Friday, March 29, 2019

It's International Piano Day!

So on 29 March 2019 something momentous was meant to happen, but it isn't - phew, at least for now - thank EU very much! And we can, instead, celebrate what is apparently International Piano Day. Here are a few of the pianists who helped me to fall in love with the piano as a child/teenager and were among the formative influences in how I think and write about it today. This is a tribute to them all.


I never heard Dame Myra Hess in person (I was born the year she died), but I became aware of her very early on. First of all, my mum's name was Myra too - unusual and 'clockable' when you are small - and there is something similar about their profiles. We lived in north London and used sometimes to go for walks on the Hampstead Heath Extension. There was a blue plaque to Hess on her house in Wildwood Road and we always used to try to park outside it. Later, of course, I heard all about her National Gallery concerts during World War II, which was enormously inspiring. But above all, the quality of her artistry shines from every note. 


The first piano recital I ever attended was by this eminent Hungarian pianist at the Royal Festival Hall. He played the complete Chopin waltzes (I expect he'd just released this recording) and I do remember that I had a beastly cold and having quite a to-do with my mother over nose drops before the concert began. Vásáry must have done something right because these gorgeous pieces have been close to my heart ever since. 


My father adored Brahms. He'd sit and compare different recordings of the symphonies for fun on a Sunday afternoon. And he had a big box on LP of the complete piano music, played by Julius Katchen. When cassettes were invented, he transferred all the LPs onto them and we'd have them on in the car on long drives during holidays. I can still see the countryside bowling by as I listened to this dusky, rich-toned Hungarian dance, which seemed to capture a whole world of which I then knew nothing, but have been chasing ever since.


We knew him first as pianist of the glorious Beaux Arts Trio. A force of nature, his playing filled with  bounce, light, life and love, Pressler brought his unique touch and irrepressible charm to chamber music repertoire that in his hands seemed the best thing in the world - and still does. What a wonderful way to get to know the Schubert Trios, Dvorák's Dumky, and even the Korngold. I longed (as a seriously fed-up university student in Cambridge) to go and study with him in Bloomington, Indiana, but I never had the courage to try. And he's still going strong at 95. I interviewed him when he was 82 and asked if he never thought of retiring. "Why would I want to play golf when I can play Beethoven?" he said.


The first time we heard Zimerman in concert was at the Royal Festival Hall on 8 June 1981. He was very young, though already an international superstar, and he played Brahms's Sonata No.3 in F minor, the Chopin G minor Ballade and the 'Funeral March' Sonata. I will never, ever forget it because that was the day I realised that a piano was much, much more than a musical instrument. It was a whole world. A universe was unlocked in my brain by the magic of his playing. I hope he will forgive me for using this video today.


After hearing Zimerman I started taking the piano more seriously and worked much harder at it. At 16 I went for the first time to the Dartington International Summer School - my school friend Laura Roberts (who now teaches at Guildhall) had been there the year before, adored it and persuaded me to go there with her. We both auditioned for a rising star Hungarian pianist named András Schiff, who was about 28 at the time and flamed through Dartington setting everyone alight with his vivid, beautiful, radical Bach playing. It was the era when on one hand you were supposed to do What's In The Score and nothing else, so people were sometimes puzzled when András produced notes inégales or changed the register of a Goldberg Variation on a repeat, but this was actually authentic performance practice. On the other hand, you weren't supposed to play Bach on the modern piano... One way or another I astonished myself by actually being accepted for the class and I played a Schubert impromptu, quaking in my summer sandals... Above, a more recent class in which he coaches the splendid Martin James Bartlett on another impromptu from the same set, and years may have passed, and Martin wasn't yet born when I went to Dartington, but the maestro isn't really so different.


The following year I went back to Dartington and got into Imogen Cooper's masterclass. This time I played some Beethoven and totally mucked it up and was really, really upset afterwards and went off into the gardens to have a howl, as one does. Imogen came along later and found me; she gave me a very sweet, understanding pep talk. She was always a vast inspiration - again, like Hess and Schiff, for the purity of her sound, her values and her depth of artistic understanding, and watching all of this deepening and expanding more and still more has been one of the great joys in my past 35 years. We can be very glad that Chandos has recorded her extensively. Above, she talks about beloved Schumann.

Well, one could go on and on about this and add Rubinstein, Barenboim, Ashkenazy and Anthony Goldstone (a great favourite of my mum's). We could add Arrau, whom I was lucky enough to hear twice in concert, and Richter, who I nearly met but didn't, though spent an hour in the same house in another room, and Fou Ts'ong, and the incredible Rosalyn Tureck. But I have to go out and catch a train as a very dear friend has just flown into town from New York. 

Remember: whatever happens this afternoon and in two weeks' time or next year, we are all citizens of music if we want to be.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

A tale of two parties

No, not those parties. These are Baron Zeta's embassy ball, and Hanna Glawari's glamour-trip do. We're in Paris and we're at a different party in each act of The Merry Widow, where the filthy-rich Hanna, having inherited millions from her deceased spouse, is the target of Baron Zeta's determination to marry her off to a fellow countryman to bolster the national economy of their homeland, Pontevedro.

A moment of magic: Sarah Tynan as Hanna sings 'Vilja' from the moon.
All photos from ENO (c) Clive Barda

The great thing about operetta is that it is "light". But the trouble with operetta is that it has to be "light", otherwise it becomes heavy and goes clunk. Treat its subject matter with too much earnestness and it can be a total disaster. But what is "light"?

It's in the music, it's in the drama, it's in the touch. It's in the teasing out of meaning, rather than the hammer-head of fate. It's in the quality of projection, the creation of imagery, the flexibility and, most elusively, that strange old-fashioned thing called charm. It makes you laugh, but not without occasionally raising a tear to the eye. There's farce or fantasy, madcap humour and melodies to go mad about. There are home truths, but happy endings. Mostly nobody dies. And, as remarked my companion for the evening - a friend and colleague who knows his central Europe inside out - it's like goulash: there's no one recipe. Anyone who's ever tried will tell you that comedy is far and away the most difficult genre to pull off - whether you're writing, or filming, or staging opera/operetta.

Maybe, then, it's no wonder that a trip to The Merry Widow at English National Opera is a rare experience. We all know the waltz tune, but Franz Lehár's best-known work doesn't often make it to the stage in the UK, let alone in English. This version, with English new book by April de Angelis (Flight) and lyrics by Richard Thomas (Jerry Springer: The Opera), looked enticing and promised much.

How does it match up? Musically, pretty well - though the Overture seemed a strange mash-up of The Best of the Merry Widow, rather than Lehár's original. Still, Kristiina Poska's conducting maintained a pleasing spring in the step, bowling-along momentum and some nice Viennese-style rubato. The cast's voices suited the roles and the music. Sarah Tynan's girlish high soprano was well chosen, precise and biting, with a beautifully plaintive 'Vilja' song delivered from the crescent moon. Nathan Gunn was clear-spoken and world-weary as Danilo and the supporting acts of Rhian Lois, Robert Murray and Andrew Shore as respectively Valencienne, Camille and Baron Zeta pulled off their multiple shenanigans with terrific aplomb.

Go with the flow...
Max Webster's staging had its ups and downs. The splendour and romance of Hanna's party, with that dangling moon, was hard to resist, but act I, taking place inside a stage-within-a-stage that was occupied mostly by a sweeping staircase, felt a bit cramped. The major weakness, though, was one-dimensional characters; Hanna herself, "common as muck", as she's described in this version, is also hard as nails and veers all the way from vampily taunting the predatory men about their obsession with her money to... vampily taunting the predatory men about their obsession with her money. Tynan certainly looks the part in a svelte silver gown, but the character proved oddly hard to care about; when she suddenly deduces that "he loves only me" it comes as a bit of a surprise that she's even interested. Gunn's Danilo was, well, a good match. Their relationship seemed as shallow as both of them, beyond a vague old-flame frisson. These two deserved each other.

And the translation? Sassy and modern, yes: the women get the upper hand, the men are baffled and buffeted. Sideswipes at the present political situation hit home, notably when it's pointed out that the trouble with being Pontevedran is that you're from a country with no natural resources, no manufacturing industry and with whom nobody would want to do business, and that risks being annexed by Lichtenstein. But the highlight was the men's song at their row of urinals, wondering how on earth the women took control ("Go with the flow!"). Last time I heard an English version of this, it was all about "Girls, girls, girls, girls, giiiirls", so a radical rethink was somewhat refreshing. Besides, the words were not only quick, catchy and clever, but they actually worked with the music.

That wasn't always the case elsewhere. Not that this was likely to be a smooth run. I've done some pieces myself that involved fitting new words to existing music, and it's a challenge. You have to make sure you do go with the flow - the shape of the phrases, the open vowels, the way the stresses fall naturally - but when the sound of the original language can be so much a part of the music itself (and it is - others will say it isn't, but in most cases it really, really is), you're almost doomed before you start. Still. One example. You know that waltz tune? The three falling notes at the end of the phrases? Here they sang: "I'll miss you." It comes out with the music as "I'LL miss YOU," though the natural flow of these words, though is "I'll MISS you." Try saying it aloud: it's the shape and impact of the syllables themselves...

There's a lot to be said for sassy, modern and up to date. But it means - perhaps inevitably - replacing charm with cynicism. And without charm, the whole thing risks missing the mark. You can take Lehár out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but you can't take the...oh.

I kid you not.

A quick word, to close, about the beavers, national symbol of Montevedro... You first encounter them in the foyer - gold ones - and then on stage. And you think perhaps the metaphor/pun is going to become something more risqué, but actually it doesn't, so the gag falls a little bit flat... Except that then two beavers appear at Hanna's party and, um, they tap-dance, accompanied by a gaudy array of moustachioed acrobatic strongmen and party-frocked prancers (see above). At which point, my companion remarked: "Actually, this is very like Romanian late-night TV." To which I can't really add anything at all.

Here's a little treat: the original Merry Widow, Mizzi Günther, singing 'Vilma', recorded in 1906.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

En marche

We do.

Plenty of us were there, too.

Cheers to everyone who marched yesterday, using our democratic right to peaceful protest. And with a turnout of an estimated 1.8m, don't forget that each of us were also representing those who couldn't make it due to work, rehearsals, family and other commitments, but were there in spirit and asked us to remember them there. I had at least 10 requests to "march for me".

Who knows if it will make any difference - but that is no reason not to try.

Similarly, if you haven't yet signed the Revoke Article 50 petition - which at time of writing is just short of 5m - please do so here.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

"A gaping hole in the heart of British choral music"

I don't think I'm the only person who's currently so cheesed off with the behaviour of our dear country on the international stage that I've been feeling disinclined to listen to any British music. This is not good. Brexit isn't the fault of our composers - anything but. Therefore I'm making an effort to get back to them and I've asked William Vann to write us a guest post about Hubert Parry's oratorio Judith, which he is conducting at the London English Song Festival at the Royal Festival Hall on 3 April, no matter what happens on 29 March. He tells me this will be the work's first airing in London since the 19th century and that its neglect seems to him to be "a gaping hole in the heart of British choral music". Nevertheless, you might find some of it sounds familiar...

Please read on, have a listen and (unless you're in Great Malvern that night for the Schumann Violin Concerto) do give the concert a whirl. If you can't make it, watch out for the recording in due course. JD

‘It is the offspring not only of a finished musician but of a cultivated thinker. For such a possession art is the better and England the richer.’ Charles Villiers Stanford writing on Judith, 1888.

Hubert Parry,
younger than we usually think of him
2018, the year of the centenary of his death, saw a widespread reawakening of interest in the music of Hubert Parry, including the release of three discs of his complete English Lyrics on SOMM Recordings. Yet, particularly in the world of choral music, many of his large-scale works were overlooked in favour of well-known classics, such as the Songs of FarewellBlest Pair of Sirens, or I Was Glad.

The London English Song Festival’s performance of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s oratorio Judith on 3 April promises to be one of the most important revivals of English music for many years. A work of considerable stature and irresistible quality, Judith has not been performed in the UK since the 1950s; in London its last performance was at St James’s Hall in 1889 - 130 years ago! It has never been recorded. Parry was the master of large choral and orchestral forces, and Judith features spine-tingling choruses and a dramatic story. It was an overwhelming success in Victorian England, performed by some of that era’s greatest musicians all over the UK, and it contains the melody that later, under the name Repton, became the famous hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.

George Grove appointed Parry as the Royal College of Music’s professor of composition and musical history in 1883, and he was finally able to put his unhappy career in insurance (he had been underwriter at Lloyd's of London from 1870 to 1877) behind him. The 1880s was a decade when he emerged as a composer of stature, with a reputation as a symphonist and as writer of choral music. His dramatic cantata, Scenes from Prometheus Unbound, had been performed at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival of 1880 and he was again commissioned to write a short choral work for the Gloucester festival in 1883. Blest Pair of Sirens of 1886, setting Milton’s ‘At a solemn musick’ was commissioned by Stanford and the London Bach Choir to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and was received with adulation by the public and critics alike.

Shortly afterwards, Parry was commissioned by the great triennial festival at Birmingham to write  a large-scale oratorio. Extensive choral participation was part of the brief: the Birmingham committee insisted on, as Parry put it, ‘regular oratorio’, and after much thought he settled on the dramatic story of Judith during the reign of the repentant Jewish king, Manasseh. After some wrangling with the Birmingham committee, Judith was performed on 29 August under the direction of the festival conductor, Hans Richter.

Parry's new oratorio was well received and was soon taken up by choral societies around Britain, notably in Edinburgh, London, Cambridge, Gloucester, Bristol and Oxford. The work contains many impressive choral movements, particularly in such numbers as ‘Our king is come again’ and the final fugue (‘Put off, O Jerusalem’) and the solo work is thrilling. The hymn tune Repton originated in the ballad of Meshullemeth, the queen-mother (‘Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land’), who sings of the early Israelite history to her children.

It seems that Judith fell out of favour and fashion, along with much of Parry’s music, after his death. The next generation of composers took British classical music in a new direction: no bad thing, but with hindsight it was a pity that much of the finest of late 19th century music was discarded. The more I studied the score, playing through sections of choruses and arias with groups of singers, the more I grew to regard the neglect of this work as a gaping hole in the heart of British choral music.

And so, on Wednesday 3 April 2019, at Royal Festival Hall (an organ is crucial to a full performance!), Judith will receive its first London performance since the 19th century and its first UK performance within living memory. The soloists will be Sarah Fox as Judith (she features on discs 2 & 3 of the SOMM English Lyrics, as it happens), Kathryn Rudge as Meshullemeth, Toby Spence as Manasseh and Henry Waddington as High Priest of Moloch & Messenger of Holofernes. We will go on to record it for Chandos Records later in the month. I am thrilled to be conducting the four of them alongside the London Mozart Players, Crouch End Festival Chorus and a superb chorus of children, specially selected for the occasion. Join us!

William Vann

[Heard this tune somewhere before?]

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Korngold dream sequence...

Guys, guys...wait...what.....

So, here we go. Jonas Kaufmann is singing the role of Paul in Korngold's Die tote Stadt at the Bavarian State Opera, starting on 18 November. And Kirill Petrenko is conducting, and Marlis Petersen is Marietta and if the announcement on Twitter hadn't been accompanied by a slightly worrying cartoon, I'd have fallen off the proverbial chair. One has of course been hoping for years that Kaufmann might do this. (One might even have mentioned such a hope when interviewing him five years ago, just in case - if he was already thinking about it by then, the cards were not revealed.) But gosh, I hope I'm not dreaming.

This video introducing the production suggests that director Simon Stone could well do it proud. (And indeed - update - a Die tote Stadt fan on Twitter tells me he has attended Stone's production in Basel and that it was "the best I've ever seen".) "We must go through the dark times so that we can see the light again," Stone says. "That's what's so great about the piece." Kaufmann meanwhile points out that the work contains just about everything that happened in opera between 1850 and 1950, which makes it "pretty difficult".

This opera, with its extended dream sequence, has in the past been an occasional magnet for 'dirctoritis': I've never quite recovered from witnessing Olaf Bär having to sing the Pierrot Tanzlied dressed in a black basque, angel wings and high heels. It's a work with a lot of heart and a lot of heartbreak; it carries a strong message about love and loss that was all too pertinent in the wake of World War I when the opera was premiered. That was, I'm convinced, one reason for its extreme popularity in the inter-war years - though its generous, atmospheric score and powerhouse roles for the lead singers might just explain something too. 

Speaking of dreams, yesterday I logged on to the Deutsche Oper Berlin site to see if they were doing their hugely successful production of Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane again, and it suggested to me that they were, in late April and early May, and I even checked T's calendar to see if he'd be free to go and see any of the performances together, and he wasn't. Then I checked back later - only to find it had completely disappeared. Dream sequence again (or just last year's website)? At least that production is due out on DVD in May. Pre-ordering is available, even if tickets are not. 

Meanwhile in the US, the whole of the Bard Festival is built around Korngold this summer. Not least among the treats on offer will be the US staged premiere of Das Wunder der Heliane, conducted by the marvellous Leon Botstein. The festival also contains a concert performance of Die tote Stadt, a rare performance of the Piano Concerto for Left Hand, the Piano Quintet, the Symphony in F sharp, the Passover Psalm and much, much more. Music by Korngold's contemporaries, peers and mentors sets the context, spanning the worlds from Heliane to Hollywood with much in between.

Korngold now has what he has needed the most: top-level international advocacy. With Leon Botstein at Bard, Kaufmann, Petersen and Petrenko in Munich and Christoph Loy in charge of Heliane in Berlin, there's no doubt about the take-up, the appeal and the power. But there's only one thing missing: a real presence in the UK's opera world. One staged production of Die tote Stadt has come to Covent Garden, ever, many years ago. And that was that - which is frankly nuts. Perhaps Korngold is perceived as too European for one lot of Brits and too American for the others. It's time this changed. Thxbi >books plane to Munich<.