Friday, January 31, 2020

The sun is setting

Tonight's the night they throw our country over the cliffs - probably to the hyenas waiting beneath. Playing the Ode to Joy is a predictable resistance, but it's not what I'm feeling right now, Beethoven addict though I am. Instead, it's Korngold's exquisite Pierrot Tanzlied from Die tote Stadt that says everything in my heart. Here it is, with subtitles. (Production by Pier Luigi Pizzi from La Fenice, Venice, 2009. Pierrot is sung by Stephan Genz.)

We'll still be here in the morning, as if nothing happened, but God alone knows where this is going to lead - and heaven help us all.

See you on the other side.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Beethoven meets Shakespeare #1

I've spent some time considering the associations of Beethoven's D minor Piano Sonata Op. 31 No. 2 with "Der Sturm" - as referenced by the not-too-reliable Anton Schindler. In his book on the composer, whose amanuensis he briefly was, Schindler recalled asking Beethoven for the "key" to this enigmatic work and being told "Read Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'" (German: 'Der Sturm').

One has doubts, of course. Nothing with a nickname can ever be totally trusted, unfortunately, and when it's Schindler providing the basis, even less so. I was considering an alternative theory: that in fact Beethoven - assuming he said anything of this kind at all to Schindler, perhaps inaccurately remembered by the latter - had been referring to the poet Christian Christoph Sturm, whose writings he held in high regard and who often considers the wonders of nature, the place of humanity within it and the relation of both to God and the divine order, all of which seem more than pertinent to the atmosphere of this piece.

However, try reading 'Full Fathom Five' from The Tempest and remember it is sung by Ariel, the spirit of the air, and then listen to the slow movement of the D minor sonata. The beginning seems almost to serve as the introduction to a song; then the theme arrives, deep set, full fathom five down, with a high, seagull-like figure decorating the upper register and casting perspective. The harmonies become richer and stranger; and a figure appears in the bass (sometimes, also, the treble) that flickers like a drum roll, or a distant tolling bell.

Both theories actually work. Neither is strictly necessary. But they are wonderful to ponder. Enjoy.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them,ding-dong, bell.

Here's Ashley Wass with a fine performance. 

If you've enjoyed this post, please consider supporting IMMORTAL, my Beethoven novel due out in the autumn

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Decade? How were the - whaddyacallits - for you?

Clara Schumann. This was the year it all came home.

End of a decade that won't be much missed, unless the twenties ahead fail to roar, or roar - as they might - in all the wrong ways. Nobody seems sure what to call this past lot. The 'teenies' might be a good one, with reference to Trump's hands.

How were they for you? Bests and worsts? My worst is probably the Very Stressful Thing 8 years ago that left me with a long-term health issue I could seriously have done without. It seemed to signal that we were moving into a world of irrationality and persecution that was likely to get worse rather than better, which is exactly what's happened. But we keep on keeping on, because something I've learned from Beethoven (who is off to the publisher tomorrow) is to sing joy at the worst of times as the ultimate defiance. Beethoven weaponised positivity. He never gave up. It's just as well we have a year of him ahead.

The best thing of the decade, though, is that I've discovered my favourite thing in the whole world ever is writing librettos. Silver Birch for Roxanna Panufnik at Garsington was a life-changing experience - the sort of moment when you regret all the years you spent on other stuff when you could have been WRITING OPERAS instead.

2017, indeed, was a spectacularly wonderful year, the Brexit mess notwithstanding. Not only Silver Birch but a magical visit to Leipzig to write Being Mrs Bach, the success of Ghost Variations and a visit to a favourite interviewee to talk about Schubert knee-deep in a field of mountain wildflowers are all memories to cherish. Performing Alicia's Gift at the Wigmore Hall with Viv McLean was a phenomenal highlight of 2016. Then Odette took wing in 2018, having been in the works for 26 years.

One of the oddities of the financial crisis was that it kicked the stuffing out of traditional publishers -who dropped many hardworking and dedicated "mid-list" authors, mostly because they had paid insanely huge advances to "celebrities" to produce stuff that, surprise surprise, didn't sell. Unbound is one of the new business models that has sprung up to deal with that situation. Instead of saying "there's no market for that, dearie", they allow you to prove there is a market first, by selling the thing in advance. This has worked jolly well. Immortal, the Beethoven novel I have waited all my life to write, was fully funded within three months (and you can still get your name in the book as a patron if you click here.) Regrettably, the 'teenies' have turned us all into hustlers. I'm sorry about that, but please blame the government for not dealing properly with the root philosophical causes of the financial crash in the first place.

For me personally it's been a decade of vicissitudes - Brexit, the Indy going xxxx-up, and the dissolution in front of my eyes of several professions that were all viable ways of making a living back in 1987 when I finished university - and yet in other ways it's been the best decade I've ever had. You may wonder if I miss the Independent, and sometimes I do, but often I don't. (Though I do miss it being the quality broadsheet newspaper I was so pleased to join in 2004.) Along similar lines, I miss our ginger bruiser Solti to bits, but we now have our Somali cats Ricki and Cosi who are simply the best.

In some ways 2019 was the year certain things came home to roost. The ascendency of awareness of women composers has been impressive. First of all, I seem to have spent half the year writing about Clara Schumann, whose 200th anniversary has provided a marvellous figurehead-point. And remember Pauline Viardot, whom I started shouting about sometime in ?2003? Now Orlando Figes has written a fabulous book about her, Turgenev and Louis Viardot entitled The Europeans; Cecilia Bartoli is putting her centre stage at the Salzburg Easter Festival; there's a definite upswing.

Conducting, too, is a growth area for female musicians, and not before time. Brava to Mirga Grazynite-Tyla, changing minds across the world from the heart of Birmingham, and all the fantastic work the RPS Women Conductors programme is doing - and much, much more besides.

Next, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor - another composer I've been yelling about since a similar time - has become rather a figurehead for the fantastic Chineke! Orchestra. They have just been touring his gorgeous Violin Concerto around Europe, flummoxing racists and shining the light.

Meanwhile, music and storytelling have been coming together in all manner of ways - try the Aurora Orchestra's Berlioz Symphonie fantastique - and showing how new audiences can be engaged and won.

A new decade can bring a new injection of energy as we try to figure out what went wrong and how we can put it right. Now: climate change is the single biggest problem. Also, keeping peace in the face of worldwide popularity for strongman politicians who care for nothing but their own power; and maintaining the fight for liberty, equality and siblinghood.

As for the arts, my hopes are these.
-- We can reconnect music and opera and ballet to humanity by writing new works that people actually relate to and in which young people can perform.
-- We need to get rid of a situation where the substance of an artwork is secondary to the superficial way it is performed. We risk not seeing the wood for the trees, missing the point, and alienating huge swathes of audience.
-- We need urgently to find a way for freedom of movement to continue for arts practitioners between the UK and Europe, or our arts scene in Britain is going to suffer very, very badly. The case has been built often by organisations such as the ISM and the ABO, but there's precious little sign that anybody is listening; perhaps some quiet behind-the-scenes machinations might help. Brexit will show everybody its true colours in due course - whether it takes one year, five or 50 - and until then we can only try and limit its likely damage.
-- Let us seize fate by the throat. It shall not overcome us wholly. How beautiful it is to live - to live a thousand times! (Thank you, "Luigi".)

Monday, December 30, 2019

Susanne Beer, 31 October 1967 - 29 December 2019

Farewell to a dear friend and wonderful cellist, Susanne Beer, who died yesterday at the age of 52. She was co-principal cellist of the London Philharmonic for 18 years.

She had a long battle with cancer - melanoma - and was phenomenally brave and positive throughout.  While she was ill, friends and her many pupils from her school, The Cello Corner, came to her house to perform chamber music for her. As recently as 11 December she travelled to attend an LPO concert at the Royal Festival Hall in her wheelchair, and they gave her a party backstage afterwards. Her husband is now setting up a foundation in her memory to help young cellists.

Tom, who worked with her for most of those 18 years, writes:

Susi was born in Passau, Bavaria into a family of musicians. After studies at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, and William Pleeth in London, she joined the London Philharmonic as co-principal cello.
Her first performance was playing continuo cello on the legendary Georg Solti recording of Don Giovanni; and it was indeed her continuo playing which made her such a recognisable feature of Glyndebourne.
After leaving the LPO Susi went on to become a devoted cello teacher, founding the London cello corner, where her enthusiasm inspired many students.
She coped valiantly with her tragic illness, surprising her many friends with her innate positivity and realism; I recall asking her how this was possible, she replied that she was incredibly lucky to have found total fulfiillment in her professional and personal life. 

On December 11 she came to a London Philharmonic concert, where she effectively said goodbye to her friends. 

You can read more about her at her websites: and

Above, Gabriel's Oboe...

Saturday, December 21, 2019


Come on in, quick.

It's raining. Again. Still. Just dump your stuff in the cloakroom and hurry along that corridor to the...yes, it's our CyberPoshPlace! It's decked out with seasonal sumptuousness and ready to host our magical mystery Silver Chocolate Awards all over again, as we do every winter solstice.

The glitter-balls are atwirl, the walls are draped with purple silk and on their thrones, side by side, Ricki and Cosi, joint feline monarchs of our particular glen, are preparing to give this year's winners a prize purr and let them stroke their fine silvery and milk-chocolate-coloured fur.

Meanwhile, our cyber bubbly will make you only as tipsy as you wish to be, our virtual canapés magically transform to be gluten free, dairy free or vegan as you desire, upon contact, and every composer and musician you have ever wished to meet is here, transformed into founts of sociability.

Our special guest star and Icon of the Year is, of course, Ludwig van Beethoven - or Luigi, as he becomes in Immortal, which is starting on its path towards publication. The old boy looks quite pleased. He's wearing a blue coat and yellow waistcoat; his brilliant dark eyes are surveying the crowd to make sure Prince Lichnowsky hasn't shown up; and the sisters Therese (our narrator) and Josephine Brunsvik are on either arm, in adoring attendance.

Luigi, you have a big year ahead. Exploring your life in greater depth and attempting to pay tribute to you has been one of the most thrilling experiences I've ever had. It has turned into a journey from Jane Austen to (sort of) Tristan und Isolde and I hope it will bring your story to life in a whole new way. There are some wonderful books about you out there. There's also a lot of pretty awful stuff. I hope to contribute to the former, rather than the latter, but I guess time will tell. It's full steam ahead now. Please come up to Ricki and Cosi and enjoy a really good purr.

Next, I'd like to welcome two composer colleagues of today who have been the centre of my work this past year. Actually, three, but I'm not allowed to reveal who the third is yet or what we're doing, so he will have to be incognito. Roxanna Panufnik, thank you for changing my life and entrusting me with the task of providing words that will spark some of your wonderful music into existence. I can't wait for our big Beethoven-anniversary piece at the Berlin Philharmonie that's coming up on 1 May, Ever Us. We bring Beethoven's words, world and favourite poets into a work for 10 CHOIRS from all over the world, plus the instrumentation of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, and our doughty directorial colleague Karen Gillingham is in charge of crowd control. Huge thanks to the Rundfunkchor Berlin for this glorious commission. Please join us, folks!!

Paul Fincham, The Happy Princess was a treat of a whole different kind: it was a story I've wanted to adapt for opera for years, your music is chock-full of earworms, and the staging, again by Karen, was utterly perfect. The thing was a smash-hit even if it only had one performance. Let's hope there will be more opportunities for it beyond this, because it deserves to be heard! Thank you for your work, your confidence and your friendship. And thank you, Garsington Opera, for the faith that you put in all of us! And, dear mystery colleague - can't wait to see what you're coming up with....

Conductor of the Year is the one and only Vladimir Jurowski, who needs no introduction. Three of his concerts with the LPO this autumn - respectively the Tchaikovsky Pathétique Symphony, the Strauss Alpine Symphony and Mahler 2 - were some of the best I have ever attended in my whole life, and I go to quite a lot. Mahler 2 left everyone simply speechless backstage afterwards. Vladimir has another year and a half or so to go as principal conductor of the LPO and he will be very, very sorely missed - though we're promised he'll be back often. I hope the Bavarian State Opera knows how lucky it is to be welcoming him in as music director.

I'd like to give a gigantic thank-you to Marios Papadopoulos, whose support for Ghost Variations in the form of the Schumann Violin Concerto last June and for Immortal in his Oxford Philharmonic's wide-ranging Beethoven celebrations next year really means the world. I'm looking forward to being part of the Oxford Phil's Beethoven festival in November and working at the Holywell Music Rooms with baritone Benjamin Appl, pianist Manon Fischer-Dieskau and a string quartet drawn from the orchestra's superb musicians. (And Happy Birthday, maestro!)

Speaking of the Bavarian State Opera, this is Opera Company of the Year for Die tote Stadt, which was unforgettably splendid - I doubt I will ever hear this, "my" special opera, better performed. The cast headed by Jonas Kaufmann and Marlis Petersen was perfect and Kirill Petrenko's conducting brought out all the marvels of the Korngold score with its chilli-pepper intensity and bristling detail. A little too much use of the "revolve", perhaps, but never mind. A massive thank you to the fabulous British mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston, who sang Brigitta, for hoiking me over to Munich at short notice and making sure I got to hear it! They are all my singers of the year, too.

Pianist of the Year was tricky, because there are so many wonderful performers whom I love to pieces. However, the prize goes to Norma Fisher, the piano pedagogue who had to retire from the stage decades ago, but whose live performances from way back have been resuscitated by the record producer Tomoyuki Sawado and released on Sonnetto Classics to stunning effect. I recently went to visit her for one of the Masterclass series of articles for International Piano magazine - out sometime in the new year. How I wish I could have my time as a piano student again and beat a path to her door (this in no way diminishes my affection and gratitude to the marvellous teachers I DID go to, of course!).

Honourable mention, too, to some remarkable young pianists: Isata Kanneh-Mason, Mishka Rushie Momen and Iyad Sughayer, who all have had mightily impressive debut CDs released this year - Isata's devoted to Clara Schumann, Iyad's to the eye-wateringly challenging piano works of Khatchaturian and Mishka's an intriguing programme based around variations, including a special commission from Nico Muhly. And last, but very crucially, a ginormous thank you to my beloved concert partner Viv McLean - we have a super new Beethoven show coming up next year, so please watch this space.

Speaking of performance partners, a massive, massive cheer to my fabulous team of harpsichordist Steven Devine, cellist Jonathan Manson and baritone Ben Bevan for their glorious collaboration on Being Mrs Bach's UK premiere at Kings Place back in April. Please come up and have your purrs right away. And here's to more outings soon.

Violinist of the Year is of course Tasmin Little. I'm devastated that she has decided to step down from performing next summer, but pastures new are beckoning - not least, she is to be joint president (with Barenboim) of the Yehudi Menuhin School and I know she will still be very active in the music world as professor, advocate, spokesperson and pretty much anything else she wishes to turn her hand to. Brava, Tasmin! Meanwhile, I've adored working with include two humongously wonderful violinists this year: Alena Baeva and Fenella Humphreys, both of whom can set the flames flying with their all-out, dedicated artistry.

Dan Tepfer and his trio at Incontri
Festival of the Year is the marvellous Tuscan joy that is Incontri in Terra di Siena, run at La Foce, the home of Antonio Lysy's family and headed by artistic director Alessio Bax. Having not been to Tuscany for about 30 years, I came back from my trip there ready to pack everything in and run away to Italy for six months at the very least. A magnet for marvellous music-making in varied, atmospheric locations, and the food is out of this world. Even the gluten-free spaghetti. I also had a great time Korngolding at Bard Summerscape, in upstate New York, which was quite an experience.

A book I'd like to applaud: Richard Bratby's Forward, the history of the CBSO - gorgeously produced, seamlessly readable, superbly expressed and full of splendiferous anecdotes. A wonderful anniversary tribute to the orchestra, with the lightly-worn engaging touch of the insider who knows exactly how it really works...

Record of the Year!
My Record of the Year is John Wilson's recording of the Korngold Symphony in F sharp. If you've ever wondered what all the fuss is about Korngold, this performance with the Sinfonia of London will show you. It's white hot, swashbucklingly virtuoso, staggeringly precise, with an intensity that sweeps all before it. It's the recording I've been waiting for for 30 years - doing for the Symphony what Die tote Stadt in Munich did for that opera. Showing what it's really made of and everything it can truly do. Is this the year that Korngold finally came home? Catch, too, the DVD of the Deutsche Oper Berlin's Das Wunder der Heliane directed by Christof Loy and conducted by Marc Albrecht, for a golden hat-trick of excellence.

We usually have one stuffed turkey, too, and there've been a few, as I seem to have gone to several of the Wrong Things this year. I'm sorry to say it has to be ENO's Orpheus in the Underworld, which was...unfortunate. Then again, I haven't yet seen Cats... [ouch! Ricki, get your claws out of my leg!]

And now let's have a big round of applause, please, for every musician who has touched the hearts of his/her audience during the roller-coaster year that has just been and gone. Thank you for the music. We love you all!

While the winners approach the silken cushions for their prize purrs, let's have some more cyberbubbly and hope that the year ahead will bring, with its new decade, new hope, new ideas, new approaches, new positivity and new focus on everything we can do to bring openness, internationalism, humanity, great-heartedness and great art of every kind into our everyday world. Bring it on. Time to dance.