Monday, July 29, 2013

A very spoilt opera lover's home thoughts from abroad

So last night, here in Munich, I heard Don Carlo with Jonas Kaufmann sounding perhaps the best I've ever heard him (and you know how good that is), Anja Harteros sounding like a platinum-plated Maria Callas only possibly better, Rene Pape sounding like King Marke as King Philip II and a baritone new to my radar, Ludovic Tezier, as Rodrigo sounding like a presence who will dominate his repertoire to very fabulous effect for years to come. How many great voices can you have on a stage at any one time? It occurs to one that - perhaps unusually for a Verdi performance - one could reassemble the same team for a certain thing by Wagner to fine effect, one named Tristan und Isolde...

But oh dearie dearie dear... I went and missed Barenboim's Gotterdammerung at the Proms, and today have been inundated with messages full of overjoy, overwhelmedness or plain old Schadenfreude from those who were there, or heard it on the radio, or who are calling for a Ring cycle to become a regular feature of the Proms, please, something I will second with all my heart (provided it's done by the right performers). After a 20-minute ovation, Barenboim made a speech declaring that what the audience had been through with him and his musicians was something he had never even dreamed of. Can't manage to embed the code for some reason, so please follow this link to hear it:

Extra plaudits for the Proms this year for having made me seriously question the wisdom of taking a summer holiday abroad while they're on.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Dragon-slayer: Lance Ryan IS Siegfried

Here's my write-up for the Indy of last night at the Proms, where things are turning seriously steamy in the Ring. A slightly less packed turnout for this one, perhaps because the temperatures in the hall have been in the news, but hey, there was more air for the rest of us as we rushed back for episode 3. If this is what happens in a Wagner anniversary, please can we have another next year? I mean, he'd have been 201 - isn't that worth celebrating too?

Shock confession: this is the first time I have actually enjoyed Siegfried. The first act can be heavy going and unless you have a top-notch chap in the title role, so can the rest. It needs to be done very, very, very well, all round, to succeed (at least where my ears are concerned). This one...just flew by, with laughter, tears and suitably raised consciousness. Where's it been all my life? Canadian Heldentenor Lance Ryan as Siegfried simply owned the role and thus the evening.

If you were wondering whether to go to Gotterdammerung on Sunday, but hesitated: stop thinking and just go. I can't, as I'll be in the only other place an opera buff (never mind critic) should be just now, which is in Munich, listening to Jonas in a spot of Verdi. But even with that to look forward to, I am sick as the proverbial parrot about missing the last night of this Ring cycle.

Wagner would have loved his operas being done at the Proms: to a huge crowd of passionate enthusiasts in the arena who have come from far and wide for the occasion and pay just a fiver to get in. He wanted admission at Bayreuth to be free. It didn't prove very practical, of course, but that was the original idea.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Friday Historical Favourite Things: the voice of Fritz Wunderlich

Much as I love today's great tenors, I'm not sure there was ever anyone else quite like Fritz Wunderlich. Here he is singing Beethoven's An die Ferne Geliebte: a work much quoted by Schumann as a thinly coded message to Clara...and in more recent times by many others for the same reason. This post is dedicated to anyone who's ever missed someone.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Why do you play the violin?

Well, maybe you don't, yet - but you might when you hear why Simon Hewitt Jones and his ViolinSchool teachers and pupils do. This heart-warming film might just get some of us (or our kids) going along to try as well.

I learned the violin on and off until I was 18. I wasn't much good at it and have scarcely touched it since - but, come to think of it, there is still an instrument under the piano, waiting for a little attention...

The Violin School is just across the road from the St James Theatre (where much of this video was filmed), a short walk from Victoria Station.

Favourite things: Yuja Wang plays Flight of the Bumble Bee

I offer you this incredible performance by La Yuja partly because life feels ever so slightly like this piece of music right now. I don't know what Rimsky's bees are on, but whatever it is, I may need some. Fasten your seatbelts.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Die Walkure: a roof on the hoof

I've been to some incredible Proms in my time, but I think Barenboim's Die Walkure simply took the biscuit. Here's my review, from the Indy:

Above, how the hall looked during the ovation last night (sort of).

Bristol calling

As a techno-twit, I've been trying to get my head around the dizzying digital heights of the Bristol Proms. Fascinating chats with Tom Morris, artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic and the brain behind the series; Max Hole, chairman of Universal, which is throwing its weight behind the series; and Clare Reddington, digital suprema of Bristol's Watershed. All in the Independent, right now.

Meanwhile, here is my review of Barenboim's very steamy journey up the Rhine at the (London) Proms on Monday night, and I am just busy writing up last night's Die Walkure...

Friday, July 19, 2013

Friday Historical: Horowitz Live in London

This is Vladimir Horowitz's second-last recital in London, filmed live at the Royal Festival Hall in May 1982 (the last one was a week later. Thanks to my pianophile-in-chief consultant for the correction). He was not a well man by then, and apparently was on much medication, but the old magic is alive and well despite some slips; listen to the tone, the voicing, the variety of imagination, and a Polonaise-Fantaisie that certainly draws the tears from fanatics like me... And the way he plays the national anthem at the outset is a sliver of piano genius in itself, though this audience of 31 years ago stands to attention and doesn't applaud. (Prince Charles and co are in the royal box, not looking their most comfortable ever...).

The concert hall, which we see at the start, stands in grim concrete isolation in a lifeless area. It's a bit different today, happily.

The programme is:

Part I

01. God Save The Queen
02. Scarlatti Sonata in A flat major K127
03. Scarlatti Sonata in F minor K466
04. Scarlatti Sonata in F minor K184
05. Scarlatti Sonata in A major K101
06. Scarlatti Sonata in B minor K87
07. Scarlatti Sonata in E major K135
08. Chopin Polonaise-Fantaisie Op.61
09. Chopin Ballade No.1 Op.23
10. Horowitz talks about himself

Part II

01. Schumann Kinderszenen Op.15
02. Rachmaninov Piano Sonata No.2 Op.36
03. Chopin Waltz Op.69-1
04. Rachmaninov Polka de W.R.
05. Scriabin Etude Op.8-12

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Favourite things: the Soweto String Quartet

Nelson Mandela is 95 today. This video shows the Soweto String Quartet playing at the Kirstenbosch botanical gardens in Cape Town and a vision of all its audience - young, old, black, white and much in between - loving the music and the dancing and the beauty of the landscape together.

Perhaps the last happy day I spent with my father was in this exquisite spot, back in 1996. He was already suffering from terminal cancer, but we had two weeks of quality time in South Africa, with the most beautiful outing of all at Kirstenbosch. He'd refused to go back to his native country while apartheid was in place, but after Mandela became president he started spending his winters there. I realised, seeing him then, that he'd missed it all his life.

I haven't been back. But heading home from central London latish in the evening, in the underpass from the Imax to Waterloo Station I frequently see a Rastafarian busker. He has a guitar, dreadlocks, a ready smile and a warm and generous voice. He often sings this song. I cannot tell you the number of times he's cheered me up with it, nor how many times - after an uninspiring performance somewhere that should have been better - I've thought it the most heart-warming music I've heard all evening.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

If instruments could speak...

I've been having a little fun for Sinfini, "interviewing" two Stradivarius violins, the 'Gibson' (Josh Bell's) and the 'Messiah'; a Strad cello (Steven Isserlis's Marquis de Corberon); and Fritz Kreisler/Nikolaj Znaider's Guarneri del Gesu. If they could speak, is this what they'd tell us? Enjoy...

Favourite things... Philippe plays Chausson

It's hot out there. Trying to cool my study down for a hard day's writing with some lovely limpid Chausson: the Concert in D for violin, piano and string quartet, as recorded by Philippe Graffin, Pascal Devoyon and the Chilingirian Quartet (on Hyperion). It's a favourite thing in itself - I am potty about Chausson, yet we hear him in concert only once in the proverbial odd-hued moon - but another favourite thing therein is Philippe's violin tone and his feel for colour. Listen to the way he varies the nuance of the little rising figure that's repeated three times towards the end (around 3:44). Gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Favourite things: Kaufmann sings 'Die schöne Müllerin'

The other day I was out for a walk in Richmond Park and I spotted a pair of shoes abandoned next to a Bächlein. While I doubt that Schubert or the young miller protagonist in this heart-rending song-cycle would actually have worn blue suede loafers (they're more Elvis, perhaps), I've had this music on the brain ever since. Who better to listen to than Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Favourite things: Osipova and Vasiliev for 14 July

I feel so lucky to be around to watch Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev dance. This is the pas de deux from Flames of Paris (the Bolshoi's production, choreographed by Ratmansky), which the incredible pair will be dancing as guest artists just once in London - 16 August - when the Bolshoi comes to town.

Not long ago, I had the chance to meet them and ask: "How do you do that?" But you'll have to wait for the answer.

Meanwhile, happy "cattorze" Juillet from me and Solti.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Friday Historical: Ignaz Friedman plays Chopin

I'm "under the snow" for July as I have to finish a script as a matter of urgency. To keep things ticking over on JDCMB, I'm planning to offer you some extracts of music that are simply a few of my favourite things. This performance of Chopin's Nocturne in E flat, Op.55 No.2, recorded by Ignaz Friedman in 1936, is prime among them. Eloquent, flowing, gorgeously balanced between passion and finesse, and given with a tone of molten silver.

An article and some interesting links re Friedman from writer Benjamin Ivry, here.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A gift to remember

Last week I was lucky enough to be one of the adjudicators at Whitgift School's inaugural International Music Competition. This historic public school in Croydon - which has quadrangles, peacocks and wallabies on location, and amazing facilities all round, including a Fazioli grand piano - has started a contest in which exceptional young musicians have the chance to win full scholarships.

Please note that the intention is for this competition to be a regular event - and though the reach is international, the school would love to have more contestants from the UK!

A panel of the school's own dynamic musical leaders Rosanna Whitfield and Philip Winter and "external jurors" - violinists Ivo Stankov and Remus Azoitei, cellist Guy Johnston, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra development director Huw Davies and myself - listened entranced to a cavalcade of young talents from Romania, Moldova, Kosovo, Bulgaria and the UK, looking for three young string players whose lives are about to change...

The standard was quite extraordinary. Our three grand prize scholarship winners were eventually two candidates from the senior class and one from the middle. Dan-Iulian Drutac (17) from Moldova; Hristo Dunev (16) from Bulgaria; and Ion Mosneaga (15) from Moldova. Left, Guy Johnston, pianist Simon Lane and Ion Mosneaga at the reception after the prizewinners' concert. Ion, having excelled in his virtuoso repertoire, then astonished us even more with his mature and poetic Mozart G major Violin Concerto.

Right: team Kosovo, three youngsters who are working hard in testing circumstances to follow their dreams of becoming musicians. Cellist Arian Zherka (left) and violinists Arsim Gashi (the little one) and Bardh Lepaja touched our hearts very much with their natural musicianship and infectiously spirited playing.

In the meantime, Dan-Iulian joined the orchestra of Whitgift students, parents, music teachers and guest pros in the Dvorak 'New World' Symphony to close the event on a high. I've now found a Youtube video of him performing (in Moldova, about 18 months ago) the Vitali Chaconne, one of the pieces which won him the prize. Below.

I'd venture to hope that we found some young men of whom we'll be hearing a lot more in the future; and we want to encourage each and every one of the competitors to build on their experience at this competition, have faith in the irreplaceable combination of talent, hard work and big dreams and really apply themselves to fulfilling their very considerable potential. It was fabulous and a great privilege to meet and hear all of you and we wish you the very, very best for the future.

And here is Dan-Iulian Drutac (uploaded early in 2012):

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Music meets football: Lara Melda plays for Street Child World Cup

Pianist Lara Melda, the 2010 BBC Young Musician of the Year (when she won she was still known as Lara Omerogu), is giving a concert at St James, Piccadilly, in support of Street Child World Cup, a UK-based charity supporting the rights of street children. The evening - tomorrow! - aims to raise awareness and funds for street children worldwide ahead of the second-ever Street Child World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in March 2014.

Lara is joined by 2012 BBC Young Musician of the Year keyboard finalist Martin Bartlett (piano), Martin Musical Fund prizewinner Harry Gilfillan (cello), and former Yehudi Menuhin student Tatiana Gilfillan (violin). Music includes Handel, Poulenc, Debussy, Saint-Saens, Chopin and Rachmaninov.

Lara says: “I believe that no child should have to live on the street and that is why I am delighted to use my music to highlight this fantastic cause. The Street Child World Cup is more than a game, it gives street children an international platform to demand their rights."

Book now at: 020 7381 0441.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Happy 21st, Benjamin Grosvenor!

That Andy Murray of British pianism, Benjamin Grosvenor, is 21 today. We wish him the happiest of happy birthdays and can't wait to hear the new album he's apparently recording right now, up in Suffolk. (PS - anyone spot Mitsuko Uchida in the slebs rows at the Wimbledon final yesterday?)

In the meantime, here he is in performance last year, playing Rachmaninov's Etude-Tableau Op.39 No.5.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

On your feet! It's Proms time

The sun is shining, Andy Murray's in the final and next week it's time for the Proms to begin. This season is stuffed full of Wagner operas and I have just one word to start you off: footwear. My guide to how to make the most of the Proms is in today's Independent, along with my personal pick of ten unmissable events. And yes, there will be Korngold.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Jonas to the rescue!

The Munich Opera Festival, which is in full swing for July, is doing wall-to-wall Verdi and Wagner this year. Last night it was Lohengrin. The tenor went ill. Who can you get to replace that at short notice? Hmm, how about that local bloke who knows the role?

Text from my spy says simply: "Jonas sensation, audience went nuts."

Kaufmaniacs should log on tomorrow when the Staatsoper is webcasting Il trovatore, with JK as Manrico, a role he's just been singing for the first time, with Anja Harteros - another local - as Leonora. My spy says that's sounding a bit good too. Webcast is free and starts at 7pm over there (so 1 hr earlier in UK and 6 hrs earlier in NY).

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Win a weekend at the Lucerne Festival!

The Lucerne Festival may have started life on what used to be Wagner's lawn, but it hasn't let the grass grow under its feet... Read my guide to this idyllic summer escape and enter the competition to win a dream weekend, over at