something to prove a recent comment that 'Richter wasn't always right'. But then I found this: his performance, live in Leipzig in 1963, of Beethoven Op.111, first movement. Audio only, but you may nevertheless need to don goggles to listen to it.

OK, Maestro Sviatoslav. You win. Every time.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Arrival of the mini-maestro

If you were my height, you'd know that finding someone who's shorter than you is always a delight, and watching them achieve artistic marvels is even better. So, meet my new favourite find, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the pint-sized principal conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and now also the principal guest conductor of the LPO. He's lovely. He's terrific. He's tiny.

Yannick took up his London podium the other night and did a fine job of steering the orchestra through its backing to the not-inconsiderable antics of Christian Lindberg, Swedish trombonist par excellence. Lindberg's performance in a concerto by Sandstrom based on Don Quixote required him not only to play the instrument but also to execute some superb balletic sautés, shout in Spanish, sing very loudly and strip down to his, er, leopard-spotted leggings. Blimey, guv. Lindberg also transformed a Leopold Mozart rarity from what could have been computer-generated multipurposeclassicaltwaddle to a jewelled butterfly of sweetness.

Topping and tailing the Swedish showstopper were two wonderful Ravellian warhorses, La Valse to start and his orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition to close.

Yannick is a joy to watch: he moves with grace, enthusiasm and eloquence, the band appears able to follow his beat and he'd memorised Pictures to perfection. There'll be lots to look forward to from him in future. Yet...

...I couldn't help missing Vladimir in the Mussorgsky. I don't need to tell you, dear readers, that Mussorgsky is one of the darkest of all self-destructive Russian romantics and that there is a demoniac quality to those pictures - the horrible ox-cart with its drunken driver, the disgusting antisemitism of the wheedling trumpet solo, the witch herself flying from the chicken-legged hut...and the towering Great Gate of Kiev is an idealised vision of something that never matched up to its plan (I've seen the real thing, and it is quite sad by comparison). But the other night we enjoyed a sort of musical stroll through the National Gallery's impressionism section, relaxed and very colourful, but not remotely disturbing. I could nearly taste the choc-ice. It was nice. Very nice. Too nice.

One final moment to remember: our own Tomcat, not being required for the Leopold Mozart, was backstage munching a sandwich, lost track of the time and wasn't quite expecting to see the orchestral manager hunting for him with a cattle prod. He ended up receiving a round of applause to himself before the Sandstrom began.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Hamari sings 'Erbarme dich'

Sometimes only Bach will do, and an illicit Youtube hunt when I should have been working led me to this spellbinding performance by the Hungarian mezzo-soprano Julia Hamari: 'Erbarme dich' from the St Matthew Passion, conducted by Karl Richter. I can't ascertain whether this was the debut performance that launched her career.

Her biography begins with the words: "Born 21 November 1942, Budapest, Hungary". That was not exactly an ideal time or place to enter this world. She would have been barely 16 months old when the Nazis invaded, and nearly 14 at the time of the 1956 Revolution. I'm not saying that to sing Bach like this you have to have spent your early childhood in a place as horrific as Budapest became while the Germans and Russians killed each other there in 1944, and naturally I know nothing of her life beyond her biography as linked; but one senses a depth to this performance - something trancelike, as the Youtube user comments - that is far indeed from the ordinary. I hope you love it as much as I do.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Adieu, Yonty Solomon

We were desperately saddened to hear the other day of the death of Yonty Solomon, a pianist who was one in a million. Born in South Africa, he became a student of Dame Myra Hess and for many years enriched his students at the Royal College of Music with his wisdom, humanity and humility. He had suffered from a brain tumour.

I will never forget the beauty of his tone, the freshness and deep love of music that infused his interpretations and the terrific regret that I felt, when I finally met him a few years ago at the Chetham's Piano Summer School, that I hadn't met him and studied with him a very long time ago.

His former student Vanessa Latarche wrote this beautiful tribute which was read out at his funeral on 29 September:
"Yonty was for all of his students the best role model that a teacher could possibly be, a colossus of the piano world, warm-hearted, generous, enthusiastic, energetic, and intellectually curious. To say that he will be sorely missed by us is an enormous understatement; his passing has left a huge hole on the second floor of the RCM, but his exceptional legacy is legendary. I know I can speak for all my colleagues when I say we feel very privileged to have known him."

Wednesday, October 01, 2008


This is Cziffra, playing Liszt's Transcendental Etude no.10.

There seemed to be a lot to say about this, but actually - please, just listen.