Friday, December 05, 2008

Happy Birthday, Krystian!

It's Krystian Zimerman's birthday. To celebrate, here's something astounding I found on YouTube: footage from the 1975 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, which he won aged only 18. Enjoy this wonderful mazurka.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Bravo, Alex!!

Three cheers for Alex Ross, whose masterpiece about 20th-century music, The Rest is Noise, has scooped The Guardian's First Book Award. Great stuff and so much the right winner.

Heil Carmina...

I have never been able to stand Carmina Burana. I loathe every bloody note. Call it schadenfreude if you like, but when Tony Palmer invited me to a sneak preview of his amazing new documentary, O Fortuna, I couldn't help feeling pleased to learn that Carl Orff was indeed a nasty piece of work.

Palmer's film, which premieres on Sunday at the Barbican Cinema, is nevertheless expertly non-judgmental: he allows the story to tell itself. And the great paradox is that though Orff sucked up to the Nazis and so on, he also invented a system of music education that is working wonders all over the world and is now helping children with such ailments as cerebral palsy - unfortunate innocents who would have been condemned to death under the Third Reich. A redemption if ever there was one.

The DVD will be out in January. Meanwhile, here is my article about the whole caboodle from today's Independent. And much as I hate the piece, I am intrigued by the giant O2 performances coming up in January...

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The curious case of Andre Tchaikowsky's skull

The past week or so, various newspapers have carried one of the most startling you-couldn't-make-this-up stories of the season: that the Royal Shakespeare Company has decided not to use the skull of the pianist Andre Tchaikowsky in its forthcoming run of Hamlet, starring David 'Dr Who' Tennant, in London next week.

So why would they have used it? Because the great Polish pianist, who died of cancer aged 46 in 1982, bequeathed his body to science and his skull to the RSC for theatrical use. The skull has already been used in performances in Stratford-on-Avon.

Alas, poor Andre - I knew him, dear readers, at least on the concert platform. I heard him play a recital at the QEH only two years or so before his untimely death and even now I remember the tenderness of his tone, the absolute love with which he infused every note he played, but especially Chopin. As it was his last wish that his skull should be put to theatrical use in Hamlet, it seems a little churlish of the RSC not to carry on, but they seem to think that using a real skull would be too 'distracting' for their poor attention-challenged audiences (so having arguably the best-ever Dr Who play Hamlet isn't 'distracting'?? OK, he's a great actor, but still...).

There is, however, an excellent Andre Tchaikowsky website, on which you can read in PDF format an entire book about him by David A. Ferre. His life was as extraordinary as it was short and this is well worth a read. (The creators apparently thought it would 'find its own way' to a publisher or, OMG, the which we can only add the words 'blimey' and 'oy vay').

"A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy." And according to Stephen Kovacevich, "the best musician of them all."

Monday, December 01, 2008


The JDCMB Poll of the World's Greatest Conductors has ended with a clear vote giving CLAUDIO ABBADO the laurel wreath, streets ahead of everyone else.

Readers wrote in with their nominations and the final ten on whom we voted were those who received the most nominations - four or more. 303 votes were placed and the interesting results make me wonder whether I may have a strong clique of readers up in Manchester.

Abbado, whose performances with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra last year drew reviews of the kind you do not read more than once a decade, finished in first place with 27 per cent of the vote. Bernard Haitink was second, lagging considerably, at 15 per cent. A surprise third place went to the young Gianandrea Noseda, principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, with 9 per cent; Charles Mackerras was snapping at his heels fourth with just two fewer votes. Gergiev and Levine tied fifth, Rattle was just behind at sixth, and then (!) Pierre Boulez. My condolences to Muti, who pulled in eighth with 4 per cent, and valiantly bringing up the rear was John Eliot Gardiner, who won just 3 per cent with ten votes.

Noseda was the wild card and the reason that polls like this can be so interesting. Neither of the Southbank supremos, Jurowski and Salonen, receiving two nominations apiece, made the final ten. Such eminences as Eschenbach and Temirkanov were not even mentioned at stage 1; Masur, Sawallisch and Maazel each had only one nomination. Barenboim, with three, fell just short of the final list.

The idea of this contest was that it should be an utterly transparent People's Poll, in which I serve only as initiator and moderator, nominating just four names to start things off and voting once like everyone else (Haitink, since you ask). Thanks to everyone who joined in.

So, bravo Abbado! And we're left wondering whether Noseda is the face of the future...