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.

Thursday, July 08, 2004


Wow! I've just learned how to insert html to make links in my text! After nearly 5 months!!! Can't quite do pics yet because Blogger recommends an online storage system that isn't compatible with Macs, but I've managed to load a link to an online picture from my Vilnius photo album into the entry about the trip and I hope this works.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

London grumblesport

I was planning to spend this afternoon happily writing a substantial article about Faure. Instead I spent it trying to get home.

This morning I trotted off to the Barbican to interview Rostropovich. I'd met him very briefly in Vilnius - he was staying in the same hotel as me and I accosted him as 'Maestro' (which is what everyone seems to call him) when I spotted him waiting for the lift one afternoon. What a charmer he is, apart from being everyone's hero and a direct link to Prokofiev, Shostakovich and most other great Russian musicians of the 20th century. Even now I find it impossible not to be a little awe-struck by the presence of an iconic individual and the necessity to get him to talk into my tape recorder. At the end, I confessed that the cello is my favourite instrument and that if I had my time over again, that's what I would play (I've never tried it, though used to play the violin rather badly). He promptly declared that, should I ever take it up, I should let him know and he would be my teacher.


Thence home to write...or so I thought.

The Waterloo & City line shuttles one stop, from Bank to Waterloo, in 5 minutes. Normally. Today my train promptly broke down, sat in the tunnel for about 40 minutes and proved 'dangerous to move'. So they drafted in a train behind, moved everyone onto it and took us back to Bank to find an Alternative Route. When I finally got to Waterloo, nothing was moving there either - there was a fallen tree on a line. Today was a little wet and windy. You'd think that the one thing Britain would be able to cope with is rain...but no... Eventually I found a train whose driver had, remarkably, turned up. Got as far as Richmond, where Tom kindly fetched me. Then we sat in traffic for half an hour. Total journey time Barbican-to-sunny-Sheen: 2hrs 30mins. That was my afternoon, and my priority now is swallowing a large glass of strong red wine, rather than writing about the subtle legacy of my favourite French genius.

Perhaps it's time to take up the cello, move to Moscow and study with Maestro instead. You don't get an offer like that every day. And I understand the Moscow metro system is excellent.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Thoughts about both ends of the spectrum

I've had some extreme experiences in the past week. Back from Vilnius, I plunged straight into training for something which, if I'm accepted at the end, will be a useful new string to my bow: examining for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. Training at this stage consists of a number of days spent with a 'real' examiner, out on the road marking 'real' exams. The last couple of days, I've trecked off at crack of dawn to do this. It's a real challenge, hard work and very interesting too.

Perhaps the nicest exams are the 'preparatory tests' - sessions for teenies who have been playing for just a few months. On Thursday we had a string of nine little violin players, aged somewhere between six and eight, taking this informal test. They have to play three tunes from memory, then two pieces which the examiner has to accompany, and then do some 'listening games' (transformed, at Grade 1, into aural tests) involving clapping, singing and listening. That day, we had a grand piano. It struck me that many kids have never seen inside one before. Instead of concentrating on their clapping along while I played, several of the kids stood beside the piano with their eyes on stalks and their mouths open as they watched the hammers going up and down!

It's fabulous to watch and listen to world-class string players like Philippe and Nobuko, their bows going hell-for-leather like rapiers, their tones projecting unique personalities and eloquent expression right to the back of Vilnius's Filharmonja. But even they were once kids who, one day, picked up a small violin for the first time. Everyone has to start somewhere. I'm learning so much from this training: you can see at once which children have been well taught and which haven't (if I had kids and lived in north London, I'd now know exactly which piano teacher to send them to!). It's sometimes said that all children are musical - but it does appear to be true that some have a more natural flair, a sharper ear, a more inherent sense of rhythm, than others.

Yesterday my brother invited me to lunch with him, his very pregnant girlfriend and some friends of theirs who have two tiny children. Feeling a tad out of things on the talk about kiddies, I sat down at the piano and tinkled away at some Chopin. Result: a fascinated two-year-old, wanting to have a go at making a noise on the keyboard. Most small children do seem to be fascinated by music and musical instruments; the challenge must be how to make it part of their lives before some stupid bigger kid at school tells them that music isn't cool. Music IS cool. Music is the coolest thing on earth - as boys sometimes discover when they hit their teens and want to impress girls. (Listen, lads, nothing pulls the girls like playing a musical instrument well. Especially the violin... or, um, is that just me?!) But by the time they realise this, it's usually too late.

Here's a little exhortation to parents who want their kids to be musical. Don't leave it to school to do it for you, because it won't happen (at least, not in Britain!). Instead, play music at home every day. Play music morning and night, on the CD player or the radio or, preferably, play it yourself on a real live musical instrument. Make it an essential part of your own life while your children are still babies, and soon they won't be able to do without it either.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Vibrato in Vilnius

Back from Vilnius, reeling a bit. Four incredibly intense days of walking, looking, listening, talking, tasting, paying tribute... I'll be writing about it 'properly', but here are some initial impressions.

I went on the invitation of the Vilnius Festival, thanks (of course) to Philippe Graffin who, with Nobuko Imai, was playing the new Duo Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra by Vytautas Barkauskas. There is a great deal of interest in the place at the moment thanks to Lithuania's accession to the EU, so it seemed a marvellous 'diem' to 'carpe'.

Vilnius is a city divided both physically and mentally. The old town, paradoxically, seems newest. It has been lovingly renovated with WHF grants and is now full of souvenir shops, little restaurants and such like, including my hotel, the Stikliai, which was utterly gorgeous (though we had a day of heavy rain and my ceiling developed 3 leaks!). In a few years' time - not many - there is going to be a tourist boom here. Beyond the old city, however, the town still seems partly immured in 1980s Russia.

The most moving event, among many, was the celebration after the Duo Concertante concert on Sunday evening. 'Vytas' Barkauskas and his wife, Svetlana, invited a number of us back to their flat, where they took enormous pride in gathering and entertaining their friends, far more than most British people generally do. Svetlana prepared masses of food, with sushi in Nobuko's honour and Baron Philippe de Rothschild wine in Philippe's, not to mention an incredible home-made poppyseed cake with DUO written on it in large letters - a recipe, apparently, of 'Vytas's grandmother's. There were toasts, celebrations and conversations in an extraordinary mix of languages (Lithuanian, English, French, German, Russian, Japanese, you name it) until almost 2am. I experienced this kind of warmth and hospitality in Kiev ten years ago. It's a special approach to life: soulful, heartfelt and deeply touching. Barkauskas and I managed to communicate in French, more or less; but when we said goodbye on the last day and I apologised for my lousy vocabulary, he declared that he understands everything with his eyes, head and heart.

On Monday, however, I went to the Jewish Museum. Emerged deeply upset. We've all seen pictures and documents of the Holocaust, but being in a place where it happened - a place very different from Berlin, where memorials and rebuilding have transformed the city - made it feel desperately close. The hotel's immediate vicinity used to be the ghetto. I found the statue of my ancestor the Gaon 20 yards up the road - apparently in the middle of nowhere, but a map in the museum revealed that this open area of ill-kempt grass and Soviet-era offices was where the Great Synagogue once stood. It seated more than 3000 people and was the heart of Jewish life in the town that for so long was a renowned centre of culture, learning and art. The Jerusalem of the North. It was burned down by the Nazis and its ruins were then flattened by the Russians. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were shot in the woods at nearby Ponar.

The museum evidently runs on a shoestring. You can visit Ponar, but I didn't want to. The Gaon, topical though his memorial may be, is tricky to find. My impression of modern-day Lithuanians is that they don't know much about any of this, aren't interested and don't really see why they should be. After all, goes the argument, they were victims too (they were, of course). Even the Mr Big of the music world there - someone who has initiated a couple of festivals of Jewish music and art - said that to them, that world is something historical. Which, I guess, means something that isn't alive any longer. I met and interviewed Vilnius's one Jewish composer, Anatolijus Senderovas, who is writing a ballet score for next year's festival and is a most delightful man. By that time I felt very glad to see him.

They're missing a trick - for one thing, they could make more of their most famous musical son, one Jascha Heifetz. The stage of the Filharmonja, where Philippe and Nobuko played their new piece, was where little Jascha aged about seven made his debut. The morning before we left, several of us went to find Heifetz's birthplace, which Philippe had tracked down. No marking; no celebration. Behind the house, some ancient stables. Heifetz was not perceived as Lithuanian. Therefore, little credit is given to him - other than by crazy journalists, violinists and record producers on bizarre pilgrimmages to his back yard.

Vilnius is full of churches, packed to the rafters on Sunday morning. There is one synagogue - currently closed, apparently because of infighting in the Jewish community.

Food...Dumplings R Us. Potato pancakes R Us too...effectively latkes. Delicious, but a little goes a long way and sits heavy on the stomach. My favourite local food: cold borscht with hot potatoes. My favourite meal experienced in Vilnius: of all things, a Japanese feast on Saturday night with the Barkauskases, Philippe, Nobuko & Simon Foster. A totally international group of six people, only two of whom shared a first language (Svetlana's is Ukranian), eating Japanese food in Lithuania!

The whole trip was an experience that I will remember vividly for the rest of my life. It was part fairy tale, part nightmare, part glorious, part just all too much... More about it will emerge in due course as I start writing my articles.