Showing posts with label CDs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label CDs. Show all posts

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Shoo, man

My poor old piano has been a bit neglected lately. Last week my editor (novels) went on holiday for half term and I can't make much progress on the revision of Hungarian Dances until I have her feedback. Instead, with an hour or two to spare, and Tom safely shooed away to Glyndebourne, I took the plunge and opened the lid.

The great thing about being an official amateur - no concerts, no lessons, no exams, no pressure - is that nobody can tell you what to do, or, more importantly, what not to do. No-one can say, "Don't you dare touch the Schumann Fantasie, it's too hard for you!" So I dare. I touched the Schumann Fantasie. I read through the first and last movements and as much of the March as I could manage without going cross-eyed, and nobody could hear me or stop me. And it's heaven. Surely no piece represents pure romanticism more than this one. To touch Schumann is to hold starlight in your hands, even if only for a second.

Here are two favourite recordings: Marc-Andre Hamelin (Hyperion), full of wonder and tenderness and fleetness; and Jonathan Biss (EMI), replete with good sense, empathy and a deep, pure humility in the representation of genius.

Achtung, piano fans: Jonathan Biss is playing the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday afternoon, 3 June. Beethoven, Webern and Mozart, and guess what? The Schumann Fantasie.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

BBC Music Mag CD awards well afloat

Spent a happy spring day yesterday at the BBC Music Magazine CD Awards bash on a boat on the Thames.

What with the bubbly, the excellent food, the passing riverside panoramas and the company of congenial colleagues, the event was altogether friendlier and more informal than certain comparable ceremonies. Moreover it recognised, on the whole, recordings that were highly deserving but often less than obvious choices, and largely from the smaller independent labels rather than what's left of the big hitters.

Here goes:

The Vocal category was also Disc of the Year: Soile Isokoski in Sibelius's Luonnotar and other orchestral songs, with the Helsinki PO conducted by Leif Segerstam (Ondine).

Romanian pianist Luiza Borac's second disc of Enescu's phenomenal piano music (Avie) scooped Instrumental.

A Dvorak disc full of dancing delights from the youthful Czech Smetana Trio (Supraphon) walked away with the Chamber award, despite strong competition.

Vivid, vivacious Vivaldi in the red monk's opera 'Griselda' from French conductor Jean-Christophe Spinozi (Naive).

Orchestral went to Mariss Jansons and the Concertgebouw for a towering Shostakovich 7th (RCO Live).

Choral was more Sibelius, this time Kullervo from the LSO & LS Chorus under Colin Davis.

Premiere recording of the year CD was Juliane Banse in orchestral songs by Charles Koechlin, staggeringly gorgeous (Hanssler).

The Paavel Haas Quartet was Newcomer of the Year for their debut disc of Janacek and their namesake. More bouncing Czechs on Supraphon!

Technical excellence award (for tonmeistering) went to Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony (Schafer, Goerne, Orchestre de Paris/Eschenbach) (Capriccio).

DVD of the year was of course David McVicar's all-singing-all-dancing Bollywoodish 'Giulio Cesare' from Glyndebourne, starring Danielle de Niese et al (Opus Arte).

Among the acceptance speeches, an array of delicious accents and personalities that someone would have had to invent if they didn't exist. The artists arrived from far and wide, and Jean-Christophe Spinozi and Mariss Jansons had been filmed giving their thank-yous from overseas, respectively in lavish and characteristic French sparkle and Russian soul. Luiza Borac, who's Romanian, flew in from Hannover; the Smetana Trio and Paavel Haas Quartet landed from Prague; and I doubt that anyone will forget in a hurry Finnish conductor Leif Segerstam's contribution. After regaling us with a larger-than-his beard evocation of Sibelius's vitality, atmospheres and basic utter genius, the vociferous veteran maestro built up to a glorious climax: "I love this music, life and the world!!!" Isokoski herself arrived as a graceful conclusion to the day, meeting the boat at Victoria Embankment on its return and boarding to deliver her acknowledgements fresh from rehearsal at the Wigmore Hall.

I was on the jury this year and ploughed my way through what I'm told amounted to 187 discs (at times, admittedly, they felt like the Sorcerer's Apprentice's dividing brooms!), all of which had been awarded the top-ranking five stars by one or other of the magazine's critics. We whittled the lot down to three discs in each category, which were then placed before BBC Radio 3 listeners for their vote. In rocked 38,000 voters.

Our discussion sessions naturally produced a good few disagreements, but highly stimulating ones. I don't mind confessing to having shot down one or two clay pigeons; and some of my favourites similarly bit the dust in the talons of my sharp-eared colleauges. Most of my favourite discs of last year weren't even there, not having been accorded five stars by their reviewers, while I certainly wouldn't have given five-star ranking to all of those 187 discs. But that's life, and that's music criticism for you. I also encountered some true revelations, astonishing myself by falling head over heels in love with Andreas Staier's harpsichord playing (harpsichord? moi?!). The end results are more than satisfactory: IMHO, all of the ultimate winners are simply marvellous.

There were the usual jibes during the introductory speeches, of course, at rival magazines and radio stations and the harbingers of doom. After reading Peter Maxwell Davies's speech for the Incorporated Society of Musicians conference, one couldn't help but feel depressed - lots of problems, not exactly a plethora of practical solutions - but the best suggestion yet about how to improve matters came yesterday from the awards' presenter, James Naughtie: 'Just get on with it'.

I'm glad to say the reception was sponsored by Taittinger.

I haven't linked to every one of the award-winning discs above, but further information should soon be available and I'll update this as soon as poss.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

'Too Much Mozart'

Too Much Mozart, a short story I've written to accompany a new CD of the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, is now available to read online at my permawebsite: follow the link from the news page. The recording will be released on the Avie label later in the spring and features Philippe Graffin (violin and director), Nobuko Imai (viola) and Het Brabants Orkest; the story will be published in the CD booklet.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Recipe for success?

Rather touched to discover a hit from a reader in the Far East looking for 'Faure Piano Quartet No.1 recipe'. Tricky, that. Perhaps rack of spring lamb with mint sauce would reflect the work's youthful yet meaty quality. Or the torrential last movement could suggest a salmon leaping upstream, maybe accompanied by a tasty tarragon mayonnaise. Put the right portamento into the first movement's violin part and you also have a case for the finest fresh oysters. Haydn might be easier to match: my Gundel Cookbook from Budapest contains a mouthwatering recipe for Steak Eszterhazy (though I don't fancy the lard).

A bigger recipe for success is the new Universal Classics and Jazz download site, launched yesterday. It claims to be the largest site of its type catering to the classical and jazz market to date, with 125,000 tracks, and there's some fantastic stuff on the Universal labels which include Deutsche Grammophon, Philips and Decca. Don't be put off by all that Katherine Jenkins and Da Vinci Code Soundtrack stuff on the front, because Heifetz, Wunderlich, Argerich and Pollini lurk in that back catalogue. And the site is hoping to offer digital downloads of complete ballet and opera videos in the near future. The press release says: "The downloadable tracks will be offered at over double the quality iTunes offer: 320K Stereo WMA files as opposed to Apple's 128" Stereo AAC files." Note that it's not compatible, though, with the iPod.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

JDCMB CDs of the Year 2006

A few personal recommendations of favourite discs released this year - just in time for that last-minute Xmas shopping. Enjoy!

1. ELGAR Violin Concerto (original version). Philippe Graffin (violin), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by Vernon Handley. Avie Records AV2091. Glorious golden-age-style playing from Philippe, deep empathy from Tod on the podium, and fascinating alternative textual version evoking Elgar's original ideas before Kreisler got his hands on the piece and changed them.

2. STRAUSS Lieder. Jonas Kaufmann (tenor), Helmut Deutsch (piano). Harmonia Mundi HMC901879. When I popped this into the CD player and heard that voice I thought I'd gone to heaven. A real young Heldentenor! A singer who embodies the essence of German romanticism! It's not only that beautiful tone and its large spectrum - very dark, yet with an extremely powerful top range - it's also his intelligence, his fine enuciation, the sense of all-giving passion. If only he'd do some Korngold...

3. Canciones Argentinas. Bernarda and Marcos Fink (mezzo & baritone), Carmen Piazzini (piano). Harmonia Mundi HMC901892. An Aladdin's Cave of shadowy, aching, irresistible art songs from these musicians' native Argentina, including some Piazzolla gems and far more besides. Bernarda's honeyed tones, Marcos's gritty edge, the ever-compelling rhythms of tango and the heart-rending, bittersweet nostalgia made me listen to it three times through on the spot. Harmonia Mundi seems to have had a very good year.

4. RACHMANINOV Etudes Tableaux, Rustem Hayroudinoff (piano). Chandos 10391. Just out, and picked by BBC Music Magazine as its instrumental choice of the month. Colourful, powerful and idiomatic performances of these fabulous yet oddly underrated pieces, with illuminating insights into the inspirations behind them. (The concert went well the other day, incidentally.)

5. MIKLOS ROZSA Cello Concerto & Sinfonia Concertante. Raphael Wallfisch (cello), Philippe Graffin (violin), BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Barry Wordsworth. ASV GLD4018. Philippe in partnership with the inimitable Raphael Wallfisch: astonishing music by the idiosyncratic and immensely compelling emigre Hungarian Miklos Rozsa that simply must be heard. Glittering, imaginative, earthy, astringent, Rozsa's music found a happy home in Hollywood, but, as in Korngold's case, there was one hell of a lot more to him than that. This team will be performing the Sinfonia Concertante at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 1 May next year, together with Korngold's Sinfonietta.

6. ROXANNA PANUFNIK Beastly Tales. Patricia Rozario (soprano), Yvonne Howard (mezzo), Roderick Williams (baritone), City of London Sinfonia conducted by Sian Edwards. EMI 3566922. Roxanna's settings of three of Vikram Seth's rethinkings of Aesop's Fables are as delicious as the poems, evoking many astonishing animal noises amongst other kinds of sly and imaginative humour. For children aged 0 to 100.

7. JUAN DIEGO FLOREZ Sentimento Latino. JDF (tenor), accompanied by somebody who doesn't get a credit on the front. Decca 4757576. The arrangements are a bit cheesy, but That Voice goes soaring over the top and lifts one clear off the ground into the South American sunshine...

8. RENEE FLEMING: Homage - the Age of the Diva. RF (soprano), Mariinsky Theatre orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. Decca 4758070. This much-loved soprano in a programme of remarkably little-known arias from such luminaries as Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Strauss, Verdi, Janacek and, best of all, two Korngold ones that are hardly ever performed: the staggeringly beautiful 'Ich ging zu ihm' from Das Wunder der Heliane and the touching 'Ich soll ihn niemals, niemals mehr sehn' from Die Kathrin.

9. TCHAIKOVSKY Suite No.3. Russian National Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. Pentatone PTC5186061. I have a very, very soft spot for this under-heard Tchaikovsky Suite, a symphony in all but name. Its delicate and fearsomely challenging orchestration is beautifully conveyed by the RNO and Vladimir. Tchaikovsky's immense lyricism and virtuoso imagination is underpinned by a disturbing, sinister edge that is never overstated here but adds well-modulated depth to the whole picture.

10. SCHUMANN The complete string quartets. Fine Arts Quartet, Naxos, 8570151. Just out! The Fine Arts Quartet was my big chamber-music revelation this year: it's that golden-age edge that I adore, the intense sweetness of first violin Ralph Evans' tone, the beauty of the close-knit sounds and the completeness of their involvement in the music - as superb as ever in Schumann's personal, subtle and sensitive quartets which, again, are never played as often as they should be.

(The above links are via Amazon, in its infinite wisdom, has recently seen fit to make it impossible to search by artist, let alone composer and artist together, and has ditched proper catalogue numbers in favour of some unhelpful system of its own. It's become very hard to find specific classical recordings on that site. What are they playing at?!?).

Sunday, July 30, 2006

CDs for a summer Sunday

I got a bit hot under the collar over the business of my article in The Australian, so thought I'd calm down by recommending some nice CDs for you.

The youthful Pole Rafal Blechacz was the winner of the last Chopin Competition in Warsaw and this is his first CD: it's pretty stunning. Beautiful tone quality, plenty of variety and an individuality which feels like a genuine response to the music - for example, a marvellous grandeur about the A flat major Polonaise. The Szymanowski variations are fascinating. I think we'll be hearing more of this fellow; I certainly hope so.

This is Elektrafying: Semyon Bychkov and the WDR in Strauss's completely OTT masterpiece, starring a nuclear-powered trio of Deborah Polaski as Elektra, Anne Schwanewilms as Chrysothemis and Felicity Palmer as Klytemnestra. If an ideal of Greek drama was catharsis, I'd say this does it: after listening, I felt exhausted, exhilarated and, peculiarly, less stewed up than usual over daft things in the rest of my life. Watch this space in a few months' time for an explanation of why my new name for Maestro Bychkov is 'The Big Cheese'.

Korngold fans might like to discover Miklos Rozsa, another central European immigrant to the US, who wound up writing film music of a rather different kind. That dynamic duo of Philippe Graffin and Raphael Wallfisch, with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Barry Wordsworth, have recorded Rosza's Sinfonia Concertante, coupled with the Cello Concerto: ascerbic, stirring, edgy stuff with a highly individual flavour - plenty of paprika. PG & RW will be performing it live at the Queen Elizabeth Hall next May, again with the BBCCO and Wordsworth - more of that soon, since the second half will be Korngold's scandalously underprogrammed Sinfonietta...

Last but not least, here's one of the latest and best from the LPO's own label: Vladimir Jurowski conducts Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony, live at the Royal Festival Hall. It's a glorious piece - I urge you to hear it if you don't know it - full of Byronic angst, high drama and marvellous melodies. Vladimir shapes and paces it with enormous intelligence and sensitivity. Marvellous despite the less than ideal acoustic (hopefully when the RFH reopens next year, that pigeon-hitting-wall deadness will be a thing of the past).


Sunday, July 02, 2006

Bach to Bach

I have a very large pile of CDs to listen to this month for reasons I'll explain one day. The latest to hit the slot is this.

Never having been the greatest fan of John Eliot Gardiner before, I approached it with some caution. Well, there's little on earth more beautiful than one of Bach's deep, dark oboe duets, and I am currently listening to one I have never heard before, from the cantata BWV23 'Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn'. These are beautiful performances, fresh and true, straightforward but tender, and the resonance of the chapel of King's College Cambridge prevents them from ever sounding excessively dry, as period bands sometimes can.

What strikes me most is: this is WONDERFUL music, vintage Bach. As beautiful as anything in the St Matthew Passion, I'd say. Uplifting, soul-cleansing, radiant music. And I've never heard it before. Even when I sat in the Pendlebury Library in Cambridge enduring that awful 1980s Harnoncourt Bach Cantatas edition with the out-of-tune choirboys - which was all that was available at the time - I didn't hear this piece. I heard many; I had favourites, one being 'Liebster Gott, wann werd ich sterben', which I later discovered was a favourite of Brahms's. Maybe he also liked oboe duets - that has one of the best. Is that perhaps where Brahms's beautiful writing in thirds and sixths originated - the Bach cantatas?

If only we could hear these works more often beyond the confines of the CD player and living room. I would rather listen to this than a Bruckner symphony any day. (Actually, I've given up going to Bruckner symphonies altogether. Having tried, and failed to like them, for 25 years.)

Gardiner's Bach performances were recorded in live performance, as it happens. But live performance that is all too rare. What puts people off? The rarity, or, conversely, the quantity of them? JSB churned them out, week after week. The words? Can't blame anyone for not liking the words, but that's true of many operas too. The sentiments? Those don't stop any performances of the St Matthew Passion.

Surely, surely, there can't be a prejudice among concert promoters against...OBOE DUETS? It's unthinkable. Then again, all things are possible in this world of ours.

As I write, JEG & co in the CD slot have started another cantata, with another oboe duet, BWV127.....

Monday, April 10, 2006

Things to read and hear

A rash of referrals on my statcounter from a site I hadn't seen before led me to this excellent development: a site for newcomers to classical music that demystifies the whole caboodle without talking down. His hefty referral to this blog suggests another online soulmate. Bravo, Tobin! And thanks for the plug.

Meanwhile I'm listening obsessively to Chopin Waltzes. How peculiar - I haven't experienced this particular addiction since the age of 14. But it's not a second childhood; instead, it's the result of the new recording by Stephen Kovacevich which seems to have cleared my ears of all prior expectations and made me realise anew just what fabulous pieces they are. No salon pussyfooting for our Stephen: instead there's soul, fire, songfulness, pathos and passion. Best of all, a kind of wicked glee about the way he tackles numbers like the yodelly G flat major waltz and the virtuoso flourishes in the Grand Valses Brilliantes. I've never heard Chopin playing quite like this before, but I'm totally hooked. Strongly recommended.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Bring on the sunshine

It's so grey and wintery here in London that I thought I'd try and cheer everyone up with ten of the sunniest records I can find.

1. Haydn: The Creation. If you want to smile, this should do the trick. I've had some trouble finding a recording I like, though: the choice seems to be Old, Earnest, Stately But Beautiful or New, Period-Instrument, Sparky But Train-Chasing. In the end I stick with the old Karajan recording on DG because the tenor is the unmatchable Fritz Wunderlich.

2. Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe. Not only the dawn episode, but the whole score oozes Mediterranean azure. You can almost hear the sun sparkling on the sea. I am extremely fond of the Pierre Boulez recording with the NY Philharmonic. It was given to me years ago by a friend who knows what to recommend, and I've not found one I like better.

3. Schubert: Trout Quintet. There aren't many Schubert works that are pure sunshine but for a few leafy shadows - this, however, breaks the mould. I haven't yet heard this recording by the Hagen Quartet with James Levine, but the cover looks summery. Smell the country air, see the fish playing in the stream, then eat them in the open air with parsley, lemon and lots of butter...

4. Mozart: String Quintet in C major, K515. Mozart feeling spacious, relaxed and generous. Hear the opening and feel the clouds clear away. Alban Berg Quartett with Markus Wolf is a good option.

5. Dvorak: Violin Concerto. Dvorak is generally one of the most cheerful, sunny fellows in the catalogue - try keeping your feet still to the last movement of the violin concerto, among his loveliest 'Furiant' compositions. There are some super recordings, of which just two are Tasmin Little, Royal Liverpool PO/Vernon Handley (Classics for Pleasure) and Philippe Graffin, Johannesburg PO/Michael Hankinson (Avie).

6. Mendelssohn: Symphony No.4, 'Italian'. Felix kicks in with something that vaguely resembles a tarantella but goes much further in evoking the total thrill of arriving in Italy, soaking up the atmosphere and hitting the Chianti. Two minutes and you're basking in joy. Barbirolli conducts the Halle Orchestra in a classic.

7. Bizet: Carmen. Tragic the story may be, but if you want to feel the heat in Seville without getting on a plane, this is the best possible way. Try Cotrubas & Domingo with Abbado conducting and don't forget to sing along with the Toreador's Song.

8. Album 'Una furtiva lagrima' - Juan Diego Florez. Genuine Italian sunshine with Bellini and Donizetti, but the voice alone is enough to make you melt. Isn't he a dreamboat?

9. Manuel de Falla: The Three-Cornered Hat (with Albeniz Iberia, orchestral excerpts). If Carmen is just too, well, French, then go for the real Spanish McCoya. Falla stomps and sparkles his way through his irresistible ballet score, and the Albeniz makes this recommendation a neat two-in-one job. Find it here.

10. Abba Gold. Oh yes. It starts with Dancing Queen which brings out the sunshine like there's no tomorrow, if only because it makes me think I'm 13 again. (What am I doing? I hated being 13. Making up for lost time? Or mid-life crisis??...nah. I just like Abba.)

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Sunday discs

A few CDs that have come my way recently that you may enjoy too:

Marc-Andre Hamelin's new disc of Schumann (Hyperion), featuring Papillons, the Fantasiestucke Op.12 and Carnaval. There's so much fantasy, warmth, tenderness and sheer 'oomph' about Marc's playing here that for the first time I'm willing to relegate my previous Carnaval favourite, Youri Egourov, to the back-burner shelf.

Double Dream (EMI), a bizarre but oddly successful programme of improvisations on some well-known piano pieces on two pianos, played by Mikhail Rudy and Misha Alperin. I approached this with some caution, but found it amazingly compelling: the two Mishas choose works including Schumann's 'Prophet Bird', Janacek's 'On an Overgrown Path', and works by Chopin, Prokofiev and Bach besides Alperin's original compositions, and take them meditatively to places you'd never have dreamed they could go.

The Florestan Trio plays Mendelssohn (Hyperion). This is WONDERFUL. Mendelssohn needs a very special soundworld, driven with elan and fire yet full of air and lightness and subtlety. The Florestans give him the lot. Not many CDs make it straight onto my iTunes (that's on the computer, not an iPod, which I don't have...), but this one did and I play it every time I need cheering up.

The Wanderer: Luiza Borac plays Schubert and Liszt (Avie). Dynamic, glittering, galvanising and sensitive playing from this wonderful young Romanian, following the Wanderer Fantasy with a smashing selection of Italian-themed Liszt from the Annees de Pelerinage.

Vytautas Barkauskas's Duo Concertante and more (Avie), recorded live in Vilnius last year by Philippe Graffin, Nobuko Imai and the Vilnius Festival Orchestra under Robertas Servenikas. I was THERE when they recorded it (see Archives, June 2004) and it sounds every bit as good on CD as it did on the day. The piece is fabulous, full of colour and imagination, with the two characterful soloists on top form. On the disc Philippe also plays Barkauskas's Violin Concerto, Jeux, which he commissioned and recorded the previous year - again, playful, quirky, intriguing music that lives in a special imaginative world of its own.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Rome, sweet Rome

There's been a good reason for my blogland silence this week. I've been in Rome. Almost didn't come back.

When Dorothy taps her ruby slippers together and says the magic words, I reckon we all misheard her. What she should be saying is "there's no place like Rome..." That city has an atmosphere like nowhere else on earth. Part of it is the climate, part the history, part sheer beauty. Yes, the traffic is crazy - basically anarchy - and you take your life in your hands whenever you cross a road. But after dark, you're in another world, entirely gold and black and floodlit and shining. Who wants to go to sleep when you can be out in warm, fresh air, gazing at gleaming Roman ruins, enjoying the finest Italian food and sipping Chianti with friends? Not many Romans, it would seem, because the place buzzes until the wee hours.

I somehow associate Rome with freedom, revival, renewal and some kind of inner release that, when I was last there years & years ago, allowed me to get on the back of a Vespa with a strange Italian man and ride through the city's cobbled roads past the floodlit Colosseum at 1am...those were the days...

I went to the Eternal City this time to interview Signora Bartoli about her new album of Italian baroque arias, Opera Probita. The launch event began with a concert in an extraordinary church in the Forum; later, dinner on a roof terrace by candlelight. We did the interview in a building that looks out across the ruins of the Forum, knowing that Handel could have stood on the same spot, drinking in the same sight, nearly 300 years ago.

The album will be out at the end of next month & Cecilia will be giving a concert of this repertoire in London, at the Barbican, in December, for which I recommend begging, borrowing or even buying a ticket at your first possible opportunity. Before then, she'll be in the States, so I urge everyone across the Pond to run to hear her as well. There's a touch of genius about this woman. What a voice. What a personality. What musicianship.

There'd probably be a touch of genius about anyone who could make me rave about an evening of Italian baroque opera accompanied by period instruments. Normally I run a mile from such things, probably because I had it rammed down my throat ad nauseam at university. The other night, however, I was on the edge of my seat all the way through and afterwards was almost ready to go and hug Marc Minkowski and all his Musiciens du Louvre as well. I even elected, later on, to listen to a recording of a counter-tenor (Scholl, naturally), and liked it when I did. This is getting serious!

But would it sound the same away from Rome? South West London is a bit short of ruins and even the antipasti in our local supermarket ain't quite the same......

Sunday, July 24, 2005


OK. I think that's quite enough about Wagner for a bit. My brain's getting twisted.

I'm off to Switzerland for a flying visit to the Verbier Festival tomorrow - back rather too soon. A couple of thoughts to leave you with in the meantime, including the promised Desert Island Discs in case anyone's interested!

First, though, for the literary-minded: in the wake of the bombings in London and Egypt and the continual suicide bombing insurgency in Iraq, how are we creatives to respond? I've often been annoyed by the way that much contemporary fiction seems to be an extended version of what's happened to be in the news - the result is a lot of books that date very quickly - and even my favourite books, which on the whole don't do that, can contain elements that become dated through their 'relevance to contemporary issues'. On the other hand, there's a lot of escapism too: historical novels that bury their concerns in the distant past (though I hasten to add that I love many of those!!). Is it possible for writers and, indeed, composers to handle the impact of our changing world in a creative way that doesn't become obsessed with relevance to these issues? I'm wondering how to make my new novel feel contemporary without getting too involved in such things. It's difficult.

Enough of that - here are 8 Desert Island Discs to enjoy. I've a nasty feeling I've done this before, but can't remember when - and the list has probably changed...

1. Krystian Zimerman plays the Ravel piano concertos - with LSO/Boulez (DG). Perfection.

2. Marc-Andre Hamelin's album 'Kaleidoscope'. All his recordings are brilliant, but this is the one I play most.

3. Mozart: The Magic Flute, conducted by Klemperer with fab cast including Nikolai Gedda, Gundula Janowitz and Lucia Popp. I grew up with this & may be where I am today partly because of it.

4. Tchaikovsky. Mravinsky conducts his own selection from The Nutcracker's most meaningful moments. Another world.

5. Peter Schreier and Andras Schiff in the Schubert song cycles. I was going to choose just 'Die schone Mullerin' but have now discovered that all three are available together!

6. The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Violin Concerto, played by Philippe Graffin in South Africa. This is meaningful to me for long, complex reasons that I've written about before.

7. Andras Schiff plays the Goldberg Variations. Definitely can't do without this.

8. Faure. It has to be Faure. I'd like to take my own compilation of Favourite Faure, but in the absence of that, This will do nicely: historical Faure, including Thibaut & Cortot in the Violin Sonata No.1 and the Calvet Quartet with Robert Casadesus in the Piano Quartet No.1. Having said that, my ultimate Faure choice has yet to appear on CD. I'm hoping that it will do so within the next couple of years.

Sunday, June 19, 2005


I'm amused to see that one of the music sites I visit most often, The Classical Source, is running a banner ad for pet food deliveries. Are we music lovers also such notorious animal lovers? It certainly made Solti's day (though he has been comatose in the heat under a rose bush for most of it). I regret to say that I've come across a cat nicknamed Clawed DePussy and one answering to Milhaud - and the possibilities of Faure and Furry don't really bear thinking about. At this rate it will all unRavel...

Anyway, I am off to Lithuania tomorrow, where the weather's going to be slightly cooler. I've just been sent an advance copy of the CD of the concert I went there to hear last year, Vytautas Barkauskas's Duo Concertante - it will be released by Avie Records on 27 June. Very excited to be going there again to straighten out and consolidate last year's impressions. At least it will stop me sitting at my desk blogging lousy puns after getting tipsy on ginger beer and too much sun.

Also, NB, final tonight of Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. I've managed to miss the run-up to it - I look at my Freeview box so infrequently that I've actually forgotten how it works - but am looking forward to hearing the English contestant Andrew Kennedy, whom I heard on the radio the other day by accident without knowing who he was and found exceptionally impressive. Lovely, open-toned lyric tenor, selected by some of the UK's best young artists schemes and evidently going places. The Lithuanian candidate, incidentally, looks seriously gorgeous, but I haven't heard him and don't know whether he has reached the final.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Fab CDs

My last post has been removed due to circumstances beyond my control. Sorry. I thought it was nice. Anyway, here are two wonderful new CDs for you instead.

As promised, details of Philippe Graffin's new recital disc: release date is now 18 April. Entitled in the shade of forests: the Bohemian world of Debussy, Ravel, Enescu, this is a disc that could only have been devised by a violinist with more than his fair share of intelligence and creativity, and the musical result is just as exciting, with Philippe's improvisatory sense of fantasy and glorious tone expertly partnered by the French pianist Claire Desert. The programme's inspiration is the image of the gypsy wanderer so long associated with the violin in its purest, most instinctive form, and the way that that image has inspired the three composers involved.

Enescu's Impressions d'enfance begins the disc, imbued with the notion of the wandering minstrel fiddler that Enescu carried with him to maturity; then there is, of course, Ravel's Tzigane, but played as you've never heard it before. Philippe and Claire employed not only the 'lutheal' - the mechanism, akin to a prepared piano, that provides the piano with a range of stops to evoke the sound of the cimbalom, the guitar and many stranger beings - but the original lutheal, fitted into a small 1919 Pleyel grand in the Musical Instrument Museum in Brussels, on which the piece enjoyed its very first recording. Sounds completely different from Dan Hope's also excellent recording ('East Meets West'), which involved fitting the machine into a modern Steinway. The 1919 instrument sounds more like a guitar than a harpsichord and meshes into some extraordinary, mesmerising soundworlds with the violin. Then comes the Ravel 'posthumous' sonata (a beautiful early work written for the composer to play with Enescu while both were students of Faure) and, last but not least, Debussy's complete works for violin and piano: not only the wonderful sonata, but also an early Nocturne & Scherzo that Philippe has reconstructed himself, and a batch of lovely pieces - two preludes and two songs - in arrangements, approved by Debussy, by the American-Hungarian violinist Arthur Hartmann. With superlative presentation, a thorough and fascinating booklet written mostly by Philippe himself and, above all, matchless, poetic, 500%-committed playing from both artists, this is Avie Records' latest must-have.

Marc-Andre Hamelin has an amazing new CD out: Albeniz's Iberia, complete, filled out with more treats from this ever-underrated but truly astonishing Spanish composer-pianist. Albeniz himself realised just how difficult Iberia was - apparently he considered it virtually unplayable and almost destroyed the manuscript for that reason. Thank heavens he didn't. And thank heavens for Marc, someone who can not only play it but can imbue it with the poetry, evocativeness, warmth, passion, earthy rhythm and sheer, lush gorgeousness that it deserves. I couldn't get enough of this, especially since I once entertained fond ideas of learning 'Triana', only to find my eyes crossing in front of my nose at the sight of the termite-heaps of notes that comprise the score. You'd never guess its fiendish complexity from this apparently effortless rendition, filled with wit and colour and dreamlike beauty bringing out every inch of the extensive French influence on the composer. If Debussy liked to sound Spanish, then Albeniz liked to sound like a French symbolist (except that he, of course, had just a little too much of a sense of humour!). Iberia is a one-off - there is nothing else quite like it in the piano repertoire - and I think this new recording is likely to be regarded as definitive for some time ahead. It's Hyperion's Record of the Month, and they're not wrong.

More soon.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Roger's rare bit of Mozart

A nice CD hit my desk yesterday: violinist Daniel Hope & pianist Sebastian Knauer playing Mozart with the Camerata Salzburg under Roger Norrington. Dr Philip Wilby has seen fit to 'complete' a concerto for violin and piano that Mozart left unfinished. It seems that after the first movement Wolfie decided to write a violin sonata instead, so the second and third movements of the concerto are in fact orchestrations of that sonata (D major K306). And it's gorgeous. The CD is on Warner Classics.

The press release contains a fabulous quote from Sir Roger:

"It's interesting to hear this kind of 'second generation' historically informed playing: modern instruments, but completely digested performance practice, with pure tone of course from the orchestra, a very slight and informed vibrato from the violinist, and phrasing from everyone in sight! What a joy to realise that you can play stylishly with any instrument, whether new or old, and that 'early music' is in the mind rather than the hardware."

So has Sir Roger Norrington JUST NOTICED that early music is all in the mind?! Some of us could have pointed this out 20 years ago, and indeed have been trying to do so ever since... Never mind, it's a lovely recording.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

New year, new start

Among things that need a serious restart are our front room shelves, groaning with LPs that haven't been played for 20 years. Today Tom decided we should have clear-out. He has a vinyl buff friend who'll be coming round to take away most of our collection. So this seemed an apposite day, hangover notwishstanding, to sift out what we want to keep.

Ouch. Memories flood back. Tom kept anything that said JASCHA HEIFETZ on the front; I kept anything that said KRYSTIAN ZIMERMAN. Some of his early recordings have never been transferred to CD and the pictures of him aged around 21 are seriously cute. And many of them are signed (in 1982/83 I was a goggle-eyed teenaged groupie!).

Anything that has been transferred to CD went into the OUT pile - even things that nearly broke my heart because I remember listening to them again & again & again as a kid, years before my parents died: things like Mendelssohn ' A Midsummer Night's Dream' and Zukerman playing the concerto. There's a boxed set of 'Carmen' starring Teresa Berganza that has never even been opened...I remember buying it with my Dad on the day I took Grade VII piano aged 15 and somehow we never got round to playing it... All the Andras Schiff Bach recordings that helped me survive Cambridge in the mid 1980s (music faculty ethos in those days was Christopher Hogwood=God; Bach on Piano=Evil Subversive Forces) - I have them on CD now, but the big Decca double LPs were so lovely... Various recordings signed by musicians, not just Zimerman; others affectionately signed by ex-boyfriends with cryptic initials, meanings long forgotten. And recordings that have probably been transferred to CD but also possibly Frederica von Stade, accompanied by Jean-Philippe Collard, singing Faure. Wonderful disc, surely, surely we must be able to find it on CD? But still, I haven't listened to it in over 15 years.

I can't quite imagine feeling this sentimental over CDs. Too much plastic, too many broken boxes, too small. But at least they don't warp.

We listened to one very special LP: Hugh Bean and David Parkhouse playing the Elgar Violin Sonata. Wonderful, rich,singing tone, masses of fantasy, perfect atmosphere. Warped, however. Have ordered it on CD now.

One end result, other than the agony of seeing one's childhood memories slung into the OUT pile, is that I want to get hold of the RCA Heifetz edition. Loads of CDs, but Tom deserves them for his next birthday. Unfortunately, though, as is so often the case in these alarming days, it now seems to be unavailable from Amazon and the various second-hand CD sites I've tried online have only bits and pieces from it. Anyone know where I might be able to run the whole lot to earth?

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Avie is online

Newest addition to sidebar is Avie Records, which now has its website ready to roll. Avie, run by long-time record industry pros Simon Foster and Melanne Mueller, it's a record company on a different model from the usual: as the website explains, it is 'turning the traditional musician / record company relationship on its head.  Avie operates the label for and on behalf of the musicians who retain ownership of their recordings, acting as an umbrella for a number of musical organisations and individual artists.' But that doesn't mean they produce all and sundry - anything but. There is more discernment and clever thinking here than in many labels that have been established for much longer.

Avie is enabling the recording and release of some very special CDs which traditional major labels might hesitate to produce. Proof of its success is its first Gramophone award, for Phantasm's CD of Orlando Gibbons on viol consort. Among other favourites of mine are Andreas Haefliger's beautiful, reflective and powerful piano recital entitled 'Perspectives 1', Enescu's Piano Suites played by the exceptional young Romanian pianist Luiza Borac on two discs, and of course Philippe Graffin's Coleridge-Taylor and Dvorak Violin Concertos with the Johannesburg Philharmonic (OK, so I did the booklet notes, yeah, yeah, yeah... but it's a great record and I'm proud to be associated with it, so I make no apology for pushing it here). Keep up the good work, guys.

UPDATE, SUNDAY MORNING: Also new to cyberspace is Lisa Hirsch's classical music blog, Iron Tongue of Midnight. Ms Hirsch - she of the Bay Area bagel offer! - launches online with a plea for orchestral musicians to smile while they work. We've already had a very bloggish argy-bargy in her comments box as I've put her straight on exactly why they can't do so while trying to keep their places in John Adams... Looking forward to lots more provocative points of view, Lisa!

Friday, October 29, 2004

Unheard melodies...

Apologies for rather quiet week for blogging, or lack of... It's a busy time of year, however, for CD issues and consequently for reviews. An extraordinary number of new releases come out around now in order to be In Time For Christmas. And Christmas has a lot to answer for. That's another story, however. Meanwhile, I've been extremely taken with the latest CD by the Swiss/French flautist Emmanuel Pahud, which is a disc for all seasons.

The disc includes, however, only one original piece for flute and piano, Widor's Suite Op.43. The rest is Franck and Strauss - their violin sonatas, transcribed for the flute. I've often been wary of such inter-instrument transfers, but here it not only makes perfect sense but sounds phenomenal. Violinists might even be jealous, especially as Pahud plays the Strauss Sonata with all the passion of one of Strauss's amazing soprano heroines - the breathing and phrasing are pure opera. I've never been convinced by the Strauss as a violin sonata, but here, in Pahud's own transcription, it seems to take off as never before. Eat your heart out, Marie-Therese.

In the light of this, I've begun to think that over-fussiness about instruments being 'correct' or 'original' can lead to missed opportunities and a general narrowness of outlook. Bach, after all, could write exactly the same piece for one single violin as for full orchestra, choir and organ (best known as the opening movement of the E major partita). And anyone who has heard Myra Hess or Dinu Lipatti playing the former's piano transcription of 'Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring' would be likely to take it to a desert island for a reminder of the meaning of life.

But isn't all music a transcription to a certain extent - a transcription, for the composer, of what he or she hears inside and has, somehow, to get out?...Who knows whether what reached Brahms's manuscript paper was exactly what he had imagined, or whether something was lost in translation from mind to hand? However amazing music sounds to us, perhaps it would have sounded less good to the composer compared to the first concept of the sound inside his/her head? As Keats said, 'Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter...'

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Reading & listening for the autumn

OK, OK, OK. I said I would be recommending books and CDs from time to time and a delicate correspondent has now told me that I don't do so often enough. So here is my latest selection: a mix of old and new, including both things I like that have landed on my desk this week and slightly older things that I've looked at again thanks to experiences like St Nazaire.

GREAT TENOR ARIAS: JUAN DIEGO FLOREZ (Decca). The latest release from my brand-new favourite singer. I've grown sick of starry opera singers who look good but actually can't do the business. This guy is different. He's an amazing vocal virtuoso with a wonderful high, bright, focused and open sound - and he's drop-dead gorgeous too. My birthday treat will be going to see him sing at the Royal Opera House in Don Pasquale. As I'm not habitually plugged in to bel canto opera, I'd managed not to hear him until June, when our Danish opera-buff friends, driving through the countryside near Aarhus, played us a tape of him singing Rossini at the Met. I nearly fell out of their Merc.

MATTHIAS GOERNE sings SCHUMANN; and also WINTERREISE (both also Decca). You have to be a bit of a masochist to love Lieder. It certainly casts your view of your own psyche in a new light when you find yourself lying on your study floor snuffling desperately into your third Kleenex thinking 'Why do I put myself through this? I could just press STOP...' Listening to Goerne singing these phenomenal songs is like having the skin stripped from your soul. Winterreise is out now, Schumann will be available from 11 October.

BARENBOIM PLAYS BACH (Warner Classics). Daniel Barenboim has recorded the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, using the full range of the piano's expressive abilities to penetrate to the heart of Bach's spirit. While the 'early music brigade' are all-too-often trapped on the surface of the flypaper, Barenboim goes straight for the honey underneath.

GRAFFIN AND DEVOYON PLAY CANTELOUBE (Hyperion). The CD includes the Violin Sonata No.1 by Pierre de Breville and Joseph Canteloube's Suite 'Dans la montagne'. The Canteloube is a real discovery - absolutely beautiful. Its 'Jour de fete' is full of clever, light-touch effects and 'Dans le bois au printemps' is a prequel to the Songs of the Auvergne. Philippe's bow arm is particularly stunning and sometimes reminds me of Errol Flynn wielding his rapier in those Korngold-scored swashbucklers, and Pascal's even-tempered sensitivity and gleaming sound comprises its perfect partner.

SHCHEDRIN PIANO CONCERTO NO.2 (Hyperion) played by Marc-Andre Hamelin with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Litton. Shchedrin at his most dazzling, mingling modernist fireworks with what sounds like a trip to Ronnie Scott's, switching from one idiom to the other in the twinkling of a Hamelin finger. Coupled with an exceptionally touching performance of Shostakovich's Second Concerto.

I, MAYA PLISETSKAYA. Madame Shchedrin's memoirs of her days as prima ballerina assoluta of the Bolshoi in haut-Soviet times. It's a chunky volume and I'm looking forward to it.

NATASHA'S DANCE by Orlando Figes. Figes transforms the cultural history of Russia into a fabulous tapestry, bringing together elements ranging from music to the Orthodox Church, Pushkin to Akhmatova, Glinka to Shostakovich, Turgenev to Solzhenitsyn. Not only a marvellously informative history, but a fantastic read as well.


Saturday, July 10, 2004

Bach, pianos and a 'marauding Tartar'

ACD in Sounds and fury has an inspiring post at the moment about Wanda Landowska's playing of Bach. Nice to come across this while I'm in the process of checking out three different versions of the English Suite No.3 on behalf of a pianist friend who is performing it next week and is curious about who does what with it.

My three versions are Glenn Gould (1974), Rosalyn Tureck (1948) and Andras Schiff (1988). Each of them treats Bach with absolute respect. None of them allows their own personality to be subsumed in that respect. Instead, each individual, with all his or her quirks and idiosyncracies, joins forces with Bach to produce a unified vision of this intensely powerful and beautiful work. My personal top choice - after much chewing of cud - is narrowly the Tureck, which is available on a VAI disc called Rosalyn Tureck: The Young Visionary. She once famously said to Landowska: 'You play Bach your way. I'll play it HIS way.'

The following may be sacrilege to some, but I don't like the Gould recording. If madness and genius are as close as people say, I do feel Gould tips the balance in the wrong direction. Schiff sings and dances his way through the work in a truly uplifting spirit, achieving a little more weightiness with slightly slower tempi. I'd choose Tureck because she brings an extra awe-struck inwardness to the Sarabande, and the lightness of her articulation is staggeringly impressive, especially in the Gigue.

What I will be most curious about now is what my mate Rustem Hayroudinoff makes of it when he performs it at the Petworth Festival on 26 July. For any pianist, young or otherwise, approaching Bach is a daunting task. You have to ride on the crest of a wave that consists not only of all the arguments pro and contra playing Bach on the piano at all, but also the outstanding interpretations that have gone before you.

I should introduce Rustem to you. I first came across him ten years ago, when he was relatively new to London, fresh out of the Moscow Conservatory. He's proud to be a Tartar, from Kazan, and he happily marauds his way through life with a few assets: superlative playing, a quick brain and sharp eye and a sense of humour that spares nothing and nobody. He has so many hair-raising stories of life in Russia, people who take shameful advantage of naive youngsters from foreign parts and, not least, corruption in piano competitions, that I often tease him by saying he'd make his fortune fastest if he wrote his memoirs.

For reasons too complex to go into here, he has had some bad luck from time to time which means that he has not yet become the household name that maybe he ought to be. However, when he found a volume of Shostakovich Theatre Music arranged for piano and realised that most of it had never been recorded, it was his sheer creativity and persistence that resulted in this becoming his first solo disc for Chandos a few years ago. The disc bowled over not only me but several other critics as well with its wit and vitality and Chandos sensibly signed him up for more. Earlier this year his CD of the complete Rachmaninov Preludes came out to universal acclaim (have a look at the reviews on his website), and a delicious CD of the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata with cellist Alexander Ivashkin was hot on its heels. At last many critics are realising that Rustem has more to say - and a more beautiful way of saying it - than many far more famous note-bashers of his generation.

You can hear him, if you're in London, on the afternoon of 25 July at the Chopin Society; and at the Petworth Festival in West Sussex the next day. The programme includes a substantial Chopin selection and, of course, the Bach English Suite No.3. All his discs are available from Amazon and I can't recommend them highly enough.