Sunday, November 04, 2012

Faure plays Faure

Ah, Monsieur Gabriel! It's the anniversary of his death, today - he left the world on 4 November 1924, aged 79. In 1913 he made this Welte Mignon recording of his own Pavane.

I have always had severe doubts about 'reproducing pianos', but the fact remains that it's all we have and it may tell us something valuable about his playing, even if not everything we would like to know. The rigour of his basic rhythm, for instance; the driving force of the harmony in the left hand; the layering of the voicing; and one instance in which it sounds suspiciously as if he's making the musical most of a slip of a finger. Pianists, take note!

His own words about the merits of the Welte-Mignon system are worth a read, too (they're on this film).

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Urgent: read, sign and help keep Britain's arts alive

Powerful piece in today's Guardian about the threat posed to the future of the arts in the UK by the exclusion of all artistic subjects from the new "EBacc" curriculum. Please read it, and please sign the petition Bacc for the Future to save creativity in our schools, here. A million signatures needed, fast.

It takes decades to build up an arts scene as flourishing as the one we have here, yet it can all be destroyed in a few short strokes of a philistine's pen. Let's not let that happen.

How I put the story of music in a Nazi POW camp on stage

I have a piece in the Independent about how and why I wrote A Walk through the End of Time. It was out on Wednesday, but I spent much of the day travelling home from Wexford and didn't get a chance to blog it. Here it is. The picture, of course, is of Dame Harriet Walter, who is our star actress on 18 November at the Orange Tree, with Henry Goodman as her partner. Watch this space for further news about the performance.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Benjamin Grosvenor's Southbank debut

As you know, Benjamin Grosvenor, 20, is the darling of every pianophile in Britain and beyond. We were there in force to hear his debut recital at the Southbank's Queen Elizabeth Hall on Wednesday night, which gratifyingly was packed out.

Benjamin Grosvenor as a performer, it has to be said, is the absolute antithesis of everything that most serious piano fans loathe about certain older, more celebrity-conscious performers who pull in the crowds. He has a modest, unspoilt presence on the platform, the informal (red shirt, dark trousers) look of the lad next door and a rather surprised smile when he spots there are people listening to him and clapping, as if he hadn't quite expected it. He's a smallish youth with enormous and beautiful hands that look almost incongruous - as if they've been grafted on from the spirit of Friedman or Moiseiwitsch.

It's his virtuosity, delicacy, sparkle and whirligig whooshes of inspiration that tend to be noticed first, but perhaps something else is even more vital: he is not afraid to play quietly. Instead of projecting every phrase out to the back row, he focuses on intense beauty of tone in the pianissimo range and makes the audience come to him, drawing them in to a type of enhanced listening experience. Scarily few musicians dare to do this today, a few exceptions being Zimerman, Perahia and Anderszewski - good company indeed. He doesn't overpedal: clarity remains uppermost, and in his Bach Fourth Partita, which opened the concert, touches of pedal served just to enhance a resonance or mark the ambience of a rhythm here and there.

In the Bach, too, he homed in on the exact quality that makes its Allemande so mesmerising. This movement is a piece of such beauty that it wouldn't have disgraced the St Matthew Passion; its increasingly florid melody has about it a meditative, stream-of-consciousness quality of improvisation that seems to exist in a state of grace, in every sense. Benjamin caught the precise nuance of its still heart and inner radiance. This takes some doing. It shone beside a fleet Overture and Gigue, a lively, supple Courante, and much elegance in the brief extras with which Bach peppers this most expansive of his keyboard partitas - all of it enhanced by a keen structural intelligence which found the strength of line and harmonic progressions underlying every filigree twist and turn. If I wished he'd played the repeats, it was just because this was music-making of such excellence that it would have been nice to hear it all again.

The Chopin F sharp minor Polonaise and the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise revealed something more problematic. For some reason, Grosvenor was playing a Yamaha. This powerful piano firm has, of course, developed its instruments considerably in the past 20 years or so, but it is still rare to see one on a London concert platform, and its tone did not prove especially welcome. Benjamin's personal sound, which is intensely beautiful with never a crash or thump, was still there, without a doubt. But I've heard him play quite a number of times before, and I missed something that he usually provides: colour. It is obvious to anyone who follows his progress closely that variety of colour is paramount to him. Yet the Yamaha tone, which tends to the overbright and even the glassy at times, just does not encompass the palette of mellowness and myriad shadings that he's capable of. The Bach worked well enough on it, but the Chopin needed that range. This was slightly frustrating for anyone who's heard Benjamin conjour those colours and therefore wished he would be able to do so on such a vital occasion as this. Presumably he had, in some way, shape or form, chosen the instrument - or maybe he is too modest to make a fuss about it? Please, someone, give the boy the chance to choose a favourite Steinway himself next time?

For the second half, Benjamin kept up the dance theme established first in the Bach with a selection of rare pianophilia delights: a selection of Scriabin's early mazurkas and a heady Russian waltz, eight utterly enchanting waltzes by Granados (which are a treat for any keen pianist to read through - you can find some of them in a recent issue of Pianist magazine), and the whole lot topped off by Schulz-Evler's deliciously dizzy virtuoso transcription of The Blue Danube. The charm of Benjamin's phrasing, his zippy lightness of touch, sprinkled a heart-warming trail of fairydust across the byways of this enchanting and original selection. He provided three encores, too: Godowsky's transcription of the famous Albeniz tango, then Liszt's Gnomenreigen - very fast, these gnomes, enjoying a whirlwind, impish outing as if testing the capabilities of a new pianistic Ferrari - and Benjamin's party-piece, Morton Gould Boogie-Woogie Etude, to close.

Piano aside, it was an evening that nobody will forget in a hurry. As my colleague Michael Church comments in his review for The Independent, "with virtuosity of this calibre, allied to a probing musical intelligence, the sky's the limit."

Meanwhile, it is lovely to see that Benjamin has become an "ambassador" for the superb London Music Masters' Bridge Project, designed to encourage instrumental music tuition in inner-city primary schools. Here's what they said, announcing it the other night:

London Music Masters (LMM) announces the multi-award-winning British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor as its ambassador to champion the cause of music in schools.  The former child prodigy, whorecently became one of the youngest ever winner of two Gramophone Awards and won the ‘Critics Choice Award’ at the Classic Brits, will act as a role model for children on LMM’s Bridge Project in some of London’s most deprived boroughs. Born to a musical family in Southend-on-Sea, Grosvenor is keen to encourage children to learn music at an early age and  for every child to have this opportunity:
'It was a great pleasure to visit Jessop Primary School and to witness the remarkable work being done by LMM there. It was touching to see the enthusiasm the children demonstrated for their instruments and for the learning process, and I hope that as an ambassador for this charity I can help them with their important work.'
LMM Bridge Project
LMM’s Bridge Project was established five years ago to make classical music accessible to all - by providing a sustained programme of high-quality music instrumental tuition in inner-city primary schools.  Working with children from financially disadvantaged and culturally diverse backgrounds, the Bridge Project places music at the heart of the school curriculum from an early age and enables interaction with exceptional musicians.  The Bridge Project’s driving goal is to address the lack of cultural and ethnic diversity among classical music professionals and audiences - making music an instrument of change.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Welcome to Wexford

I've just been to Wexford to review the Opera Festival for The Independent and the piece is out now, here.

It was great to be back at the only festival where you walk through a row of terraced houses to find yourself in a state-of-the-art bijou opera house that you can't actually see until you're in it; where the first singing you hear is by the audience, who give their all in the Irish National Anthem; where the directorial team stands by the doors at the end to greet and thank everyone for being there; and where you can hear the stars before they become stars and appreciate forgotten delights of the repertoire reaching the limelight at last. Such is Wexford's reputation that the great and good of the opera world descend on it from all over. Chat with someone in the hotel lift and he'll probably turn out to be the chairman of an opera company from the other side of the globe. If you're the sort of music-lover who feels that an opera doesn't necessarily have to be as good as Don Giovanni in order to merit a hearing, Wexford is for you.

As usual, the festival conjured a trio of rare marvels out of the back catalogue of operatic history: works by Chabrier, Cilea and Delius, with the latter's A Village Romeo and Juliet calling for particular spotlight in our favourite Marmitey-composer's anniversary year and supported here by the Delius Trust. You know 'The Walk to the Paradise Garden', which is an orchestral interlude from this opera? The rest of the evening is equally gorgeous. Honest to goodness, guv: it's one of the most beautiful operas I have ever heard.

I'm in danger of turning into one of those people who rants on and on and on about Delius, but I was bowled over, partly by the poignancy of the work - it distils the tragic beauty of life into a potent brew indeed - but perhaps even more by the anguish that a piece so poetic, so delicate, so exquisite, has had to go unappreciated all these years. I hope that's going to change now, because it should. OK, it doesn't match operatic norms - it's slow, the libretto is weak, the protagonists are Swiss (is that the kiss of death?). But so what? Silk chiffon is not invalid just because it isn't cashmere.

Chabrier's Le roi malgre lui (King In Spite of Himself) proved to be a totally bananas concoction in which the French king is elected king of Poland against his will. For Chabrier, it provides an excuse for a dazzling array of cleverness, confusion and coloratura, poised somewhere between Gounod and Ravel. The second act in particular is a Laduree's-window of truly yummy set pieces - waltz, barcarolle, Gypsy song - any of which would make brilliant stand-alone concert pieces. Shame about the production, but the singing was great. Ditto for the Cilea L'Arlesiana - based on the same play for which Bizet wrote his very different incidental music. A very full-on Italian verismo job, this, much relished in the pit by David Angus and the enthusiastic orchestra, and on stage turning up several potential new stars, notably the Italian mezzo Annunziata Vestri and the Russian tenor Dmitry Golovnin. The latter's lunchtime recital was also a major highlight of my visit. I enjoyed his performance so much that I grabbed him for an impromptu interview, which I shall bring you at the first opportunity.

Meanwhile I'd have loved to see the face of the Chabrier's super lead soprano, Nathalie Paulin, on learning the identity of the gentleman she selected at random from the audience to dance with her in her cabaret show. He was Antony Craig, production editor of Gramophone. Read his blogpost about Wexford's Delius here.