Saturday, December 24, 2011

5 Top Things to Do/See/Hear Over Christmas

1. Tosca is on BBC2 this afternoon, recorded in July at the Royal Opera House with Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca, Jonas Kaufmann as Cavaradossi and Bryn Terfel as Scarpia. Previously cinecast, now coming to a TV near you...


Tony Pappano conducts, and he will introduce the work in a documentary an hour before, at 1.35pm. Details here.

2. Medici TV is offering a free day of viewing for all on Boxing Day. Don't miss the chance to sample the startling array of wonderful performances on this digital online channel, devoted to music, opera and ballet, which normally requires a subscription (which can be rather good value). If you need a last-minute gift for a music-lover, btw, they have special gift subscription packages. Start here.

3. Go to see The Nutcracker, if you haven't already. On 27 December the classic Birmingham Royal Ballet production is coming to the O2, which is the proud possessor of a five-figure number of seats and an array of affordable tickets. Building on the smash-hit of the Royal Ballet's Romeo and Juliet last summer, which was the O2's first venture into such territory, this Nutcracker promises much and the cast is led by the BRB's top principal dancers, including Nao Sakuma, Cesar Morales and Robert Parker.

4. Pop over to The Guardian for a week from Boxing Day to see a free streaming of Glyndebourne's production of Hansel und Gretel - a slightly close-to-the-bone staging by Laurent Pelly of the Humperdinck classic. It's energetic, painfully funny, gloriously sung and at times jolly scary too. Jennifer Holloway and Adriana Kucerova are in the title roles. And the witch's house set is one of the cleverest, and most sinister, that you could hope for. Tom Service introduces the opera here: "Fatten kid. Cook. Then eat..."  

5. Make a resolution about music for the new year and start on it right now. Here's mine: practise more.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Friday Festivities: Argerich and Freire play the Sugar Plum Fairy

MERRY EVERYTHING, EVERYONE! Enjoy this sliver of seasonal magic played by Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire.
Love & hugs from JDCMB

Buon natale, girls and boys

The other day someone at the paper rang up and asked if I'd write a short commentary about something called Il Volo. I thought at first that that meant "the thief", but it doesn't. Apparently it means "Flight". So I checked 'em out. And here's what I wrote. See if you agree? Note: if you are a hardline classical devotee, you might find that the video below is best viewed in the bathroom.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

JDCMB INGEFAER STRIBENDE PRISEN 2011


That's JDCMB Ginger Stripe Awards 2011 in Danish, or sort of. This year we have abandoned the usual Cyberposhplace - too many people around there to whom we don't wish to be polite - and booked instead a very special CyberScandinavian venue: a Virtual version of the Sjette Frederiks Kro, tucked away in the beech woods by the sea in Aarhus. Please come in and thaw out by the log fire. And don't miss the hot chocolate. It's the best in the whole world - even better than the Cafe Europejska in Krakow - and they bring you a goloptious full-up pot of it... Prepare to sing, too. The Danes always sing at parties.

This has been the year in which the Sleeping Beauty woke up (see choreographer Matthew Bourne's project for Christmas 2012) - and didn't much like what she saw. This year it was revealed, loud and clear, just how intensely, insidiously and pervasively big money rules the world and the music world with it, trampling on all and sundry that are left behind. This year, too, we've seen - on our own doorsteps - the danger of all ideologies that put the imposition of their dogma and the crushing of dissent before any notion of basic humanity. Heaven alone knows what 2012 will bring, but my words to you today, on the Winter Solstice 2011, are these.

Beware of anything that threatens the democratic nature of the places, societies and organisations in which you function. Never sign away your rights - someone will try to convince you it's in your own best interests, but it never is. Remember that constitutions exist for a reason, and if anyone wants to change yours, take a good, hard look at who, how, why, and who gains (case study: Hungary). To quote this article from Spiegel Online about culture in Hungary - where journalists this week have been on hunger strike against press manipulation - "to gain complete control over a country, one has to control what people think." This doesn't only apply to countries. Now that you're awake, keep your eyes wide open.

In a skewed and shaky world, it's more difficult, yet also more important, to keep up the celebration of the Ginger Stripes. Solti is back on his silken cushion today, and I've promised him a lot of fresh Danish fish.

This year's awards are taking a slightly different format from the usual. Instead of specific categories, we've just chosen specific people. Through 2011, more than ever, my interviewees have been a source of great joy and inspiration. I've been lucky enough to come into contact with an astonishing succession of individuals; with each of them there is much to learn, nuggets to nurture, jewels to treasure. I've also attended some unforgettable performances. And writing a little more about dance - which was my first love, you know - has brought a welcome new dimension and a different type of challenge. You think it's difficult to write about music? That's a piece of cake by comparison...

Now, to business! A round of applause, please, for our special guests: some of this year's top interviewees. As they approach the silken cushion to stroke the ginger stripes and claim their prize purrs from Solti, plus a VirtualSarahLundSweater, meet them, love them and thank them.

Anna Caterina Antonacci - the Italian mezzo/and/or soprano whose artistry stands out in today's operatic scene like a George Eliot novel surrounded by chicklit. Is she the nearest thing we have to Pauline Viardot? I believe so. Article from Opera News. Below: as Cassandre in Les Troyens - which she will be singing in London next summer.



Martha Argerich. Interviewing her was a challenge I never imagined I'd meet, but...somehow...did. In the words of Yannick Nezet-Seguin, who conducted the concert in Rome that I attended: "...is she still playing as well as ever? Of course she is. Why wouldn’t she? To me she is not 70, or 60, or 20. She is just Martha.”





Gustavo Dudamel. Cometh the hour, cometh the Dude. Again, it was all touch and go, but in the end we touched. What energy. What charisma. Go, Gustavo, go: be the next Bernstein. We need one. Better still, be the first Dude.



Valery Gergiev. Speaking of energy...




Andras Schiff. A great man as well as a great musician: speaking out about the rise of the racist far-right in his native Hungary has landed him with a backlash that's made him wonder if he can ever return - though that does rather prove the veracity of what he said. Meanwhile, Beethoven is eternal...



Benjamin Grosvenor. This has been his year. Let's put aside the many landmark events he's experienced - we've marked them amply on JDCMB - and simply consider this: Benjamin's playing leaves me wondering why not every pianist plays like that, and why anyone would think, for a moment, that anything less will do. Here he is having some fun with an encore at the Prom...



Eva-Maria Westbroek. Interviewed her, loved her, loved her singing. I heard her in three astounding performances. First, Anna Nicole, which threw her into a spotlight the size of the Millennium Dome but with rather more substance within - and not only silicone. Then Sieglinde in the Met's cinecast of Die Walkure, singing opposite Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmind. And finally Il Tabarro at Covent Garden, part of Richard Jones's magnificent production of Il Trittico, which I didn't actually write up, but which was a major highlight of this year's opera-going. Here she is in one of her favourite roles, Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.



Sergei Polunin. The 21-year-old Royal Ballet star really does want to open a tattoo parlour. The day after the cinecast of The Sleeping Beauty last week, JDCMB was carpet-bombed by Google searches for this dark-lord-in-waiting of British ballet. In this clip, Lauren Cuthbertson as Aurora is equally poetic.


Zofia Posmysz. The author of The Passenger, a novel based on her own experiences in Auschwitz, could not be more radiant or less embittered if she tried. She came to London for the UK premiere of the opera by Weinberg based on her book. Talking to this remarkable woman was a very humbling experience. Film below in Polish with German subtitles, except the bits in English from David Pountney, and provides a taste of the opera's furious, devastating music. (It got panned in London, but I couldn't care less.)




Rolando Villazon. First I heard his marvellous Werther at Covent Garden; then, at the crucial moment in September, I went to Paris to meet him. He gave me a red foam nose. It is now on my desk lamp, where it has helped to keep me sane these past months. This song from last week's Royal Variety Performance sums it all up. Thank you, Dr Rollo.



And performances? It's a golden age. It really is Joseph Calleja at close quarters at a Decca launch in the ROH Crush Bar; Jonas Kaufmann in recital at the Royal Festival Hall. The Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer at the RFH (the best Beethoven Pastoral Symphony ever) and the Proms (Mahler 1 and the fun, engaging, wonderfully played Audience Choice event). The cinecast from the Met of Die Walkure, where the cast - Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde, Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund, Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde - had us all pinching ourselves to make sure it was true. Despite my reservations about the detail of cinecasting, it's a great new medium that's transforming our experience of opera, theatre and ballet; and through this medium the Met also brought us Rossini's fabulous Le Comte Ory, with Juan Diego Florez, Diana Damrau and Joyce DiDonato. At the ballet, Osipova and Vasiliev rawked Ashton's Romeo and Juliet; and, as I couldn't interview Tchaikovsky about The Nutcracker, Joby Talbot was a fascinating alternative as he told me about his new score for Alice. Another major highlight: revisiting the Dartington Summer School of Music. It's always strange going back to a place that meant so much to you so long ago - but the old magic is still alive and well.

Huge treats, too, in performances of my own stuff, some on the other side of the globe. Roxanna Panufnik's beautiful choral work Let Me In, for which I scribbled the words, was premiered by Chanticleer in San Francisco in the spring and is now out on CD. In July, Piers Lane's Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville gave the first performance of Sins of the Fathers, my words-and-music project about Liszt, Wagner and Cosima (it's not quite Lisztomania, but hey...). Hungarian Dances with Bradley Creswick and Margaret Fingerhut at Potton Hall and Old Swinford Hospital School, was huge fun - and I'm happy to say we're taking it to the Buxton Festival next year.

A reading of A Walk Through the End of Time - my Messiaen play - at East Sheen Library bore fruit: an enthusiastic impresaria was present, liked it and is currently arranging a new lease of life for it, featuring two superb actors - Susan Porrett and Patrick Drury - as well as the considerable massed talents of Viv McLean (piano), Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin), Matthew Hunt (clarinet) and Gemma Rosefield (cello), starting with a showcase concert at Bob Boas's central London salon on 9 January. More news soon, I hope.

And in case you wondered - yes, I am writing another novel. Slowly. It's different. It's historical. It's unbelievable. And it's all true.

Dear readers, we live in interesting times. I hope that we can make them turn out for the best. Please raise a glass as our stars of stage and page step forward and lead us in a rousing, celebratory Danish Xmas song. Now, come on, everyone - we have to dance round the tree. Did I mention that? No? Well, we do...

Monday, December 19, 2011

Not Messiah

It's not Handel's Messiah. It's a playlist from a very naughty music-lover.


I've been listening to the thing again - it's hard to avoid it at this time of year - and OK, yes, it does have that certain je ne sais quoi. It's a great piece. He wrote a good old tune or several. But just every so often, wouldn't you like to hear something else instead, or even as well? Leave aside obvious substitutes like Bach’s Christmas Cantata, Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols and much nice music by John Rutter; as for The Nutcracker or The Four Seasons – Tchaikovsky and Vivaldi are great, but enough’s enough. My list features some seasonal music that rarely gets a look in, having been shouldered aside by wall-to-wall Hallelujah Choruses.

Elizabethan Christmas music
If ideal Christmas music is decorative, celebratory and sumptuous on one hand, and intimate, domestic and fun on the other, then the Elizabethan era had it all. Families with space and cash tended to be musically literate in those days, and they might have gathered on winter evenings to sing madrigals or play music for viol consort. Red Byrd and the Rose Consort of Viols recorded their selection of Elizabethan Christmas Music in 1989, complete with a quirky attempt at ‘authentic’ pronunciation. Composers include William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Tomkins and more.
Recommended recording: Elizabethan Christmas Anthems, Red Byrd, Rose Consort of Viols, AMON RA CD-SAR46

Praetorius: Renaissance Christmas Music
Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) was a Lutheran from North Germany. His works are characterised by rich and sympathetic choral writing, similar at times to his greatest contemporary, Claudio Monteverdi – but Praetorius’s music remains rooted in Lutheran chorales, so the effect is gentler, simpler and more streamlined than that of the musical lion of Venice. His most often-performed work is probably the gorgeous carol ‘Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen’, but I’ve picked a recording of some Christmas-friendly choral pieces that doesn’t include it.
Recommended recording: Viva Voce, BIS, BISCD1035

Bach transcriptions for piano
The term ‘Baroque’ was originally coined to evoke something extravagant, irregular, complex and extraordinary. If you enjoy musical pearls at their most baroque in every sense, then try transcriptions for solo piano of movements from Bach’s cantatas, violin works and concertos, made by some of the finest virtuoso composer-pianists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. There are hundreds, and Hyperion has been releasing a substantial series of CDs of them. The latest disc features transcriptions by Saint-Saëns and Isidor Philipp: life-enhancing, high-spirited triumphs of virtuosity that would spice up any Christmas.
Recommended recording: Bach transcriptions, Vol 10: Saint-Saëns and Isidor Philipp, Nadejda Vlaeva (piano), Hyperion CDA76873.

Liszt: Weinachtsbaum (Christmas Tree Suite)
Franz Liszt’s bicentenary is nearly over, but not quite. It’s a good excuse to seek out his Christmas Tree Suite, a set of 12 short piano pieces based on carols and lullabies, including ‘In dulci jubilo’ and ‘Adeste Fideles’. Written in 1866, they are tender, charming and lyrical, far indeed from the barnstorming heft of the Hungarian Rhapsodies and the romantic tumult of his B minor Sonata. Instead, this is Liszt as besotted grandfather: he dedicated the suite to his five-year-old granddaughter, Daniela. Coincidentally, her mother – Liszt’s daughter, Cosima, who later eloped with Wagner – had been born on Christmas Eve in 1837.
Recommended recording: Alfred Brendel (piano), Regis RRC1378

Saint-Saëns: Christmas Oratorio
This is a real buried treasure. Possessing extraordinary gifts himself, maybe the 23-year-old Saint-Saëns, writing in 1858, also expected much from his performers: the solo parts are extremely demanding to sing, which might be why the ten-movement work doesn’t pop up often enough. Involving chorus, five soloists, organ and a small orchestra with prominent role for the harp, it strikes a lovely balance between Bach-inspired churchliness and the boulevardier charm that came so easily to Saint-Saëns. Christmas with the French bourgeoisie at its tasty best.
Recommended recording: Noël, French Romantic Music for Christmas – Bachchor Mainz, L’Arpa Festante München/Ralf Otto, Deutsche HM 88697366582

Honegger: Une cantate de Noël
The Swiss-born Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) was among Gabriel Fauré’s last pupils at the Paris Conservatoire. This short Christmas cantata was his final composition and has proved one of his most popular – not that that is saying much, since his works remain shamefully neglected. Written in 1953, it captured something of the spirit of the times. The opening section, on the words ‘De profundis clamavi’, seems a postwar evocation of an existential ‘dark night of the soul’. But from there the music opens out, as if candlelit by the succession of carol fragments that flicker through the musical fabric, weaving a spell of increasing enchantment. Combining texts in French and German, it’s perhaps a message of hope for lasting peace.
Recommended recording: James Rutherford (baritone), Robert Court (organ), Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum, Dean Close School Chamber Choir, BBC National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales/Thierry Fischer, Hyperion CDA67688

Messiaen Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus
Messiaen’s most famous piano work – 20 ‘regards’, or meditations, on the image of Baby Jesus – includes a movement entitled ‘Noël’, but there is far more to this pianistic tour-de-force than that; more, too, than the vivid colours, crunchy textures and dizzying intricacies of the French composer’s unmistakeable style. Messiaen, a devout Catholic, wrote these astonishing pieces for Yvonne Loriod, whom he later married: she was a virtuoso pianist whose abilities inspired him to new heights of invention. His passion for her, for God and for music unite in a kind of mystical celebration that has rarely been matched. Super-demanding yet also super-rewarding, Messiaen’s music can cast Christmas in a whole new light.
Recommended recording: Steven Osborne (piano), Hyperion CDA67351/2

Piazzolla: Cuarto Estaciones Portenas (Four Seasons of Buenos Aires)
Who needs Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons when you can have Astor Piazzolla’s? The Argentinian composer, who would have been 90 this year, studied in Paris with the eminent professor Nadia Boulanger. He aspired to haut-classical grandeur, but Boulanger spotted that his heart lay in the music of his homeland and advised him to go home to Buenos Aires and explore it. His personal sound-cocktail mingles sophisticated classical expertise with the sultry flavour of the tango.  His Four Seasons were inspired by Vivaldi’s; the ‘Winter’ Tango is a wonderful example of vintage Piazzolla.
Recommended recording: Tianwa Yang (violin), Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Giancarlo Guerrero, Naxos 8572271

Elgar: A Christmas Greeting
A gentle parlour song accompanied by a piano and two violins, this is the most intimate of all these Christmas suggestions: a setting by Elgar of a poem by his wife, Alice. It seems to conjure a cosy and very British type of Christmas in its domestic, hearthside greeting from one partner to the other and back again. And it is heartrendingly Elgarian, with those wonderful arched melodic contours and sense of yearning characteristic of his finest music.
Recommended recording: Worcester Cathedral Choir, Donald Hunt (conductor), Jeremy Ballard (violin), Robin Thurlby (violin), Keith Swallow (piano), Hyperion CDA66271/2

MacMillan: Veni, veni, Emmanuel
James MacMillan’s percussion concerto, taking its title from the medieval plainchant for Advent on which it’s based, was written for Dame Evelyn Glennie in 1991-1992. It is possibly the celebrated Scottish composer’s biggest hit, clocking up hundreds of performances. Structured in one arch-shaped movement, it lasts some 25 minutes, fills with mesmerising rhythmic trickery and marvellously imagined noises, with percussion instruments both pitched and unpitched, from vibraphone to cowbells. Impress your Christmas guests with your contemporary music savviness by playing it full blast.
Recommended recording: Evelyn Glennie (percussion), Scottish Chamber Orchestra /James MacMillan, RCA 828766428520