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.