Monday, December 13, 2004

Blowing my orchestra-in-law's trumpet...

...without shame! Because yesterday they played a favourite piece of mine that I have never heard in a live concert before. And it's by TCHAIKOVSKY.

I'm always astonished by the amount of music I learned as a kid simply by virtue of being a ballet nut. Tchaikovsky's Suite No.3 - at least, its Theme & Variations - was transformed into a Balanchine hit for New York City Ballet. As a teenager going to see them at the ROH, I had, I guess, a relatively enquiring mind: I heard this substantial final movement and went out to look for a recording of the complete thing. Loved it to bits. Haven't heard it since. Yesterday Vladimir Jurowski finished the Festival Hall concert with it and I sat there in seventh heaven listening to the first movement, which contains the sort of Tchaikovsky melody that could make me turn cartwheels of ecstasy if there were room in row G of the RFH to do so.

What annoys me was that this concert should have been sold out and it wasn't. The name Mark Anthony Turnage beside the opening piece put off probably 20% of possible capacity. The unfamiliarity of the words Suite No.3 beside the familiar word Tchaikovsky put off probably around another 10%. The Rachmaninov Rhapsody in the middle didn't do much to help, despite flavour-of-the-month youngish Russian Nikolai Lugansky as soloist.

What annoys me even more, incidentally, is Lugansky himself. Oh please. What do people see in this ultradigital cold fish? He has a hard-edged sound, a forearm-dominated technique and apparent total lack of capacity to either be moved by his music or move others with it?!? OK, he played all the right notes in the right places. SO WHAT? What is the earthly use of being able to do that if you have nothing to say? But he got a tremendous ovation, so I guess people don't WANT piano playing to say anything except right notes any more. GRRRRRRRRRRRRR. Please, next time, can we have Grigory Sokolov instead...?

Friday, December 10, 2004

Eastward ho!

I've been to Estonia this week to do a travel feature for BBC Music Magazine and something for The Strad. The trip was courtesy of Warner Classics, who took me and several other journalists there to meet a very glamorous female conductor named Anu Tali who has her own project orchestra in Tallinn, and a twin sister, Kadri, who is her manager. Live wires, both of them, and easy to see why Warners are so keen to get her on board.

Tallinn is extremely beautiful. As in Vilnius, the outskirts are grey, Soviet and awful, but then you go through an ancient archway into the old city and suddenly you're in fairyland - medieval Hanseatic houses, cobbled streets, pretty churches, a wonderfully restored Russian cathedral towering at the top of the hill...and the restaurants are marvellous. The City Council treated the entire Warner group to lunch at Old Hansa, entirely in medieval style with candlelight, wooden trestle tables, murals, hefty wooden staircases and 14th-century recipes which were fabulous: salmon with hazelnuts, turnips with ginger, liver pate, wild berry preserves etc etc, not to mention honey beer and spiced wine. Estonian for 'cheers' is Terviseks, a word that, predictably, was much mis-quoted by some members of our party...

The concert hall is small and sweet with a pleasing, clear acoustic. The contemporary music that we heard was laden with Sibelian influences. The composer who most impressed me was Tormis, who was featured several times in Anu's concert; I was less thrilled by a 1984 minimalist symphony by the late Sumera; mixed feelings about a dance suite by Tubin. All of it sounded pretty good until the programme suddenly turned up some Tchaikovsky - the letter scene from Onegin - upon which everything else somewhat paled.

Tallinn was altogether easier to be in than Vilnius. No tears, no pain, less seedy, less historically significant, better kept, further advanced in westernisation terms, less religious, less intense and - because of all this - not quite as interesting either.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Monday cheesiness

This is one of those moments when I find myself engaging in serious blessing-counting. Brought on not least by hearing Steven Osborne play the whole of Messiaen's Vingt Regards at the Wigmore Hall on Friday evening, which left me high as a kite all weekend.

I feel unbelievably privileged to be able to be at such a performance. Let alone after hearing Florez at Covent Garden, plus the Shostakovich concert and going to Paris (disastrous or not) in the space of one week. And today I'm off to Estonia with the Warner Classics team! Because I went to Vilnius, now everyone thinks I have a special interest in the Baltics, which is fine with me.

I can't believe how lucky I am to have a life that I enjoy, with a husband who is also my duo partner and a beautiful piano that I can play (theoretically) at any time of day or night without disturbing anyone. I value my family, my friends, my colleagues and my cat immensely and try never to take any of them for granted. Although I'm not a full-time professional musician, music fills every corner of my life and affects everything that I do; and I am glad to have some kind of talent for putting this into words to help convey it to other people.

This probably sounds horribly cheesy or something (not quite sure what the correct mot du jour is), but suffice it to say that I had a truly awful time in my 20s and more in my early 30s while my mother and father and sister died of cancer in succession. The result is that now I appreciate the good times like there's no tomorrow.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

The trouble with Dmitry

....I'm being forced to rethink my fairly grim dislike of Shostakovich symphonies in the light of a stunning performance of the 'Leningrad' last night by the WDR Orchestra from Cologne, conducted by Semyon Bychkov. I still think the slow movement goes on too long, but I was on the edge of my seat for much of the rest. Bychkov brought out many aspects of the music that were conspicuous by their absence last time I heard it. It had heart. It had soul. It had some of that sardonic humour that I find the most appealing quality in Shostakovich.

So I guess my trouble with Dmitry is not the composer's fault after all. It is actually Kurt Masur's. I never sit through one of these mammoth symphonies unless I absolutely have to - and when I do have to, it tends to be because Masur is conducting Tom & co! To our own dear maestro, it is all desperately serious and gloomy and scarey. Bychkov showed that within the gloom, there can still be fun.

Impressed too with the WDR Orchestra, which is extremely consistent: every section is as good as every other, without any weak links; the ensemble in the strings is fantastic; and they all gave the piece everything they've got. They sound - intriguingly - like an orchestra that is decently paid, well fed and rested and thoroughly rehearsed; and that played all the better for it. Some mystique in the UK says that you can't pay musicians a good living wage, let them get enough food and sleep or enable them to rehearse any symphony for more than three sessions, because somehow the end result won't be exciting enough if they don't live on a personal knife edge. What utter BOL****S. Thanks to WDR for proving otherwise.

And they were providing sausages backstage for the players. Seriously.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The sound of genius

To the Royal Opera House last night for Don Pasquale, with Juan Diego Florez as Ernesto. The production is by Jonathan Miller. The critics have been a bit sniffy about it. But when Florez opens his mouth, you stop caring about anything else.

I don't believe I've ever heard a voice like this before, and I've heard a few good ones. It is so pure, so 'true', so focused; the sound is powerful, but the phrasing so musical and so filled with expressive intelligence that it makes most other big-time tenors (such as they are) seem crass by comparison. It's like the sound of Heifetz playing the violin in many respects and the effect is the same: you can do nothing but submit in astonishment and gratitude that such a thing exists on this planet and you have been lucky enough to encounter it. If we have a Caruso, this guy is it. He's good-looking too, but with sounds like this, one might not care if he wasn't (and his costume & make-up for this 18th-century-styled production made as little of those looks as it possibly could). And heavens, he's only 31 - where does he go from here?