Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Exciting young musicians to watch

Late September is a hectic time on the London concert circuit. I'm writing a 'round-up' review for The Strad of five concerts this week, all of which feature superlative artists; and I've been lucky enough to hear some exceptional youngsters just starting out on their careers.

Alina Ibragimova is 19 years old and was clearly born to play the violin. She's the daughter of Rinat Ibragimov, principal double bass in the LSO, and studied at the Menuhin School and Guildhall. I first heard her about three years ago in a prizewinners' concert at the South Bank and was struck by her natural musicality, but since then she has developed into something very special. On Friday she performed the Britten concerto - a tall order for any musician, let alone someone so young - at St Luke's, the LSO's education centre in the City. She looks delicate and unaffected on the platform, but nothing stands in the way of her music when she begins to play; the violin becomes part of her and the music pours out straight from the soul. Mesmerising.

Jonathan Biss, a young American pianist who is one of the musicians featured by the Borletti-Buitoni Trust, an organisation that helps selected young artists to become established. Mitsuko Uchida is helping to spearhead the trust and on Sunday she played at the QEH with some of the award winners, including Jonathan, who accompanied fellow-winner the soprano Emma Bell in some Schumann Lieder and later played the Mozart A minor Rondo. It's a brave man indeed who plays that Mozart, a very 'revealing' piece: nothing to hide behind if you can't phrase everything perfectly, balance your counterpoint or convey the subtlest of emotions. Jonathan can, however, and does - with deep sensitivity, beautiful singing tone and real poetry. He too was born to play: his parents are Miriam Fried and Paul Biss and his grandmother was the cellist Raya Garbusova. He's studied at Curtis and even before he was snapped up by BBC Radio 3 New Generations I had heard great things about him from people in the US whose opinions I trust and value. They were right. Emma Bell, too, is someone to watch: bags of personality and a super voice with a big range and great versatility.

The rush continues. To St John's Smith Square this evening for the Chilingirian Quartet and Stephen Coombs (Faure! Yes!), then Truls Mork at St Luke's tomorrow lunchtime, Vengerov and the LSO at the Barbican tomorrow evening, the BBC Symphony Orchestra launching its season with Mahler 2 at the Barbican on Friday and the LPO and Masur doing Beethoven on Saturday. Next week the Wigmore Hall is reopening after its latest refit (and its boss Paul Kildea tells me that, among other things, they have a new chef, which can only be a good thing...). All this confirms what I've always felt: the London music scene really is incredible. I don't believe there's anywhere in the world to match it in terms of quality, quantity and variety.

Monday, September 27, 2004

A critic's best friend... his/her cat. Alex Ross's cat, Penelope, looks as if she could be our Solti's little sister. Apparently she helps Alex with Bartok. Solti has proved his worth on many occasions, most notably over piano recordings. He hates bangy pianists. A couple of years ago I undertook a big comparative review for International Piano Magazine of about 50 different recordings of the Chopin B minor Sonata. Solti curled up near the CD player and sat twitching his ears happily through several top choices - Lipatti, Cortot, Katchen, etc. Enter Nikita Magaloff, however, and he was out of the room in moments.

He was also up in arms (or whiskers?) when I had to do a phone interview with another conductor the other day - and this cat has developed a meow loud enough to be heard through piano and violin being played together. I had to ask Martyn Brabbins to hang on while I shut cat in kitchen so we could have some peace, and added that the cat is called Solti. 'No wonder he won't let you talk!' exclaimed my interviewee.

Paws for thought...

Sunday, September 26, 2004

You look away for 2 minutes and...

...come back to find that cyberspace has gone completely bananas. The blogosphere, anyway. While I've been chilling out in rural and seaside France, Scott Spiegelberg, ACD, Alex Ross, Helen Radice et al have been engaging in a fast and furious debate about the difficulty, indeed the whole point, of writing about music. In blogging etiquette, as it evolves around us by the moment, I'm really too late to add my bit to this as everyone is now moving on to other matters such as the best way to blow the shofar (bravo, Scott, I'm sure you did brilliantly!).

Better late than never, perhaps, but I'll keep it short.

I believe that:

1. Writing about music is basically impossible. Music is a medium sufficient unto itself and its point is that it begins where words end.

2. Nevertheless, we keep trying. Why? Because we love it and want to communicate our love for it to those who haven't had the opportunities to know it as we privileged poseurs have. Yes, I am a privileged poseur (poseuse?) because my parents steeped me in music from well before day 1 and I learned three instruments (good at piano, so-so at fiddle, only ever scared cat with oboe). I'm bloody lucky and I know it.

3. It is fine for us in the PP camp to say that biographical details about composers are irrelevant and music has to speak for itself, but for those trying to find a way in to the classical spheres - which can seem very remote and hostile for exactly that reason - such matters are absolutely invaluable. And we PPs can't afford to ignore that, because if we do then the music we love is going to be cut back and killed off.

4. For some possible solutions, read the piece I wrote for the Indy a few months back. I'm not offering these solutions to the PPs, but I know for a fact that bringing storytelling back into music can help to recruit new audiences. We need new audiences whether we like it or not.

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.


Friday, September 24, 2004

Encroaching shamelessness

I'm informed of the following: first, my PDF download section doesn't work. I couldn't figure out how to get it to work, so I've chopped it. Next, a pragmatic pal said "What's the point of having a website if you don't promote your books on it?", so, swallowing all my Best of British modesty, I have put up a new sidebar section with links to my books on

It's one of the big cultural differences between the UK and the US that in the latter, it's basically expected that you will be proud of your achievements, do all you can to further them and better yourself and the more you earn, the better. In Britain, we are oh so easily embarrassed. We are particularly embarrassed if we commit the cardinal sin of being good at something, of doing something that our friends and colleagues haven't done, of daring to shift above what could be perceived by others as our 'place' in life. We don't like to put ourselves forward or admit that we are ambitious. And heaven forfend that we should be paid for working hard at something we enjoy... this is a Very Big Problem for those of us who enjoy job satisfaction in the arts since we do have to pay the bills like everyone else...

So, yeah, I'm embarrassed to push my own books on my own website. But I can take comfort in the fact that the terms of the publishing contracts are such that I'm not likely ever to see another penny/cent from any of them anyway.