Wednesday, December 28, 2016

JDCMB Top 10 Posts of 2016

1. Vivat Enescu, 23 May

George Enescu. Photo: Enescu Festival, Bucharest

This is my highest-scoring post ever. I think three-quarters of Romania must have logged on. Seriously, though, I'm delighted so many of you enjoyed discovering the life and work of this extraordinary musician, and if you went to see Oedipe, I hope you loved it as much as I did.

2. Meet Cecilia Bartoli, Opera's Renaissance Woman, 26 July
I enjoyed talking to the great Cecilia in a rather chilly trip to Salzburg.

The excellent Kathryn Stott has a very nice new post, taking over the artistic directorship of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville from Piers Lane. 

4. Chineke! Riding High, 5 September
The Chineke! Orchestra is not only a splendid multicultural force in classical music, but a truly excellent ensemble, drawing together BME players from all over the world and pulling together with a splendid unity of musicianship. 

How Murray Perahia and Bach saved my soul.

What it says.

If you were looking for good Christmas presents, they were here, and going like hot chestnuts.

8. Cold Light, 25 June
A large post-Brexit-vote post about its implications for the arts. This is not a pretty tale. Brexit is the biggest con-trick in the history of the British Isles.

Mark Wigglesworth stepped down as music director of English National Opera after not very long at all. A grim sign of the state of the place, and a major loss to London's musical life.

As a 60th birthday tribute to Krystian Zimerman, I re-ran an interview I did with him ten years ago for Pianist Magazine. 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The ultimate survivor

Zuzana Ružičková at home in Prague. Photo by jd
She survived disease, three concentration camps, communism and its associated anti-Semitism in Czechoslovakia, yet plays the most life-affirming Bach you could hope to hear.

My articles about Zuzana Ružičková are out now, one in the JC and one in the January issue of BBC Music Magazine. The interview transcript following my visit to her in Prague a couple of months ago runs to the length of a small book, so it was great to be able to write two different pieces (the BBCMM one containing more of the Bachy, harpsichordy material). The JC's is out this week and online now, here. You can order a copy of BBC Music Magazine here.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Here is a rare moment of harmony. 
Merry Christmas, Season's Greetings and many purrs.
And, I hope, a very happy new year 2017.
Much love to you all.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


Hello there, come on in. It's at my place, cyberversion, this year. None of us were in the mood for a cyberposhplace. I'm sorry to report that my mother-in-law, Gisela, died two days ago. She was 91 and had had a turbulent yet very good and very principled life. Aged 13 she was sent to Britain from Berlin on the Kindertransport in 1938; she never saw her parents and one of her brothers again as they were murdered in the Holocaust. She was tough, scrupulously fair, intellectually rigorous and an absolute brick in a crisis. We will miss her very much. Please toast her in some cyberbubbly.

This year has had more than its fair share of upsets and I'm afraid we can't expect anything to get better any time soon, so we'd better celebrate the good things while we can. It's the winter solstice and let me remind you that every year on 21 December we have the JDCMB Chocolate Silver & Ginger Stripes Awards to thank everyone who has made wonderful music in the last 12 months and helped to keep our spirits alive. It's good plain fun, the choices are entirely personal, it serves as a retrospective of the year and all you need is a smile and a willingness to enjoy some great music.

Quiet, please...quiet... thank you. First, a big round of applause for every musician who has touched the hearts of his or her audience this year. You're wonderful. We love you. Thank you for all your inspirational music-making.

Now, would the following artists please approach the platform where Ricki and Cosi are ensconced upon their silken cushions. They will let you stroke their chocolate and silver fur and are ready to give you each a very special purr. 

Yehudi Menuhin, whose centenary has been lavishly celebrated.

The incomparable Martha Argerich, whose Schumann Piano Concerto at the Royal Philharmonic's 70th anniversary concert I won't forget in a hurry. Here's some footage of her playing Liszt in 1966.

Please step forward, Renaud Capuçon: one of the finest advocates for the Schumann Violin Concerto. Thank you for bringing it the passion, virility and dignity it deserves in your performance with the LSO a few weeks ago.

Renée Fleming. Please don't go just yet!

Andris Nelsons. His Rosenkavalier is overriding pretty much everything right now.

The Munich Opera Festival, and not only because I got to say hello to a rather wonderful tenor at the last-night party. What a feast of treats this is: the greatest singers meet the most interesting and intelligent of productions and we can gulp it all down as greedily as humanly possible.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the thrilling young cellist who is now the BBC Young Musician of the Year.

Zuzana Ružičková, the only person ever to have made me fall in love with the harpsichord. She survived Terezín, Auschwitz, Belsen, the Czech communist regime and censure by leading lights of early music puritanism, but she is nearly 90 and her Bach - now released on CD for the first time, by Warner Classics - is the most radiant and life-affirming that I know. She is also my INTERVIEWEE OF THE YEAR. I have articles about her coming out shortly in tomorrow's JC, and another in BBC Music Magazine. I've met many inspiring people, but none more so than this remarkable soul.

Sadly, Patricia Kopatchinskaja in the Schumann Violin Concerto back in January. Just because Schumann was about to have his final nervous breakdown when he wrote it, that doesn't mean you have to play it as if you are the first Mrs Rochester.

Personal highlights:
PROUDEST MOMENTS: 1) Ghost Variations coming into being and being named Books Choice in BBC Music Magazine's latest issue (which is out tomorrow). 2) Performing Alicia's Gift with Viv McLean at the Wigmore Hall. 3) Roxanna Panufnik has finished composing the "people's opera" we've been writing together for Garsington, Silver Birch, and hearing it through for the first time was astonishing. She's produced some very beautiful stuff, it packs quite a punch and we hope you're going to love it when it hits the boards in July.

WEIRDEST MOMENTS: 1) In said Alicia's Gift concert, actually playing the piano in the Wigmore Hall. 2) The paper I'd written for for 12 years, which used to be a great national newspaper, decided to shut its print operation, sell its profitable offshoot and make a heap of people redundant. Discovering this by reading about it in another paper was pretty bloody weird.

Have a very happy Christmas, dear JDCMB readers, and may 2017 bring much music and joy.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Calling all Dartingtonites: here's the book we've been waiting for

I had many of my most important formative musical experiences at the Dartington International Summer School as a teenager and have never ceased to marvel at the thrill of its melting pot, its gorgeous surroundings, the virtually "sacred space" atmosphere inside the Great Hall and more. Its history is as astonishing as its music. Imagine my joy, then, on discovering that Unbound has taken on a new pictorial history of the summer school by the music journalist Harriet Cunningham. I've jumped in to contribute to its funding - I'll take the full-whack hardback, please! - and hope that all my fellow Dartington fans will consider doing so too. You can find it here.  All photos (c) the Dartington International Summer School.

Meanwhile, I asked Harriet what set her off on this wonderful project.

Stravinsky and his wife at Dartingon, 1957
JD: Please tell us something about your own experiences of the Dartington International Summer School? What do you think makes it such a special place?

HC: My experience of Dartington Summer School goes back way, way before I was even born. My parents met at Dartington sometime in the late '50s/early '60s. She was a student, he was a trog [Dartington's student-assistants]. So by the time I first came to Dartington, aged 4 months, in 1967, it was already in my blood. We continued to make the trip down the A303 then the M4 (once it was built) every summer. I am told that at the age of 4 I listened, transfixed, to the Amadeus Quartet playing Haydn and then demanded to learn the violin. It’s a nice story. I can’t remember it at all! My first memories of the Summer School are of wasps on danish pastries, rides on the Donkey and swimming in Aller Park pool. 

I do, however, remember sounds and artists and concerts. Like the sound of the choir warming up in the Great Hall every morning; like Jacqueline du Pré, beautiful and difficult, teaching cello; like being scared witless hearing ‘The Soldiers Tale’, and listening to the two pianists rattling out the orchestral accompaniment for the Schubert Mass. As I grew older I participated more - I sang in the choir, I worked in the kitchens, I trogged and, eventually, played in the orchestra for the conductor’s class, under the lovely Diego Masson. 

What makes Dartington special? I’ve thought about this a great deal. Of course, there’s the beauty of the surroundings, which everyone remembers, even if we gloss over the rain and grey skies in our memories. But I think it’s also to do with the mix of people, and with mixing people. There’s something about shoving a diverse bunch of musicians into a space and saying ‘play’ that can act as a catalyst for some amazing creative leaps. Or not. But there’s always the chance!

Benjamin Britten & Peter Pears at Dartingon, 1958

Why did you want to write a book about it?

I didn’t! I emigrated to Australia 25 years ago and felt happy to have left the Summer School behind me. But then it weasled its way back into my life when I was visiting my father and he showed me the archive, which he’s been curating for many years. It was quite an emotional experience, looking through all the old programmes, reading letters from artists and lists of bursary students. (All the usual suspects are there! Imogen Cooper, Simon Rattle, Stephen Hough...) My father was making plans to have the archive transferred to the British Library, and I decided that before it went I wanted to make something for my father to have, something to hold in his hands. Then, of course, I got completely sucked in by the many stories in the archive, and here we are... 

Janet Baker & Viola Tunnard, 1965
What aspects of its history have "jumped out at you” most strongly?

1950s Britain is fast becoming something of an obsession for me. Post-war Britain underwent a social, economic and intellectual revolution, and the Summer School, and Glock’s approach to music and education were very much part of that revolution. I’m also fascinated by the characters — Glock, of course, and people like Imogen Holst, Nadia Boulanger, Hans Keller and George Malcolm, so many others — who make up the story.

Which images have you most enjoyed discovering in the archives?

Silly, random things have caught my eye in the photos. The 1950s fashions — hats, gloves and, for men, jackets and ties at all times, except if you are violist Cecil Aronowitz, in which case you only wear shorts. The smoking - pipes and cigarettes. The posing, and the lack of posing. People often seem uniquely relaxed and expressive in the photos - as if being immersed in music and musicians allows you to be who you want to be. Perhaps that’s part of Summer School magic. 

I also enjoyed finding pictures with personal connections, although I don’t think I’ll ever forgive my mother for allowing me out dressed like that.

A very young Harriet in a violin masterclass with Roger Rafael

Monday, December 19, 2016

Rosenkavalier rising: an opera for our times too

Farewell? Renée Fleming as the Marschallin.
Photo: ROH Catherine Ashmore

When Der Rosenkavalier turns into a piece for our own times, you know two things: first, the director has a classic production in the making; secondly, we ourselves are in a lot of trouble.

Robert Carsen's staging at the Royal Opera House sets the action in the year Strauss composed the work, 1911. The empire is imploding in slow motion. Arms dealers are the moneyed arrivistes. Violence simmers under the surface, sometimes explodes. The Field Marshall's palace boasts crimson walls and giant, imperial-era paintings. Outwardly, all is elegance, beauty and shiny show, the Marschallin choosing Klimtesque gowns from a fashion parade and a troupe of "house-trained dogs" drawing oohs and ahhs (especially the bulldog and the borzois); and the silver rose is massive, not only a ton of silver but full of crystal sparkles. It's an artificial rose of the future, set against the living, delicate but doomed red ones the Marschallin cradles and sniffs. For underneath there lurks "degeneracy": a brothel-load of prostitutes in Schiele-like revelations, an Octavian who knows a lot more than he lets on, and sexual danger looming around Sophie from Ochs's troops (Sophie nevertheless startles her father and the importunate Ochs with new-found defiance). The palace reveals doors within doors within doors; every level conceals another.

Matthew Rose as Baron Ochs and Sophie Bevan as Sophie
Photo: ROH Catherine Ashmore

But this is a world on the brink. As the Marschallin delivers her reflections on the passage of time, a shudder of recognition goes through us. She is talking not only about ageing, but about the world itself, about everything that surrounds her. Yes, this is Renée Fleming's likely farewell to London's operatic stage, and yes, the Marschallin is no spring chicken, however fabulous she looks and sounds. The implications are much wider, though. At the end the place disintegrates, showing us the battlefield horrors of World War I - and soldiers aim a gun at a drunken child named Mohammed. The veracity of this imagery hits home so hard that one becomes fearful in earnest for where we are all going now. Remember, historical fiction isn't only about the past; its task is to be about today.

Fleming: glamour itself
Photo: ROH Catherine Ashmore
Big plaudits, then, to Carsen and his designers Paul Steinberg (sets) and Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes). The lighting is by Carsen and Peter von Praet.  Musically, too, this performance couldn't be much more memorable if it tried; even if not every singer precisely matches every listener's ideal, the quality of insight, the excellence of the singers and the chemistry between them could scarcely be bettered.

Fleming's Marschallin is the incarnation of olde-worlde glamour. Her voice still has its amber-mellow beauty, if perhaps scaled down from its full glory, and her singing communicates with profundity accentuated by its directness and poise. As Octavian, Alice Coote brings oodles of character to her tone as well as her acting; this lad is awkward and stiff in army uniform, yet abrupt liberation follows in Act III when, dazzling in drag in a brothel, he/she displays a startling understanding of how to tantalise and torment the justifiably muddled Ochs - and whether Octavian has learned all this from the Marschallin or acquired it elsewhere is perhaps a moot point. Sophie Bevan as her namesake sounds warm and golden rather than cool and silver, yet her high notes at the presentation of the rose seem to reach heaven itself.

Matthew Rose's Ochs is no mere bumpkiny boor, but a powerful man out for a good time that doesn't please those around him and tramples - Trumples? - over societal norms with disruptive relish. It's almost impossible not to feel vaguely sorry for him as "Mariandel" delivers him her nasty dose of over-worldly Viennoiserie. Luxury casting for Annina and Valzacchi in the shape of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke and Helene Schneiderman, as well as Faninal - the many-dimensional voice of Jochen Schmeckenbecher.

The greatest magic of all: Andris Nelsons, red-shirted, open-armed and open-hearted, unleashing the music and letting it fly out of the orchestra's players, hushing the levels for Fleming and allowing  the visual marvels to be cradled in a sensual richesse of sound.

It's hard to believe that this could be Fleming's farewell - but then, there's a lot that's hard to comprehend right now. She may be departing together with our golden age of opera. That's a topic for another time, but reinforces an important message: let's never forget we were lucky enough to have and hear this.

On a lighter note, a special little plaudit for a startling appearance in the onstage band of two characters that apparently reference "Geraldine" and "Josephine" from Some Like It Hot. A very endearing anachronism.

Meanwhile I may get up in the night and stop the clocks.

If you can find a ticket, go and see it. 

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Over to Daniel Barenboim

We're coming to the end of an insane year. Everything is polarised to lunatic fringe extremes, leaving the sensible, grown-up centre vacant. Is anybody talking sense any more?

Yes: Daniel Barenboim is. Here is his post-concert speech at the United Nations, where he and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra performed for Human Rights Day last weekend. Please listen carefully.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Everything's coming up Matthew Rose's...

I am running a new occasional series of exclusive star interviews on JDCMB. Here is the first...

Matthew Rose takes centre stage, appropriately enough, in the Royal Opera's new production of Der Rosenkavalier - and it's not going to be a pink, fluffy one. The British bass talks to me about Baron Ochs, Bottom and Brexit...

Matthew Rose rehearsing for Der Rosenkavalier, with Helene Schneiderman as Annina. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

If I’ve arrived at the Royal Opera House stage door expecting the kindly, bearded presence of a King Marke, I’m in for a surprise. The new version of Matthew Rose instead boasts sideburns, a hefty moustache and a military demeanour. The British bass may be as imposing as the Wagnerian monarch he sang last summer at ENO, but today he is still virtually in character from ongoing intense rehearsals for Covent Garden's new Der Rosenkavalier. Singing Baron Ochs, he remarks, settling into the tallest chair we can find, is “like doing seven operas at once”.

“Robert Carsen, our director, said just now that Baron Ochs is probably the most brilliant character ever invented in opera, with such bravado and such belief in himself,” Rose declares. People often see Ochs as a bit of a buffoon, he adds, but it’s not necessarily so: “He speaks French and Italian, he knows about the world, he’s very educated – but he happens to act in a way that is very different from everyone else in Vienna. He’s from a house in the middle of nowhere where he can behave as he wants, so that’s what he does and he comes to Vienna thinking he can get away with it there too: meeting his bride-to-be, with the Marschallin, who’s his cousin, he just says exactly what he wants to say. This staging has him as a soldier as well, though, so there must be some kind of discipline there. And he’s very entertained by himself. He’s a very entertaining character.”

Matthew Rose, with the former look
Entertaining the opera may be, and Ochs with it, but this time we can expect something a little edgier on stage. “I’ve done the role just once before, in Chicago, so I was trying to get all the words into my head,” Rose says. “That was a very traditional Rosenkavalier, very fluffy. Many of the productions you see are fluffy, very pink and lovely. This isn’t like that. This is definitely not fluffy.”

Carsen has set the production in 1911, the year of the opera’s composition, rather than the Mozartian era envisaged by Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. “It’s pre World War I, pre change of everything, Austria before everything went tits-up there: a very important time both historically and artistically,” says Rose. “It fits in very well with how things are here.”

Indeed, the primary purpose of historical fiction is arguably not only to explore a bygone era, but to reflect back crucial elements of our own through its prism – and this opera is no exception. Rose has little doubt that “things here” are about to go very tits-up indeed. On the morning the Brexit decision was announced, he made for Westminster with a takeaway coffee, expecting a demonstration in protest to materialise. He was astonished when it didn’t. “Why are we allowing this to happen?” he growls. “Brexit is going to ruin this country in a way I think people don’t understand. I don’t see how anybody could think any good could come out of it.”

Rose as Sparafucile in the ROH's Rigoletto
Photo: Johan Persson/ROH
At a recent press event Alex Beard, chief executive of the Royal Opera House, explained that Brexit has already hit the organisation hard because of the fall in value of the pound: the cost of paying many people in other currencies has risen 20 per cent. “It’s obvious how it’s going to affect us in the arts – it puts everything in peril that we do,” says Rose. “Our industry is in a terrible situation. This opera house thrives on people coming in and out internationally, very freely and easily, and doing things often on a very ad-hoc basis. Who knows what’s going to happen to that, and who knows what the pound is going to do? All these knock-on effects… In the US Trump can be voted out after four years, but I think the UK is in worse shape, as we’re stuck with the referendum result forever.”

Rose has a foot in both countries: he has been living more or less in mid-Atlantic, between New York and Blackheath, south-east London, for some years. Though he grew up in Seaford, five miles down the road from Glyndebourne, he came to the idea of professional singing relatively late.

“Singing has always been part of my life, though I didn’t take it seriously at first,” he says. “In my last year at school I was singing in the choir, but there were lots of other people doing things seriously and I wasn’t one of them. A new music teacher arrived at the school and he was the first person who suggested to me that I might consider becoming a professional opera singer. I’d never even thought about it before. Then I went to university at Canterbury and Benjamin Luxon and his wife were there and they took me to the next step.”

As Bottom in Glyndebourne's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo: Robert Workman
Attending a summer course in Italy, he met Mikael Eliasen, artistic director of the Curtis Opera Theatre at the Curtis Institute, who invited him to Philadelphia to audition. He spent five years there, though at first, he remarks, “it was quite embarrassing. I think I went in the same year as Lang Lang. He went in being already this world-class star and I was starting from scratch, so it was quite an intimidating situation.”

The department was relatively small, with around 25 singers, yet put on five operas a year, Rose recounts – a preparation for stage life more hands-on and intensive than most. His teacher was Marlena Malas, who was based at the Juilliard School in New York, and whom he still consults. “I had my lessons every Monday at five o’clock, looking straight across to the Met,” he remembers, “and whenever I did something wrong, she’d say: ‘Do you wanna sing there or not?’

He certainly did, especially after he started attending performances every week after his lesson. “The Met has always been a shrine to me,” he remarks. “Now I do two or three operas there a season and it’s a wonderful family to be part of. There are lots of friends around, people in the orchestra with whom I went to college, and I feel very at home there.”

His most recent Met stint was as Leporello in Don Giovanni: “Leporello is my favourite role in the world,” he declares. “He’s an amazing character. Da Ponte wrote some of the greatest librettos in history – as did Hofmannsthal – and Leporello’s journey through the opera, especially the second half, is just miraculous.”

After five years at Curtis, Rose felt “ready to go out and have a career”. Back in London he auditioned, and was accepted, for the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House. Next thing he knew, he was on stage with Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna and Bryn Terfel in David McVicar’s production of Faust. “At that point you have to up your game,” he considers, “and there’s no better way to do it than standing on stage with these people.”

Rehearsing the ROH's La Bohème. Photo: Yuri Vorobiev
Coming back to Covent Garden some 14 years later, he notes, it is hard to shake off the association – “up to a point I’m still ‘Matthew Rose who was on the Young Artists’ Programme…’” But now he has travelled full circle and himself coaches the young singers on the scheme: “It’s a nice role reversal. I feel so grateful for things that have been passed to me. We all absorb these things that we distill within ourselves and hopefully can pass them on again. I’ve done lots of teaching these past few years and I really enjoy that.”

To various teaching activities, Rose adds a strong commitment to the Blackheath Concert Halls near his London home: “I’ve been heavily involved in activities there for ten years – we’ve done wonderful community projects, started a children’s choir and have a new children’s opera commissioned for next year from Kate Whitley. I’d love to be part of making it into a really wonderful centre for the arts in south-east London, though of course it’s easier said than done…”

Another favourite London location is the Wigmore Hall: here he sings Schubert’s Winterreise in February 2017. And then there’s Schwanengesang a few months later at Carnegie Hall, New York. “How lucky am I to do that!” he remarks. “Schubert was my first great passion that really got me into singing, when I went to a Schubert Day at the Royal College of Music in his bicentenary year, 1997.

“I love Lieder, making music with one pianist, being in control of what one wants to do – whereas in opera one is told by many people what to do. And I love orchestral concerts. Of course I also love being on stage, but you’re compromising so much when you sing opera: you’re trying to do 17 different things at once and you’re rarely going to be satisfied. But I love standing there with an orchestra, making music. At the end of the day, I’m a musician and I love to make music. And if there’s a bit of acting or being a bit silly involved,” he adds, “that’s OK.”

Rose certainly has risen to fame with in roles that are comic, yet with an undertow of complexity: “I’m quite a silly person, so being on stage being silly comes quite naturally,” he suggests. Besides Leporello, he has been particularly lauded as Bottom in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at Glyndebourne and beyond; he will be singing the role at a new Aldeburgh Festival staging by Netia Jones in summer 2017. He is a long-standing devotee of Aldeburgh, having attended many courses there as a student and nursing a passion for the musicality and dramatic excellence of Britten’s operas. “Bottom in particular has been very good to me,” he notes.

One does sense, though, that underneath there is little about this perceptive and down-to-earth artist that is remotely silly. Even golf is a serious matter for him: “It’s not for unwinding,” he says. “It’s something I love to do well and in many ways it is like singing: concentrating hard, switching that concentration on and off.”

As for his dream roles that remain, those aren’t so silly either. “I’d love to have a crack at Philip II,” he says. “Gurnemanz in Parsifal will hopefully happen next year, and certain other Wagnery things would be nice… But I’m having the most incredible year at the moment, doing Leporello, Bottom and Baron Ochs, and the song recitals. I probably ought to retire after it! What I’ve done so far has far surpassed everything I ever dreamed of and I’m so lucky to have done what I’ve done. If I stop now, I’ve had a very nice time and a very nice career and maybe it’s time to go and have a very nice sleep.”

Now he really is being silly, or so one hopes. There is the whole of Der Rosenkavalier to look forward to, with a dream cast and Andris Nelsons in the pit: “There’s no one classier in the world than Renée Fleming,” Rose enthuses. “Alice Coote and Sophie Bevan I know very well, and it’s nice to be reunited with Jochen Schmeckenbecher [singing Faninal], who was in the first opera I ever did as a student in Philadelphia – it was The Magic Flute, I was a priest and he was Papageno.” As for Nelsons, “The orchestra sounds unbelievable with him. He’s got it all. This is the hardest role I’ll ever do,” he adds, “and everyone’s being so nice to me. It’s a huge honour and I’m very grateful for this situation.”

Curtain up is this Saturday at 6pm: and the appropriately-named Rose is set to be a cavalier of a whole new kind. Beg, borrow, or ninja a ticket.

Der Rosenkavalier, Royal Opera House, from 17 December. Book here.

Monday, December 05, 2016

An interview with Krystian Zimerman (reproduced with kind permission of PIANIST Magazine)

Speaking of Krystian Zimerman's 60th birthday, to celebrate I am posting below a feature I wrote about him for PIANIST Magazine in 2007. Time flies. I hope you enjoy it. JD

Krystian Zimerman. Photo: Hirochi Yamamoto/DGG

There aren’t many pianists today who can be thought of as cult figures, but Krystian Zimerman is one of them. Catapulted to fame on winning the Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1975, in the days when competitions still counted, Zimerman was instantly one of the hottest properties on the piano scene. And with the years and the decades, his artistry has kept on growing. A recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon found him becoming the only pianist to record with both Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein (the maestros were notorious arch-rivals) and his recordings of works such as the Chopin Ballades, Debussy Preludes and Ravel Concertos are regarded as definitive. Awards, acclaim and adoration seem to follow him wherever he goes.

Many musicians would be content with such stardom. But not Zimerman. His extraordinary personal standards have become ever more demanding – principally upon himself. He has a reputation for perfectionism, but this is rather an understatement. His ever-questing approach to music led him to form his own orchestra with which to tour the two Chopin concertos conducting from the keyboard back in 1999, the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death. He travels with his own piano, which he always prepares himself – he’s an expert technician. As for recitals, his programme planning can be a drawn-out process. When we spoke in mid-January, he was still working out what he will play for his Royal Festival Hall recital on 27 May. Pianophiles, for their part, would turn out to hear him play nursery rhymes.

Even so, don’t concert promoters jump up and down gnashing their teeth while they wait for his decision? “I don’t know about the teeth,” Zimerman quips, “and as for the jumping, it depends… Perhaps on the floor is my picture!” Much laughter. “I am really looking forward to playing in London,” he assures us. “I will give the best possible programme I can, and I have been working day and night on it for the past half year.”

Photo: Kasskara/DGG

The difficulty is, he says, that he’s planning programmes up to the end of 2010, taking account of several anniversaries – among them, Chopin, Liszt and Schumann – and trying not to duplicate pieces in locations where he’s played frequently, while also catering to halls to which he’s relatively new (he played in Portugal for the first time last year). “As you can imagine, there is a temptation to use in new venues some of the programmes I have played in the past; but I cannot, because the next concert is a place where I’ve played more than 60 concerts. I not only have to plan geographically, because of the piano transport, but also programmatically so that the pieces are being used in a sufficiently economic way. For every artist, our repertoire is our capital.”

Zimerman has designed a special van to transport his piano (“it breaks down every half an hour,” he grumbles) and has himself made a number of tools to lift, shift and shunt the three-legged giant. Some listeners are astonished to learn that he’s his own technician, but Zimerman gives a verbal shrug: “It’s a wooden box with strings, but it’s like a human being: you want to take care of it. Basically the point is to make my life a little easier. I used to play concerts in the 1970s and 1980s on different pianos and I would be fighting with the instruments, wondering why they were like this. As I was already working earlier on making spare parts, and in my free time I was making some money from this to survive, I learned how these parts are being made and how different they can be in various pianos. So when I play certain pieces that I know depend on a particular part of the mechanism, I’m trying to implement in my instrument a mechanism on which I don’t have to fight in order to achieve this quality.

“In the last five years I developed new methods that give me much greater freedom and variety. I am very proud of my Tokyo recital, which will be on DVD, containing Mozart, Beethoven, Ravel and Gershwin. These are four completely different ways of sound-making, four completely different ways of piano-playing, four completely different personalities, yet I managed to make a keyboard where I could play the whole programme to my own satisfaction. That was a tremendous success for me and it should be on the market within the next six months.”

A Zimerman recital is always an event – and a comparatively rare one. He has usually limited himself to 45-50 concerts per year, and in addition he’s had more than his fair share of health troubles. Pollution from the coal mines in his native Silesia left him prone to lung problems, and last year a leg injury forced the cancellation of an American tour. He has, moreover, strong views on the illicit recording of concerts by audience members, and various venues’ unwillingness or inability to prevent this has sometimes made him reluctant to return to them. But even if fans are occasionally left frustrated, such feelings evaporate when he does play – one bar in that pure-gold tone, one phrase turned with such wit, tenderness and wisdom.

Zimerman was born in Zabrze, a small mining town near Katowice, in 1956. The only child of an engineer who was a keen amateur musician, as a boy he took the piano for granted; he was startled, he says, “when I discovered that not every house has a piano”. He had only one teacher: Andrzej Jasinski, who was based at the music school in Katowice, to which town the teenage Zimerman used to commute by train at unearthly hours of the morning (he has nocturnal tendencies even today). Jasinski, he says, has recently been the subject of a documentary film: “It shows exactly what he is, so honest and without any poses, very natural.”

At 18, Zimerman was then the youngest pianist to have won the Chopin Competition, and as a Pole himself – and one who bore more than a passing physical resemblance to Chopin – he captured the public imagination immediately. His first recordings included LPs of four Mozart sonatas, the Chopin waltzes and the Brahms sonatas, which were all critically acclaimed – but he has never authorised their release on CD. Admirers of his white-hot, visionary interpretations of the Chopin sonatas waited with bated breath for the recording. They’re still waiting. But Zimerman, who says he’s currently finishing a disc of Szymanowski piano music that he began in 1991, drops a loaded hint that among three more CDs he’s planning for DG in the years ahead, the longed-for sonatas may yet materialise. “I think I finally figured out how to do this,” he remarks – adding wryly, “though I have been supposed to record them since 1975!”

photo: Kasskara/DGG
Another great Chopin pianist was a vital influence in Zimerman’s life: no less a figure than Arthur Rubinstein. Zimerman would go to play to him whenever the opportunity arose and says that he’s still benefiting from this legendary musician’s insights: “I find myself almost every day profiting from this period in my life and building on it,” he says. “There were things that I didn’t think of at that point as being possible; only now do I come to understand their full potential.”

On Zimerman’s studio wall hangs a drawing of Rubinstein by Jean Cocteau. “We went to have coffee in a little bar in Paris near the Avenue Foch and he was talking about many, many things. He was wearing a suit he hadn’t used for about 40 years. At some point he put his hand in his pocket to look for a handkerchief, found this piece of paper and almost cleaned his mouth with it! Then he unfolded it and said, ‘Oh, look, Jean drew this’. I was really stupid and didn’t know who ‘Jean’ was. He said ‘Jean Cocteau. You can have it,’ and gave it to me…”

The 25th anniversary of Rubinstein’s death fell last December. Zimerman well remembers that tragic evening a quarter of a century ago. “It was a terrible shock. I had a recital that day – of all pieces, I played the ‘Funeral March’ Sonata of Chopin, and it was one of the best performances I ever did of it. Two days earlier I had spoken to Rubinstein – I telephoned and he invited me to his house. But I had a slight flu and as I wouldn’t like to be the one he caught the flu from, I told him that I preferred to speak on the phone and I would come and visit him when I was next in Switzerland. Then, after the recital, someone came backstage and told me Rubinstein had died. I couldn’t speak for several hours. It’s been 25 years now, but you never really get used to this feeling. I can now think peacefully about it and I am glad he had such a great life. It contained enough to fill several human lives, with sense and with direction. Such a positive life, full of the wonderful joy of giving to people and sharing with them!”

In 1981, Zimerman and his wife, Maja, were away on tour when martial law was declared in Poland. They elected not to return and subsequently settled in the Swiss countryside not far from Basel, where they still live today with their two teenage children, Claudia and Ricki. Here Zimerman has built what appears to be an ideal life, home and workplace, with soundproofed studio, space for his plentiful archive of recordings and books, and panoramic views across the Jura mountains.

Nevertheless, he still finds travel stimulating. “You can find, when you go somewhere different, you suddenly have new ideas, you get inspired, you see things from another angle,” he says. He usually spends two months per year in Japan and the same or more in the States. “Often I don’t go out of my apartment, but the reason for being there is that my brain dares to think differently and I start to solve problems which I can’t solve sitting here with the most fantastic facilities.” You’re not unlikely to find him whiling away the evening in a late-opening bookshop in New York or Tokyo; he’s much saddened by the evaporation of his favourite US record stores due to Internet retailing and other, more pernicious issues.

But after 2009 you may not find him in America at all. He’s increasingly reluctant to visit a superpower where he feels much in politics and society has gone badly awry. For a while, he says, he won’t plan further tours there, beyond what’s already in the diary. “For the last seven years the political developments in this country have made me less and less motivated to go there. Maybe something will change in the next years, but at the moment I don’t feel comfortable with so many things in the States. I think if you don’t have the right motivation to do something, you shouldn’t do it. There’s an awareness that comes with age: you feel increasingly that you should start to be a grown-up and make a clear stand. I thought I should take the risk and start to act and speak what I feel.

“A lot of people think that when they choose the next president suddenly everything will be forgotten and the world will be fine. No. I think when the damage is done, first you have to undo the damage. You have to face the consequences and try to repair what was destroyed. Thousands of people were killed in a completely unnecessary war that was completely wrong, and it will just not do to change the president and pull out of the process there – it will not undo the damage. I think it needs much, much more. And so much tension has been created that this will sooner or later break out in the form of terrorism. I’m almost sure that in 20 or 30 years’ time we will think of this era not as a time of fighting terrorism, but a time of creating it, and President Bush will definitely be one of the persons, together with Mr Rumsfeld and a few others, who will have to take responsibility for this.”

Zimerman’s complex existence fortunately has room for fun as well as hard work and strong convictions. One of his great enthusiasms is ice-diving. What’s the attraction? “For me it’s the function of going into another world,” he says. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be terribly interesting. If you see sharks or whales it’s fantastic, but that isn’t the point. The whole sensation of getting into another physical surrounding where your body functions completely differently, where you have no portable phone and internet access, it’s already paying back the effort.” For many people, I suggest, listening to music has the same effect. “Exactly!” says Zimerman. “And maybe that’s why it’s such a joy for me, maybe that’s why I see a parallel here.”

And the fans flocking time and again to Zimerman’s concerts are in no doubt that that’s what his playing does for them. Zimerman carries us into another universe of sound, on a level that most others can barely imagine. All that perfectionism has only one aim: to produce maximum quality for his audience. Let him play anything, anywhere, under whatever conditions he demands; we’ll be there. Hearing him at the Royal Festival Hall in 1980 was one of my own formative experiences; it showed me that music was indeed a world all its own. Without that, I wouldn’t be here now, speaking to him. “What would life be without music?” says Zimerman. “My God…”

This article first appeared in PIANIST Magazine in 2007

Big birthday for Zimerman

Krystian Zimerman is 60 today. I send all my love and respect to this immeasurably great artist, a recital by whom was the revelation that first inspired the teenaged me to make music central to my life. And more recently, I will never forget having to be interviewer-foil to him in the pre-concert talk when he unexpectedly turned himself into a brilliant comedian and had the Royal Festival Hall rolling in the aisles.


Sunday, December 04, 2016

Top 12 Books for Music Lovers 2016

We all need a bit of escapism and there's still nowt like a good book to carry us away into another world. This has been a pretty interesting year for books about music, perhaps surprisingly so under the circumstances. A lot of them have crossed my desk and here is a selection of my personal favourites, with which you might like to fill your Christmas stockings.

Robert Schumann: Advice to Young Musicians. Revisited by Steven Isserlis
Faber & Faber

Cellist Steven Isserlis, a great Schumann devotee, has adapted the composer's slender volume of aphorisms for the budding musician and added thoughts of his own that amplify them for the 21st century. They are beautifully turned and succinctly expressed. "Nothing great can be achieved in art without enthusiasm," Schumann declares. Isserlis, noting that the business of music can sap that enthusiasm, responds: "That makes it all the more important, then, to remember why we wanted to be musicians in the first place: because music lives in our hearts. And we have to keep it there."

Schumann's Music and ETA Hoffmann's Fiction
John MacAuslan
Cambridge University Press

The former administrative director of the National Gallery, John MacAuslan, has produced a fascinating book (based on his recent doctoral thesis) about Schumann's relationship with the writings of ETA Hoffmann. The tales of Hoffmann pervade so much of the composer's early piano music - yet oddly seem not to be required reading for piano students - that no amount of exploration could ever be too much. Kreisleriana, for a start, will never sound the same again once you've looked into this. Bach, Beethoven and the writings of Jean Paul (on a novel by whom Papillons is based) are crucial figures too as MacAuslan traces, delicately and precisely, the thought processes of this most literary of composers.

Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music
Anna Beer

Ignore the first part of the title. Only a publisher could have added such a tag to a book about the struggles for recognition of those fine composers - from the 17th to the 20th centuries - who happened to be women and had always to contend with exactly such sentiments as "sweet". Anna Beer tells the story of eight fascinating figures, in different locations, eras and societies. She blasts apart some myths, too: Clara Schumann is shown on walks outpacing Robert, and the supposedly waif-like Lili Boulanger parties all night. And there's resilience all round, from Fanny Mendelssohn's grit-like determination to Elizabeth Maconchy as a young mum falling asleep at her piano. Now plenty of scope remains for a Volume 2, and hopefully many more.

Beethoven for a Later Age: The Journey of a String Quartet
Edward Dusinberre
Faber & Faber

The first violinist of the Takács Quartet takes us on a forensically examined yet often very funny ride through his musical life and his ensemble's, shining it through the prism of the Beethoven string quartets, a lifelong journey in themselves. Dusinberre was recruited as a young violinist from Britain by the three highly experience Hungarians of the quartet after Gabor Takács-Nagy departed, not least so that he could be shaped into the leader they wanted: "Asked by András [Feher] about my professional chamber music experience, I described the handful of paid concerts my student quartet had performed while I was at the Royal College of Music in London before going to Juilliard. A highlight was our appearance at a Downing Street Christmas party hosted by the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - from my account of this illustrious engagement I omitted my fifteen-pound fee and the fact that she had criticised our choice of too slow and lugubrious a tempo in 'Ding Dong Merrily on High'."

Franz Liszt: Musician, Celebrity, Superstar
Oliver Hilmes, trs Stewart Spencer
Yale University Press

The life of Franz Liszt springs off the page in Hilmes's well-turned prose - and what a topic it is, filled with characters larger than life and intrigues to match. Even if one might wish for more consideration of the music alongside the scandals and the soul-searching, Liszt can admittedly be tricky in this department because he was so desperately prolific. I'm inclined simply to suggest a lot of listening alongside the reading of this vivid and exact book.

Mozart's Music of Friends: Social Interplay in the Chamber Works
Edward Klorman
Cambridge University Press

The Juilliard professor and violist Edward Klorman explores the deeply civilised nature of Mozart's chamber music: the balance of conversational exchanges within the music and the cross-currents between the musical and the human at every level. In an age where the Enlightenment sometimes feels as if it must have happened to another planet, there is a lot to learn from the humanity and perfectionism in Mozart's music and the means by which it is achieved. This is one chiefly for the musicians, but its message can, should and does go further.

Music for Life
Fiona Maddocks
Faber & Faber

Most of us turn to music for support at emotionally challenging moments. In this personal selection of "music to see you through", Fiona Maddocks, music critic of The Observer, gives succinct thoughts on the emotional import of works ranging from the evident to the surprising, in categories ranging from humour to mourning. It's one of those short-sectioned, dip-in books, but Maddocks' writing is as exquisitely chiselled as the finest cut crystal and involves no need to ramble. Some of the pictures are fun (there's one of a car half-submerged in Venice's Grand Canal) and one wishes they could have been bigger and brighter. The book looks like a chocolate box, but its content is meaty.

Carols from King's
Alexandra Coghlan
BBC Books

One occasional measure of a really good book is the thought "how come nobody did this before?" This is the young critic Alexandra Coghlan's first book and she has homed in unerringly on what is probably the strongest untapped Christmas present market in the British musical sphere: the beloved Christmas service at King's College, Cambridge, of Nine Lessons and Carols. Here she gives more than a history of that event. This is really a history of the Christmas carol and indeed of Christmas itself, with engaging, objective and often subtly humorous writing.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology
Collected and edited by Melanie Spanswick
Faber Music

This one is for the pianists - the budding pianists, the lapsed pianists, the would-be pianists, and the piano teachers looking for ideas and motivation for their pupils. Melanie Spanswick brings together a delicious collection of short pieces carefully chosen according to progressive level, variety and concision, but happily non-dependent on exam syllabuses. For those who need new choices for practising and sometimes feel a bit daunted by the quantity of options, and unsure of their difficulty, it helps to solve the problem in one easy package. Choices range from Für Elise to a Satie Gnossienne and from a Fauré Romance sans paroles to a Snuffbox Waltz, no less, by Dargomyzhsky.

Mozart: The Man Revealed
John Suchet
Elliott & Thompson

Classic FM's splendid presenter and author of several tomes about Beethoven (including a brilliant three-volume novel), John Suchet has turned his hand to Mozart, bringing the dizzying talent, impossible father, roller-coaster life and heavenly music to life in his typically readable, direct style. With a big Mozart year ahead - the 225th anniversary of WAM's death - this is a timely book that should appeal across the board.

The Noise of Time
Julian Barnes

Scary for any smaller-time novelist to find a literary giant such as Julian Barnes producing a book based on the life of Shostakovich, but this is a wonderful creation: the writing is as concentrated as vodka as Barnes envisages, meditates and in a way deconstructs the psyche of his subject within the claustrophobic atmosphere of Soviet Russia. The image of the composer waiting daily with his suitcase, expecting deportation, is very difficult to shake off.

1847: A Chronicle of Genius, Generosity and Savagery
Turtle Bunbury
Gill Books

Not a music book per se, but if you love to put music in context, you might find it irresistible. The Irish historian takes us on a rollicking journey through the international upheavals, inventions, conflicts, famines, personalities, beginnings and endings from January to December of one year. It's a cumulative portrait of a world in flux, taking in the rapprochement between a German explorer and a Native American tribe as well as circus presentations, the founding of the Mormon Church, the writing of "Oh, Susanna!" and the death of Felix Mendelssohn - and the mysterious did-they-didn't-they relationship between that composer and the "Swedish Nightingale" Jenny Lind. (Incidentally, a thorough study of the evidence by George Biddlecombe, published in the Journal of the Royal Musicological Association, has concluded that they probably did.)

[And if, after all that, anyone still wants to read Ghost Variations, you can get the e-book from the link in the sidebar or order a paperback, for which please visit the book's Facebook page for further details...]