Monday, January 08, 2007

Trio brio

First, here's the feature I wrote about classical music on Youtube for The Independent - out today.

Elated yet again after the trio concert last night. I love living in London: a city where you can hear Jonas Kaufmann on Saturday, the Menuhin-Graffin-Wallfisch Trio on Sunday, the Razumovsky Ensemble on Tuesday (Wigmore again - be there, they're fab), Juan Diego Florez and Natalie Dessay on Thursday, and the LPO in a new work by John McCabe somewhere in between (regret to say that Tom has 'flu and won't be playing in it).

Back to the trio at the Wigmore. A wonderful concert, full of glorious tone, finely gelled musicianship and a beautiful combination of sparkiness, sensuality and intelligence. Philippe, Raphael and Jeremy are all powerfully individual players, but since they've formed themselves into a regular trio, they've been growing together an exciting, creative way, as the best chamber groups ideally should. The hall was full, the atmosphere was terrific and although the Ravel Trio brought the house down, the opportunity to hear Schumann's Trio No.2 in F minor made the evening all the more significant.

It's incredible: I've never heard this thing before. It brims with Clara-themes and Clara-sighs; there's a quote (?) from the song 'Dein Bildnis', a slow movement to die for and a revelatory third movement that lopes along softly in subtle, mysterious fashion, and rhythms in the first movement that I'm convinced Korngold grabbed. How can it be that I've reached the age I am, fortunate enough to be surrounded by classical music at its finest, and I've never heard this piece? Why on earth doesn't it get played more often?!? Philippe, Raphael and Jeremy did it proud.

Fascinating to reflect that these musicians share one big area of common ground other than music: prodigious families. Raphael is the son of the pianist Peter Wallfisch and cellist Anita Lasker (her memoir is required reading); Philippe's father Daniel Graffin is a fascinating artist; and Jeremy's...well! I can't deal with the psychology of this before I've had my third cup of coffee. Probably not even then. All that matters, though, is that they're great musicians and great guys in their own right.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Jose takes the cake

Still reeling after Carmen at Covent Garden last night. I'm glad to report that Jonas Kaufmann is indeed the bees' knees, even more so than anticipated (and I dug out my old glasses so was able, more or less, to see as well as hear).

The production is a tad clunky at times - populist, West-Endish, traditional, with an orange tree, big orange walls complete with shadows, a well-behaved horse for Escamillo and a couple of walk-on roles for Polyanne the donkey, who I'm told has also worked with Placido Domingo. Apparently there were chickens too, but I missed them (wrong glasses?). A massive cut at the beginning of the final act was puzzling. But among a few superb touches are: the opening image to the Fate motif section of the overture - Don Jose being prepared for his execution, rendering the opera a flashback, rather in the spirit of Merimee's original story; the end of Act III when Escamillo sings off stage and Carmen, instead of leaving with the smugglers, suddenly decides to run off in the direction of his voice; but above all, the scenes between Carmen and Don Jose, which lifted the whole evening onto quite another level.

As Francesca Zambello told me when I interviewed her a few weeks ago, Carmen is all about the chemistry, and this chemistry was extraordinary. The murder scene was exceedingly harrowing - nothing in the rest of the show had remotely prepared me for what Antonacci and Kaufmann would do with it, nor for its impact.

Anna Caterina Antonacci is a glorious singer - more soprano than mezzo in timbre, though with the range to cope with the lot; but she'd be a more natural princess than she seemed a natural gypsy. One never really sensed the fizz of sorcery that's expected from Carmen. Yet perhaps it worked because the unfolding action was truly Jose's story, and not only because the opening images put him at the front of our minds. Kaufmann's Flower Song created the kind of magic atmosphere that you hear once in a blue moon - the heart-thumping, knee-wobbling magic where you can't quite believe your ears - the phrasing, the pianissimos, the raw emotion, the espressivity in every word and overtone. Throughout the opera, he seemed a man possessed, conveying the depth of his character with even the smallest of consistent signs. This Jose is doomed before he even meets Carmen: his character is his fate. Something was always going to send him over the edge; it happens to be her. Even Carmen remains mesmerised by him to a subtle degree despite herself, and dies in his arms when he stabs her.

I think I was probably wrong, talking about his Strauss disc the other day, to call him a 'heldentenor' - he may perhaps become one in time (next decade's greatest Tristan?) and he's still only in his early thirties. But now he's the most romantic of German romantics, ideal for this role, Mozart, Strauss of course, he'd be a great Lensky, and if he ever sings Schumann's song cycles in Australia, I think I'd fly there specially to hear him. He's one who knows that the soft is more powerful than the loud, passion more significant than virtuosity, giving more important than taking.

Would someone please tell Tony Pappano that? The orchestral side had its moments, but the insensitivity of Pappano's accompaniment was inexcusable. If Don Jose is doing his magic, half-light pianissimo but the orchestra comes crashing in at mezzo-forte, what's the earthly use? If the fine baritone Ildebrando d'Arcangelo's Toreador Song gets drowned out, is it any wonder that nobody seemed to know they were supposed to clap afterwards? Perhaps I'm naive, but I still dare to hope that an opera conductor's first priority might just be to make the most of his singers' capabilities and enhance their beauties, not ride roughshod over them.

Anyway, enough carping. Kaufmann is a miracle. Not just a wonderful tenor, but a great artist through and through. Time to call down some angelic protection to take good care of him.

MEANWHILE, TONIGHT AT THE WIGMORE HALL, don't miss Philippe Graffin, Raphael Wallfisch and Jeremy Menuhin's trio! Beethoven Ghost, Schumann 2 and Ravel, and it's the Sunday Times's Pick of the Week. Box office 020 7935 2141.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


To get into the Vienna Philharmonic's Neujahrskonzert in the Musikverein, you have to apply a year in advance. They have 1,000 seats and usually around 36,000 applications, and it's done by ballot. The odds are bad, but still better than the National Lottery, so we decided we should try for next year's.

Guess who entered the ballot with the 'egal' tab (= 'any seats') without first checking the ticket prices....???!?

Hey, they can keep their sodding seats. The Rathausplatz is far better. You can see everything. The digital sound is great. You can dance to the waltzes. You can eat bratwurst and drink punsch. Who needs to fork out E680??!? (and that's for ONE ticket...).

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Ah, Vienna...

Just about recovered from a thrilling New Year in the city of waltzes... Appropriately enough, since 2007 is the 50th anniversary of Korngold's death and the 110th of his birth, we spent New Year's Eve dancing the night away outside the Rathaus, where Korngold and Luzi von Sonnenthal got married.

Oh boy, do the Viennese know how to party. The city centre turns into one big celebration, with different music going on in various squares and pedestrian areas until 2am, and all the sausages, langos, gluhwein and schnapps you could wish for, not to mention strudel, with fireworks zooming about overhead constantly - none of that wait-for-midnight nonsense here, thanks... Apparently Vienna entertained about 700,000 people that night, double the number who risked chaos in central London (where organising so much as a p***-up in a brewery seems to defeat even the most well-intentioned). A few firecrackers to dodge along the way, and it's best to avoid the most crowded areas like the Karntnerstrasse, but otherwise the atmosphere was simply wonderful.

One learns some startling things about one's partner in these circumstances. Good old Tomcat turns out to be an unreconstructed old rocker! After the operetta crew finished The Blue Danube after midnight (yes, we waltzed, or tried to), on came a band called Remembering Elvis. Tom doesn't have much hair, but a few bars of Blue Suede Shoes and what's left came down in spectacular fashion. After that, along came a band called Montevideo and Tom discovered that I'm a frustrated South American at heart, itching to learn salsa and samba (our tango classes tragically having ended in abandonment of all hope). 2007 resolution: learn to waltz and go back next time - maybe even to a ball...???

The next morning, we watched the New Year's Day concert on a big screen in the Rathausplatz. The Vienna Philharmonic sound as glorious as ever. BUT it's still very odd only to see one woman in their ranks. Read some interesting info about this here (thanks to Ionarts for the link). How do they get away with it? I interviewed two of them for Classical Music Magazine about 15 years ago when the orchestra played in London, and asked them why they don't employ more women. They told me it was because of maternity leave laws: apparently they'd have to keep the job open for three years (or was it five?). I can't say I was convinced. It's tempting to wonder why other Austrian orchestras seem to manage fine, or why some fabulous female musician who doesn't intend to have children should be excluded. In Britain, there'd be no rest from the negative media over something like this. At least on this occasion they had an Indian conductor...

Vienna's an odd place. What was once the capital city of the biggest empire in Europe now feels like a small, isolated town with a lot of beautiful cafes and some very good music. It always takes me a day or two to stop thinking about the Korngold family and those like them fleeing the Anschluss, Hitler waving to the cheering crowds from the hotel balcony, and all that followed. But once I've got past that and started drinking in the Klimts in the Belvedere, the shades of Mozart at Schonbrunn, and on this occasion one of the best Chagall exhibitions I've seen, not to mention coffee with liqueur and schlagobers, it's impossible not to enjoy it.

Stars in the pavement of the Kartnerstrasse and Graben pay tribute to the likes of Weber, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Kreisler, Rubinstein, Chopin, Schumann and Clara Schumann and more (though I couldn't find Korngold or Schoenberg). Two youngsters from Ankara asked us the way to the Figarohaus, where Mozart lived; for my part, I was sorry to leave without paying tribute to Schubert's spectacles in the house where he was born. And during our last coffee-stop we chatted to a Viennese couple at the next table who knew all the gossip about the New Year's Day concert reviews (catty indeed!). But the strangest thing is that you can spend a happy holiday in Vienna without setting eyes on that famous river even once. If you want to see the Beautiful Blue Danube at its finest, go to Budapest.

Most important, this is Korngold year. There'll be plenty going on all over the world and I'll try to keep posting about the most interesting events to come my way. For starters, watch out for a major exhibition about the composer opening in late October in Vienna, and a very special concert series right here in London in the autumn.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007