Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Authentic Korngold to raise the Proms roof

Last Saturday night, I left the Royal Albert Hall after the debut Prom of the Sinfonia of London and started down the slippery slope to South Kensington tube station. Moments later I stopped, because I'd realised I was, rather uncharacteristically, shaking all over. 

What induced this state was an extraordinary concert by an orchestra that hasn’t performed for more than 60 years, reconvened and conducted by John Wilson. Their programme was of works that can thrill and terrify in equal measure: Johann Strauss, Berg, Ravel’s La Valse, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Symphony in F sharp.

John Wilson conducting the Sinfonia of London
photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou


Thirty-five years after I first fell in love with Korngold’s music, 30 after seeing with horror how loathed it was in certain quarters of the music world, and a quarter-century since my compact biography of him was published, I’d finally witnessed his Symphony – a tragedy-laden, post-war howl of pain – receive the performance it deserves. The Times review has now gone the whole way, hailing it as a masterpiece.


The Symphony was completed in 1952 (it took him a while) and premiered on Austrian radio in 1954. The short version of the story is that it wasn’t successful. Then Mitropoulos wanted to perform it - he called it ‘the perfect modern work’ – but died before he could do so. It wasn’t played in concert until 1972, in Munich, under Rudolf Kempe. 


Saturday wasn’t the first time it’s been performed in the UK, far from it, but it’s the first time that I have heard it sound as it can and should. Such was Wilson’s hold on its architecture that there was no mistaking its staircases and supporting walls, nor any chance of them succumbing to the rising damp of technical imprecision. His scherzo was fast, light-footed and ferocious as an orchestral cheetah, the adagio as carvernous and profound as the catacombs; and his hand-picked performers were virtuosi enough to carry off a sort of orchestral Olympic gold (a sample: Adam Walker on first flute, Juliana Koch on first oboe, Thomas Gould playing no. 3 first violin, Peter Moore as first trombone; the list carries on).



So easy to love?


The Symphony is not an easy work to love. No warm, cuddly, Czech-Viennese Korngold here, guzzling fine goose-liver or chocolate cake. It’s totally of its time and place: the structures of the classic symphonists, the expected playing standards of the Vienna Philharmonic, but also the emotional condition of someone torn from his whole world and flung seven thousand miles around the globe into a new life where material success never once meant real happiness. Someone struggling to save his family and friends, witnessing destruction on an unimaginable scale. Someone bewildered to find himself facing, in turn, racial prejudice, survival necessity and artistic snobbery; someone who’d watched everything he had been born into swept away forever by World War II. 


The music is bitter, sometimes furious, sometimes ironic, sardonic or surreal, its malleable tonal centre (F sharp doesn’t mean F sharp major – anything but) with more than one toe in German expressionism. Occasionally a big punchy motif – try the horn call in the scherzo’s trio – prefigures the sounds of John Williams, like the New York skyline glinting into view over a choppy ocean. It’s three parts Fritz Lang to one part Steven Spielberg. It is not nostalgic or schmalzy in any way, shape or form, even when the emotion knocks you for six. You may not like it; it’s not necessarily meant to be likeable. But at least if you still don’t like it after you heard this performance – or the award-winning CD that the SoL and Wilson have made – you can rest assured that you’ve given it a fair try and are responding to the work, and not just to the way it was played.


So what went right at the Prom that doesn’t usually? And what’s gone wrong before?



The trouble with Korngold


The first trouble with Korngold is that his music is so damnably difficult to play. Growing up as a child prodigy in Vienna, he was accustomed to astronomically high standards. He had the ear of Mahler at nine and Strauss by 15 (until his critic father ruined that for him). He was surrounded by the crème-de-la-crème of Europe’s great musicians and knew he didn’t need to make their lives easier. He wrote a violin sonata for Carl Flesch and Artur Schnabel when he was 14, a one-act opera (Violanta) for Maria Jeritza at 16-17, Die tote Stadt for Jeritza and Richard Tauber, premiered when he was 23. Conductors? He expected someone on the level of his neighbour, Bruno Walter. Frankly, if we give him instead – er, one of a few I can think of, we’re asking for trouble. 

Marietta's Lute Song from Die tote Stadt


Korngold is, moreover, a control freak: often he writes out the rubato exactly as he wants it to sound. I once counted the changes of time signature in the slow movement of his Piano Quintet – I think there were 57. Or possibly just 54. If you play what he writes, you provide the sound he wants. The audience hears a flexible, satiny, well-oiled ebb and flow that breathes and rests and intensifies. The musicians, though, are probably breaking quite a sweat over the mathematical exactitude that such freedom entails. 


They may also be doing their nut over poorly-prepared parts. A new complete Korngold edition is mercifully underway now, but previously some of the trouble with e.g. Heliane has been that the originals were so badly presented. There was even a theory that in the 1920s there may have been deliberate sabotage by an (or some) anti-semite(s) who made the music as illegible as possible and even mis-wrote the then very famous composer’s name as Kornfeld. (They did. I’ve seen it.)


Once you can read what’s on the page, there’s another issue. This music is full of expression and feeling. Recognising this, some musicians, with the best of intentions, ladle on still more of it in great hot-caramel dollops. If you do that, it overbalances, goes soggy in the centre, loses momentum, loses direction, and sometimes falls to bits. It turns into the schmalz that people came to expect it to be because they know Korngold ended up in Hollywood - but it is not, it was never meant to be, and if it sounds that way, something is very wrong. As the composer’s father, the critic Julius Korngold, wrote at the start of the 20th century, the ‘modern’ was all about expression. In 1910 his son was therefore as modern as modern could be. Hollywood Schmollywood. I can’t put it better than John Wilson himself, who said to me in an interview: ‘The last thing you want to do with Korngold is pour chocolate sauce all over it.’ 


A few years ago I wrote a ‘Building a Library’ article for BBC Music Magazine about the Beethoven ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata. I listened to around 50 recordings, but found that a surprising number of pianists played it reverentially, every note a precious gem wrapped carefully in cotton wool. The one I loved the most played it, instead, like a huge, wise, quirky, brilliant, firebreathing dragon awakening (it was Peter Serkin on a fortepiano). How many others, I wondered, were playing not the music, but their expectations of it? Their attitude towards the music, one of reverence and fear? 


Korngold’s music has been open season for this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Exploring recordings of the Korngold Violin Concerto for Radio 3’s equivalent feature (some years ago) it sounded much as if some of the artists, thinking the music is chocolate sauce, thought they should pour on even more. Swooning is expected, schmalz encouraged: that old Hollywood prejudice hangs over performers who have probably never even seen the films with Korngold scores – let alone heard him conducting on the soundtracks, a great clue to his genuine style, which is dynamic and sweeping enough to whoosh you clear off your chair. So, too is the recording of Heifetz in the Violin Concerto, live in Carnegie Hall, 1947: no swooping or splurging, but virtuosic, eloquent, heroic, idealistic. 


Interpretations can end up skewed, sometimes for the sake of received opinion, and if the music isn’t well known, then if it is poorly delivered nobody knows any better. Without top-notch performances, the impression is given that the music isn’t good, not that the playing might perhaps be responsible. This is quite often the fate of composers who are being rediscovered. In many instances, it’s only when they have come on to the radar strongly enough that the top musicians – or their record companies – will jump in and do them justice. 


The quantity of vicious abuse I’ve seen directed at Korngold over the last three or four decades is mind-boggling. But now, here’s a really great performance of the Symphony and suddenly... The Times critic, Rebecca Franks, writes:

It emerged here as a staggering masterpiece: brooding, biting, anguished, mourning, soul-stirring. Played with the high-octane approach so familiar from the John Wilson Orchestra’s Hollywood film and musicals Proms, the symphony seared itself in the mind. No surprise, perhaps, given that the Sinfonia of London made its recording debut with this work. Yet hearing it live, in all its emotional intensity and ferocity, was another experience entirely.



Striking a chord


I’ve sometimes wondered if perhaps the composers whose music can appear most closely related to their life stories stand the best chance of cutting through to the public upon discovery or rediscovery. Weinberg, for example, and indeed Korngold, are possibly easier ‘to get a handle on’ than certain figures among their more-or-less contemporaries who wrote marvellous music yet kept it wholly detached from their personal circumstances, such as Hans Gál and Szymon Laks. I’ve loved everything I’ve heard by both the latter; if they are winning through now, it’s because of the assiduous championship of some very devoted performers. Hopefully it will continue, but I wonder if this may partly explain why it’s sometimes seemed more of an uphill struggle.


Still, there’s a danger mark over which parts of Korngold’s story are remembered. For decades he was vilified for having gone into film music, but does one really have to spell out why he did so? Korngold was Jewish in Vienna. After the Anschluss in 1938, had they not escaped, he and his family would have been deported to a concentration camp and murdered. 


His astute colleague Max Reinhardt, the theatre director, invited him to Hollywood in 1934 to arrange Mendelssohn’s music for his film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and introduced him to Warner Bros. He had the perspicacity to accept their commissions and to apply for American citizenship in 1936. Warner Bros saved the Korngold family’s lives. The Korngolds were, in the grand scheme of things, ‘lucky’.


The fact that he escaped with his life did not prevent exile from being painful, or the job of film music ultimately unsatisfying. When the films disappeared from the cinemas, so did his music. This is why he recycled so much of it into concert works – though that’s complicated by the fact that many of the ideas in his film scores originated from notebooks he had kept years earlier in Vienna, before Hollywood was ever a glint in anybody’s eye (try this: the main theme from The Adventures of Robin Hood can be found in waltz form in his completion of Leo Fall’s operetta Rosen aus Florida, 1925). 


The problem changed a little when television became ubiquitous. For years, those films remained in wide circulation on TV: The Sea Hawk and The Adventures of Robin Hood brought Korngold’s name and soundworld to generations of viewers. No wonder people associated him with film music – especially when his concert works and operas were being performed very little in the mid-century. A few recordings won through in the ‘70s: Kempe conducting the Symphony, Leinsdorf’s Die tote Stadt, for instance, but it’s fair to say that these were a tad niche. 


Korngold was therefore being remembered as ‘a Hollywood composer’, rather than as a Jewish composer in exile who, after the war ended, must have seen the film footage from the liberation of Auschwitz. The degree of that shock and agony is unimaginable to most people sitting in concert halls today. (Michael Haas, author of Forbidden Music, has explored the issue of cultural loss in depth here.) 


My copy of Die tote Stadt, piano score
sourced from Travis & Emery in 1987


A little knowledge is a dangerous thing… 


When I was a student 35 years ago, the faculty spent plenty of time drumming into us that a composer’s music has nothing whatever to do with his/her/their life experience: works were to be considered solely on their own terms, regardless of their creator’s history. This is the diametric opposite, of course, of my speculations about which music chimes with the public when neglected composers come out of the woodwork. 


Again, it’s a massive generalisation, a trawler-net in which some pretty big tuna are left flailing. Nobody who knows any composers personally could think that (as some clunky biopics would have it) they just sit down and write a piece that expresses his/her/their immediate, overt experience or state of mind. Some might have, sometimes: for example, a Robert Schumann who wrote so intensely that he could draft a whole piano work in just a few days - but that’s the exception. There are many, the Gáls and Lakses for instance, who deliberately keep their work and their lives separate. Or to quote (or misquote) a line of Nina Raine’s play Bach and Sons, Sebastian says rather tetchily: ‘Of course there are emotions in my music – just not my emotions.’


In between, there’s infinite middle ground. Try Beethoven. Sometimes what he didn’t write can tell us a little bit about how he did, when he did. He had notably scant output in 1817, something often attributed to his personal state of mind, body and preoccupations at the time: illness, depression, trying to adopt his nephew, and so forth. Look a little closer, though, and you see what was actually going on in 1817: the noxious mix of Napoleon’s rampaging return, the 1816 Indonesian volcanic eruption which produced a ‘year without a summer’ in Europe with crop failure leading to massive food shortages, runaway inflation… It’s a wonder that anybody managed to write any music at all. 


You can take composers out of their times, but… We’re all subject to the buffeting of history, like it or lump it, and composers perhaps more so than most, since their work is widely expected, despite all that detachment, somehow to distil their zeitgeist into sound.


Each note on a page is a choice by the person who put it there; each person will present a different, individual set of responses. One size doesn’t fit all. And essentially, music is a human creation. It doesn’t write itself. 



…wildest dreams…


When I set about my university dissertation on Die tote Stadt in 1986, I can’t say I ever expected to see it on stage, let alone at the Bavarian State Opera by Marlis Petersen, Jonas Kaufmann and Kirill Petrenko. I’d heard just one, rather muddy recording of the Symphony. I knew nothing of Das Wunder der Heliane except the one famous aria, ‘Ich ging zu ihm’; I never imagined I’d give the pre-concert talk for its UK premiere and, since that performance wasn’t a massive success (it didn’t fit inside the hall and the chosen solutions did not work) the recent production at the Deutsche Oper Berlin was beyond my wildest dreams. 


But here we are, it’s 2021 and the Symphony has raised the roof. Korngold fanatics from all over the country came to London to hear it. The recording (on Chandos) has been winning prizes. There will still be people who don’t like the piece, but that’s natural: nobody can like everything and no one should be expected to. The crucial thing is that with such a performance, the composer has the best possible chance of getting his music to us across time, space and dimensions. And we can hear it, at last, as it really is, because Wilson knows the style inside out, understands what to do with it and has an orchestra that can play it properly. (Catch it on TV on BBC4 on Thursday evening, or afterwards on the iPlayer.)


Next…can we perhaps plead with ENO to stage Die tote Stadt with Wilson conducting? I’m sure somebody could make a good, singable translation [raises hand]. It is to be featured at the Longborough Opera Festival next year – its first hearing in the UK since a slightly uninspiring outing at Covent Garden about 13 years ago, even though it is all over Europe these days. 


Finally, I’m daring to dream. 


Sunday, July 04, 2021


If you've been following JDCMB in the past, you'll know I've been blogging for a long time. 17 years. The climate back in 2004 was very different. All this online stuff was new, thrilling and full of hope. I was still in my thirties and didn't seem to have anything to lose, so I just bounced into the Wild West that was the Internet and found it was fun.

This past pandemic time hasn't been easy for anybody, of course, but it does focus the mind a little. I am doing many more different things now than was the case in 2004. I am also a bit older, and if not wiser, then less energetic. I have to prioritise paid work and when I found I was so busy writing back to people saying 'sorry, I haven't got time to cover your project in my spare time for free', and the reason I didn't have time was because I was writing so many 'sorry I haven't got time' messages, something had to give.

In the end the only reason to do unorganised, unmonetised blogging is if it's fun. And I'm sorry, but it isn't fun any more. Frankly, it's a millstone. It's a monster and it rejects low-calorie food. So I'm stopping. I might pop back from time to time, to fulfil a commitment or whatever, but it's not going to be remotely regular and might indeed migrate elsewhere.

What am I doing? Writing about music. If you've enjoyed reading JDCMB, you might enjoy some of my books, articles and reviews. I currently contribute to the i, the Sunday Times, BBC Music Magazine, the JC and various online outlets like Udiscovermusic and The Arts Desk. Links to the books are in the sidebar. I have two very nice music book projects in the works at the moment: a centenary book for the London Chamber Orchestra, and a biography I've always wanted to write, that of Dame Myra Hess. Opera librettos: watch out for the next operas at Garsington with John Barber this month and with Roxanna Panufnik next summer. And the narrated concerts, or concert dramas, or words&music, whatever you want to call them, are very much up and running: Bach at Deal Festival next weekend, Beethoven at the British Library's theatre in the winter, and more. 

So it's not goodbye, but it is definitely 'over and out'.

Thank you for reading JDCMB.


Thursday, April 15, 2021

Down under, but not out: the Australian Festival of Chamber Music is coming soon to a computer near you

The Australian Festival of Chamber Music gets into gear...
Photo: Andrew Rankin

The pandemic is reaching the point at which we almost don’t dare to plan ahead at all, for fear of hopes being dashed yet again. If you are the director of an international festival, though, you can’t really afford to think like that. You have to hope and plan for the best, while also being prepared for the worst, doing all you can to anticipate likely troubles and short-circuit them before they happen. The Australian Festival of Chamber Music is a case in point.

I’d hoped to go last year, but of course that proved impossible, and the initial rescheduling for this year bit the dust when the organisation reluctantly but necessarily took the step of revising the schedule to use only those artists already in Australia, rather than importing the large contingent of “internationals” as originally planned. This weekend – starting tomorrow, Friday - they’re holding a three-day online festival to showcase a few of those internationals and bring their devoted audience some delicious musical offerings, even if not quite on Orpheus Island yet.

Kathy Stott at Orpheus Island in 2018
Photo: JD

The festival’s artistic director for the past few years has been the British pianist Kathryn Stott, and the Covid-19 reshuffles have chiefly landed in her inbox. She was to be handing over to the incoming new director, violinist Jack Liebeck this year, but when her last festival had to be postponed, Jack gallantly offered to defer taking up his appointment too, allowing her to go out in style.

“It was really generous-spirited of him,” Kathy says, “and I’m very grateful.” Whether she can be there herself, though, is still in question: the borders of Australian states have been closed very quickly at various times during the pandemic and with international travel all but impossible, Kathy has had essentially to write herself out of the programming to be on the safe side.

Cheryl Barker
Photo: Keith Saunders

Keeping the musical schedule as planned as far as humanly possible, she has reassigned the pieces she would have played to other pianists, drafted in the presenter Russell Torrance from ABC to conduct the morning musical chats with festival artists that are a regular and extremely popular part of the proceedings, and as hosts for the evening concerts, Australia’s operatic “golden couple”, Cheryl Barker and Peter Coleman-Wright, will be on location (I’m delighted that Cheryl will also take over my script for the Immortal Beloved concert, though am of course sick as the proverbial parrot about not being there in person). An unexpected bonus that’s arisen from the state of international travel is that Piers Lane, who was artistic director for 16 years before Kathy, is spending most of this year in Australia and will be returning to AFCM for the first time since standing down from the post.

“As far as I’m concerned,” Kathy declares, “it is still Beethoven’s anniversary year, it is still the Goldner String Quartet’s 25th anniversary and although I’ve had to pull out the odd piece here and there, the festival is still its whopping, ginormous self!”

It was certainly whopping and ginormous when I went in 2018. Glittering seas, palm trees, Australian wine under the stars, the best seafood ever and a wonderfully convivial atmosphere among the large team of performers, to say nothing of the audience and the devoted festival Friends who come to absolutely everything – it was the festival of a lifetime. “That was a wonderful year for building new friendships and musical relationships,” Kathy says, pointing to several new associations among her colleagues with invitations to Norway, new commissions for some of the composers from various performers and plenty more to look forward to when “all this” is finally over.

The online Festival Overture from 16 to 18 April brings music from morning til night, as is always the case at the main AFCM, and features three special recitals from musicians based in London, where they are being streamed from the Voces8 Centre: Jack Liebeck and Katya Apekisheva, Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton, and husband and wife duo Alexander Sitkovetsky and Wu Qian. These events can be accessed via the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall’s site, which is partnering with AFCM for the occasion (you’ll need to buy tickets). Morning and lunchtime concerts feature artists who will be appearing at the festival in August, plus a special performance by Kathy herself. Meanwhile you can feast on South Pacific travels from the comfort of your own home through the Destination Dreams videos of the landscapes around Townsville, Far North Queensland and the surrounding islands. Find the full schedule here.

I’ll be writing more about AFCM in the run-up to the 2021 festival, so do stay tuned, and keep your fingers firmly crossed that everything can go ahead as intended when we finally reach August.

Booking for AFCM2021 is now OPEN and you can find this, along with full details of the programme, here:

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Playlist for IMMORTAL

When Immortal was published last October, I made a playlist to go with it on Apple Music. This was originally intended for the subscribers to the novel. As they've now had exclusive access to it for quite a few months, I'm happy to open it up to interested readers. It's a substantial quantity of music, lined up in the order you'll need it. Below is a list of which pieces go with which chapter. Hope you enjoy it.

The pieces are by Beethoven, unless otherwise indicated: I have included pertinent works by Mozart, Marianna Martines, Schubert and Schumann. Wherever possible they illustrate events in the book. In the instances where they are not directly connected to the narrative’s timescale, they should illuminate particular points, such as the “Josephine” motif, a similarity between two different works, or a dedication e.g. to Count Razumovsky. 

Mostly I’ve chosen one movement of a work - in the hope that you’ll want to source and listen to the rest as well. For some of the crucial piano sonatas, however, I’ve included the whole piece. It was, after all, by playing the piano sonatas that our narrator, Therese, would have best known Beethoven’s music. I’m sending herewith a list of which works go with which chapters.


There’s a lot of piano music here, so I’ve selected several different recordings. For the early sonatas, we have András Schiff’s live recording - not least because he is one of few to play the entire first movement of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata as indicated, in one long pedal. For the ‘heroic’ period and the final trilogy, we have Daniel Barenboim and for the ‘Hammerklavier’ the magnificent recording by Murray Perahia. In the Andante Favori I picked Mari Kodama for her clear, Josephine-like phrasing.


The utterly splendid Takács String Quartet perform all the quartet extracts - and as I’ve named the Brunsvik family coachman after them, it seems only fair. The Cello Sonata in A major is played by Miklós Perényi (cello) and András Schiff (piano). The symphonies are variously represented in a classic recordings by conductors including Carlos Kleiber, Iván Fischer and Claudio Abbado; the latter also conducts the Piano Concerto No. 3 with the one and only Martha Argerich. The Beethoven songs are from a recording by baritone Matthias Goerne and pianist Jan Lisiecki in a recording released for the Beethoven 250th anniversary in 2020. As for Fidelio, from which extracts appear at various points, this is conducted by Abbado with Nina Stemme as Leonore and Jonas Kaufmann as Florestan, a performance filled with ‘namenlose Freude’. 


I hope you enjoy the mix of reading and music.

IMMORTAL: Playlist



24 Variations on ‘Venni amore’ by Righini



Marianna Martines: Cantata ‘Il nido degli amore’ - aria ‘Sarà più dolce assai’



Piano Trio Op. 1 No. 1

Eleven Dances WoO 17 No.1 - Walzer



Piano Sonata in D, Op. 10 No. 3, 2nd movt

Mozart Fantasia in F minor for mechanical organ, 3rd movt



Piano Sonata in E flat, Op. 7, 1st movt
Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 13,  ‘Pathétique’, 2nd movement

Variations for piano duet on ‘Ich denke dein’



Septet in E flat, Op. 20, 1st movt

String Quartet in F, Op. 18 No. 1, 2nd movt

Piano Sonata in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2, Moonlight, 1st movt



Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, 1st movt

Piano Sonata in E flat, Op. 31 No. 3, minuet



Symphony No. 3 in E flat, ‘Eroica’, 1st movt

Andante Favori

Sonata in C, Op. 53, Waldstein, complete



‘An die Hoffnung’, Op. 32



Fidelio - ‘Abscheulicher’ 

String Quartet in F, Op. 59 No. 1, 1st movt



Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 57, ‘Appassionata’, complete



Cello Sonata in A, Op. 69, 1st movt



Piano Sonata in F sharp, Op. 78 ‘A Therese’, complete



Für Elise

Fidelio - ‘O namenlose Freude’

Piano Sonata Op. 81A ‘Das Lebewohl’, 3rd movt



String Quartet Op. 95, 3rd movt



Symphony No. 7, 2nd movt



Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastoral’, 2nd movt

Fidelio - ‘O welche Lust…’

Fidelio - ‘Gott, welch’ Dunkel hier’


Piano Sonata Op. 90
String Quartet Op. 59 No. 2 



Schubert: ‘Erlkönig’

Piano Trio in B flat, Op. 97, ‘Archduke’, 1st movt



‘An die ferne Geliebte’ - No. 6, ‘Nimm sie hinn denn, diese Lieder’



Piano Sonata in B flat, Op. 106, ‘Hammerklavier’, 1st movt



Schubert: ‘Death and the Maiden’

Piano Sonata Op. 109 3rd movt

Piano Sonata Op. 110 (complete)

Piano Sonata Op. 111 (complete)



Symphony No. 9 4th movt

Grosse Fuge



Schumann: Fantasie in C, Op. 17, 1st movt




Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Putney Music Interview...

We are extremely grateful to the brilliant team of Putney Music, the long-running and much-loved local organisation that presents interviews with the great and good of the music world and who this week decided Tom and I might be a fun double-act addition to the roster. 

As the events can't be held in the usual way with stage and live audience, it's all gone online. Andrew Neill (not to be confused with Andrew Neil) asked the questions over Zoom and we responded, aided and abetted by Ricki the cat, from the study. Tom talks 35 years with the LPO, plus Bavarian State Opera, Denmark and Buxton, and I was permitted to indulge my nerdiest passions, including Korngold and golden-age piano playing. There are musical extracts from Korngold himself, Dame Myra Hess, Solti, Tennstedt, Glyndebourne and Carlos Kleiber, and more. 

You can watch it here:

Putney Music: Thomas Eisner & Jessica Duchen talk to Andrew Neill from Win Carnall on Vimeo.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Muesli for breakfast

Yesterday I had my first Covid-19 vaccination. Everyone said I’d feel odd afterwards, perhaps with a headache and exhaustion, but I was absolutely fine. 

Early this morning, my husband and I were at the breakfast table having coffee and I went to pour myself a bowl of fruity muesli. Our preferred fruity muesli is sold in plastic bags, so to stop spillages we decant it into a Tupperware box, which was on the other side of the kitchen. As this box was nearly empty, from a cupboard containing several bags of cereal I retrieved a fresh pack, opened it and poured one helping into my bowl and the rest into the Tupperware box. 


Then, however, I realised there were no raisins in it, and no almonds either. I had inadvertently poured porridge oats into the fruity muesli’s Tupperware box. I’d wanted to eat fruity muesli, but since I’d opened porridge instead, I thought ‘oh well,’ tipped my bowl of oats into a saucepan to make porridge, then took a large blue freezer bag from a drawer and prepared to pour the rest of porridge oats into it, so that I could instead fill the Tupperware box with fruity muesli.


‘Hang on,’ said my husband, ‘we can use the Tupperware box for porridge oats instead of muesli.’ That seemed sensible. I put the large blue freezer bag back in the drawer and fetched milk to pour into the porridge saucepan. ‘But if you want muesli, you can just put those in with the other porridge oats,’ my husband said. I put the milk away and poured the porridge oats from the saucepan back into the Tupperware box. 


Now we remembered that there had been a little bit of muesli that was not so fruity any more at the bottom of the Tupperware box before I filled it up with what I thought was fruity muesli but was actually porridge oats. ‘It’s OK to use muesli as porridge, or to eat porridge oats as muesli – isn’t it?’ said my husband. We thought about it for a minute, because there may be some kinds of oats that you are supposed to cook first and we were not certain. 


‘Here, I’ll do it,’ said my husband. I went back to the table and my coffee. My husband took the large blue freezer bag from the drawer and began to pour the porridge oats from the Tupperware box into it, which was what I’d been going to do in the first place.  


Suddenly, a noise and an exclamation. The porridge oats were now on the kitchen floor. I heard the cupboard opening and the vacuum cleaner clonking, then roaring as my husband took it out, assembled it and switched it on. ‘Stay at the table!’ he said, ‘I’m hoovering.’ I had a few sips of coffee. 


The porridge oats were now inside the vacuum cleaner. The large blue freezer bag was back in the drawer. The saucepan was in the sink. The Tupperware box was empty. Finally I could have breakfast. I retrieved a bag of fruity muesli from the cereal cupboard and filled my bowl and the Tupperware box.


I now have a headache and exhaustion.

Friday, February 05, 2021

"DALIA" - our new People's Opera for Garsington

We weren't planning to spill the beans about this project so soon, but it has just been shortlisted for an exciting development prize, the Fedora Award in Education, so it's time to say something.

You might remember Silver Birch, the so-called People's Opera that Roxanna Panufnik and I wrote for Garsington Opera a few years back. A People's Opera is a community project plus much more, designed to appeal to all ages, include professionals and amateurs alike and offer an artistically memorable experience to the audience as well as to the performers. Silver Birch was the one with the Iraq War, Siegfried Sassoon, the trees, the Foley Artists, 180 performers aged one to 82, the kitchen sink and the dog, and the International Opera Award education shortlist in 2018. It did well. They wanted another. This is it.

Dalia is on a similar model. It involves children, teens, adults, professionals, amateurs, the Philharmonia and quite possibly a cricket team. It is the story of a young girl from Syria who is fostered into a UK family having lost her father and brother during a terrible journey into exile. She doesn't know if her mother is alive or dead. She is determined to survive, to seize her day and to follow her dreams - of playing cricket. But there are inner and outer demons to face: trauma, flashbacks, racists, jealousies, misunderstandings and, ultimately, an impossible decision she must make. Along the way, as her life changes, so she transforms the inner worlds of those around her.

My libretto is done and Roxanna is hard at work on the score now, fired up and (to judge from my sneak peeks) writing music that, as always, goes light years beyond anything I could have imagined. The Fedora shortlist is not the first time this project has jumped ahead of our plans for it: the Amwaj Choir of Bethlehem, which has collaborated with Roxanna on elements of the music, has already recorded 'Dalia's Song' for the Bethlehem Cultural Festival. 

If you've been to Garsington Opera's home at Wormsley, you may have seen the fabulous cricket pitch on location. This is not a coincidence. How can one better unite a community of diverse peoples than through sport and music together? To say I've been on a steep learning curve is probably not saying enough; I still don't entirely understand the rules, and the fond hopes that Roxanna and I had of spending last summer at a test match evidently had to bite the pandemic-induced dust. Still, I've learned enough to know that cricket doesn't have much to do with ball games. 

We owe a vast debt of gratitude to all our many advisers, who include the aforementioned Amwaj Choir, our community liaison head Manas Ghanem (who is originally from Syria), the charity Refugees at Home, the BBC commentator Eleanor Oldroyd, the South African former professional cricketer Mo Sattar, and the former refugee, now bestselling author and motivational speaker, Gulwali Passerlay, whose book The Lightless Sky has been a major inspiration. The production reunites us with our fabulous director Karen Gillingham, conductor Dougie Boyd, our dear friends at Garsington and hopefully even some of the same young people as Silver Birch, plus several years' worth of new Youth Company recruits. 

One more credit: my late mother-in-law, Gisela Eisner. Her history inspired Dalia's. She was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany at the same age as our Dalia. She was put onto the Kindertransport to London aged 12, said goodbye to her parents and brother at the station in Berlin and never saw them again: all three were murdered in concentration camps. She was fostered by a Quaker family in Wolverhampton, where she found her feet and her means of integration by learning to play netball. Originally I longed to tell her story, but in collaboration with the whole team we decided we needed a present-day setting. The equivalent was all too easy to find. The difference is that shamefully the UK does not have anything remotely resembling the Kindertransport to rescue children from Syria. 

On the Fedora shortlist, Dalia is the UK project among ten from countries all over Europe. One of the prizes is given through public vote, so if anyone felt like logging in and lending us your click, we would be very happy indeed. Thank you for your support!

Dalia is planned for premiere in summer 2022. We profoundly hope that the pandemic will be firmly in the past by then.  

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Commonplace books

Moved beyond measure by President Biden's inaugural ceremony yesterday, I've entered the last lines of Amanda Gorman's poem The Hill That We Climb into my "commonplace book".

"When day comes, we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light. If only we're brave enough to see it. If only we're brave enough to be it."

I've kept a so-called commonplace book since 1986, when my sister gave me a sleek blank notebook with thin ivory-light pages and a black leather cover that looked ever so sophisticated. A "commonplace book" is somewhere to copy out pieces of text that you don't want to lose: perhaps they appeal to you by ringing emotional bells, putting words together like music, or reflecting what you feel, think or hope. Amanda Gorman's poem uses the 110th page and after 35 years the notebook is still is excellent shape and has enough room in it to last me another 70 if used at the same rate, which will hardly be necessary.

If you've never kept a book like this, I recommend it, because you can measure out the progress of your inner self by what you read back, what you've chosen, why you chose it and where the holes are. I didn't enter anything into it between the month of my father's death in August 1996 and that of my sister's death in March 2000. The latter was poetry by Irina Ratushinskaya and Arthur Rimbaud. The former was an advert for running shoes on TV that stated simply: "Some people quit when they reach their threshold of pain. Some don't."

Back in the 80s, when I was a student, I used to write with an italic pen, trying to preserve these slivers of guiding wisdom in beautiful calligraphy, but it never quite looked as good as I wanted it to (and crossings-out suggest I'd never heard of Tippex then), so in due course I gave up and used a biro, while still attempting neatness. That went out of the window too, so there are a few entries that I can hardly read at all. Now I'm trying again to make things legible so that some day, if we survive this year and manage to grow older and need stronger reading glasses, I'll be able to look back on the latest passages and say "Hm, OK, so that's how we got through that little nightmare..."

In May 1986, I see, I copied out a passage of an interview in The Strad with Raphael Wallfisch, having no clue that I would someday meet and interview him myself. It is about the pace of artistic growth. "It's interesting that everyone develops at different speeds through different circumstances. In the end it does not matter how you are formed. If you've been lucky, as I have, to be surrounded with music and to have had fantastic teaching, then you can go at your own rate without fear of going off on a wrong track." 

This was from a time when I was profoundly unhappy at university, furious about the institutional arrogance, small-mindedness and snobbery I was encountering there, especially when I'd just spent the Easter holidays in New York sitting metaphorically at the feet of some really incredible musicians. That was the year I had a consultation lesson with Richard Goode, went to a lecture by Carl Schachter about Schenkerian analysis at the Mannes College, and met Oscar Shumsky, who put on an LP of Rachmaninov playing his own music, which blew my mind as I had never heard him before. Historical recordings were in their infancy of CD transfer back then, these gems were rare and precious and the idea that one day the whole lot would be available on computer at the touch of a button would never have been even a glimmer in the eye, let alone the ear. With a quick splash of memory, I can see how comforting Raphael's words would have seemed at that moment.

All this can be brought back at the sight of those words, inscribed in slightly smudged black ink.

Over the years the focus of the entries change - from musings on love and friendship from Emily Brontë and Joni Mitchell, to seeking ways forward in writing (Angela Carter, Hermann Hesse, DH Lawrence) and some awfully naive and now slightly embarrassing spiritual texts that were nevertheless helpful around the time my mother died in 1994. There's material from poets and authors from France, Germany, Austria, Bosnia, Russia, America, Ireland, Hungary. Bits of wisdom from Lutosławski and Cage. There's some Ovid, some Keats, some Byron, Betjemen, Dylan Thomas. There's a wonderfully useful poem about how to stop worrying - Mary Oliver's "I worried" - copied out in January 2019, and thank God almighty I didn't know that what I was worrying about just then (Brexit and the likely collapse of our musical world) was in fact entirely justified. 

In the past year I've only made three entries, but that's quite a lot, since there was nothing at all in 2014 and only one apiece in 15 and 16. Since the pandemic struck, I've lighted upon a little phrase of Yeats, a fierce piece by Robert Frost called "Fire and Ice", and an extract from an interview with Hilary Mantel about what historical fiction can do that academic writing on history does not. 

And now from the past to the future: Amanda Gorman, the US's youth poet laureate, 22 and blazing a trail into the future. I hope her words at the inauguration will stand as inspiration and sustenance to us for many years, should we be fortunate enough to be granted them. Now I will have them in my notebook, accessible at the slide of a drawer, for as long as I live.