Monday, May 03, 2004

Matzo pudding competition!

One or two of you have asked 'What on earth is a matzo pudding?' and - other than the obvious Fuss Over Franck - I have to admit I've never tried one. SO: the person who posts on the blog the best-ever Matzo Pudding Recipe will receive a free surprise CD from me! Closing date: 21 May 2004.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Cesar Franck and the matzo pudding

Is giving a concert simply all in a day's work to most pros? For those of us who do a handful of concerts a year and really ought to be doing something else, it sure isn't. Our Clapham gig is next Saturday and I do find myself wishing that I could fast-forward through to Sunday morning (well, maybe Monday, to avoid hangover) - to have the satisfaction of having done the concert without having to experience the excruciating mental pain of sitting at a piano in front of an audience, being obliged to play the Cesar Franck Violin Sonata straight through, up to tempo, without too many wrong notes...

Last week, the pianist Paul Hamburger died; he was one of the great accompanists. His obituary in The Guardian quoted him as having said that the hardest thing he ever had to play was the opening of the Franck's second movement. So there we are, it's not just me creating what my father would have called (bless him) 'a matzo pudding'.

Yesterday, however, produced something intriguing. We watched a programme on TV about the BBC Young Musician of the Year - a sort of condensed version of the semi-finals, showing the winners of each section and filming them at home, etc etc. There was little Benjamin, practising his Ravel G major concerto with a metronome and looking completely calm. Next, just as the percussion was coming on, the phone rang: it was Daniel Hope, who I'd been trying to get hold of for an interview earlier on. I talked to him for a while and got some amazing stories of the things he has to deal with on a day-to-day basis - among them, replacing the Berg Violin Concerto with a Brahms sonata at the last moment because an orchestra in South America had copied out its own parts for the concerto and the publisher was threatening to sue for music piracy...Blimey, as if playing the violin isn't tough enough in the first place! Evidently he has never a dull moment - indeed, perhaps he thrives on the adrenalin. It's all about attitude in the end, isn't it?

When I'd finished talking to Daniel, Tom was practising. He declared he'd been inspired by the kids on TV and wanted to play the beginning of the Franck again. We started with the intention of playing 2 pages, but before we knew it we'd gone through the entire thing and played it better than ever before. At the end, Tom said: 'It's amazing how much you can learn from watching an 11-year-old!'

SAD NEWS - an e-mail yesterday from pianist Lars Vogt telling me of the death of Boris Pergamenschikow, the Russian cellist. Quite a shock - Boris was 55 and had been very much in the thick of musical events, tremendously sought after as soloist, chamber music player and teacher. He had had cancer for two years. Another lesson in attitude. Don't go around making 'matzo puddings', because you are wasting energy you could be putting into achieving all the things you want to achieve in what is necessarily limited time.

Friday, April 30, 2004

That was the week that was...

Quite a week, this one. The morning after the prodigy wonder on TV, some major drama took place at the LPO: Maria Joao Pires cancelled her Chopin Second Concerto at about two days' notice. What pianist can fly in and play this piece in just 48 hours?

Tim Walker, the LPO chief exec, made an inspired choice: Nelson Goerner, Argentinian, in his early 30s, an Argerich protege and one of the younger pianists I most admire. Personally I felt that the conductor, Emanuel Krivine, could have given him a little more space to breathe, but he played wonderfully, with a clear and singing tone and a super balance between energy and poetry. I interviewed Nelson a couple of years ago for International Piano and found him delightful, completely unpretentious and straightforward yet someone who 'really knows' music. He's short in stature but great of heart. We hope he'll come back soon.

The same concert was important to me as well: this was my LPO debut. At last they asked me to write some programme notes! Dearly as I love my orchestra-in-law, it's impossible, if you go to lots of their concerts, not to notice that most of their programme notes have been recycled over years and years, and are now a little dated and not quite the thing for a modern audience... So I hope that that policy is changing and it was wonderful to have the chance to research this programme - four of my biggest favourites, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Ravel and Debussy.

Programme notes are the only thing a music journalist can write and then see a hall-full of people actually reading. My most frightening programme note moment: a few years ago I did notes for a Faure song series at the Wigmore and arrived one evening to spot, a few rows in front of me, Vikram Seth...

A BIG PARTY last night to launch the 2004 Proms, and great fun it was. There's a 'silk road' strand to it, which involves Yo-Yo Ma's latest world-music ensemble, and as the British Library is having a silk road exhibition, the party happened in the British Library foyer, crowded but buzzing. Lots of champagne, beer and truly excellent canapes - and of course this is one of the prime music biz networking events of the year. Even Norman Lebrecht was there.

In between talking gossip and scandal, frustration and excitement and Who Did What To Whom, proms director Nick Kenyon ('old Nick' to the biz) announced a programme that I for one think looks a lot of fun. A few things jumped out at me: Truls Mork playing the Dvorak concerto, Paul Lewis playing some Mozart, the Glyndebourne Prom with the scrumptious Vladimir Jurowski conducting the Puccini/Rachmaninov double bill from the forthcoming season, and, rather to my satisfaction, lots of Elgar! No Faure or Korngold, of course, but you can't have everything...I keep hoping....

MEANWHILE, MANY THANKS to everyone who dropped me a line to wish my shoulder better. Glad to say that it is making excellent progress, under the ministrations of a fabulous local physiotherapist who also looks after the British Olympic rowing team.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

BBC Young Genius of the Year?

He's like a Mini-Mee of John Ogdon: a plump 11-year-old Essex boy with a brace on his teeth. 'Benjamin, what did you enjoy most about it?' a bemused Stephanie Hughes asks him. 'Um, being in front of an audience and playing to them, 'cos that's what I like doing,' comes the answer, half smiled, half mumbled. Just before this exchange, little Benjamin has been out on the platform, playing the piano with a maturity of expression and beautiful roundness of tone that any 30-year-old pro would be proud of.

Yes, it's the BBC Young Musician of the Year again and this is exactly what it's for: discovering talents like that of Benjamin Grosvenor, who's clearly destined for great things. Of course he's only 11 and has a long way to grow, but most of us know a genius when we hear one.

But there's controversy going on too, and it's not about Benjamin or even the competition itself, which is always controversial ("exploiting young people to make good telly"?). It's the way it's being shown. The final is on BBC2 on Sunday 2nd May, but the semi-finals this week are only on digital channel BBC4 and most of the population can't get BBC4. Marginalisastion of the arts, everyone shouts. (Apologies to my international readers: here in Little Britain we habitually fall between floorboards and then spend more time howling that it hurts than we do filling in the cracks.)

I don't want the arts marginalised any more than anyone else does, but I do have a problem with that viewpoint. First, the digital channels are brand new. The idea that moving the YMoY semis to a new channel means a downward shift in arts policy from the Beeb itself is a little shaky - presumably if they had had a digital channel to move this to 10 years ago, they would have done so. Secondly, the snail's pace at which the government wants to convert all TV to digital and switch off analogue (by 2010?) means that people haven't much incentive to spend £99 on a digital box. Yet when you think how much your average Brit usually spends on a night out in the pub binge-drinking, £99 doesn't sound so much. BBC4 is an arts channel. Those of us who pay our licence fee but loathe panel games have never had one of those before.

Of course a performance like Benjamin's should have been on terrestrial national TV. However, one doesn't generally expect to hear anything like this on YMoY. 'Historical' moments don't come often and while the other young pianists on the show were very talented, they didn't make me stop cooking dinner. Most years, that's how most of the players are. But when young Benjamin gets out there to do his concerto on Sunday, BBC2 will indeed be there. And with any luck by Monday morning he's going to be a household name.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Mostly dead pianists and slidey violins

Got a nice message yesterday from a friend in New York saying he'd post a comment here, but only if I wrote something about Long-Dead Musicians. So here we go.

With so many historical recordings widely available, and many modern ones intensely uninspiring, it figures that we're listening more and more to the former, even becoming obsessed with them. When 'International Piano Quarterly' first started up, I found it difficult to spot any mention in it of a pianist who was alive. But then, when I came to write my big survey of 51 recordings of the Chopin B minor Sonata, guess which I chose...yes, dead pianists, namely Lipatti and Cortot. Still, I wouldn't like to deify the dead for the sake of it; it's unfair to the living. I reckon that pianists like Zimerman, Argerich and Sokolov can give anyone six feet under a jolly good run for their money.

Recently I put together a CD for fun, just a few of my favourite things...The recordings date from 1928 to 2003: the oldest is Myra Hess playing 'Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring', the newest Gil Shaham's Faure Album, and my top favourite is the Waltz from Rachmaninov's Suite No.2 for two pianos, recorded in Moscow in the 1940s by Alexander Goldenweiser and Grigori Ginsburg. Some of the musicians on my CD are indeed long-dead - Thibaud and Cortot, Mravinsky, Gerald Moore - and others play as if maybe they ought to be...the pianists because they have profundity, beautiful tone and imagination, the violinists because they SLIDE. There's nothing on earth that kicks out the bottom of my stomach like a slidey violin. (That vulnerability has got me into serious trouble on occasion... and may partly account for my marriage...)

What do the old-time musicians have that modern-day ones don't, other than acoustic crackles? This is, naturally, a massive oversimplification, but here's my theory:

* They lived through harder times, when people were not shielded from the realities of death, disease, war etc. Better perspective on life and its emotions = better perspective and more depth in music.

* They didn't have TV to trivialise everything. Or spin doctors, air travel, marketing executives and a music industry run largely by people who either have been selling frozen food or ought to be.

* They were, on the whole, deriving interpretations from times and influences far closer to the composers they played than today's musicians. And nobody tried to tell them that they weren't allowed to play Bach on the piano, or with vibrato & portamento on the violin.

I could go on like this for ages, but instead, here are a few recommendations:

Jacques Thibaud and Alfred Cortot playing Faure's Violin Sonata No.1 (1931)

Cortot playing just about ANYTHING - sod the wrong notes, listen to the tone and the drama (this man once worked as a repetiteur in Bayreuth)

Rudolf Serkin, the Busch Chamber Players and Adolf Busch playing Mozart Piano Concerto No.14

Pablo Casals playing the Bach cello suites. And, speaking of cellos, anything recorded by Emanuel Feuermann.

That recording of Menuhin aged 14 playing the Elgar violin concerto with Elgar conducting

Toscha Seidel and Erich Korngold playing Korngold' Much Ado About Nothing Suite. Yummy.