Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Mayerling. Twice.

As a teenager, I used to be a ballet nut and now - after a long gap - I've resumed. Discovering a few friends who are also ballet nuts is a help - one of my more depressing experiences was watching my husband nod off quietly while Alina Cojocaru performed the Rose Adage, and discovering afterwards that he didn't know the story of The Sleeping Beauty. Upshot is I've been to see 'Mayerling' twice in two weeks.

'Mayerling', based on the true story of Prince Rudolf, heir to the Hapsburg empire, and his suicide pact with his teenaged mistress Mary Vetsera at the Mayerling hunting lodge, is real dance theatre. It achieves theatrical coups that you might not think ballet could deal with - the subtle (and less subtle) relationship between Rudolf and his ex-girlfriend; the frightening cross-currents in the various pas de deux (on his wedding night, after he has terrified his bride Stephanie with his favourite foreplay toys, a pistol and a skull, why does she still run after him and fling herself, literally, around his shoulders?); and ultimately the meeting of soulmates, even if those soulmates are people that most of us wouldn't want to go within 100 miles of. It makes you care passionately about the most unappealing of all possible characters, and cry when they kill each other. How does Kenneth MacMillan do it?

MacMillan was nothing short of a choreographic genius, but the answer - in part - has also got to be the music: Liszt, patchworked together by the expert arranger John Lanchbery. The late Lanchbery was a one-off. He made numerous arrangements for Frederick Ashton: La fille mal gardée, The Tales of Beatrix Potter, A Month in the Country and more. For 'Mayerling', he carefully selected, orchestrated and tailored to MacMillan's needs a tremendous range of Liszt - we spotted Soirees de Vienne, the Faust Symphony, Vallee d'Obermann, Funerailles, Chasse-neige, Harmonies du Soire, Paysage, a Valse oubliee, the Mephisto Waltz (brilliantly used in the tavern scene) and much more. Liszt was an inspired choice of composer - apart from the fact that he knew and performed to this whole bunch of mad, ghastly Hapsburgs, his music can steep you in romanticism and make you suspend your early 21st-century ironic detachment like nobody except possibly his son-in-law Wagner. Lanchbery is an undersung musical hero and deserves a standing ovation in his own right.

'Mayerling' is a powerful, at times devastating evening out - frighteningly exhilarating and cathartic - and I can't recommend it highly enough. Book online at the Royal Opera House link left.

PS - Delighted to find a Comment posting from harpist Helen Radice, a fellow classical music blogger. If you enjoyed the post about musicians' mad travel schedules, try hers - you ain't seen nothing yet! Link on the left.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Wonderful books old and new

Hooray for the internet!

Good books on music are ever rarer and go out of print ever faster. When I was researching my Faure book, I stumbled across a volume in the Barbican library called 'Saint-Saens and his Circle' by James Harding. Published in 1965, it brings the era and its personalities to life with a vividness and elegance that eludes most of the more musicological writers. Of course, it's long out of print. I'm currently working on a piece to trail Steven Isserlis's Saint-Saens Festival, which begins next month, so a couple of weeks ago I headed for the Barbican to refresh my memory. Got there to find the library was closed...when it should definitely have been open. Westminster Music Library has strange opening hours which don't suit me too well. Local authority libraries here in South West London don't seem to have heard of Saint-Saens.

But I now have my own beautiful, good-as-new copy of this elusive little book, thanks to the internet. Devoted buyers and sellers of second-hand books have spurred on the creation of a number of sites that pull together huge numbers of second-hand book dealers all over the world - among them (I also like but it's based somewhere in the American mid-west and most purchases get sent there first!). You can search for a title or author and at once up comes a list of those outlets which have one to sell, everywhere from Leigh on Sea to Nebraska. You can write to the bookseller, or simply order and pay online and a day or two later the book is at your door - in this case, for the same price as two or three train trips from Mortlake to the British Library. I've also run to earth a long out-of-print biog of Turgenev by V S Pritchett and a lovely hardback of Turgenev's letters.

Now all I need is time to read them!

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, a brand new book arrived in a parcel from Classic FM Magazine: 'Claude Debussy as I knew him' and other writings by Arthur Hartmann. I hadn't come across Hartmann before, but it seems he was a well-known violinist in the first half of last century and knew everyone who was anyone; he was also blessed with the ability to write beautifully about his acquaintances. Born in Philadelphia to Hungarian parents, Hartmann did, however, reinvent himself, writing his own press releases and making out that he too was born in Hungary - even, apparently, speaking with a phoney foreign accent and apologising for his English! (But we know musicians who do this even today...). It includes a number of letters from Debussy and Emma Debussy to Hartmann, as well as meaty chapters about Hartmann's teachers Ysaye and Loeffler. A treasure of a book, published by University of Rochester Press.

Friday, March 19, 2004

Coleridge-Taylor and South Africa: a personal testament...

Written through a growing pile of tissues...My work doesn't often induce tears, but this is an exception.

Philippe Graffin's new CD landed on the doormat yesterday, fresh from Avie. As I mentioned before, it's the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Violin Concerto's world premiere recording plus its perfect companion piece, the Dvorak. Philippe is accompanied by the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Michael Hankinson.

Accompanied by WHAT, you ask?

The JPO was founded in 2000 after the disbanding of the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra. It represents a desperate struggle to keep classical music alive in South Africa at a time when the country is beset by vast and terrifying problems. Sheer determination on the part of the musicians seems to be behind this phoenix rising from the ashes of a cultural relativism from the state that is understandable but depressing. This is the JPO's first commercial recording. The booklet photos prove that the orchestra is racially mixed; their playing proves that they pull together towards one goal; and Coleridge-Taylor - racially mixed himself and with 'more talent in his little finger' than the rest of his composition class had in their entire bodies, according to his teacher, Stanford - is the perfect figure for this debut.

I got involved with this CD through a set of extraordinary coincidences. Back in August 2002, I was doing some freelance sub-editing for The Strad and on my desk landed an article about the history of the Coleridge-Taylor Violin Concerto, by the American president of the Maud Powell Society, Karen A. Shaffer. It was fascinating, but the editor felt it needed a little tweaking and some extra background. This was entrusted to me and I ended up taking it home to edit and research there. It was published in the November 2002 edition.

A year later, Philippe told me that he was about to record the concerto. That's funny, I said, I've still got an article about it by someone else on my computer, here it is by e-mail.... After another six months, I was thrilled to get a surprise call from Simon Foster asking me to write the booklet notes.

But it's only now that I've seen and heard the finished CD that the significance of this project has really hit me - and its significance for me personally.

My parents were both born in Johannesburg and left in the 1950s. They were both music-lovers, brought together by their passion for music and the lack of such enthusiasm in those around them. My mother once told me that she'd had the opportunity to come to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music and her father refused to let her go. They hated apartheid and also longed for the music, opera and ballet that was available to them in London. Later, when I was growing up, all my parents' friends in London were South African emigres too, many of them exiled for political affiliations, involvement with anti-apartheid campaigns or educational activities and consciousness-raising in the townships. My father, a neuropathologist, later told me he was an outside consultant in the Steve Biko inquest.

My father had studied at the University of the Witwatersrand - which happens to be where Philippe and the JPO made this recording. Dad refused to go back to South Africa for several decades; in his last years, however, after the fall of apartheid, he took to spending the winters in Cape Town. I spent two weeks there with him in 1996 when he was already terminally ill - a time that now provides treasured memories.

That visit was my first since childhood. I've always shied away from South Africa and all it represents for me and my family. A massive sense of guilt at my family background; a revulsion at the country that could invent and keep in place such a horrific system for so long; a hatred of the philistine outlook and lack of cultural appreciation; the introversion of so much of the Jewish community (even before I was 18 my grandfather was on at me about marrying a nice Jewish boy); the rift between my own interests and those of so many of my cousins, who no doubt think I'm barking mad. South Africa is a loaded issue.

So, when Philippe said to me last December, 'Don't you want to go to South Africa?' I could only say that I didn't. Yet any journalist with half a brain would have looked at this project and headed straight for Heathrow. As Philippe says in his introductory note, vast numbers of black children in South Africa are now learning the violin - he's seen this for himself - and he compares it to the ghettoes of Vilna and Warsaw where so many great violinists of the past originated. Many Jewish emigres from Lithuania went to South Africa; did they in some way bring passion for the violin with them and take it into the townships? Among those Lithuanian emigres were my father's grandparents...

This could have been a massive story: the concerto, the orchestra, the kids...and I didn't do it. Now I'm wondering whether anyone else will either. If not, it's tragic.

And yet, I find that I've ended up being a small part of a production that would have represented the fulfilment of my parents' dreams, had they lived to see it. In Johannesburg, where this CD will probably sell well, there are many people who remember them and will recognise our name. Can one dedicate booklet notes in a CD? If so - these are dedicated to the memory of my parents: Myra (1932-1994) and Leo (1928-1996).

That's why I've been having a good howl today.

Philippe - if you read this - thank you.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Fame: are they gonna live forever?

Great musicians...oh yes, they exist and many of them are properly recognised. Argerich, Barenboim, Zimerman, Lupu... But the way the wheels of the music business turn, on the next strata down there's a lot of confusion about who is a great musician and who simply looks good on a front cover or has a journalisable hobby such as keeping fierce wild animals. The famous artists are not necessarily the great ones; and vice-versa.

Andrew Clements wrote an absolute stinker of a review about Leif Ove Andsnes in The Guardian the other day, saying, basically, that he can't see what all the fuss is about. Andsnes is a really sweet guy and various of my female colleagues think he's gorgeous. But compare him on purely artistic grounds to a pianist like Grigory Sokolov...hmmm...

Hopefully, if you're reading my blog, you already know who Sokolov is. In case not: he is a big Russian bear of a pianist, a one-time protege of Gilels. His face on a poster is not going to make teenagers swoon, but he is the one pianist I've heard in the last couple of years who has made me rethink everything I ever thought about the piano. His playing is so intense, so concentrated, so beautiful and so wide-ranging in style, dynamic and imagination, from Couperin to Prokofiev, that most others look pallid in comparison. He has a following among the cognoscecnti. But shouldn't people be queuing out past the Thames to hear artistry of this calibre? Meanwhile I've heard about one award a few years ago that involved a shortlist of fine musicians...allegedly selected not least because they also looked good on magazine covers.

I don't think there's any secret about any of this - the music business has worked like this for years - but it does get up my nose because it seems that the way to have your piano recital album hit the charts is now to hug wolves in your spare time. With too many competitions and too much corruption in the awarding of prizes, means of making sensible, independent choices about rising stars have diminished somewhat. Therefore decisions about who gets the recording contracts and the promotion campaigns seems to be increasingly a matter of one person's whim somewhere at the top of a company. That person has to know what they're doing and one can't help wondering, occasionally, whether they really do.

Actually they know exactly what they're doing. But that doesn't always involve signing up musicians on artistic grounds alone.

On that merry note, I'm off to Berlin to interview one of the exceptions: Daniel Barenboim.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Korngold rides again

Opened The Guardian this morning to find a massive article about Erich Wolfgang Korngold and his two finest operas, Die tote Stadt and Das Wunder der Heliane, staring back at me. By Martin Kettle! Not a moment too soon, EWK's going mainstream. There's a new production of Die tote Stadt in Berlin, which seems to have prompted this latest article, and the year 2007 will mark the 50th anniversary of his death and the 110th anniversary of his birth. Read Martin's article at,12102,1167046,00.html

Someone needs to do something about the anniversary. Lots of people need to do lots of things. Most of all, someone needs to stage Die tote Stadt in Britain. In its illustrious lifetime, this absolute bloody masterpiece has received just one concert performance in Britain - by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra, essentially a bunch of highly talented amateur musicians (extremely good it was too!). Last year I badgered Glyndebourne about it for all I was worth, only to receive the rather glum outlook that the orchestra pit probably isn't big enough.

Come on, ENO, come on, Covent Garden, what are you waiting for?