Friday, November 30, 2012

True love and piano heaven?

Fairly perturbed by London reactions to Andras'/Backhaus's Bechstein - the upper register "cold", "colourless" - ?  As they say on Twitter, WTF? Nothing could be further from my own impression over in Lucerne.

I fell in love with my own Bechstein when I played it at a friend's wedding. Before deciding absolutely to give myself over to my midlife crisis and commit the necessary large sum to buying it, I wanted to be sure I really loved it as much as I'd thought I did. So I went along to Steinway's and played every grand piano in the shop.

They were all perfect. And they didn't do it for me. OK, they also cost a heck of a lot more, so it was just as well I didn't take to them, but there was more than that to it. Where was the character, the depth of sound, the individuality? Back to the Bechstein. Heaven. My beloved model M/P grand has a particular sound, a particular woody deliciousness that you can really get your teeth into, and a different colour in each register. Where does it come from?

It's all about the balance of the tension in the sound-source, especially the soundboard. The way the pieces of wood bond together. The relatively dryness of them. And a lot of passion and dedication goes into producing it. This is all explained in this film, which offers a bit of insight into the Bechstein processes and includes plenty of examples of that special quality of tone. It's called C BECHSTEIN - A LOVE STORY.

Andras's London concerts, by the way, are taking place in the Wigmore Hall which, excuse me, was originally called the BECHSTEIN Hall. The name was changed at the time of the First World War, when anything with a German name became mud in Britain. Is it possible that the ongoing prejudice against some of the most wonderful pianos in the world goes back to that?

OK, reviews...

A number of friends have been grumbling that they haven't seen the reviews of my play A WALK THROUGH THE END OF TIME, and why hadn't I put them up on JDCMB, etc, so here they are.

..." the play stands on its own and should be performed more often. At one hour long it is only slightly shorter than another two-hander currently winning four star reviews in the West End, but it is far deeper and far more compelling. Let us hope this ‘rehearsed reading’ is the prelude to something further."...

..."The result was dramatic and bold; the audience were privy to the couple’s spiritual journey, many of the questions raised applying to mankind as a whole. It was poignant and full of pathos."...


..."the play itself shows much promise, weaving together elements of scientific and musical theory with history and fiction into a sinuously interesting piece of work."... 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Time to get tough on Blackberry Man

There's a depressing review today by our colleague Boulezian, describing how last night's complex and well-planned concert at the RFH was roundly wrecked for him and those all around by chattery, smoochey, flashy, texty Blackberry Man. Read it here.

One way or another, it's time to get tough on these goons. Polite announcements are piped out full blast before the concerts, but they are ignored - even if they are in the voice of Sir Ian McKellen. Maybe it's one thing to be all PC about not alienating a teenager who's joined at the hip to his/her textmachine during the music, but for a professional adult bod on corporate hospitality, there's simply no excuse. I can't think of any good reason for the rest of us to put up with it. Even corporate sponsors need to learn the limits of decent human behaviour - they've been permitted to flout those for quite long enough. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the venue's management needs to take some responsibility. It is essential that they deliver the appropriate reprimands and, if necessary, for goodness' sake, throw the culprit out of the hall.

It doesn't matter how wealthy you are, or how ignorant, or how much you've paid for your ticket, or how little, or what you think your expenditure entitles you to: nobody has any business wrecking an evening for everyone else around them. It's all about good manners. Put up, shut up or go. And if you don't, then face the consequences.

Fondling a companion during A Survivor from Warsaw is also the height of bad taste, of course. Perhaps Norman Lebrecht would like to call for Blackberry Man to be outed, named and shamed?

Maybe the RFH should start screening this before its concerts, though the one at the top is even better:

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A revelation from Murray Perahia

A few months ago I interviewed Murray Perahia for PIANIST magazine.

Murray is much occupied long-term with preparing a new edition of the Beethoven piano sonatas. Here's an extract from my article, regarding the true nature of Op.27 No.2, the so-called 'Moonlight' Sonata, about which title we are usually very sniffy. seems we may have to think again.

...Beethoven scribbled some notes on an article from an important music journal concerning the Aeolian harp... “It says that the Aeolian harp is dedicated to the children of moonlight, who are not loved on this earth; those who have had blighted lives. In other words, not the people of the sun. 

“The sun was the symbol of the Enlightenment, but the Romantics came up with the idea of the moon to represent the disadvantaged, the hurt, the vulnerable. The idea was that they would sing their songs from the spirit world, it would transfer to the Aeolian harp and we’d hear their pain and learn from it. This is modern scholarship, it’s a point of view – but it is possible that the sonata suggests the Aeolian harp bringing out these people’s song of a tragic life." 
Get the current issue of PIANIST to read the whole thing.  

Meanwhile, just listen to that first movement afresh, with those images in mind. There had to be more to this piece and its inspiration that the old quip about moonlight on the surface of Lake Lucerne... Here is Murray himself playing it: the film is not great quality, but it's all I could find on Youtube (the comments at the beginning are those of the person posting the film, not me).

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The rest is a lot of noise

"Join us to explore how war, race, sex and politics shaped 

the most important music of the 20th century"!

I've just been to the Southbank Centre to see the unveiling of The Rest is Noise festival: a jamboree to last right the way through 2013, inspired, of course, by Alex Ross's book of the same title. It is a complete embracing of the world of 20th-century music and the way it interacted with the politics, wars, science, arts, literature - indeed the total history of its time. And it's a magnificent effort pulling together the Southbank, BBC4, Radio 3, the Open University, various digital platforms and a lot of very incredible music and musicians.

You have to come to London for this. Perhaps such a festival could happen in New York, but in few other cities of the world; what a celebration of creativity, collaboration, artistic quality, storytelling and, hopefully, transformation we can expect. It strikes me - having spent much time this year in Switzerland and Austria - that perhaps one needs an element of financial unease to become truly creative (not too much, mind - just enough...). If the universe has provided excess security, there's no need to do anything half so exciting and you can end up as half asleep as the inhabitants of the hotel in which my jacket caught fire the other day.

If The Rest is Noise can turn around the fortunes of 20th-century music and let people listen to it with fresh ears, with new understanding thanks to the provision of vital context, and cleansed of prejudice, preconception and pernicious agendas, it will have made a major contribution to the transformation of modern-day culture and how it is perceived. As Jude Kelly explained, we need to put classical music at the heart of contemporary thinking about how we reflect our world and our place in it.

At the launch, Vladimir Jurowski spoke of breaking down the "cults" of the past and putting living, breathing music of our time onto the stage. That will be a tall order in Verdi and Wagner year (they can probably get away with it where Britten is concerned), but it's an admirable aim. You have to think big in this business, or you never get off the ground. You'd remain stultified by ancient anniversaries instead. Oh, wait...

Perhaps the most exciting thing of all, though, is that the London Philharmonic Orchestra is devoting its entire RFH concert schedule throughout 2013 to this festival. A little over a year ago, they saw fit to declare, er, that "AT THE LPO, MUSIC AND POLITICS DON'T MIX". I look forward to watching them spend a whole year proving themselves wrong.

Monday, November 26, 2012

On fire at the Lucerne Piano Festival

How I wish that that title were metaphoric, but for once, dear readers, it isn't.

There I am in the foyer of one of those beautiful hotels with the piano bars, leafing through a newspaper and leaning against a convenient ledge while waiting for a jam session to start in which the likes of Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Simon Mulligan and friends are to play the night away. And I smell burning. And my back begins to feel hot. For there, behind me, is a candle, and it may be Christmas and it may be pretty, but it's nevertheless a naked flame and it has set light to my inexpensive yet smart and brand-new black lace jacket, and another 30 seconds and JD will be toast. With rapid brain-to-hand connections honed by typing and piano-playing (or in this case schnozz-to-hand connections, perhaps) I manage to whip off the jacket and save myself and the smartest hotel in Lucerne from spontaneous combustion.

All's well that ends well. The jacket is a write-off, but I escaped with only a whisker of a singe, if a bit shaken. Missed the jam session and slunk back to my own hotel for camomile tea and a stiff whisky. It's not a bad place to slink back to.

The jazz element is one of the nicest things about the piano festival. You find scenes like this - Jan Eschke in the KKL foyer entertaining the concert-goers at a scarlet Steinway created specially for the festival...

 Or this - Simon Mulligan in residence for Saturday afternoon at the Schweizerhof:

The big concerts, meanwhile, went on on Saturday night with Jean-Yves Thibaudet in the Ravel Left Hand Piano Concerto, partnered by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Bernard Haitink. The maestro gave us some gorgeous Mozart in the second half: the G minor Symphony No.40 with judicious tempi, beautiful long phrases and plenty of heart. Ravel, though, didn't seem quite their thang, emerging a bit ploddy and metronomic, while the inimitable Jean-Yves did his very best to insert some sparkled into the proceedings beyond his trademark diamante belt. I am still cross about missing his jazzathon - he can do a mean Bill Evans turn when he wants to.

Last but by no means least, possibly the most gorgeous piano recital I have heard all year. Andras Schiff is very busy with Beethoven at the moment, and having missed his Wigmore Hall recital last week, it was a treat to hear him in the much larger KKL with its warm and exquisite acoustic. His programme included the sonatas from Opp.14 to 28 - all of them - and involved the special atmosphere that Andras's mega-traversals of repertoire tend to have, plus some.

This total-immersion experience is a little like a meditation. Instead of grabbing us, shocking us and bashing the hell out of the instrument, as some pianists do, Andras leads us into another world through silken beauty of sound, absolute love for every note and a temperate attention to the purity of the music. The hall lights are darkened and he plays under a spotlight - a very good idea, since it stops the audience rustling pages as they try to read the programme mid-flow.

He is currently touring with a Bechstein of 1921 that was used often by Wilhelm Backhaus - implicitly aligning himself not so much with the "HIP" movement as the "Golden Age" of pianism. In my case, of course, he's preaching to the converted by choosing a Bechstein. I grew up with one, then bought a new one about eight years ago. I love the character of the Bechstein sound, the woody plangency of the tone, the distinctive nature of the different registers. Andras himself has perhaps the most recognisable personal sound of any pianist working today - it isn't comparable to any other pianist I've heard, other than recordings of Bartok himself. Over the years it has grown and evolved to suit Beethoven every bit as well as Bach - and it is difficult to imagine a more ideal vehicle for it than this instrument. This playing was not like Beethoven that you'll hear from anyone else - and it is revelatory, allowing those underrated  Op.14s, Op.22 and Op.26 to glow as the masterpieces they are by stripping them to their essence and, with total empathy, focusing on nothing but that. I could have listened to him forever.

I urge you to seek out this unique artist and hear him at every possible opportunity. He plays a lot - and here in London, I fear that it has perhaps been too easy to take his presence for granted. Tonight he is playing the same programme as in Lucerne, this time at the Wigmore Hall.

Here's his American website and schedule; and the UK one.

And here he is talking about Op.111. You can hear all his lectures on the Beethoven sonatas via The Guardian, by following these links.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Provocation on the podium

John Axelrod doesn't mince his words. In my interview with him for the JC today, he shows us part of why he's becoming so controversial in the orchestral world...

Here's the beginning of the Bernstein Symphony No.3 'Kaddish', with Samuel Pisar, which John discusses in the interview. It's all too relevant at the moment - though let's hope the ceasefire holds. The rest of the performance is on Youtube and you can find it by clicking straight through. You'll need to feel strong for this, by the way.

Watch Marion Cotillard as Joan of Arc, complete, here

Whee! It's Benjamin Britten's 99th birthday and everyone is behaving as if it is already his 100th. Wonderful stuff, of course, on the one hand...but on the other hand there will be such a lot of Britten around in the next two years - first the run-up to the centenary, then the run-away, so to speak - that I wonder if we'll ever want to hear a note of him again afterwards. So here's a reminder that other composers in the same generation also wrote some rather good music. (Honegger was, of course, 21 years older than Britten, but shares with him a gritty and distinctive approach to personal language and an origin in, comparatively speaking, a musically parochial country - in his case, Switzerland - that led him to gravitate to France early on.)

The gorgeous French actress Marion Cotillard starred in the title role of Honegger's 1938 masterpiece Jeanne d'Arc au bucher in a live broadcast on Medici TV the other day. They've kindly made the video available for us to watch complete, free, right here on JDCMB, for 90 days. Honegger wrote the oratorio originally for the actress Ida Rubinstein and the combination of his vivid and filmic imagination with Paul Claudel's poetic text make for a compelling listen.

Don't forget, in the months ahead while we soak up every note that Britten ever wrote, that the early to mid 20th century was one of the richest eras in terms of diverse creativity that the world has ever known; now that the stranglehold of the Second Viennese School has shifted to give us a more accurate perspective, we can see and sample the full spectrum of artworks in all their glory.

Joan at the Stake – With Marion Cotillard on

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Encore un prix pour Benjamin Grosvenor

Golden boy of the piano Benjamin Grosvenor has yet another trophy for his already buckling shelves: on Monday he was presented with the 'Jeune Talent' prize for his debut recital disc on Decca at the Diapason Awards 2012 in Paris (the French equivalent of the Gramophone Awards). The ceremony was broadcast yesterday on Radio France.

This concert performance of his has popped up on Youtube: Liszt's Gnomengreigen, which he's been playing as an encore in recitals this season. Do listen - it is breathtaking.

Is Daniel Barenboim the only person who can fix things?

It wouldn't surprise me.

While the killing continues in the Middle East, he's founding a college in Berlin based on the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra's principles. A new college in a former Berlin Staatskapelle warehouse. Around 80 Israeli and Arab youngsters will - we hope - mix here to study music, with a spot of social sciences and international politics on the side. A new concert hall, apparently, to be named after Pierre Boulez and to be designed by Frank Gehry and Yasuhisa Toyota. A new idea that talking to one another might actually help. Projected opening date: 2015. Barenboim may be the only person who can make this happen. More from Brian Wise at WQXR, here.

And meanwhile the killing goes on. And so artists speak out. And when they do there is always someone - usually with an agenda - who'll say "shut up and play the piano". (The other day a piece in the Guardian used a protest movement as a way of, er, slamming a protest movement; it said that the director of an Israeli dance company actually agreed with the protestors outside the theatre and that this somehow meant the protestors were stupid. Oddly, the article now seems to have vanished.)

But if artists don't speak out, nobody will. Artists - performing, creative, literary, musical, balletic - seem to be the last bastion of humanity that possesses a moral compass. With corruption rife and politicians toothless, artists are the only ones left. And there's one thing better than speaking out: doing something positive. Is Barenboim the only one in the world who both will and can? Atta-Danny.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Watch Angelo Villani's comeback concert right here

A couple of months ago, JDCMB had an e-interview with the Australian pianist Angelo Villani, who was due to make his London debut after an absence from the concert platform spanning two decades. Annoyingly, I couldn't make it to the concert, so invited him to do a runthrough in our front room, which was a treat of the first order. Now he has uploaded a film of the recital at St James's Church, Piccadilly, to Youtube, in HD. Here it is, in two parts. The acoustic is not the world's finest, but the white gloves are positively hypnotic. Enjoy.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A moment in the sun

A few pics from yesterday at the Orange Tree Theatre/International Wimbledon Music Festival's staging of A Walk through the End of Time. Rehearsing with Harriet Walter, Henry Goodman and director Anthony Wilkinson - what a privilege it was to have such an incredible team to take up this piece. Then a quick curtain call. Huge thanks to everyone who came along and cheered us on! Really hope you enjoyed it.

Friday, November 16, 2012


Yes, it's the latest edition of HUNGARIAN DANCES, and it's in Romanian. Heartfelt thanks to Editura Rao in Bucharest for bringing it out with a priceless new title and this arresting cover pic that looks ever so slightly like Nicky Benedetti. More info, in Romanian, here. 

To celebrate, here's a special Friday Historical: the incomparable Jelly d'Aranyi, playing... something very Hungarian.

Who is this Petrushka anyway?

Puppet or dancer? Entertainer or symbol? If the latter, symbol of what? The premiere of the multi-media Petrushka in Wimbledon the other night, which I previewed here, was an evening to remember.

For pianist Mikhail Rudy it's the culmination of years of dreaming and planning. It began when he took Stravinsky's own Three Dances from Petrushka (piano arrangements made for Rubinstein, who never played them, apparently - too difficult, the story goes...) and set about transcribing the rest of the complete ballet score himself, with lurking visions of what could one day be done with it in terms of visual interpretation. Micha writes of a childhood impression of a puppet show:
"I could tell that behind the curtain there was an unsettling human form, which made my heart thump. I called him The Great Puppeteer. Invested with an extraordinary power, he was able to breathe life into his creations, to make them dance and laugh, or fall in love, but, at his least whim, he could melt them down at will into a spoon, like a character from Peer Gynt, or cut off their heads as if they were poor Petrushka. I was hypnotized by his limitless power, and I identified with his creatures. Were my emotions real or imaginary? I'm still looking for the answer."
"In the little theatre where the drama of Petrushka and the Ballerina is played out, one piece of wood – the piano – brings to life other pieces of wood, at the behest of a magician in a black suit. Perhaps one should play Petrushka in a top hat, surrounded by white rabbits and ladies sawn in half whose reflections keep on multiplying in mirrors… The piano giving the illusion of an orchestra, which in turn gives the illusion of marionettes, who in turn make us believe in human feelings."
Now, realised as a multi-media film by IWMF director Anthony Wilkinson, with dancers from Rambert and Matthew Bourne's New Adventures and absolutely mesmerising puppetry from the Little Angel Theatre, the Petrushka project presents Micha with an almighty challenge: playing this plethora of colourful fairground activity, inner anguish, mechanistic irony and mystical symbolism is quite tough enough without having to coordinate one's every movement with a movie. The result? It works its magic from first snowflake-drenched moment to last.

The puppeteer sees his own impish, teasing, rebellious creation achieve acrobatic wonders, undergo very human suffering, and ultimately elude him altogether. The poor puppet's head is unscrewed, his sawdust emptied on the ground, his carcas left in a cardboard box - only to reappear beyond grasp, argumentative as ever, a spirit in his own right that can never be destroyed.

Micha is aligned at once with the puppeteer/magician, wearing the turquoise and gold cloak of the character throughout his performance (but no top hat, rabbits or sawn-in-two females...). The pianist is the puppeteer; the piano is the puppet. And it escapes. The spirit of art and of creativity is something we think is ours and that we can control. But maybe, instead, it is this spirit that comes to control us. It's more than we think it is: independent, elusive, immutable.

Despite a lifetime of familiarity with Petrushka's music, story, choreography and concept, this dazzling mingling of artforms in a quiet Wimbledon sidestreet was the first time the work truly made sense to me at its deeper level. Bravo Micha, bravo Anthony and bravi bravissimi Little Angels.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

"He believed that you can say anything through dance"

It's 20 years since Sir Kenneth MacMillan died and the Royal Ballet is about to open a triple bill of his works to mark the anniversary. I had a wonderful talk the other week with his widow, Lady Deborah MacMillan, and my piece is out today. Read it in the Indy, here.

In this film, made to introduce the cinecast of Romeo and Juliet earlier this year, and fronted by its Juliet, the lovely Lauren Cuthbertson, the great and good of the company explore the work that is regarded by countless fans as the choreographer's prime masterpiece.

Today I am off to meet someone who could yet turn out to be one of his successors. Watch this space.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Vaughan Williams for Remembrance Sunday

For Remembrance Sunday, here is the earliest recording I can currently find of Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending: the work that perhaps more than any other evokes a moment of stillness in a world about to be swept away by the outbreak of World War I. This account by Isolde Menges is conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent (with what the uploader describes only as "a less than sterling orchestra"). It dates from 1928.

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.

Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

--- George Meredith

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Gabriela Montero plays the Grieg Concerto - aged 11

Gabriela Montero has digitised and uploaded to Youtube a video of herself in her prodigy days in Venezuela, aged 11, playing the Grieg Piano Concerto. She says it's the first time it's been unearthed since its original broadcast. She was already a seasoned performer by then, of course, having made her concerto debut at the age of eight. It's wonderful to see and hear, especially if you know her remarkable artistry today, because her own sound is already there - a little like meeting a cute, fuzzy lion cub with the prescience indicated by very big paws. Here are the first two parts - she's going to upload the last movement shortly.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Mozart, Manchester and one amazing man

Dear Manchester, do you have any idea how lucky you are having Gabor Takacs-Nagy aboard your very own Manchester Camerata? Probably the greatest string quartet leader I've ever seen, in the old Takacs Quartet days; an incredible inspiration in his masterclasses in Verbier; and he's second-in-command to Ivan Fischer at the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Fabulous that today he is bringing to the orchestral world his conviction that you should never compromise in the mission to communicate the absolute wonder of great music with the audience. Here he sums up in a few words precisely what Mozart is all about.

Mozart with Gábor Takács-Nagy from Manchester Camerata on Vimeo.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

RIP Elliott Carter (1908 - 2012)

A second great composer has left the world this week... I think Henze and Carter might now be sharing a few jokes at our expense over in the Beyond, and we know that at 103 Carter can be said to have had what's commonly called "a good innings" - but he was such a fixture that many of us somehow came to believe him immortal. Not so. But his music is. Complex, dazzling, vivid and unforgettable, it is work that needs to stay in the public eye and ear for long years ahead. He will be sorely missed.

There is a substantial tribute to him in the New York Times.

Here is his last filmed interview, discussing his Cello Concerto with the wonderful young American cellist Alisa Weilerstein.

Progress for the Pilgrim

Last week Delius in Wexford, this week Vaughan Williams in London: last night, ENO gave RVW's The Pilgrim's Progress its first fully staged professional performance since 1951.

Like Delius's A Village Romeo and Juliet, this is not just a remarkable opera, but a shamefully neglected masterpiece - and by one of "our own" in "das Land ohne Musik". Like the Delius, it is far from conventional; it doesn't do those things we tend to think opera ought to do, although there is no particularly logical reason for the artform to stick to them - in other words, it's light years away from La Traviata. Like the Delius, it is slow and gorgeous, mesmerising rather than melodramatic, exquisitely orchestrated, incantatory in its lines.

Unlike the Delius, though, its high points are its choral writing, its concise, well-chosen words - liberally peppered with extracts from the Psalms and spiced here and there with super-perceptive satire - and its deep, rich spirituality. While the story obviously is Christian, there's a universality to it - much enhanced by this fabulous production - that had me, and others, in tears several times. Vaughan Williams himself moved "from atheism into cheerful agnosticism", according to his second wife, Ursula. His faith, one senses, is music: "music in the home, music in the heart, music in the heavens..." as one particularly glorious passage says. He offers us a score containing a great-hearted warmth and wisdom that can bolster our inner strength in the same way that faith bolsters Pilgrim's. Read this excellent piece by conductor Martyn Brabbins on the opera's history.

Clever, brilliant, inspired ENO, putting this work on now. It's a parable for our times: the polarisation of spirituality versus materialism, and the destruction of the non-conformist who dares to speak his own truth against the corrupt rabble of Vanity Fair. The anguish of loneliness; the glow of beauty that attends support when it appears. And the final mortal terror of crossing over to the beyond.

Director Yoshi Oida offers a production of harsh beauty, simplicity and power. The setting is a prison and Pilgrim's inner journey - in essence, John Bunyan reflecting on his dream - takes him to the electric chair. The imagery is focused, the tableaux striking, the designs - set and videos by Tom Schenk, costumes by Sue Willmington - magnificent and imaginative, haunted by World War I, yet never heavy-handedly so. Apollyon, the ogre, is delivered via a piece of giant-scale puppetry that has to be seen to be believed. Magnificent performances by Roland Wood as John Bunyan/Pilgrim, Benedict Nelson as the umbrella-wielding Evangelist (and more), and vignettes throughout by a superlative cast culminating with Ann Murray herself as Madam Bubble, Mrs By-Ends and one of the three Celestial Voices. Brabbins and the orchestra - which has been possibly at its best ever through this year - give the score an account that is fervent yet balanced, translucent yet heady, drawing out the contrasts within the subtle progressions of emotion and letting RVW speak through with all his radiance.

Go see. Fast. There are only seven performances in total.

On the way home from the theatre yesterday, we heard the news that Elliott Carter has passed away at the age of 103. It's farewell to a remarkable man and creator of very different yet just as immortal music. May he reach the Pilgrim's Delectable Mountains and cross the deep river to peace.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Faure plays Faure

Ah, Monsieur Gabriel! It's the anniversary of his death, today - he left the world on 4 November 1924, aged 79. In 1913 he made this Welte Mignon recording of his own Pavane.

I have always had severe doubts about 'reproducing pianos', but the fact remains that it's all we have and it may tell us something valuable about his playing, even if not everything we would like to know. The rigour of his basic rhythm, for instance; the driving force of the harmony in the left hand; the layering of the voicing; and one instance in which it sounds suspiciously as if he's making the musical most of a slip of a finger. Pianists, take note!

His own words about the merits of the Welte-Mignon system are worth a read, too (they're on this film).

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Urgent: read, sign and help keep Britain's arts alive

Powerful piece in today's Guardian about the threat posed to the future of the arts in the UK by the exclusion of all artistic subjects from the new "EBacc" curriculum. Please read it, and please sign the petition Bacc for the Future to save creativity in our schools, here. A million signatures needed, fast.

It takes decades to build up an arts scene as flourishing as the one we have here, yet it can all be destroyed in a few short strokes of a philistine's pen. Let's not let that happen.

How I put the story of music in a Nazi POW camp on stage

I have a piece in the Independent about how and why I wrote A Walk through the End of Time. It was out on Wednesday, but I spent much of the day travelling home from Wexford and didn't get a chance to blog it. Here it is. The picture, of course, is of Dame Harriet Walter, who is our star actress on 18 November at the Orange Tree, with Henry Goodman as her partner. Watch this space for further news about the performance.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Benjamin Grosvenor's Southbank debut

As you know, Benjamin Grosvenor, 20, is the darling of every pianophile in Britain and beyond. We were there in force to hear his debut recital at the Southbank's Queen Elizabeth Hall on Wednesday night, which gratifyingly was packed out.

Benjamin Grosvenor as a performer, it has to be said, is the absolute antithesis of everything that most serious piano fans loathe about certain older, more celebrity-conscious performers who pull in the crowds. He has a modest, unspoilt presence on the platform, the informal (red shirt, dark trousers) look of the lad next door and a rather surprised smile when he spots there are people listening to him and clapping, as if he hadn't quite expected it. He's a smallish youth with enormous and beautiful hands that look almost incongruous - as if they've been grafted on from the spirit of Friedman or Moiseiwitsch.

It's his virtuosity, delicacy, sparkle and whirligig whooshes of inspiration that tend to be noticed first, but perhaps something else is even more vital: he is not afraid to play quietly. Instead of projecting every phrase out to the back row, he focuses on intense beauty of tone in the pianissimo range and makes the audience come to him, drawing them in to a type of enhanced listening experience. Scarily few musicians dare to do this today, a few exceptions being Zimerman, Perahia and Anderszewski - good company indeed. He doesn't overpedal: clarity remains uppermost, and in his Bach Fourth Partita, which opened the concert, touches of pedal served just to enhance a resonance or mark the ambience of a rhythm here and there.

In the Bach, too, he homed in on the exact quality that makes its Allemande so mesmerising. This movement is a piece of such beauty that it wouldn't have disgraced the St Matthew Passion; its increasingly florid melody has about it a meditative, stream-of-consciousness quality of improvisation that seems to exist in a state of grace, in every sense. Benjamin caught the precise nuance of its still heart and inner radiance. This takes some doing. It shone beside a fleet Overture and Gigue, a lively, supple Courante, and much elegance in the brief extras with which Bach peppers this most expansive of his keyboard partitas - all of it enhanced by a keen structural intelligence which found the strength of line and harmonic progressions underlying every filigree twist and turn. If I wished he'd played the repeats, it was just because this was music-making of such excellence that it would have been nice to hear it all again.

The Chopin F sharp minor Polonaise and the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise revealed something more problematic. For some reason, Grosvenor was playing a Yamaha. This powerful piano firm has, of course, developed its instruments considerably in the past 20 years or so, but it is still rare to see one on a London concert platform, and its tone did not prove especially welcome. Benjamin's personal sound, which is intensely beautiful with never a crash or thump, was still there, without a doubt. But I've heard him play quite a number of times before, and I missed something that he usually provides: colour. It is obvious to anyone who follows his progress closely that variety of colour is paramount to him. Yet the Yamaha tone, which tends to the overbright and even the glassy at times, just does not encompass the palette of mellowness and myriad shadings that he's capable of. The Bach worked well enough on it, but the Chopin needed that range. This was slightly frustrating for anyone who's heard Benjamin conjour those colours and therefore wished he would be able to do so on such a vital occasion as this. Presumably he had, in some way, shape or form, chosen the instrument - or maybe he is too modest to make a fuss about it? Please, someone, give the boy the chance to choose a favourite Steinway himself next time?

For the second half, Benjamin kept up the dance theme established first in the Bach with a selection of rare pianophilia delights: a selection of Scriabin's early mazurkas and a heady Russian waltz, eight utterly enchanting waltzes by Granados (which are a treat for any keen pianist to read through - you can find some of them in a recent issue of Pianist magazine), and the whole lot topped off by Schulz-Evler's deliciously dizzy virtuoso transcription of The Blue Danube. The charm of Benjamin's phrasing, his zippy lightness of touch, sprinkled a heart-warming trail of fairydust across the byways of this enchanting and original selection. He provided three encores, too: Godowsky's transcription of the famous Albeniz tango, then Liszt's Gnomenreigen - very fast, these gnomes, enjoying a whirlwind, impish outing as if testing the capabilities of a new pianistic Ferrari - and Benjamin's party-piece, Morton Gould Boogie-Woogie Etude, to close.

Piano aside, it was an evening that nobody will forget in a hurry. As my colleague Michael Church comments in his review for The Independent, "with virtuosity of this calibre, allied to a probing musical intelligence, the sky's the limit."

Meanwhile, it is lovely to see that Benjamin has become an "ambassador" for the superb London Music Masters' Bridge Project, designed to encourage instrumental music tuition in inner-city primary schools. Here's what they said, announcing it the other night:

London Music Masters (LMM) announces the multi-award-winning British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor as its ambassador to champion the cause of music in schools.  The former child prodigy, whorecently became one of the youngest ever winner of two Gramophone Awards and won the ‘Critics Choice Award’ at the Classic Brits, will act as a role model for children on LMM’s Bridge Project in some of London’s most deprived boroughs. Born to a musical family in Southend-on-Sea, Grosvenor is keen to encourage children to learn music at an early age and  for every child to have this opportunity:
'It was a great pleasure to visit Jessop Primary School and to witness the remarkable work being done by LMM there. It was touching to see the enthusiasm the children demonstrated for their instruments and for the learning process, and I hope that as an ambassador for this charity I can help them with their important work.'
LMM Bridge Project
LMM’s Bridge Project was established five years ago to make classical music accessible to all - by providing a sustained programme of high-quality music instrumental tuition in inner-city primary schools.  Working with children from financially disadvantaged and culturally diverse backgrounds, the Bridge Project places music at the heart of the school curriculum from an early age and enables interaction with exceptional musicians.  The Bridge Project’s driving goal is to address the lack of cultural and ethnic diversity among classical music professionals and audiences - making music an instrument of change.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Welcome to Wexford

I've just been to Wexford to review the Opera Festival for The Independent and the piece is out now, here.

It was great to be back at the only festival where you walk through a row of terraced houses to find yourself in a state-of-the-art bijou opera house that you can't actually see until you're in it; where the first singing you hear is by the audience, who give their all in the Irish National Anthem; where the directorial team stands by the doors at the end to greet and thank everyone for being there; and where you can hear the stars before they become stars and appreciate forgotten delights of the repertoire reaching the limelight at last. Such is Wexford's reputation that the great and good of the opera world descend on it from all over. Chat with someone in the hotel lift and he'll probably turn out to be the chairman of an opera company from the other side of the globe. If you're the sort of music-lover who feels that an opera doesn't necessarily have to be as good as Don Giovanni in order to merit a hearing, Wexford is for you.

As usual, the festival conjured a trio of rare marvels out of the back catalogue of operatic history: works by Chabrier, Cilea and Delius, with the latter's A Village Romeo and Juliet calling for particular spotlight in our favourite Marmitey-composer's anniversary year and supported here by the Delius Trust. You know 'The Walk to the Paradise Garden', which is an orchestral interlude from this opera? The rest of the evening is equally gorgeous. Honest to goodness, guv: it's one of the most beautiful operas I have ever heard.

I'm in danger of turning into one of those people who rants on and on and on about Delius, but I was bowled over, partly by the poignancy of the work - it distils the tragic beauty of life into a potent brew indeed - but perhaps even more by the anguish that a piece so poetic, so delicate, so exquisite, has had to go unappreciated all these years. I hope that's going to change now, because it should. OK, it doesn't match operatic norms - it's slow, the libretto is weak, the protagonists are Swiss (is that the kiss of death?). But so what? Silk chiffon is not invalid just because it isn't cashmere.

Chabrier's Le roi malgre lui (King In Spite of Himself) proved to be a totally bananas concoction in which the French king is elected king of Poland against his will. For Chabrier, it provides an excuse for a dazzling array of cleverness, confusion and coloratura, poised somewhere between Gounod and Ravel. The second act in particular is a Laduree's-window of truly yummy set pieces - waltz, barcarolle, Gypsy song - any of which would make brilliant stand-alone concert pieces. Shame about the production, but the singing was great. Ditto for the Cilea L'Arlesiana - based on the same play for which Bizet wrote his very different incidental music. A very full-on Italian verismo job, this, much relished in the pit by David Angus and the enthusiastic orchestra, and on stage turning up several potential new stars, notably the Italian mezzo Annunziata Vestri and the Russian tenor Dmitry Golovnin. The latter's lunchtime recital was also a major highlight of my visit. I enjoyed his performance so much that I grabbed him for an impromptu interview, which I shall bring you at the first opportunity.

Meanwhile I'd have loved to see the face of the Chabrier's super lead soprano, Nathalie Paulin, on learning the identity of the gentleman she selected at random from the audience to dance with her in her cabaret show. He was Antony Craig, production editor of Gramophone. Read his blogpost about Wexford's Delius here.