Friday, January 30, 2015

Amo, Amas. Amati

I have a little news. As from Monday, I am taking over the editorship of The Amati Magazine, the online magazine of the stringed instrument auction site We are hatching exciting plans to build it up into a valuable resource for music-lovers, musicians amateur and professional, and everyone with an interest in any aspect of the the stringed instrument world - and we will be kicking off with a major star interview over a little fine food. Watch this space: I'll put up a link on Monday. You can also "like" The Amati Magazine's Facebook page, for regular updates. And we will no doubt be tweeting a lot. I'll be carrying on with everything else I usually do, meanwhile.

Those of you who've read Hungarian Dances will know that an Amati violin is a vital character in the novel. This is complete coincidence, but a nice one. Amo, amas, Amati...

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Rattle and the appointment headache

Appointing a music director is probably the hardest job an orchestra ever has to do, and appointing the right music director is the most important one. I have a few thoughts in today's Independent about why it's so tricky and why Sir Simon Rattle would be a Good Thing here...and why it's taking so long.

Cheers to another British conductor, Jonathan Nott, incidentally: he's won a ballot by a rare unanimous vote, we're told, to become music director of the Suisse Romande Orchestra.

Now I'm off to Birmingham to talk about Korngold tonight at Symphony Hall, where the CBSO and conductor Michael Seal are doing the Symphony in F sharp, the composer's most important orchestral work. I've never heard it live before, having missed the Prom last year, and as Seal is fast becoming one of today's prominent Korngoldians I suspect we're in for a treat. Do come if you're in Brum. Talk is 6.15pm, concert at 7.30pm.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

WAM. Wunderlich.

It's Mozart's birthday. I'm on a bit of a Mozart high at present - doing a talk about him last night at the Wigmore Hall has left me a bit tearful and giddy and lovestruck, even though this is music I've known for more than four decades. It's so easy to take him for granted. We shouldn't. He's a miracle. And for those of you who were at the Wigmore last night - the more I think about it, the more I really believe that he was indeed the first Romantic.

Here's the great tenor aria from Die Zauberflöte, sung in 1965 with piano accompaniment by Fritz Wunderlich.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Next few days...

Tomorrow (24th) I am at the Richmondshire Subscription Concerts in North Yorkshire for a welcome reunion with Bradley Creswick (violin) and Margaret Fingerhut (piano) in Hungarian Dances, the Concert of the Novel. Do come along for Gypsy-style virtuoso thrills, gorgeous repertoire and a roller-coaster narrative from the book. Here's the link:

On Monday evening (26th) I'm doing a pre-concert talk at the Wigmore Hall at 6.15pm about MOZART. The Hagen Quartet are continuing their Mozart Odysseyand Monday's concert features the second three of his "Haydn" Quartets. Talking about Mozart quartets at the Wigmore is a kind of a scary thing to do, so please join us in the Bechstein Room and smile - it will help.

On Wednesday evening (28th) I'm in Birmingham to introduce Korngold's Symphony in F sharp at Symphony Hall. The CBSO will be playing it in the second half of the concert, conducted by that Korngold aficionado par excellence, Michael Seal.

Busy. Backson.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Urgent: Birmingham Music Library under imminent threat

It's been drawn to my attention that the scandal of the Library of Birmingham - a fabulous new building which the city has opened, only to find it cannot now afford to keep it open more than 40 hours a week - extends to the likely imminent closure of the Birmingham Music Library, a major, award-winning, invaluable resource for professionals, students and community alike. Please read the communication below, which I reproduce as received, and take whatever action you are able.

You may have seen the recent announcements in the Press concerning severe cuts at the new Library of Birmingham. (See list of links below)

About 100 of the Library’'s 188 staff will go as opening hours are cut from 73 to 40 hours per week and other services for the public are stopped.

The Director of the Library has resigned, and if these proposed changes go ahead, business, learning, music and archive services will cease - there will no longer be a Music Library in Birmingham, run by specialist staff with relevant subject knowledge.

The Music Library was a previous recipient of IAML’s Excellence Award where its citation read:

‘Birmingham Music Library is a regional centre of excellence with MLA designated status for its extensive and rich special collections which include Bantock, the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival and Handel libretti collections. It offers a comprehensive service for the local community and is developing its client base for the future. The Library has an active policy of local engagement, providing advertising for local concerts and a programme encouraging local musicians to donate their CDs. Birmingham has also pioneered developments in support for people with severe learning disabilities. For the range of services and the sheer scale of operation it is among the best public music libraries in the country, giving constant attention both to the traditional services of lending and reference and to the breadth of its other activities.’

Besides the millions of individuals who use the library for their own purposes, there are many hundreds of choirs, orchestras, amateur and professional groups who cannot operate without the services of the Music Library to supply the scores and parts which are essential for their public performances. The impact on performers and the public will be severe. Some groups will not survive.

The news of the cuts was announced on the day Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace prize, the Pakistani teenager who led the Library of Birmingham’s opening ceremony, announcing ‘Pens and books are weapons against terrorism’ and that a ‘city without a library is a graveyard’.

The short-sightedness of these cuts, and the irrevocable damage it will do, needs to be fought urgently. On the national as well as local stage.

Can I urge you if you agree with me, to sign the petition here?

If you would like to do more, can you spread these details as far as you can? We need letters to MPs, and especially to the National press spelling out how these cuts will impact on our quality of life…

The "official" route for comments is to complete the survey at
You can also:
§  Text ‘Budget’ followed by a space and your message to 07786 200 403
§  Write to Budget Views, Room 221, Council House, Victoria Square, Birmingham B1 1BB

But I think the more national media cover the better...where is the Secretary of State for Libraries in all of this?

I hope you will feel able to help.

Essex man: Benjamin Grosvenor does the 10 Questions

I put 10 Questions to Benjamin Grosvenor for The Arts Desk ahead of his recitals this week in Birmingham Town Hall (tonight), Oxford's St John the Evangelist (tomorrow) and the Barbican (his recital debut there, on Friday). Here the brightest of young British pianists, from Southend-on-Sea, tells us why he loves historical recordings, why he enjoys playing Baroque music on the piano and why the "gladiatorial combat" of international competitions is just not for him. Read it here (£).

More info and links to book for the various concerts are at Grosvenor's website, here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Opening tonight: this

Sick as the proverbial parrot this morning because yesterday a friend offered me a ticket for the first night of Andrea Chénier at Covent Garden tonight - and I can't go. And they're in short supply, to put it mildly. In this all-too-rare opera, Jonas Kaufmann stars as a poet during the French Revolution who takes up his pen against hypocrisy - and is killed for it. Sound familiar? Anyone who continues to worry about the "relevance" of opera need look no further.

Eva-Maria Westbroek
photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

For those of us who can't get into the real thing, there is a cinecast on 29 Jan.

Meanwhile, you might enjoy reading my interview with the fabulous Eva-Maria Westbroek, who sings the role of Chénier's beloved  Maddalena, in the January issue of Opera News. Follow the link here.

Monday, January 19, 2015


Sir Simon Rattle is 60 today. He's on his way over to London for a major residency and a slew of celebratory programmes on BBC TV(!) and Radio 3 next month. The fuss and the heat is growing by the day - but we still don't know if he's definitely taking the LSO job. Never mind; this film shows him conducting SIX school orchestras in Berlin. Which is exactly the sort of leadership we need here.

With politicians calling for more diversity in the arts, yet simultaneously making the cost of music (and theatre) education so high that only the privileged can afford to train unless the good fortune of a rare full scholarship comes their way - where's the joined-up thinking, chaps? - a terrific celebrity maestro of this magnitude could potentially make a major difference to the state of the art, not just in his musicianship, but also as advocate, figurehead, role model and inspiration for all.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Who is the Johnny Depp of classical music?

Some would say it's Jonas Kaufmann.

Others suggest that my lovely Hungarian Dances violinist colleague, David Le Page, bears a certain resemblance to the film star.

But full marks to The Mozart Project - the producers of a superb interactive, multi-media e-book about the composer - for noting that in fact the mysterious hero of Hollywood appears to have been separated at birth from none other than...

...our very own Gabriel Fauré.

Friday, January 09, 2015

At the feet of guess who...

I'm officially on holiday - a long way off, somewhere hot and sunny that involves hammocks, trees and the sound of the sea. But there's WiFi, so I can still offer you, belatedly, some impressions of the two gentlemen above, whom I was fortunate to hear at Wigmore Hall last Sunday, at an extremely welcome last minute.

Yes, Der Jonas was back in our top Lieder hall, and there are few finer places in which to appreciate his remarkable qualities at close quarters, within a warm acoustic magnifying glass. Here, even from the back row, the ambience and sound quality are intimate enough to let us hear a degree of nuance that might not come over to the same extent in a larger, more impersonal space.

An all-Schumann first half from two highly sophisticated German musicians could scarcely be bettered. First of all, the partnership between Kaufmann and Deutsch - Jonas's Lieder Svengali - is something quite exceptional. The voice and the piano are so attuned to one another as to fuse into an indivisible sound, just as an orchestra at its best becomes a single entity. To call Deutsch an accompanist would be not just invidious, but unthinkable. They opened with five of the too-rarely heard Kerner Lieder, topped by 'Stille Tränen' - one of Schumann's most devastating songs, laden with the burdens of depression and intense longing, to say nothing of the glories of its melody. Kaufmann built up to this song as the climax it needs to be - and can hardly help being, given its quality - and unleashed the full power of his exceptional dynamic control.

Some musicians' sounds, whether they are singers, violinists, pianists or anything else, strike us at what certain New Age types would call the Chakra points. The vibrations might strike us primarily at the top of the head, between the eyebrows, around the solar plexus, clean in the stomach or guts, and probably one or two other spots as well - but whichever is the case, it becomes irresistible, setting off goose-bumps in some cases, tears in others, or simply the sense of rising far from everyday predictability into something rare, more sensitive, more extraordinary, that carries us with it to some measure of the beyond. Suffice it to say that this song did that.

Dichterliebe - the ultimate Schumann cycle, to many - is a work much maligned and misinterpreted, despite its phenomenal beauty and the perfectionism of its writing. This is not Schubert; far from the innocence and tragedy of Die schöne Müllerin and the desperation of Winterreise, this is Schumann's take on a love story - won, then lost - as portrayed by the poet Heinrich Heine, master of double-edged irony. Some suggest, oddly, that Schumann ignored Heine's detachment and cynicism. Yet the composer was a highly literary individual, one as adept (or nearly) with words as he was with music, constantly inspired by the poetry and novels of German romanticism at its peak. Kaufmann and Deutsch's Dichterliebe was as much Heine as it was Schumann; Kaufmann's gifts as storyteller were to the fore, backed by the refulgent tones of Deutsch's pianism; this was delicate, close-sketched life-drawing, leaving an emotional impact as subtle as the poet deserves - not head-butting indulgence, but something far more nuanced and colourful.

After the interval came the Wagner Wesendonck Lieder, Kaufmann bringing to the world of solo song the composer with whom he is perhaps most strongly associated. Studies for Tristan? If the third and fifth songs are indeed, Kaufmann will (hopefully) be a Tristan to be reckoned with if/when he gets round to singing the role. For the time being, this was a Wagner incarnation as rare and insightful as the Dichterliebe was to Schumann: a fresh, convincing and unexpected take that made complete musical and poetic sense. These songs, usually larger than life with a mezzo and an orchestra, became intimate and transparent, but in a world of their own, distinct from the Schumann; Kaufmann's perfect Siegmund tone shone at its steel-and-caramel best.

For Liszt's three Petrarch Sonnet settings - oddly, better known in their solo piano versions -  Kaufmann turned Italian. Like a religious convert who becomes more zealous than those born into a faith, he can sometimes seem more Italian than the Italians. The sound of the words becomes not only the inspiration for the music - instead, the words are the music, the latter simply a manifestation of a soundworld that is already there in Petrarch's dazzling love poems. If Dichterliebe was a set of keenly observed charcoal sketches, the Sonnets were as gigantic and perfectly wrought as Michelangelo sculptures. Petrarch gives his all in these poems, Liszt follows suit and Kaufmann and Deutsch delivered in kind. One encore - Schumann's 'Mondnacht' - quietened down to an exquisitely controlled, half-lit cantilena in which - as often through the evening - you couldn't help wondering when he manages to breathe.

Most Jonas concerts involve a substantial quantity of encores, but this one didn't. Whether that was because it was a huge programme and he is saving himself for the small matter of Andrea Chénier rehearsals at the ROH, or because the audience mostly didn't stand up, then started to make its way out while he was taking curtain calls, is hard to say. The Wigmore is the finest concert hall in London by a long chalk, but it is a notoriously difficult place in which to get up and yell and cheer, which is what we'd have liked to do and which is what this performance deserved. Not wishing to embarrass my colleagues in Critics' Corner, I resisted the temptation. What a pity one feels one has to. I've seen a place as staid as Vienna's Musikverein go totally, utterly bananas over a Jonas-and-Helmut recital and the fact that that didn't happen in London says more about us than it does about them.

Je suis Charlie

This took place in London in tribute to the Paris murders of the Charlie Hebdo journalists and artists. I am away, but feel there in spirit. Watch the complete Barber Adagio played by 150 musicians in Trafalgar Square via the Classic FM link above.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Perturbed by Poppies
My interview with theatre designer Tom Piper from yesterday's Independent. The man behind the Poppies at the Tower is now doing Monteverdi's Orfeo at Covent Garden/The Roundhouse, but he had quite a few things to say about commemorations, crowds and critics. It made the News page.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Benjamin Grosvenor plays a very special piece...

Sinfini has just released this gorgeous video of Benjamin Grosvenor, that golden boy of British pianists, playing Granados's 'The Maiden and the Nightingale'. This piece is a big favourite of mine thanks to its presence in the Alicia's Gift concert; it used to be a staple recital item, but fell oddly out of favour somewhere between the early 1980s and wherever we are now. Lovely to see it coming back. Enjoy.

Over at Sinfini, I've provided an introduction to Benjamin, the piece and the performance, which took place at Leighton House.

Saturday, January 03, 2015


I'm doing a pre-concert talk at the Wigmore Hall on 26 January about three of Mozart's greatest string quartets, the last half of the six he dedicated to Haydn, which the Hagen Quartet will be performing that night. I've been swotting. And it's heaven.

If you listen to only one piece today, make it this: the slow movement of the C major Quartet K465, the 'Dissonance'. Here's the Ebène Quartet playing it. I find it deeply saddening that there are thousands, millions, of people in western 'democracies' who will go through their entire lives without hearing music of such phenomenal beauty because they've been taught to imagine that it is 'not for them'.

If you have never heard this piece before, I hope your day is lit from within by it. And if you know it well - likewise. Then please sit one person down and get them to listen to it too.

Thursday, January 01, 2015


A very happy new year 2015 to all our readers and friends everywhere in the world! 
With love from London.