Saturday, April 28, 2012

Kathleen Ferrier - and the Kathleen Ferrier Award

That article about Kathleen Ferrier I promised you is out now in The Independent's all-new Saturday arts section, which launches today. You can read it online, naturally - here - but please buy a copy and see the goodies that the editorial team has been cooking up for us!

Meanwhile, last night at the Wigmore Hall, the Kathleen Ferrier Awards for young singers held its final. Winner: 25-year-old Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw, who also scooped the Song Prize. Natalya has been in the public eye a fair bit already, popping up last year in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition and featuring in a lovely documentary about Chopin fronted by James Rhodes. Her name may not sound so Welsh; apparently her Ukrainian grandfather settled in Wales during World War II. She studied at Guildhall and is currently an associate artist with the Classical Opera Company, which seems to have a canny way of spotting and grabbing the best young talent. Sophie Bevan, Sarah Jane Brandon and Pumeza Matshikiza have also graced its artist list in the recent past.

Second prize went jointly to soprano Ruth Jenkins (also 25) and baritone Ben McAteer (24). The pianist Craig White won the Accompanist's Prize. The full line-up of the finals is on the contest's website.

Natalya won second prize in the Houston Grand Opera's Eleanor McCollum Competition earlier this year, and although there's no video from last night's Ferrier final, there is a sample from Houston: 'Comè scoglio' from Così fan tutte, no small order for any soprano at any time. Brava, Natalya! We look forward to loving your voice for many happy years.

Friday, April 27, 2012


Sad news from Paris this morning that Kurt Masur fell off his podium last night while conducting the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.6. He has been taken to hospital. The concert was being broadcast live, but had to be abandoned. Apparently Sarkozy has sent him good wishes.

At Masur's age (84) few of us are lucky enough still to be able to work at all (the French president, of course, may be out of a job shortly, but that's by the by). Old soldiers never die, but conductors don't even retire. With such a vocation, why would anyone wish to stop? They may be getting younger...but they are also getting older. Besides Masur, Haitink, Davis and Maazel are all in their eighties now, and still going strong.

Nor is it only conductors for whom growing roses doesn't hold much appeal. Menahem Pressler, the irrepressible pianist formerly of the Beaux Arts Trio, seems to have gleaned a whole new lease of life as a soloist since the group folded and he's playing as wonderfully as ever, at 88. Last time I interviewed him he expressed astonishment that anyone should think he would want to give up something he loves so much in favour of playing golf. I'll never forget Horszowski's 99th birthday recital at the Wigmore Hall - except that that much-loved musician was probably 101 at the time, his birth certificate having been tampered with during his child prodigy days. Aldo Ciccolini, at 86, is releasing a new recording of Beethoven concertos. On the violin, Ida Haendel remains an extraordinary force. We do not seem certain how old she actually is. But it's the artistry that counts, not the age.

Occasionally, though - and for that same reason - you come across instances when perhaps clinging to concert life isn't doing the performer any favours. Nathan Milstein's final recital at the Royal Festival Hall (it must have been spring 1984) revealed a giant, but a fading one. And it is already several years since Masur conducted the Brahms 'German Requiem' in St Paul's Cathedral, which could have been a marvellous occasion but for the fact that he seemed shaky at best; one arm appeared to be causing him control problems.

The Italian violinist Gioconda de Vito, by contrast, stopped performing when she was only about 50. She told me, when I interviewed her for her 80th birthday, that she had reached the peak of her career and wanted to stop while she was ahead. She once attended a concert by Alfred Cortot late in the pianist's life, at which point he was long past his best; there, she made a mental note not to let herself reach that stage. And so she did not - even though she could assuredly have played and recorded for many more years.

Every case is different, and in the end it's for the musicians, rather than the audience, to know if or when to call time. Perhaps the wonderful thing is that they so rarely do. They, and we, can't get enough music. And that's how it ought to be. We wish Maestro Masur the fastest possible recovery and many rewarding years of music-making ahead.

As a special Friday Historical for the Immortal Musician, here is de Vito in the Beethoven Romance Op.50, which our friend "Otterhouse" has uploaded from a 78, with enhanced sound.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Breaking: Decca signs chocolate violinist

News just in: Decca has signed up the Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos - on JDCMB long nicknamed "the chocolate violinist" (even though I am sure the luxury confectionary brand Leonidas is really nothing to do with him). It's a super choice: a mature, significant musician who has a style and sound of his own yet always puts musical integrity first.

Over the years I've loved every concert of his that I have attended - Tchaikovsky, Korngold and Stravinsky concerti among them, as well as startlingly wonderful Enescu and Schumann at the Wigmore Hall, countless delicacies in Verbier and a good few inspiring interviews. Kavakos has always struck me as one of those artists in whom all the synapses seem to work unimpeded: there's a direct flow from imagination to Strad to listener's ear. He's an unconventional player - he keeps his bowing elbow unusually relaxed, for one thing, and the sound is often gentle, refined, detailed. Inspirations, if I remember aright, include accounts and pictures of Joseph Joachim, plus the folk style of Kavakos's father's traditional Greek band. Also nice to see a major company signing an artist for substance ahead of photogenic concerns.

According to the press release, he'll be recording core repertoire: Beethoven sonatas, the Brahms concerto and the complete solo Bach.

Meet Janina Fialkowska

I'm off to meet a very remarkable woman this morning. Here she is, talking about the influence of Rubinstein, the infighting of the French school, the progress of her career and... how she has dealt with suffering cancer of the shoulder. It's a devastating but inspiring story, given her positive nature. She has recently been awarded the 2012 Governor General's Performing Arts Award for lifetime achievement in classical music - her native Canada's highest artistic honour - and there's a new CD on the way.

Above all, though, just listen to the way she plays Chopin. Intelligence and delineation is just the start of it: there's colour, freshness, joy and tremendous love. 

Monday, April 23, 2012


Today should have been my mother's 80th birthday. She died just over 18 years ago, aged 61.

Yesterday was the centenary of Kathleen Ferrier, who died at the age of only 41. At least her recordings are still here. And Shakespeare, whose birthday is today, is of course immortal.

Here is Ferrier in 'Erbarme dich' from the Bach St Matthew Passion. (I have a feature about her "pending" - will post link when it's out.)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Sunday Bach treat from Myra Hess

Dame Myra Hess plays Bach's Toccata in G, BWV916. Recorded in 1950, this performance is full of personality and poise, good sense and rhetorical flair.

Someone needs to write a new biography of Hess - a great woman, a towering artist and a real emblem of her times. Existing books are out of print. I have run to earth a copy of Marion McKenna's, but it tells us everything except what we really want to know.

But perhaps Hess's playing tells us the most, and always will.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Stop press: Barenboim at SOAS - live webcast NOW

Daniel Barenboim is at SOAS right now, to be interviewed by Jon Snow of Channel 4 News. The event is being live-streamed and you can access it here:

They have started with a screening of a film about Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. When the interview gets underway, we can expect a focus on the state of music and politics in the Middle East. It's on until 12.30pm today.

Meanwhile, more about the inconvenient indivisibility of politics from goings-on that some people would prefer to dissociate from it via Robert Fisk in The Independent - this time, car racing in Bahrain...

Friday, April 20, 2012

Luxor for Mozart lovers

I've been in Egypt - for longer than expected. A few hours before our flight was due, a fearsome, hot wind sprang up from the Sahara and visibility was reduced to pea-souper levels by whirling sand. The incoming plane diverted to Hurghada and after a very long afternoon playing Scrabble in Luxor Airport we found ourselves facing an extra night away. We didn't get back until yesterday evening, so unfortunately I missed both a vital interview and the Proms launch. But April showers and the news that there's to be a Wallace and Gromit Prom have assured me I'm finally back in Blighty.

For the whole week, touring Karnak, Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, I have had one piece of music on the brain. It is Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. The connection of this extraordinary and still almost unfathomable opera to the symbols and temples of ancient Egypt seems stronger than I'd anticipated. It is impossible to appreciate the full marvel of those ancient carvings, paintings and hieroglyphics without seeing the real thing - the widespread reproductions and tourist tat we see here give no idea of them, any more than a cack-handed copy of a Rembrandt would of an actual portrait by the master. And when you're there, immersed in it, the impact of those surroundings conjures an atmosphere that feeds forward by thousands of years to the 18th-century Enlightenment.

Mozart/Schikaneder's symbols? You don't have to look far in the hieroglyphics to find images of a three-headed serprent, which might have attacked Tamino; nor for images of creatures half human, half animal - mostly gods, of course. Is Papageno perhaps an Egyptian god in disguise? Either way, he would have had a field day with the Egyptian birdlife.

Tour the Luxor Museum and the image of the incredibly beautiful face of Thutmosis III brings to mind the perfect balance of Tamino's great aria - Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön indeed. The vast, jagged-cheekboned image of Akhenaten seems to conjure Sarastro.

Could this be Sarastro's temple?

Or, even more likely, it might be Karnak, where Papageno could easily be lost amid the forest of "papyrus" columns...

Here, too, Tamino and Pamina might walk together through their trials of fire and water. They are often staged with Pamina just behind Tamino, one hand on his shoulder....

Such Mozartian fantasy prods at the grey matter (or what's left of it) and leaves you marvelling at how much there is to learn of this other world - so distant yet, in its imagery, also so close, for it's clear that neither owls nor people have changed all that much since 1500BC.

My friends keep asking "Is it safe?" One taxi driver summed up the current Egyptian situation neatly: "Cairo: problem. Luxor: no problem." (Basic Arabic, lesson 1: Mishmushkela = no problem.) The pleasure over the revolution is split, with the younger generation happier than the over-60s. A young man I spoke to in the Luxor souk expressed surprise that tourists seem more reluctant to come to Luxor now than they did when Mubarak was in power, since he considers things much improved. The scenes around the petrol stations told a story of their own: an older taxi driver raised his hands in frustration as we passed a jungle of minibuses - "No Mubarak, no petrol!" (But then, once upon a time, people also argued that Mussolini got the trains to run on time - you know the syndrome...)

The elections are coming up in about a month; candidate posters and the odd rally or two dab their way across the town centre. As tourists, though, Tamino and I never felt threatened or unwelcome in any way; quite the reverse. You get hassled by people wanting to sell you things, or by demands for bakshish for small and unsolicited services; but it's all good-natured and, in our experience, never threatening.
There's a slight sense of desperation across the town. Since the revolution, tourism, on which Luxor absolutely depends, has dropped; as a consequence airlines have been cutting back on flights and even if tourists want to go there, it's not as easy as it used to be to find a flight on the day you want. This means tourism is reduced even further. The cruise ships that progress along the Nile were plentiful, but on their decks inhabitants seemed, from the shores, sparse. 

Truly lovely hotels are therefore rather good value. We were at the Jolie Ville Maritim, booked about a month ago via Thomas Cook for a rate, including flights, that wouldn't go very far towards a UK "staycation". Run by a Swiss manager who seems to have left no stone unturned in his efforts to welcome his clientele, it's a real oasis, well removed from the hectic town centre. The food is terrific, the gardens gorgeous, the atmosphere friendly - we enjoyed an unexpectedly rewarding social time with many fascinating people among the guests. And for recharging the batteries, relaxing and soaking up some very serious sun, I can't imagine anywhere more lovely.

Tamino and I needed our break, having undergone trials by metaphorical fire and water of late. We are deeply grateful to Isis, Osiris and Wolfang Amadeus. Here is Solti with a tribute.

[UPDATE: A Musical Vision has a fascinating post about Die Zauberflöte - "Mozart's magical mystery tour de force". Well worth a visit.]

Triumph!  Triumph, triumph, du edles Paar!    
Besieget hast du die Gefahr!  
Der Isis Weihe ist nun dein.   
Kommt, kommt, kommt, kommt,   
Tretet in den Tempel ein!


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Anderszewski wins Recording of the Year at BBC Music Magazine Awards

Here's that exciting piano news we were waiting for: Piotr Anderszewski has won Recording of the Year at the BBC Music Magazine Awards for his CD of Schumann's Humoresque, Gesange der Fruhe and Studies for Pedal Organ. They dispatched me to Lisbon to interview him a few weeks ago and the
resulting feature is in the magazine that should be out about now.

Piotr is very good at winning things he didn't put in for - like this, and, about ten years ago, the small matter of the Gilmore Award (c$300,000) which lands on some unsuspecting pianist's head every couple of years from Kalamazoo. And the time he disqualified himself from the Leeds International Piano Competition by walking off stage without finishing the semi-final round, he more or less won the long-term outcome in any case. I first met him when he was studying at the International Piano Foundastion on Lake Como and watching his artistry develop in the intervening years has been a very great joy: he's an exceptional musician of rare sensitivity and true authority. Here he is talking about Schumann, aided and abetted by Bruno Monsaingeon, who's making a third (!) film about him:

As it happens, another pianist has triumphed today too, this time in the Newcomer's Award following a wowed JD review: Francesco Piemontesi, whose debut CD I certainly couldn't recommend highly enough. Pleased it's been quoted in the statement.

The full list of the BBC Music Magazine Award winners for 2012 is here.

Normally I'd have brought you some news, views and goss from the awards ceremony, which was held today at Kings Place, but I'm officially on hols.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


I'm clocking off, so here is something to keep you busy for a bit: the complete Swan Lake, starring Svetlana Zakharova and Roberto Bolle. Stay tuned for exciting piano news when I'm back.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Musical miracle in the Congo

This, from the CBS News series 60 Minutes, is really fantastic. An ex-pilot in Kinshasa founded a symphony orchestra - starting from zero, with no musicians, instruments or teachers... I think Gareth Malone and the Military Wives have a little competition! (Sorry about the car's worth waiting for.) Thanks to Marshall Marcus for drawing attention to it.

Swiss snapshots

Here's my review for The Independent of two rather amazing concerts in the Lucerne Easter Festival. Plus some snaps. (And more soon...)

LUCERNE EASTER FESTIVAL: Cappella Andrea Barca/András Schiff, 29 March 2012; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons, 30 March 2012

Outside Lucerne’s lakeside concert hall, the KKL, a boat ride offers itself as the “Whisky Schiff”. Inside the auditorium, though, stood another Schiff: András, in maestro mode. With his hand-picked chamber orchestra, the Cappella Andrea Barca, plus the Balthasar Neumann Choir and a fine complement of soloists, he presided over a rare Bach treat for the Lucerne Easter Festival: the B minor Mass, the composer’s last choral masterpiece, never heard as often as it deserves compared to the ubiquitous St Matthew Passion. 

Schiff, one of today’s pre-eminent Bachians, encouraged his colleagues through a heart-warming celebration of the Mass’s multi-faceted spiritual world: the infectious dance rhythms, the exultant grandeur of the Sanctus, the almost graphically word-painted Crucifixus, and a subtle, sober Agnus Dei from mezzo-soprano Britta Schwarz which turned the music inward towards its reflective close. At two hours without a break, despite spry tempi, it still seemed over too soon.

The next evening the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra packed an extravagant number of players on to the platform, and their quality of sound – with galvanising seriousness of purpose from their conductor, Mariss Jansons – hit clean between the eyebrows. This was the orchestral equivalent of the Munich Oktoberfest, larger than life and almost scarily well organised.

The 26-year-old Norwegian rising star Vilde Frang was soloist for Bartók’s Violin Concerto No.1, a bittersweet work that the composer produced as a love gift for the violinist Stefi Geyer (she reciprocated affection for neither him nor the piece and never played it). Frang offered a suitably intimate interpretation, displaying a fresh and intuitive sense of timing, besides evident intelligence, wit and grace. She has won this year’s Credit Suisse Award, which gives her a concert in the summer Lucerne Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic. We’ll hear much more of her.

Jansons’s account of Beethoven’s Overture Leonora No.3 was a transfixing paen to liberty. And what a luxury it was to hear Brahms’s Fourth Symphony played with 18 first violins, ensemble exceeding the merely exemplary, and section principals worthy of concerto status – flautist Philippe Boucly delivered a profoundly moving solo in the passacaglia. The symphony became an all-out monument to Brahms’s tragic view of life. Jansons embraced the full measure of it, body and soul.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Vengerov rides again

(Above: Maxim Vengerov plays and talks on BBC Radio 3's In Tune the day before his Wigmore comeback concert...don't miss it, even if you missed the concert.)

Being Maxim Vengerov at the Wigmore Hall the other night must have been rather like being Barack Obama winning the US election. The weight of expectation had to be all but inhuman. Vengerov's comeback concert - to which his appearance as stand-in for Martha Argerich  two weeks ago was an unexpected warm-up - couldn't have announced more clearly that the violinist means business. It is some six years since an injury grounded him. Since then, he's discovered life beyond four strings and a bow, from conducting to dancing the tango. He's taken up a new post as Menuhin Professor at the Royal Academy of Music and he has recently married Olga, sister of the violinist Ilya Gringolts. The couple now have a baby daughter.

It's a long way from prime prodigy to professor and proud papa; and even if Vengerov didn't exactly need to grow up - we'll never forget his magnificent performances in his teens and twenties - then he has certainly matured. The showmanship has by no means vanished, as his encores, Brahms's Hungarian Dance No.1 and the Wieniawski Scherzo Tarantelle, proved (so why did the dear old Wigmore audience get up and start going? I reckon he'd have been ready to keep playing for a good while longer...). But the bulk of the recital was weighty fiddle fare: the Bach D minor Partita, the Handel D major Sonata and Beethoven's 'Kreutzer' Sonata, which Vengerov is privileged to play on the 'Kreutzer' Stradivarius. Kreutzer himself never played that sonata; that was his loss.

Vengerov switched bows for the second half. Not that it was possible to see, from the murky depths of the Wigmore Critics' Cattery, the precise nature of the bow he used for the Bach and Handel - it seemed pointier, and the sound it produced was more forced and less lovely. With the D minor Partita, though, Vengerov reclaimed the stage on which he first stormed London. From long, stark note number one, delivered with head raised and turned away from the instrument, the space was his, the sound all his own; the music unfolded like a water garden uncurling its wonders from within. The Chaconne was as muscular and idealised as a Michelangelo sculpture.

Joined by his regular duo partner, Itamar Golan, Vengerov created a different soundworld for the Handel: this was genial music-making for friends, in contrast to the inward soliloquies on which we seem to eavesdrop in solo Bach. Delicious with piano accompaniment, drawn with soft and deft strokes, tastefully decorated, it conjured a sepia-toned environment that didn't project outwards so much as invite us all in.

But it was the Beethoven that stole the show. Vengerov and Golan never played safe, working at tempi on the edge of the possible in that crazy first movement development, with dynamics that blazed, and electricity that flared, flickered and illuminated by turns. Uniting a composer's inner ethos with the nature of the physical sound has become something of an under-rated art, but that's what they did: the eloquent richness of Vengerov's tone and its soaring conviction was Beethoven, with all his idealism and defiance alive and well. That's the mysticism of which music and its finest exponents are capable. And as an address from a newly returned president in a musical White House, it couldn't have been more inspiring.

The concert was recorded for BBC Radio 3 and I think it is going out on 29 April. Also projected for the Wigmore Live record label.

Bravo, Maxim! It's good to have you back.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Newsround: The Long Road to Parsifal

My Internet is back, so very quickly, before it vanishes again, here's a little newsround.


Don't miss this blog by conductor Michael Seal, who tweets as @batonflipper, about how Andris Nelsons dropped out of the CBSO tour and he had to step in at an astounding 20 minutes' notice. There followed a massive programme with Jonas Kaufmann singing the Kindertotenlieder. By all accounts Michael did magnificently. Is this his big break? Let's hope so. Interesting, too, to hear about how Der Jonas responded when a member of the audience shouted at him after his first song to step forward because they couldn't see him...


He's been around, but not playing the violin: an injury has kept him away from the fiddle on a sort of enforced sabbatical. But now he's back at last. Maxim Vengerov is on In Tune on BBC Radio 3 today, playing and talking, sometime after 4.30pm. Tomorrow he'll be giving his first Wigmore Hall recital for around 20 years, with Itamar Golan at the piano. I was at that last one, and I will never, ever forget it. He was 14 and there, on stage, was a spotty schoolboy playing for all the world like Jascha Heifetz. I am sure everything will be different now - have the intervening decades mellowed him, or will he be that same virtuoso daredevil? It's a comparatively restrained programme: Handel, Bach and Beethoven - but of course music doesn't get any greater than the Bach D minor Partita and the Beethoven 'Kreutzer'. Go, Maxim, go!


He's here:

That, in case you wondered, is a view from the pit at the Bavarian State Opera, Munich, where our Tomcat is currently working, having taken extra time away from London. His own enforced sabbatical (rather different from Vengerov's) has done him the power of good - and the particular ironic trajectory by which this Buxton-raised son of German-Jewish refugees from Berlin fetches up in Munich, playing Wagner's Parsifal at Easter, is something that you couldn't make up. The orchestra is fabulous, he says, with no weak links; it functions with plenty of space, great facilities, grown-up attitudes and, not least, crack football teams for both sexes. Right now he's being shown the town by Wilhelm Furtwangler's great-grandson, who happened to be sitting next to him on the plane.