Sunday, November 05, 2017

Finding a Bach singer for tomorrow

Bach Winner: Jessica Dandy
Bach is in the air. Even as I write, my husband is busy practising a violin partita downstairs - he starts every day by playing Bach - and having spent time in the composer's world of Leipzig has given us both a new perspective on the man and his music which is about to be very useful this space...

Just before we went, though, I was honoured to be part of a beautiful Bach event a little closer to home. For many years the London Bach Society, founded in 1946, has run an annual LBS Bach Singers Prize, designed to encourage young singers to come to Bach's music with enthusiasm, stylistic awareness and appropriateness of approach. This year they invited me to join the jury, where I found myself working with two eminent Bach singers, Ian Partridge and Stephen Roberts, and the oboist and conductor Anthony Robson.

It was a full-on  experience, to put it mildly. We started off with a first round in which we listened to around 40 singers in one day, performing arias and recitatives, from which we chiselled out ten semi-finalists who returned a few days later to present extracts from the St Matthew and St John Passions. Ten had to become four...and the competition closed with a final in the ancient church of St Bartholemew-the-Great (for those who haven't been there, it's the setting for the climactic scene of Four Weddings and a Funeral, where Anna Chancellor whacks Hugh Grant with the bouquet...).

Our final was perhaps surprising as we had four very different voices to enjoy: a soprano, a counter-tenor, a tenor and a contralto. The repertoire, with a Martin Luther leaning for the Reformation anniversary, was mostly drawn from the cantatas, and was in many cases quite unusual. The London Bach Players, who accompanied that night, had just a couple of days to learn some very tricky stuff indeed (our continuo player, who switched apparently effortlessly between organ and harpsichord, later showed me a photo of himself holding the heap of scores just after the repertoire was announced...).

It wasn't easy for us either. Our young professionals were at a tremendous level and of course there's that platitude about apples and oranges. The soprano Rebecca Lea prepared an intriguing programme on the theme of masters and servants; in the semi-final she'd moved us all to tears with her account of 'Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben' from the St Matthew Passion. The fine tenor Hiroshi Amako went all-out for drama, choosing music that explored the storms inherent in "being a Christian". Counter-tenor Alex Simpson projected a vividly characterised programme about faith. They were all splendid and I look forward to hearing them many more times in future.

But our prize in the end went to the contralto Jessica Dandy, whose spirituality and sheer love for the music she sings was complemented by a voice that yielded more and more of its intriguing reserves as the competition went along. She offered a richness of colour that varied yet impressed across the registers, and a natural, direct style that did credit to her artistry and Bach's too. I was very moved by her "Erbarme dich" in round 1 and was keen to hear her again: she didn't disappoint. And the aria "Vegnügte Ruh" from Cantata BWV 170 is my new favourite thing in the whole world, thanks to her.

Congratulations from one Jess to another - and may your singing bring everyone joy for many years to come!

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Listening backwards

Bach's Thomaskirche, Leipzig

I've been on musical travels in Leipzig this past week. The historic heart of the former GDR is also the historic heart of German music - second only to Vienna in its sites of pilgrimage for the classical continental traveller. Most notably, perhaps, we attended a beautiful service at Bach's Thomaskirche and went back on 31 October, Reformation Day, to hear a performance of Mendelssohn's Paulus in Bach's church.

The thing is, we heard it backwards.

Inside the Thomaskirche
The musicians are located in the substantial organ loft. Which is behind most of the congregation. So about two thirds of the audience sits with its backs to the musicians, and the remainder are sideways on.

Therefore there is nothing to look at while you listen - except your surroundings, the words in the programme and the inside of your own eyelids while you focus on your ears alone.

It's magic.

You benefit from the immediacy of the live experience of music-making. But you don't worry about what anyone looks like, what the soloists are wearing or whether someone is making excessive gestures (unlike some reviews of a recent performance of Rach 2 by a popular female pianist, most of which had to talk about what she was wearing and how she was moving, rather than how she actually sounded, and judged her adversely for the former). Instead... You just listen. You sit for two and a half hours on a hard wooden pew, without drinks, without a visit to the loo, trying to translate what you can of the German, and Mendelssohn just picks you up and carries you off with his drama, his élan, the blaze of light that is the voice of the Lord (women's voices, NB), and a ceaseless fount of melody. I loved every minute of it.

Bach's church is an extraordinary place in which to listen to music. The sound quality inside is resonant, but warm. The atmosphere is intimate, striking but never overbearing. Although Bach's grave has pride of place, this institution is a working, familyish, everyday, up-to-the-minute church, and clearly going to a concert there on 31 October is very much The Thing To Do (hallelujah, Halloween takes a back seat). The acoustic makes it clear that Bach's ensembles couldn't have been especially large, because the sound would turn muddy, and on this occasion it did take them two and a half hours to get through the Mendelssohn, without an interval, probably because the ratio of size to resonance slows things down.

Meanwhile, Leipzig really is a musical mecca. In a matter of days I've seen Bach's surviving churches and the fabulous Bach Museum, Mendelssohn's last home, Schumann and Clara's first apartment, the site where Clara spent much of her childhood (just a stone's throw from Bach's Thomaskirche), the great town hall where Bach signed his Thomaskirche contract, the outsides of the Gewandhaus and the Leipzig Oper, the sites of Wagner's birth and schooling, the historic headquarters of Edition Peters and the apartment in which Grieg worked on Peer Gynt and where, incidentally, Reger had his last dinner - he collapsed later that night...

We dined in the Auerbachskeller, where Goethe wrote some of Faust and where Brahms, Joachim and Grieg celebrated the premiere of Brahms's Violin Concerto; and had our last Leipzig meal at Zum Coffe Baum, which was conveniently rather empty so we could sit in "Schumann corner", where Schumann and his friends met every night from 1833 to 1840 (so the plaque says) to be the Davidsbündler together.

But that deserves another post to itself...

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Sunday, October 22, 2017

This week...

This is one busy week.

MONDAY. It's this:

You'll find me and the fabulous musicians David Le Page (violin) and Viv McLean (piano) at the Crazy Coqs, Brasserie Zédel, Sherwood Street (just off Piccadilly Circus), with the words&music story of Jelly d'Arányi and the Schumann Violin Concerto, starting 7pm. Music includes Bartók, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Kelly, Ravel, Hubay and, uh, Schumann... Book here:

TUESDAY and FRIDAY. I'm honoured to be serving on the jury of the London Bach Singing Competition. We have the semi-finals on Tuesday evening and the final on Friday, both at St George's, Hanover Square. After the first round the other day, I can promise you we've found some simply glorious voices and we're looking forward to hearing ten of them again in the semis, singing recitatives and arias from the St Matthew and St John Passions. Four will go through to the final. Both these rounds are open to the public, so do join us for a spot of Bachian glory. Details of the events and names of the semi-finalists are now up, here.

WEDNESDAY So, Wednesday is looking a bit packed... I'm very excited to be going on BBC Radio 3's In Tune, where Katie Derham will be interviewing me about Ghost Variations and the Schumann Concerto, ahead of our Artrix Bromsgrove performance (3 Nov) and Burgh House Hampstead (19 Nov). Straight out of Broadcasting House, I must leg it to Cadogan Hall, where I'll be doing a spot of actor interviewing about Mozart and Salieri for the London Chamber Orchestra's concert, which culminates in the Mozart Requiem. Christopher Warren-Green conducts. Booking here.

SATURDAY Off to Leipzig for the first time ever, to see all sorts of amazing things relating to Bach, Mendelssohn, Schumann and maybe even Wagner...

I also have to write a feature and some sleeve notes. So I'm now off to have a quick nap.

Friday, October 20, 2017

A Schumann podcast

Serendipity! The London Philharmonic is playing the Schumann Violin Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall on 8 November (soloist: Patricia Kopatchinskaya, conductor: Alain Altinoglu) and then touring it to Antwerp, Vienna and around Germany. They asked me to record a podcast about Ghost Variations, the concerto and its astonishing history, and the result is up now at their site, and also below.

Before that, you could come and hear David Le Page, Viv McLean and me bringing the story to life in the more intimate setting of the Crazy Coqs, Brasserie Zédel, on Monday evening (23 October, 7pm).

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The cello hurricane

Photo: from
Watching the sky turn to lurid mustard yesterday as I made my way home from the Women of the Year Lunch, I couldn't help remembering what happened 30 years ago, the night of the now legendary 1987 storm (which would probably be dubbed "Hurricane Higgins" or suchlike now).

15 October was my father's birthday and to celebrate we all went to the Barbican to hear Simon Rattle conduct the Strauss Four Last Songs, sung by Maria Ewing. Coming home - in those days it was not unreasonable to take the car to the Barbican - we fought through the driving rain, rising wind and fearsome traffic jams.

I woke around 5am to a noise like a jet engine revving up and the house shuddering under us; outside, clouds were scudding at double pace across a tobacco-coloured sky. In the morning everyone in the street was outside staring up at their roofs, asking each other whether for insurance purposes this counted as an Act of God. (That was the only time I ever saw our next-door neighbours actually speak to my parents.) That day I was due to go back to Cambridge to begin a last-minute  one-year postgrad course, but trains and roads alike were impassable.

Solution: go a few days later instead. After unpacking, I went off to look for a violinist friend in another college. I found him in the junior common room, alone in front of the TV, sitting absolutely motionless. The room was filled with Elgar and on the screen was Jacqueline du Pré. That moment, I knew she was dead.

I think the image of Jacqueline du Pré found its way to a special place in all our hearts, something that's unique for each of us. For me, she virtually conflated, very early on, with my older sister, who as a teenager had amazing pre-Raphaelite golden-brown hair and played the cello. As horrific irony would have it, she, too, died young, at 45 (of ovarian cancer). Moreover, though I never set eyes on du Pré except on the TV, she was never far away. She and Barenboim lived in Pilgrim's Lane, about 15 mins walk from our place, and the house where the pair first met and played chamber music was the very house where in the late '70s-early '80s I used to go for my piano lessons every weekend. And Christopher Nupen's beautiful films of her, which helped to seal her status as musical icon, were somehow embedded in my psyche as an example of all the fun, warmth and glory that music-making could be. (Here's a piece I wrote about her for The Independent in January 05.)

To mark this 30th anniversary of her death, Nupen has created a new tribute to her, an hour-long documentary called Jacqueline du Pré: A Gift Beyond Words, which will be on BBC4 on Sunday. I asked him to tell us a little about the process and what du Pré means to him all these years on.

JD: What is different about this film from your previous versions?

CN: The difference between this film and the five which we made with her during her lifetime, is that this one is neither a portrait film, nor a performance film.  Instead, it is a tribute to mark the 30th anniversary of Jackie’s death and a reflection on her enduring legacy.

All the material of Jackie herself has been seen before but it is seen here in a different context —  and 30 years later.  Both of those things make a difference to what comes off the screen from the same footage.

JD: What qualities about Jackie stand out most in your memory?

CN: Her most distinguishing quality is her incorruptible honesty, both in her life and in her music: total, clear, unassuming, unmistakable.  Those who knew her best describe different aspects of it in the film.  Daniel Barenboim calls her an unequalled musical conversationalist. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, in smiling recollection, calls it an unequalled directness.  Pinchas Zukerman, who made breathtaking music with her, calls it pure genius, a word that one can seldom use of performers. Vladimir Ashkenazy uses the same big word and Zubin Mehta calls it pure instinct.

JD: Any favourite memory you would pick out?

CN: These exceptional characteristics are what made her inimitable and so memorable. She was also gifted with a capacity to surprise us which accompanied her like her shadow. I remember her reaction to our film of The Ghost Trio when she saw it for the first time.  I thought we had failed to bring it up to the level which the Trio had achieved at a concert in Oxford and I said so before the screening started.  As soon as it ended, with no pause at all — and no politesse, Jackie announced, flatly, “You are wrong.  On the film one can see what’s going on and it adds another dimension to the music.” I learned one of the most important lessons of my career from that moment.

JD: Has your perspective on her changed over time?

CN: The magics that she made in the sounds that she drew from her cello have not changed at all with the years.  Age does not weary them.  On the other hand much has changed in the perceptions of the world at large.

There are very few performing musicians in the entire history of Western music whose reputations have risen steadily from the time of their deaths but Jacqueline du Pré is one of those precious few.

In a recent survey by Belgian Television in connection with the Queen Elisabeth of the Belgian’s Cello Competition, Jackie was voted one of the three greatest cellists of all time. The Belgian cellists voted for Mstislav Rostropovich, Jacqueline du  Pré and Pablo Casals – in that order. That would not have happened during her lifetime because the world is slow to acknowledge greatness and Jackie died too young.

JD: What do you think young musicians could learn from Jackie today?

CN: I suggest listening  to her playing with an open mind and a generous heart.  Then listen to what Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the others say about her honesty and her directness— not to imitate but to help find their own individual voice.

Christopher Nupen's Jacqueline du Pré: A Gift Beyond Words is on BBC4 on Sunday 22 October at 8pm, then on the iPlayer for a month afterwards

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