Saturday, November 10, 2018

Live stream tonight: Armistice recital from the Wigmore Hall

I hope this works. If it doesn't, please go here instead:

The French pianist Cédric Tiberghien has assembled an excellent, thoughtful and original programme for his 'Armistice' recital tonight, involving works from each year of World War I and music by composers from England, France, Germany, Poland and Russia. I wrote the programme notes, so I can promise you that the musical connections are fascinating in their own right, alongside the historical ones. The 'Wiggy' is now able to live-stream selected recitals and will make it available to view after the event as well, so I'm experimenting here to see whether we can share this broadcast.

  • Aleksandr Skryabin (1872-1915)
        • Vers la flamme, poème Op. 72
  • Frank Bridge (1879-1941)
        • 3 Improvisations for the Left-Hand
  • Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
      • Etudes Book II
        • Pour les degrés chromatiques
        • Pour les agréments
        • Pour les notes répétées
  • Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937)
        • Twelve Etudes Op. 33
  • Claude Debussy
      • Etudes Book II
        • Pour les sonorités opposées
        • Pour les arpèges composés
        • Pour les accords
    • Claude Debussy
          • Etudes Book I
    • Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)
          • In einer Nacht... Träume und Erlebnisse Op. 15

    Wednesday, November 07, 2018

    This man will take your life

    His name is Richard Wagner, and if you let him, that's what he'll do. Of course, you mightn't show him in through the door in the first place, but otherwise, what's likely to happen is set out below. The things to remember are that a) the work is not the man, and vice-versa, and b) the more effort you put into something, the more rewarding it will be. One suspects he knew that – and knew exactly what he was doing in demanding such commitment from his fans. I just went to the whole Ring, in a manner of speaking, mostly by mistake, and the Ring leaves you wrung. But I'd go all over again tomorrow if I could. How, then, does this happen?

    First of all, you realise that Wagner was probably the most influential composer of any born in the 19th century, with the biggest, most lasting impact on musical history ever since – a quality he shares only with Bach, Beethoven and Stravinsky's 'The Rite of Spring'. So you start investigating. What on earth is so special about Richard Wagner?

    HELP! It's Die Walküre at Covent Garden...John Lundgren as Wotan
     © 2012 Royal Opera House / Clive Barda
    Then you go and hear some. And you get it. If it's Die Walküre, in particular, you get it completely. Wagner doesn't just write music. He manipulates your entire consciousness of time, of intensity, of more. He leaves you wandering through your world wondering where the heck you are and what just happened to you. Twenty years later, you still have no idea how he does it.

    So you go and hear some more. This stuff costs and it doesn't come around all that often, so when it's there, you raid your savings and go running. But so does everyone else, so you have to be quick and organised and you might spend a long time in an online box-office queue or 'ninja-ing' returns by hitting the 'refresh' button on the right page every hour for a week.

    There might be one opera with which you have a bad experience early on. Perhaps you once went to a third-rate performance with indifferent singers and a oboe with a cold in a very uncomfortable theatre with no surtitles and it left you loath to try it again. Then, finally, you do try again and you realise it's actually the greatest thing in the history of the world [btw, it is called Parsifal] and you have to go and hear it every single time it is on, because everything is good after that first one.

    By now you're getting the hang of who the top Wagner singers are and you want to hear them, or you find there are directors who are doing particularly interesting work whose productions you want to see, or conductors who have a special way with the scores - so you might start travelling. You find out where they are and what they're doing, then fork out for opera tickets overseas (which may be more reasonably priced than your local), but then you also have to fork out for the plane, somewhere to stay and things to eat. It'll be worth it, you tell yourself. It will be an experience I'll never forget. Possibly it is - so you do it all over again.

    And then you start spotting the rising stars: you get to recognise a voice that's going places and you want to hear him/her on the up, having the 'Sternestunde', so you book ahead to catch them in their first really big Wagner role, and then you realise it's going to mean travelling through Heathrow on 30 March 2019, the day after f***ing Brexit. (Seriously. I have just got into this situation.)

    Bayreuth Festival Theatre
    Speaking of travelling, there's one big problem with Wagner and it's called Bayreuth. The man built his own theatre for his own music, and if you have serious intentions of becoming a Wagnerite, you need to go and experience it. Bayreuth is a hike. Either you get Ryanair to Nuremberg (Ryanair is a demand too far for many of us) or you fly to Munich and take a few trains, and this is assuming you are able to get tickets by hook or crook in the first place. Again, air tickets, hotel, all adds up. There you sit in the theatre and soak up the sound and you realise what it's all about, and then you probably have to keep your eyes closed because of the frightful productions, unless you're seeing Barrie Kosky's Meistersinger which is totally brilliant.

    But once you've done that, you have to do it again, because it really is special, and then you realise there's one thing you haven't yet done. You haven't seen The Ring at Bayreuth.

    You might think you don't need the whole Ring. It might come to your own town and you don't even bother booking, because it's a massive commitment of time and energy and is it really worth it? But then it comes around and a friend unexpectedly invites you to the dress rehearsal of Das Rheingold and it is bloody wonderful, so you try to get into Walküre and you can't, so you go to the cinema relay and it is so bloody wonderful that you spend the next two days ninja-ing returns for Siegfried and, because you've got into that one, you have to try to get into Götterdämmerung too, and the only seat that comes up that's affordable is in the lower slips, so you spend its six and a half hours craning forward from the hips with your neck on a 45-degree twist and you spend the rest of the week untwisting again, while glorying in the fact that actually you experienced the best sound in the entire opera house, and the question "who would ever design a theatre where such a large number of seats have a lousy view?" fades into irrelevance while you look up books and websites at which you can swot exactly which leitmotif means what, because you've twigged many of them, but there are plenty more...

    The theatre at Bayreuth is not like that. There isn't a lousy view in the house. It's basically designed by a composer, not a socialite, so he wants you to look at the opera, not the people in the box opposite. So now you have to have the ultimate Wagner experience: you have to see The Ring at Bayreuth.

    That's 4 operas, about €300 per ticket, and there are possibly two of you, and you have to be there for at least a week, and you need somewhere to stay, and they no longer let you take cushions into the auditorium (oy!) and there is no guarantee whatsoever that the production will be bearable, or that the singers you're hoping to hear will show up, but you want to go anyway. You spot a big birthday a few years down the line and you circle it in mental red pen. This shall be the year you do it...

    Except goodness knows what the tickets will cost and what our hopeless pound will be worth by then. We might be trapped on Brexit island unable ever to leave. We might be dead, either because they can't get medicine into the country any more, or because we've been killed in the resulting civil war.

    And you know something? That only makes the acquisition of tickets for Bayreuth even more urgent! We have to do this while we're alive and while we have the opportunity. Whatever it takes.

    And that is how Wagner will take your life. Over and out.

    Monday, November 05, 2018

    At last, the definitive Chopin biography is here

    In yesterday's Sunday Times, I reviewed a book that is not only the best one about Chopin I've ever read, but maybe the finest biography of any composer I've yet been fortunate enough to encounter. My review was quite general, and not particularly short (you can read it here, £), but there is so much more I want to say about this particular tome that I'm writing a whole other piece here, now.

    (photo source: Wikipedia)
    A few weeks ago there was a thud on the doormat: a large brown box from Faber & Faber. When I opened it I nearly fell over with joy. Alan Walker, whose three-volume biography of Liszt has won multiple, highly deserved awards, has turned his attention to Chopin: this book has taken him about ten years, runs to 768 pages and includes insights, revelations and a sense of absolute authority on every page, indeed in every beautifully turned sentence. It's not just a fascinating study, but great literature: it can be enjoyed by everybody from the "casual" music-lover to professional pianists and academics. (It even includes music examples - hooray.)

    Clear, down to earth, humane, it scotches myths and overturns assumptions, but never without good cause: Walker's assertions are supported by proper evidence. He has taken his time, questioning everything, digging under every patio, seeking the truth. Whether he is describing Chopin's unconventional pianistic techniques - which involved, for instance, crossing one finger over another or playing two notes with one at the same time, and so on - or exploring what really happened that broke up the composer's relationship with George Sand, no stone is left unturned.

    There's a wealth of precision and fascination that oozes out of the facts: for instance, the mechanics of how Chopin and Sand managed their bizarre semi-detached relationship, choosing adjacent or neighbouring apartments rather than living in the same house; or what their journeys to Nohant entailed (a 5am start, four changes of coach and the company of assorted creatures en route which could include Sand's dogs, other travellers' chickens and sometimes Delacroix with his cat, Cupid), and similar exactitude is turned to the details of the politics and society of the time, exploring the who, why and how of the 1830 uprising - and its horrific crushing - that exiled Chopin from Poland. The relevation of facts and figures brings this to written life as never before.

    What myths are scotched? They're countless. Konstancja Gładkowska, the singer with whom Chopin was infatuated as a youngster: calf love, says tradition, but no, says Walker, this was quite a serious attachment and not unrequited. Maria Wodzinska, to whom he was briefly engaged? Meet her ghastly mother. What of Julian Fontana, Chopin's amanuensis, maligned by history? Rehabilitate his reputation, says Walker, he was a good man doing his very best to help, both musically and personally, the ailing composer, who treated him badly. Are the Ballades based on Mickiewicz? Nope. Chopin wasn't literary; he was not interested in reading fiction and poetry, and besides, Mickiewicz turned himself into a questionable, 'messianic' spiritual type in Paris which made potential admirers of his writing give him a wide berth. But yes to the Polonaises' furious, impassioned political drive - and yes, too, to that of the 'Revolutionary' Etude. Despite deep familiarity with the music and its workings, Walker always remains alive to the freshness and wonder of it, and is not loath to stand awe-struck in front of works such as the Sonata No.2 in B flat minor or the Polonaise-Fantasie.

    If Walker gives short shrift to certain popular ideas, it is always with a good, sound cause and a wise perspective. He acknowledges the confusion caused by Chopin's letters to his friend Tytus about Konstancja, so erotic in tone that they've sparked suggestions of latent homosexuality; but if we are confused, he points out, that's probably because the young Chopin himself was so profoundly muddled about it. He nods, briefly, towards the fur-ruffling theory that it was Jenny Lind, not Jane Stirling, who donated £1000 to the ailing Chopin in Britain, but finds no evidence to support the notion; indeed, an exploration of Stirling's will revealed that she was easily wealthy enough to have made the gift herself (and he simply refers us to the relevant book should we wish to explore 'this strange business' any further). Jane Stirling emerges as an absolute heroine, if a slightly sad figure in the long-term.

    Chopin's 'late' style, meanwhile, turns out to be occasionally deceptive. He explored increasingly experimental forms, for sure, but it seems that the dates that have previously been ascribed to certain pieces were not quite right; certain ones we thought late were early; and that 'last' mazurka - through which so many pianists over the years have drooped, dreamed and suffered as if on the point of expiring - is nothing of the kind. Yes, his last work was a mazurka, but not that mazurka. Quite an innocuous one, as it happens.

    The characters who populated Chopin's life form a glorious cavalcade. Liszt - to whom Walker has devoted so much of his life - is here reincarnated as a weaselish, gossipy, amoral, immoral presence, the antithesis of everything Chopin stood for. Once he asked to borrow Chopin's apartment - and used it to seduce the wife of Pleyel, Chopin's favourite piano maker. You get the picture. And his mistress Marie d'Agoult is even worse. Every time they appear you know there's going to be trouble. Meanwhile the bumptious pianist Kalkbrenner is gloriously lampooned: apparently he liked to try to improve his friends' table-manners. And - wait for it - the singer and composer Pauline Viardot, with whom readers of JDCMB will be familiar, had a full-blown love affair with Sand's son, Maurice, a couple of years after she married Louis Viardot, oh yes indeed.

    And Chopin himself? We often think of him as a neurotic, narcissistic dandy, hideously anti-semitic, making his friends' lives a misery, and so forth. Well, he was very ill for most of his adult life. He did like beautiful clothes and decor, and he probably was a bit of a narcissist. And he did treat Fontana, who lived with him, rather poorly. But Prince Karol he wasn't, or not only. His anti-semitism, Walker suggests, was no more or less than anyone else's at that point of history - that's simply how it was in those days, sad but true. Yes, there are some anti-semitic side-swipes at his publishers, but this wasn't extraordinary or unexpected in the unfortunate context of the time. Chopin also inspired loyal friendships and was a man of high principle and strong character with a vivid and sometimes vicious sense of humour and a gift for mimicry which, Walker says, would not have disgraced a professional actor.

    The break-up with Sand is strongly drawn and heart-breaking: Chopin was in Paris, had no idea of the physically violent confrontation that had made Sand throw Solange and the vile Clésinger out of Nohant (Clésinger punched her in the chest and Maurice ran off to look for a gun) and when the pregnant Solange appealed to him for help, Chopin didn't hesitate to lend her his carriage and words of sympathy. He didn't know what had happened. And Sand's reaction - slamming the door on the relationship - seems excessively cruel. Though, as her Lucrezia Floriani suggests (and you should definitely read that too - oof!), there must have been trouble brewing there for a very long time.

    I have one question which remains unanswered - yes, really. Chopin was not literary, yet he lived with one of the most celebrated novelists of the day for nearly a decade. How did that work? Did he never read her books? Didn't she mind if he showed no interest in her work? Presumably the likelihood that he never actually read Lucrezia Floriani was a good thing - he was spared the pain, and if she knew he wouldn't read it, she could let rip all the more with the hideous character of 'Prince Karol'. But if that book shows what she really felt about Chopin, why had she not split from him sooner? Walker shows us a vivid portrayal of Sand burning her correspondence with Chopin after his death. There are things we will never know.

    The chapter that follows the fortunes of Chopin's unpublished works, letters and preserved heart after his death is every bit as gripping as those about his life. He died intestate (yes, this man who suffered from tuberculosis all his adult life and must have known his days were numbered never actually made a will!) and his insufferable brother-in-law forced his sister Ludwika to sell off his belongings. Much was lost from his sister's apartment when it was ransacked by the military, who threw his piano out of the window and destroyed manuscripts that probably contained implicitly worthwhile unpublished works. And do you remember that instruction he is supposed to have given that his body should be 'opened' after his death so that he would not be buried alive? That wasn't him. It was his father.

    I don't believe I have ever read a biography of any composer that I have loved as much as this one, nor would I expect to do so again any time soon. It's a marvel and a treasure-trove. If you love Chopin, do yourself a favour and get a copy right away. You can wait for Christmas if you really want to, but personally I wouldn't. Order here.

    Sunday, October 28, 2018

    Turgenev's 200th

    Ivan Turgenev
    I learned, a little late, that today is the bicentenary of one of the writers I love best: Ivan Turgenev. (Some give the date as '9 November new style', though; take your pick.)

    He's perhaps the quieter, undersung hero of Russian literature, sometimes submerged under the tidal waves of Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky and the rest. Yet to encounter his novella First Love is to find a work so perfect that it encapsulates an ideal story structure before anyone thought there was any such thing, and - perhaps more importantly - there is not one spare paragraph in it. I once attempted to abridge it for reading with music and it simply couldn't be done. Remove any tiny element and the edifice is wrecked.

    Ballet-lovers are - as so often with rare music and literature - better informed than many of us. A Month in the Country is probably seen more often in Frederick Ashton's beautiful Chopin-filled interpretation than as Turgenev's original play, at least in the UK.

    It's highly autobiographical, of course. Turgenev spent most of his adult life in thrall to the great singer Pauline Viardot, who was married to a distinguished theatre director 20 years her senior, and the play reflects Turgenev's sense of frustration and depression as the more-or-less resident 'admirer', watching helplessly as she is seduced by someone else. [I am sure I read somewhere that the younger man in the story who arrives and causes havoc had some basis in Charles Gounod... but I can't immediately lay my hands on the right book to check this.]

    Viardot was a protegée of George Sand, friend of Chopin, sometime pupil of Liszt, sister of Maria Malibran and inspirer of music ranging from Meyerbeer and Berlioz to Saint-Saëns, Brahms (the Alto Rhapsody) and - at a bit of a tangent - Bizet. She was of course a fabulous composer as well and Turgenev wrote her three operetta libretti. He also wrote a libretto for Brahms, which - dang - was never set. Saint-Saëns brought the young Fauré to her salon where he fell in love with her third daughter, Marianne, and spent four formative years amid this extraordinary milieu.

    Turgenev was fond of Fauré and helped to persuade Marianne to accept his proposal - only to have her dump him three months later, scared away, apparently, by the young composer's passionate intensity. Fauré spoke touchingly of Turgenev later in life, remarking that whenever he read his prose, it was as if he could hear the author's gentle voice again.

    Several years after finishing my Fauré biography, I read, for other reasons, a story I hadn't come across before by Turgenev: The Song of Triumphant Love. This was the fantastical, Renaissance-set tale that inspired Chausson to create his Poème. It was written several years after Fauré and Marianne split up. And there, in the story, were two figures who seemed, in terms of their character, very, very familiar. I spent some time delving into this, convinced I'd stumbled upon something that nobody had spotted since Turgenev himself (though one can never be sure, naturally), and exploring whether it was plausible he had based these characters on Fauré and Marianne. It was eminently plausible, as things turned out...

    The article that resulted was published in The Strad, together with an exploration of the Poème itself by Philippe Graffin. It's on my website, so here it is again in tribute to this glorious writer and his circle. Enjoy.

    (I also borrowed the title for a novel - not about them, but a present-day story inspired to some extent by them.)

    Thursday, October 25, 2018

    Never give up...

    My Top 10 ODETTE FAQs...

    Q: Ooh, Odette? The World War II spy? Or Proust?
    J: Er, no. Swan Lake.

    Q: The Tchaikovsky ballet? So did you go to Russia to research it?
    J: Actually, the book's set in a university town in East Anglia in 2018.

    Q: So it's, like, real fiction?
    J: Well, one of the main characters turns into a swan every day, so, yep.

    Q: How did you get the idea?
    J: I had this recurring dream about looking for my Swan Lake book, and it was never there, so I thought I might write it...

    Q: Maybe I should get it for my 9-yr-old daughter. She's mad about ballet.
    J: Well, it's not really suitable for 9-yr-olds, and there's no actual ballet in it.

    Q: If there's no ballet, what's it about?
    J: Outsiders. How we treat them. How they respond to us. How we change each others' lives. How much responsibility do we have to look after other people?  

    Q: And it's for which age group?
    J: Adults, though could probably be enjoyed by the young adult market.

    Q: But who's it aimed at?
    J: Anyone who fancies crossing Swan Lake with Bridget Jones and A Christmas Carol. Some will 'get' it, some won't, and that's fine. [Evoke Marmite HERE if desired.]

    Q: How come it took you 26 years?
    J: I started it in 1992 and have been rewriting and updating it ever since. Maybe it just needed the right publisher - one who didn't mind dealing with something not quite like anything else out there. For 25 years they all minded a lot. Meanwhile other things came along, first Korngold, then Fauré, then the Independent; and life happened, as it tends to, so I was dealing with three cancer deaths in my immediate family, trying to keep my head above the freelance waters, then getting married, moving house, and writing four other novels on contract, plus Ghost Variations, which itself took 5 years while more life happened... And finally Unbound said, 'Great, bring it on.'

    Q: But why did you keep trying?
    J: I couldn't let go of it. I couldn't just leave it there. There's something in that book that holds all I wanted to be and say before my parents and sister were ill and dying and before the domino effect that had on daily existence. It contains something that's innocent and hopeful and human. And finally I want to get it back in some way, or at least find I didn't entirely lose all of it in the onslaught. It's changed over the years, of course, on every rewrite, but the essence of that search is still there. As Solti would have said: never give up.

    And meanwhile...
    Dear friends, if you would like to support ODETTE, you have just 3 DAYS LEFT. To get your name onto the patrons' list, please sign up before the end of 28 October. Publication date is 29 November, in time for Christmas. At Unbound you can pre-order by pledging for a paperback, a digital copy, or good deals for two copies or five, or other special offers.