Friday, December 31, 2004

Solti does it again


Solti
Originally uploaded by Duchenj.

As I had the highest ever number of blog hits when I posted a photo of my cat Solti, I thought I'd wish you all a happy new year by posting another one.

Unfortunately, though, Solti's current state isn't too pretty. He got into a fight the other day and came in with a hole in his head. Today the vet dealt with the resulting abcess and now poor Sir Georg has a very bloody face, a bald patch and an enormous plastic collar to prevent him worrying at the wound. Not so much Long John Ginger this time as Shakespeare on an extremely bad day. Perhaps some disgruntled orchestral musician has been reincarnated as a neighbouring cat and wanted to get his revenge...So I'm posting the same old picture again instead!

Life isn't all bad, though: Solti got tuna for dinner. There's a moral in there somewhere.

HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYONE! Here's to a wonderful year of music in 2005.

____________________________

Thursday, December 30, 2004

A personal music universe 2004

A few highlights to usher in New Year's Eve...

FAVOURITE CDs
Emmanuel Pahud plays the Strauss and Franck violin sonatas on the flute with pianist Eric Le Sage; with Widor Suite for flute & piano (EMI). Top quality musicianship all round, knocks spots off many fiddlers. The first time I've really "got" the Strauss sonata.

Leonidas Kavakos plays Ravel & Enescu (ECM). Glorious fiddle playing, wonderfully imagined.

Philippe Graffin & the Johannesburg Philharmonic in the violin concertos by Coleridge-Taylor and Dvorak. This represents more than the sum of its parts, being the first classical CD recorded in South Africa since the fall of apartheid. But the parts are fabulous too. Serious beauty, gritty passion and great music heard too rarely. (Avie)

Faure songs - first CD in Hyperion's complete Faure song edition. Pianist Graham Johnson is joined by his stalwart singing colleagues like Felicity Lott and John Mark Ainsley, plus equally impressive others. This is just out and it's a wonderful selection of songs about water, from all periods of Faure's life and work.

Matthias Goerne singing Winterreise. Need one say more?


MOST MEMORABLE CONCERTS

Top slot has to go to St Nazaire, especially the day in which Tom took the stage with Philippe, Nobuko et al! Not an experience quickly forgotten. And yes, it sounded great. No less, also at St Nazaire, Philippe with Nobuko, Pascal Devoyon and Gary Hoffmann in the Faure 2nd piano quartet - some of the most moving, insightful, sensitive and vividly coloured chamber music playing I've ever heard.

Philippe's Ravel Day at the Wigmore Hall. Weirdly enough, what strikes me most in retrospect is the appropriateness of the weather: it was the last snow of last winter, magical and straight out of Un Coeur en Hiver.

Next, the Barkauskas premiere in Vilnius (again, Philippe and Nobuko, with plentiful Lithuanian colleagues!). A privilege to be there. And I hope we'll hear more of Barkauskas's Duo Concertante and its astonishing background story. (See BBC Music Magazine, February 2005, for more info, or just click on June 2004 in the archives...)

In Verbier, Vadim Repin playing Shostakovich. Mesmerising.

From the LPO, the Edinburgh concerts with Vladimir Jurowski, which set the house on fire. (Once, literally - the Usher Hall alarm went off 10 minutes before kick-off!). And Glyndebourne's double bill of Rachmaninov and Puccini - also with Jurowski. This guy has, and is, something very special.

Speaking of opera, Juan Diego Florez in Don Pasquale at Covent Garden had to be heard to be believed.

Ballet: Mayerling, also at Covent Garden. Hair-raising, edge-of-seat drama & virtuosity.

Best piano recitals: Stephen Kovacevich at RFH; Steven Osborne's Messiaen 'Vingt Regards' at Wigmore Hall. Best piano concerto: Martha Argerich in Prokofiev 3 with LPO. Absolutely incredible.

No doubt there are plenty of others too that I've forgotten about and over which I will kick myself tomorrow morning. But perhaps the ones that spring rapidly to mind have made the deepest impression...



Buttons

Tried to tinker with my Comments to amalgamate two slightly fuzzy and contradictory ones that I just posted, but have somehow managed to delete an entire post instead. Can any Blogger experts advise on how to alter Comments I've already posted?


Friday, December 24, 2004

My discovery in The Strad


Turgenev 1
Originally uploaded by Duchenj.

In case anyone really wants to spend Christmas Eve reading one tantalising page of my latest publication in The Strad...

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Sibelius and Beethoven

I've been writing some programme notes for a concert including the Sibelius Symphony No.1. I adore Sibelius - the better you know this guy, the more amazing he seems, which is always a wonderful state of affairs. However, I've never delved into his inner workings the way I have with Faure and friends, so it has come as something of a surprise to find that the First Symphony is full of...Beethoven. I've beavered through a few books with sections on this piece, plus liner notes in the CDs that I have, and nowhere do I find Beethoven mentioned (have I missed some somewhere?). But here's my argument:

It seems incontrovertible to me that Sibelius must have been thinking of good old Ludwig if he could write the words 'Quasi una fantasia' at the head of a movement. Moonlight Sonata ahoy.

You know the clarinet tune that opens the symphony and returns at the start of the finale? Heard that rising and falling semitone somewhere before? Oh yes. In the Moonlight Sonata.

You know the dramatic exposition that has everyone in mayhem before the big tune in the last movement? There's a violin figuration in there that comes straight out of Beethoven's Piano Sonata Op.31 No.2 in D minor. That sonata is often called 'The Tempest'. (And which Shakespeare play did Sibelius write incidental music for in 1926? No prizes...) Just because Sibelius was a violinist of sorts, it didn't mean he didn't know his piano sonatas.

First subject, first movement. Scotch snaps over tremolando. Familiar? Yup. Beethoven 9.

As for motivic strength, rhythmic power, the conflict of whole worlds within a movement - it goes without saying that this has to follow the example set by the ultimate symphonist...

After talking about national legends, Finnish identity and dark pine forests, most commentators talk about Tchaikovsky. OK, there's an evident impact - gloomy clarinets, gorgeous tunes, super orchestration and lots of harps (the latter found, please note, more in Tchaikovsky's ballet music than his symphonies). But if Sibelius is willing to go so far as to use a title straight out of Beethoven for his finale, how come Ludwig doesn't normally get a credit?

A great deal remains to be written about Sibelius. It may be another 50 years before anyone can do it, of course, but the truth about his 30-year silence must some day be explored. Meanwhile, I wonder whether it's time someone wrote a new book about Beethoven? So much about him is simply taken for granted. 'A level' notes are regurgitated everywhere, but the most astonishing elements in his music often go unremarked. It's too easy to forget what extraordinary pieces works like the 'Moonlight' and 'Tempest' sonatas really are; no wonder they set such an example for later composers in the freeing-up of musical form. Here's a challenge for a braver musicologist than me: write a book about Beethoven without referring to any others. Take original documents, the music itself and nothing else. Don't look at anyone else's analyses: just use your own ears and your own brain. Then see if the measure of his genius has ever been captured anywhere in words. I think you'll find it hasn't.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Time for that annual round-up

SIGNIFICANT WORK THINGS I'VE DONE THIS YEAR
Started blogging! Not that that's work.
Talked about Ravel, Faure and Debussy at the Wigmore Hall - with French musicians present (yikes)!
Interviewed (in no particular order and among many others) Daniel Barenboim, the Beaux Arts Trio, Steven Isserlis, Lang Lang, Helene Grimaud, Tony Palmer and a lot of Lithuanians.
Been to Vilnius, Tallinn, Verbier, Berlin, Paris, Edinburgh, the Loire Valley, St Nazaire, Manchester and, of course, Buxton.
Started writing for The Independent.
4 performances of Beloved Clara.
Performed Franck and Faure violin sonatas with Tom. Still can't believe this.
AND I've made what I think is a small but significant academic discovery. I've written about it for The Strad in the January 2005 edition, just out now. It's about Chausson, Faure and Turgenev...

THINGS I HAVE TO DO OVER XMAS
Write 2 sets of CD liner notes, 1 set of programme notes, 2 articles for Classical Music Magazine, 1 article for The Strad, 3 reviews for BBC Music Magazine and an unusually massive article for the Indy;
*ACHTUNG* - Tax return.
*ACHTUNG ACHTUNG OUCH OUCH OUCH* - Tidy my study.
Learn the Elgar violin sonata piano part and keep working on L'Isle Joyeuse.
Put CDs in order on shelves. Actually, putting CDs on shelves at all would be a good start.
Hover anxiously while Tom cooks turkey.
Socialise, but try not to eat too much.
Make sure that Tom watches The Wizard of Oz, which he's managed never to see in over four decades.

I take it all back about Christmas being too short...
WEDNESDAY A.M> - Ooops. I meant 'about Christmas being too LONG'...oh dear, it's all getting to me.....





Saturday, December 18, 2004

More Mendelssohn...

A muso friend writes in sympathy over my Lack of Mendelssohn with the startling idea that I should try some Andrew Lloyd Webber instead - the reason being that there is an uncanny resemblance between the slow movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and 'I don't know how to love him' from Jesus Christ Superstar. Humming through both, I find my pal is right. Hey, why reinvent the wheel?

Next whinge: please can we have Christmas shortened by a week or two? It gets longer every year and these days you can't get anything done for three weeks, which means associated knock-on/backlog effect at either end. What we should have is: Normal Life up to and including 23 December; Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day; Normal Life from 27 to 30 December; New Year's Eve, New Year's Day; Normal Life from 2 January. NOT a situation where from 20 December to 10 January the world is deaf, dumb and drunk and ignoring the contents of its in-tray.

I still get a sneaky satisfaction from walking along the local main shopping street, hearing Hark the Herald Angels Sing blaring out of wherever, and reflecting that this most wonderful of Xmas carols was penned by a nice Jewish boy who also put a lot of effort into reconstructing the St Matthew Passion. Mazel tov, Felix.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

I left my recharger...

...in Tallinn. This seemed to be the spur I needed to upgrade my mobile phone, which I've had for the better part of three years. I called the company and two days later a lovely new silvery toy arrived with a flick-up lid, built-in camera and a nice black-on-white display for sending texts. It's also quad-band, so should work if/when I next have to go to the US.

But I have lost the two features for which I hung on to my old one for so long. One was a cute frog screensaver cartoon - a little green frog that jumps from lily-pad to lily-pad the way frogs do...and the other was a Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (last movement) ringtone. Technology today being as sophisticated as it is, I reckoned I could find and download it fairly easily. After three hours I have to admit defeat. The dumbing-down of mobile phone rings is such that all I could find was a ghastly version of the Faure Pie Jesu, the Devil's Trill Sonata by Vanessa Mae [!] and 'Rule Britannia - National Anthem' [?!?!]. The front runner now is Papageno's song, but it's just not the same. I WANT MY VIOLIN CONCERTO!!! Not least because most of my calls are from, er, violinists.

At least I've been able to set a picture of Solti the Cat as my Wallpaper.


Monday, December 13, 2004

Blowing my orchestra-in-law's trumpet...

...without shame! Because yesterday they played a favourite piece of mine that I have never heard in a live concert before. And it's by TCHAIKOVSKY.

I'm always astonished by the amount of music I learned as a kid simply by virtue of being a ballet nut. Tchaikovsky's Suite No.3 - at least, its Theme & Variations - was transformed into a Balanchine hit for New York City Ballet. As a teenager going to see them at the ROH, I had, I guess, a relatively enquiring mind: I heard this substantial final movement and went out to look for a recording of the complete thing. Loved it to bits. Haven't heard it since. Yesterday Vladimir Jurowski finished the Festival Hall concert with it and I sat there in seventh heaven listening to the first movement, which contains the sort of Tchaikovsky melody that could make me turn cartwheels of ecstasy if there were room in row G of the RFH to do so.

What annoys me was that this concert should have been sold out and it wasn't. The name Mark Anthony Turnage beside the opening piece put off probably 20% of possible capacity. The unfamiliarity of the words Suite No.3 beside the familiar word Tchaikovsky put off probably around another 10%. The Rachmaninov Rhapsody in the middle didn't do much to help, despite flavour-of-the-month youngish Russian Nikolai Lugansky as soloist.

What annoys me even more, incidentally, is Lugansky himself. Oh please. What do people see in this ultradigital cold fish? He has a hard-edged sound, a forearm-dominated technique and apparent total lack of capacity to either be moved by his music or move others with it?!? OK, he played all the right notes in the right places. SO WHAT? What is the earthly use of being able to do that if you have nothing to say? But he got a tremendous ovation, so I guess people don't WANT piano playing to say anything except right notes any more. GRRRRRRRRRRRRR. Please, next time, can we have Grigory Sokolov instead...?

Friday, December 10, 2004

Eastward ho!

I've been to Estonia this week to do a travel feature for BBC Music Magazine and something for The Strad. The trip was courtesy of Warner Classics, who took me and several other journalists there to meet a very glamorous female conductor named Anu Tali who has her own project orchestra in Tallinn, and a twin sister, Kadri, who is her manager. Live wires, both of them, and easy to see why Warners are so keen to get her on board.

Tallinn is extremely beautiful. As in Vilnius, the outskirts are grey, Soviet and awful, but then you go through an ancient archway into the old city and suddenly you're in fairyland - medieval Hanseatic houses, cobbled streets, pretty churches, a wonderfully restored Russian cathedral towering at the top of the hill...and the restaurants are marvellous. The City Council treated the entire Warner group to lunch at Old Hansa, entirely in medieval style with candlelight, wooden trestle tables, murals, hefty wooden staircases and 14th-century recipes which were fabulous: salmon with hazelnuts, turnips with ginger, liver pate, wild berry preserves etc etc, not to mention honey beer and spiced wine. Estonian for 'cheers' is Terviseks, a word that, predictably, was much mis-quoted by some members of our party...

The concert hall is small and sweet with a pleasing, clear acoustic. The contemporary music that we heard was laden with Sibelian influences. The composer who most impressed me was Tormis, who was featured several times in Anu's concert; I was less thrilled by a 1984 minimalist symphony by the late Sumera; mixed feelings about a dance suite by Tubin. All of it sounded pretty good until the programme suddenly turned up some Tchaikovsky - the letter scene from Onegin - upon which everything else somewhat paled.

Tallinn was altogether easier to be in than Vilnius. No tears, no pain, less seedy, less historically significant, better kept, further advanced in westernisation terms, less religious, less intense and - because of all this - not quite as interesting either.



Monday, December 06, 2004

Monday cheesiness

This is one of those moments when I find myself engaging in serious blessing-counting. Brought on not least by hearing Steven Osborne play the whole of Messiaen's Vingt Regards at the Wigmore Hall on Friday evening, which left me high as a kite all weekend.

I feel unbelievably privileged to be able to be at such a performance. Let alone after hearing Florez at Covent Garden, plus the Shostakovich concert and going to Paris (disastrous or not) in the space of one week. And today I'm off to Estonia with the Warner Classics team! Because I went to Vilnius, now everyone thinks I have a special interest in the Baltics, which is fine with me.

I can't believe how lucky I am to have a life that I enjoy, with a husband who is also my duo partner and a beautiful piano that I can play (theoretically) at any time of day or night without disturbing anyone. I value my family, my friends, my colleagues and my cat immensely and try never to take any of them for granted. Although I'm not a full-time professional musician, music fills every corner of my life and affects everything that I do; and I am glad to have some kind of talent for putting this into words to help convey it to other people.

This probably sounds horribly cheesy or something (not quite sure what the correct mot du jour is), but suffice it to say that I had a truly awful time in my 20s and more in my early 30s while my mother and father and sister died of cancer in succession. The result is that now I appreciate the good times like there's no tomorrow.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

The trouble with Dmitry

....I'm being forced to rethink my fairly grim dislike of Shostakovich symphonies in the light of a stunning performance of the 'Leningrad' last night by the WDR Orchestra from Cologne, conducted by Semyon Bychkov. I still think the slow movement goes on too long, but I was on the edge of my seat for much of the rest. Bychkov brought out many aspects of the music that were conspicuous by their absence last time I heard it. It had heart. It had soul. It had some of that sardonic humour that I find the most appealing quality in Shostakovich.

So I guess my trouble with Dmitry is not the composer's fault after all. It is actually Kurt Masur's. I never sit through one of these mammoth symphonies unless I absolutely have to - and when I do have to, it tends to be because Masur is conducting Tom & co! To our own dear maestro, it is all desperately serious and gloomy and scarey. Bychkov showed that within the gloom, there can still be fun.

Impressed too with the WDR Orchestra, which is extremely consistent: every section is as good as every other, without any weak links; the ensemble in the strings is fantastic; and they all gave the piece everything they've got. They sound - intriguingly - like an orchestra that is decently paid, well fed and rested and thoroughly rehearsed; and that played all the better for it. Some mystique in the UK says that you can't pay musicians a good living wage, let them get enough food and sleep or enable them to rehearse any symphony for more than three sessions, because somehow the end result won't be exciting enough if they don't live on a personal knife edge. What utter BOL****S. Thanks to WDR for proving otherwise.

And they were providing sausages backstage for the players. Seriously.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The sound of genius

To the Royal Opera House last night for Don Pasquale, with Juan Diego Florez as Ernesto. The production is by Jonathan Miller. The critics have been a bit sniffy about it. But when Florez opens his mouth, you stop caring about anything else.

I don't believe I've ever heard a voice like this before, and I've heard a few good ones. It is so pure, so 'true', so focused; the sound is powerful, but the phrasing so musical and so filled with expressive intelligence that it makes most other big-time tenors (such as they are) seem crass by comparison. It's like the sound of Heifetz playing the violin in many respects and the effect is the same: you can do nothing but submit in astonishment and gratitude that such a thing exists on this planet and you have been lucky enough to encounter it. If we have a Caruso, this guy is it. He's good-looking too, but with sounds like this, one might not care if he wasn't (and his costume & make-up for this 18th-century-styled production made as little of those looks as it possibly could). And heavens, he's only 31 - where does he go from here?

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

A miserably clean weekend

My birthday is coming up soonish, so Tom and I decided to treat ourselves to a couple of days in Paris. We had some air miles and managed to get a special deal to go first class on Eurostar. They give you a meal on the train and we got the 8.01 from Waterloo so they gave us breakfast, the full works. Tom ate the chicken sausage. I didn't. In Paris we wandered around and Tom started feeling queasy. We had lunch, which he managed to eat, but by dinnertime he was confined to hotel room, turning progressively greener. So instead of lovely romantic French diner a deux with yummy sauces and a bottle of burgandy, I found myself on my own in the cafe across the street having a glorified toasted sandwich and a nice cup of camomile tea. Poor old Tom was extremely sick in the night and then spent most of yesterday asleep.

I spent half the morning trying to get our Eurostar tickets changed to go back earlier, but they wouldn't do it. I did manage to undertake a few nice Parisy activities - notably shoe-shopping and buying some unusual bits of Debussy and Saint-Saens in a music shop on the Left Bank that hasn't changed a jot in 25 years (probably longer). Also visited the Cite de la Musique,the site of the Paris Conservatoire and the Musee de la Musique, which I heartily recommend. They have a permanent collection of musical instruments, including the dinosaur-sized Octobass created by Vuillaume for Berlioz (the particular instrument that I was keen to see, however, turned out not to be on display...long story...watch this space....). Currently there is a fabulous exhibition about music and the Third Reich, with extracts of film of Furtwangler and Richard Strauss conducting and exhibits including a programme from 'Brundibar' in Terezin, as well as Schoenberg's certificate of reconversion to Judaism, signed by Marc Chagall. Very strongly recommended.

Short version of above - I adore Paris, even if I have to go around on my own, but this wasn't really how I'd hoped to spend the past two days! I shall be writing a strongly worded letter to Eurostar about their noxious chicken sausages.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Elgar blimey

We're learning a new piece: the Elgar violin sonata. It's a peculiar experience because I don't know very well how it's supposed to go. Mostly I learn pieces that I know by ear well enough to sing backwards (if I could sing at all). But this is different. The only recording I have is unsatisfactory - it must be because it left me completely cold and reluctant to learn the work, so I've not listened to it again. My friend Margaret Fingerhut persuaded me that I was missing something special, so Tom and I decided to take the plunge. Now, approaching the work purely from the inside, having cast aside preconceptions, I'm finding that it is one of the most emotionally devastating pieces I've ever had to tackle. Inside the apparently staunch frame, this is the sound of a soul falling to pieces.

The sonata inhabits the same world as the Piano Quintet, the Second Symphony, the concertos - works I adore, but, obviously, have never had the chance to be part of. It's always seemed to me that Elgar was the voice of his age, mourning the cataclysm of the First World War and the end of an era. But this music is so inward-looking that I think it has much more to do with Elgar as a personality - and one that is deeply tortured. I'm simply gobsmacked by the way he can take what seems about to be an innocuous, four-square melody and, instead of developing it, unravel it entirely with harmonies in free fall, or rhythms that give way abruptly to episodes that make time stand still. I know of nothing truly comparable, certainly not in the violin sonata repertoire. It's astounding, powerful and both frightening and humbling to play.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Schools and scandals

First, here's my latest from the Indy, about Vivaldi, which was in the paper on Monday. Meant to put it up here earlier, but was up against some deadlines.

Now, to the title. I'm working on a piece for BBC Music Magazine's education issue comparing the merits of different types of schooling for budding musicians in Britain. I've talked to 5 musicians so far and am about to talk to another 2 or 3. So far, the following points have leapt out at me:

1. Nobody under the age of 35 has yet had a good word to say about music provision in UK state schools.

2. Most of the musicians who went to a conservatoire say that they regret not having gone to university.

3. Most of the musicians who went to university said it was very, very hard to combine academic work with enough practising.

4. Private education at a good school today costs an absolute fortune, even if you win a 'music scholarship'.

I'm reaching the conclusion that what counts is really only your personal fibre. If you've got the guts and the determination, it doesn't matter where you study. All these places are getting it wrong in their own sweet ways. Self-reliance is the only possible answer.

I am extremely glad that I don't have to go through any of that again.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

The British Amateur 2: The Music Society

It's one of those funny things about Britain: the only thing you can take for granted when you go anywhere smallish to give a concert is that it will be cold. And that nobody will have thought to put heating on earlier in the day to warm the place up in time. Yesterday was one of the coldest days we've had in Britain this year. We turned up for Beloved Clara to find that in the school hall a bottle of champagne could have chilled itself to perfection unaided on the piano keyboard. Lucy and the actors were huddling backstage in the Geography Room, wearing their coats, when Tom and I arrived - and their initial, tentative inquiry 'Any chance of a cup of tea?' had been met with the bizarre response: 'NO.' (One did turn up, mysteriously, later on.)

Tom is his orchestra's health and safety representative: it's his job, when the LPO meets chilly conditions, to do something about it. Old habits die hard, so he turned the full force of which he is capable on the poor, unsuspecting person who was supposed to have dealt with this earlier but hadn't. It's not for nothing that they nickname our Tom "General Eisnerhower"... First they brought down several blowy heaters and put them near the piano, which was fine for 30 seconds until the fuse blew. And only then, somehow, somewhere, somebody was finally raised, I think through sheer terror of Tom, to flick the switch that put the heating on in the hall. By the interval, I was just about ready to remove my gloves - and I was only listening. I don't know how Lucy managed to move her fingers - but somehow she did, and, I'm glad to say, very beautifully indeed.

When Tom and I go anywhere to do a concert, we take the following kit with us:

2 lamps, one to sit on the piano, one for Tom's music stand
An extension lead
At least one adapter
A small blowy or two-bar heater
A thermos flask of coffee
Water
Bananas
Chocolate

I think we may need to add draught excluder and fingerless gloves to the list.

Over in the States, what is the comparable situation - if it is indeed comparable? Over in Germany, Norway, France, Lithuania, Holland, indeed everywhere where you, dear readers, may be, how do things match up? Is the mentality the same - nobody takes responsibility and f-ups occur at every intervening stage before things prove, as they always miraculously seem to, all right on the night? Here there seems to be a predominant sense that if you insist something is done properly, you are somehow not terribly British. I am not trying to malign amateur music-making itself, which is a fine and life-enhancing tradition. Amateurish organisation, however, stops only just short of sabotage - and is really rather silly.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Hello to Berlin

Back from a delicious few days hearing and interviewing the Beaux Arts Trio in Berlin. Fascinating city, as ever; every time I go there (this was my 3rd trip in 14 months) there are new buildings to see, cranes in new places, a gleaming new century imposing itself on relics of all the others. Berlin must be the city that best encompasses the whole of 20th-century European history.

Not that I saw much of it this time, because my quarry, the trio - known pleasingly as the BAT - were far too interesting. Pianist Menahem Pressler, who is over 80, is one of my great piano heroes and the person I would most have loved to study with 20 years ago. The 'old' trio's recordings, with Isidore Cohen and Bernard Greenhouse, were among my father's favourites and we used to listen to them all the time when I was about 14, especially the Dvorak 'Dumky' Trio. I think that the sound of Pressler's playing somehow got under my skin at that time through sheer familiarity with this record, and I realise now that it's been my pianistic ideal ever since. And the Dumky was the second half of their Berlin concert.

In place of Cohen and Greenhouse the trio now has Daniel Hope and Antonio Meneses. But the piano sound is just the same - silvery, sparkly, silken joie de vivre, full of soul and humanity, from someone who should be recognised as one of the world's great pianists but, because he has played primarily in a trio for 50 years and taught devotedly in Indiana for half that time, is not sufficiently familiar to the wider public. Just a few notes into the Dvorak, I entered a time warp and found myself back in the house where I grew up, going through it room by room, object by object, and watching Dad enjoying the music... Of course, he died years ago, as did my mother, and I spent most of the trio fighting back serious lump in throat.

Almost as moving, and more astonishing, was the impression I had that Pressler and Hope, despite the 50-year difference in their ages, are somehow cut from the same spiritual cloth. Musically they were a perfect match and during the interviews each in turn seemed to be trying to win at praising the other. They are performing the Faure A major Sonata together in Paris in January and I intend to try to go. Pressler calls Dan and Antonio 'my boys', which is very sweet indeed. I sat next to Pressler at dinner and we got on wonderfully. He is just as he sounds.

Apropos de Faure, Tom and I played that same sonata in a private concert last Sunday and I thought it went pretty well. Or, to put it another way, I didn't f*** up. And Tom was excellent, despite the frustration of trying to play in tune while the piano was out of tune. The audience seemed to love it and they gave us two very nice bottles of champagne.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Schumannalia

It's been a good year for me work-wise, though I touch every piece of wood in sight as I write this. First, I'm back in a national paper (Indy) on a regular basis after a break of several years since Guardian days. Now I'm back reviewing CDs for BBC Music Magazine after a break of around 2 years, following the magazine's recent office move and staff changes. As a freelancer, one is extremely dependent on the personal taste of whoever happens to be in charge at the editorial level - it's a rare blessing when this actually works for one, instead of against!

They've sent me a CD of Schumann piano music, the Etudes Symphonique and the Fantasie Op.17, and I have to write a 'benchmark' review - ie, compare this one to 'the best recording currently available'. Apart from the obvious thought - omygod, not another disc of Schumann, can't he do something more original? - this presents the dilemma that there are so many fine recordings of these piece already that picking 'the best' is an uncomfortable task. For Schumann generally, I tend to gravitate to ancient jobs like Cortot - I don't believe anybody has ever played this music with such profound understanding as he did. But given crackles and wrong notes, this may not qualify as 'the best' for such an occasion. For the Fantasie, arch-rival Gramophone gives Richter as their Recommended Recording - but then, they also recommend Bostridge in Dichterliebe, which I find very hard to swallow (come on, guys, haven't you ever heard Fischer-Dieskau accompanied by Eschenbach?), so I'm dubious about trusting this.

It's interesting to see that on the Amazon.co.uk list that responds to my 'Schumann Etudes Symphoniques' search (total: 74 recordings), sorted according to best-sellers, dead pianists feature as much, if not more than, living ones. Incredibly, Gieseking seems to be their No.1 seller. Then Pletnev, Ashkenazy and, good heavens, Moiseiwitsch; followed by Wilhelm Kempff and Cortot before Pogorelich with his pretty-boy photo from decades back. And so it goes on.

So, do I plump for personal favourite Cortot or should I plough through a dozen Good Contemporary Bets (Pletnev is just too idiosyncratic for me, by the way) before finding someone to compare this new, unfortunate, unsuspecting pianist to? Well, I have to give a concert myself tomorrow... so maybe I'll worry about it once that's over... Meanwhile, anybody got any more personal top choices for CDs of these pieces?

Friday, November 12, 2004

Yo Sufi

Went to the South Bank last night with a friend who is investigating Sufi music. We had a Japanese feast at Yo Sushi (we turned it into Yo Sufi for the occasion!), which is near the London Eye and jolly nice, and then settled into the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey.

They didn't so much whirl as twirl, rather gently. Five men in long cream-coloured robes and tall fezes. They went round and round and round and round and round, arms gently raised, heads leaning to one side, eyes closed, while a four-piece group played intricate and meditative music full of quarter-tones on beautiful instruments that bore strong resemblances to Renaissance lute, recorder and viol (mini model). Unfortuantely there were no programmes for the occasion, and I think this was a major ommission. My friend and I remained completely in the dark about a) what the instruments are called, b) what the music signified, c) to what end the dervishes twirl, if any, d) the history of this tradition and e) how on earth they manage not to get dizzy. I tried it when I got home and lasted about 25 seconds before nearly falling over.

The following will not sound tremendously politically correct, but after a while I couldn't help wondering quite what we were doing there (we weren't the only ones in the half-full hall who sloped off home at the interval). Sure, it's impressive and the music is different and fascinating in its own way. But thinking back a number of years to my days sub-editing on Southbank Magazine, which is a marketing tool and diary for the SBC, produced by the BBC, I was reminded of the way in which these types of evening were pushed rather at the expense of classical concerts. Classical wasn't cool and trendy enough - if they could have a picture of someone in a bright ethnic costume on the front cover, even Helene Grimaud wouldn't have stood a chance. A piano? Oh dear me... And these decisions were made by the centre, not by the editors. One reason I gently divorced myself from Southbank was the fact that the line we had to take - not so much politically correct as culturally correct - got up my nose to the point of inducing real depression. Now, I LIKE much of this stuff! I'm all for it! I loved talking to the world-musicy people I had to interview while I was there. I think the rise of world music is one of the most exciting cultural developments of the last decade or two - and it beats the hell out of mass-produced pop. But I don't see why classical music has to be 'positively' marginalised because of it.

Hopefully my friend found the evening useful. This morning I am operating in ever-decreasing circles.

Monday, November 08, 2004

In today's Independent...

...is my latest article, about the pressures facing todays' bevy of young conductors. This was great fun to write, though what appears in the paper is the tip of a major interviewing iceberg - I had wonderful long talks with Ilan Volkov, Semyon Bychkov, Christophe Mangou, Hugh MacDonald and Patrick Harrild but could only use a few choice bits from each.

If I had to pick a favourite from these interviews, it would be Bychkov. He's in his 50s and was able to cast perspective in a way that the twenty-somethings generally can't. He said that one professor in the Leningrad Conservatory told the class that they shouldn't touch Mozart's Symphony No.40 until they were 50. Bychkov put up his hand and said, 'What if I don't live to be 50?'

He also has a WONDERFUL Russian accent.

He will be performing with the WDR Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall on 1 December and as I can't resist Russian accents, I think I shall be there.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Hooray for analysis

Several music bloggers have been posting recently about the relative merits of different approaches to musical analysis: 'impressionistic' writing versus heavily technical. Interesting viewpoints from Helen, Steve Hicken and AC Douglas.

At university in the mid-80s I had my fair share of the second kind and found it really rather thrilling. Especially Schenker. When Schenker is well explained and sensitively applied, he can help to shed tremendous new light on pieces that one thought one knew backwards. My most inspiring encounter with Schenkerian thinking was when I listened to Murray Perahia giving piano masterclasses in which he used a Schenkerian approach to transform his students' performances and also his observers' ears. For instance, he demonstrated how the whole first movement of Schumann's piano concerto springs from the conflict engendered by the semitone that opens the piano's first flourish. I began to think I'd never truly heard this most familiar of works before.

Fast-forward to yesterday. I've been slogging away at the piano on the Faure A major violin sonata (just a week to go before the performance) and yesterday I found something in it that I've never noticed before, despite months of practising and years of passionate listening. But a few little notes buried deep inside the music suddenly reminded me of something else. It set off a new train of thought...I toothcombed my way through the whole sonata...and I think it really does say what I think it says. This tiny motif, and what Faure does with it, carries messages that tally perfectly with his character - he had a very naughty, subversive streak - and with the timing and reasons for this piece's creation. And in the context of other influential music of the day, it simultaneously pays tribute and 'cocks a snook', which is fairly typical of Monsieur Gabriel as I know him. Tom thinks I've gone out of my mind, which is usually a sure sign that I'm onto something, so I intend to investigate further.

One thing that I'm certain of: a purely impressionistic approach won't work if I want to prove this point. These days I don't enjoy wading through pages of academic theory any more than I enjoy eating cardboard, but sometimes one has to resort to it because it's the only way to get at the next level of meaningful information - a level that would otherwise remain hidden forever.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Avie is online

Newest addition to sidebar is Avie Records, which now has its website ready to roll. Avie, run by long-time record industry pros Simon Foster and Melanne Mueller, it's a record company on a different model from the usual: as the website explains, it is 'turning the traditional musician / record company relationship on its head.  Avie operates the label for and on behalf of the musicians who retain ownership of their recordings, acting as an umbrella for a number of musical organisations and individual artists.' But that doesn't mean they produce all and sundry - anything but. There is more discernment and clever thinking here than in many labels that have been established for much longer.

Avie is enabling the recording and release of some very special CDs which traditional major labels might hesitate to produce. Proof of its success is its first Gramophone award, for Phantasm's CD of Orlando Gibbons on viol consort. Among other favourites of mine are Andreas Haefliger's beautiful, reflective and powerful piano recital entitled 'Perspectives 1', Enescu's Piano Suites played by the exceptional young Romanian pianist Luiza Borac on two discs, and of course Philippe Graffin's Coleridge-Taylor and Dvorak Violin Concertos with the Johannesburg Philharmonic (OK, so I did the booklet notes, yeah, yeah, yeah... but it's a great record and I'm proud to be associated with it, so I make no apology for pushing it here). Keep up the good work, guys.

UPDATE, SUNDAY MORNING: Also new to cyberspace is Lisa Hirsch's classical music blog, Iron Tongue of Midnight. Ms Hirsch - she of the Bay Area bagel offer! - launches online with a plea for orchestral musicians to smile while they work. We've already had a very bloggish argy-bargy in her comments box as I've put her straight on exactly why they can't do so while trying to keep their places in John Adams... Looking forward to lots more provocative points of view, Lisa!

Friday, November 05, 2004

Fiddle glut

If you pronounce this title with a Danish accent, it sounds like an interesting pre-Christmas drink... But in the past 10 days or so I've been able to hear Leonidas Kavakos, Julian Rachlin and Nikolaj Znaider and, as a self-confessed violin fetishist, I'm feeling most pleasantly punch-drunk already. I got to sleep last night by counting fiddlers and got to 16 (or was it 17), any of whom I'd be more than willing to travel to the Barbican to hear and many of whom, to my astonishment, are under 40.

Here are a few of them, in no order whatsover: Kavakos, Rachlin and Znaider, as above; Hilary Hahn, Josh Bell, Lisa Batiashvili, Maxim Vengerov, Vadim Repin, Sarah Chang, Renaud Capucon, Thomas Zehetmair, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Viktoria Mullova, Andrew Manze, Gil Shaham, Tasmin Little, Philippe Graffin, Janine Jansen, Daniel Hope, Leila Josefowicz, Alina Ibragimova. And possibly Nigel Kennedy. That's 22, without even trying, and I'm sure I've missed a few. It's a sobering thought to realise that Mutter, Mullova and Kennedy are in the upper age-range in such company.

What happened? How come there's such a fabulous forest springing up now? Is it the influence of powerful teachers like Zakhar Bron, the Menuhin School and the late Dorothy Delay? Did the bright young things find inspiration in figures such as Zukerman and Perlman, or seeing the success of youthful stars like Nige or Mutter with whom they could identify? I'd like to look into this. About 20 years ago there was a similar glut among brilliant cellists, who in many cases had been inspired by seeing Jacqueline du Pre when they were very small; and also flautists, who adored James Galway.

To the fifty-somethings Zukerman and Perlman, we can now add Dmitry Sitkovetsky, Pierre Amoyal, Augustin Dumay and, omygod, Gidon Kremer...

Counting fiddlers is a good way to induce sleep at times of world stress and fierce argument here in Sheen. There is depression over America; and I went to the London Symphony Orchestra last night only to spot none other than the leader of the London Philharmonic sitting in the driving seat beaming up at Rostropovich and Znaider, while the LPO had had to get a guest leader in. None of this makes for a quiet life.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Maybe Britain is European after all

Hi folks, thanks very much for all your interesting responses to the posts below and your associated nice words about this blog. As you know, I don't usually 'do' politics, so I promise I will shut up shortly and get back to music. But first, a few observations...

First, I wasn't actually surprised that Bush won. Kerry seemed like a bit of a nerd and I suspected that he was attracting many 'anti Republican' votes rather than 'pro Democrat'. Secondly, I for one - and possibly many of my compatriots too - will find it easier to accept Bush in the White House this time because he does have a clear majority. Which wasn't the case 4 years ago, when many of us suspected serious monkey business. Thirdly, someone like Bush would never, ever be elected in Britain because our countries, traditions and outlooks are so very different. Bush is far, far right of the British Tory party. Here, people with such extreme views, especially if religiously motivated, are viewed frankly as a little bit odd: endearingly eccentric, perhaps, and admirable for their personal sense of conviction, but certainly not suitable candidates for running a country.

When people complain here about globalisation, they usually mean Americanisation - the predominance in the 'culture' (if you can define it as such) of MacDonalds, Starbucks, American films and American TV. I think that this election proves that such anger is directed at something essentially superficial. We like a lot of these things, with the exception of MacDonalds, because they're rather good. But they're not indicative of the Americanisation of the British people. Some think that we are in America's pocket - a useful little bit of land in a handy spot east of the Atlantic. The widespread sense of depression here yesterday proves that we're not.

A look at your election map is very telling. Huge swathes of red right across the place. And a few little strips of blue in the big cities on the coasts. Well, Britain is a small country, geographically. The vast majority of Brits live in overcrowded cities - there isn't that much countryside left and there'll soon be even less. Also, we lack your religious right-wingers - they exist, but the numbers aren't huge and, as I mentioned, the rest of us regard them as oddballs. Unlike America-between-the-coasts, Britain is mainly a secular country; the bit that isn't is multifaith in the extreme. Here in London we have everything under the sun, from Chassids to Muslim extremists like Abu Hamza (who finally got arrested) and every variety of eastern Orthodox church you can think of. There are occasional spats, as there would be in any such situation, but on the whole we coexist quite happily, share the same basic everyday concerns and balance each other out. The majority of Brits would be very worried indeed if we felt that our prime minister's priority was to make laws centring on religious issues like gay rights and abortion. We'd rather they did something to fix up the public transport system. (Not that they do that either).

In British cities, especially London, we're a very mixed society. On any average trip on the London underground, you can hear about six different languages. The place is full of Eastern Europeans now. The Poles keep the building and cleaning industries alive and standards have soared since they started coming here. The orchestras are full of amazing Russians. My brother's new baby is officially Italian like his mum. Our friends include Germans, Chinese, French, Danish, Swedish, Armenians, Israelis, Australians and, of course, Americans. And plenty others. That's one of the things that makes London so exciting.

Next, it's easy to get around from here. Travelling anywhere from the States, you generally have to cross an ocean. From London it's a short hop to anywhere in Europe. Vilnius, which felt for so long like another planet, is just 3 hours away. Israel is only about 5 hours (not counting return check-in at the airport in Tel Aviv). South Africa and Singapore are about 12 hours each, Japan 10, India 8. So we tend to travel. Tom and I can nip over to Paris by train for an overnight shopping trip, or get a cheap ticket on a budget airline to visit friends in Denmark for a long weekend. if you live in Fort Worth or Kalamazoo, the idea of flying all the way to Aarhus for three days would seem completely crazy. So if Americans from inland areas sometimes strike us Brits as insular, under-travelled and ill-informed about the rest of the world, we can hardly be surprised. There simply isn't anywhere here that resembles Texas, Michigan or Nebraska. No wonder we can't understand you. No wonder you can't understand us.

I've been to Kalamazoo, by the way, and I had a great time there. That's another story.

This could go on forever, so I'll stop now. But in short I feel that what Britain can learn from this election is that we are actually much closer to Europe than to America and growing more so all the time, even if parts of our country would prefer it to be otherwise. And do we have a common language, not counting what passes for 'English' (currently in as dire a state over here as it is over there)? We do. Need I say it? MUSIC.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Gergiev and Beslan

This latest from Norman Lebrecht is extremely moving - an interview with Ossetian-born maestro Valery Gergiev about his reaction to the Beslan massacre. Recommended reading, especially for anyone who still thinks that violence doesn't beget more violence ( - oh - OK, Dubya - just settle back into your big white house first - then read it when you're sitting comfortably...)

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Polling day...

Hi to everyone in the USA today, November 2nd. A little message from our household: please go to your polling stations and do your very best to get rid of the goon who has been running your country for the past 4 years. New York is my favourite city. I once wanted to live there (and would have if I hadn't met my husband at the very moment I was offered a job) and I want to be able to visit it, and my many beloved friends and family members who live there, without feeling sick. We are with you in spirit.

A controversial piece in The Guardian recently printed letters from angry Americans telling us Brits, in no uncertain terms, to get our noses out of their election business. (I wanted to link to it, but there has been so much coverage in the last little while that I can't find it right now.) Well, since our own prime minister has seen fit to back Bush's war on Iraq, our servicemen have risked their lives there and we do think we have a right to express our opinions.

Music carries such strong and directly emotional messages that it could be used as a powerful tool by those who know how to apply it (as did, regrettably, Hitler). Therefore it's logical to suspect that musicians could use their talent to make their points far more strongly if they wanted to. However, many musicians I know are either hopelessly naive ("Concorde crashed? That's OK, it only killed rich people...") or disinterested ("Why should we bother voting? Nobody raises our pay no matter what happens...") or a little unrealistic about the demands of the market place ("We should privatise British orchestras..."). Tom and I do occasional fundraising concerts for things we believe in - they might make more difference, I guess, if we played them anywhere other than to 20 people and a cat in suburban front rooms. But we can dream, and we do... Still, it's a bit late to mobilise American orchestras, or what's left of them,in favour of any presidential candidate at this stage. All we can say is this:

Dear friends in America, we love you and we want to keep our Special Relationship special. So please vote yourselves a proper President today.






Friday, October 29, 2004

Unheard melodies...

Apologies for rather quiet week for blogging, or lack of... It's a busy time of year, however, for CD issues and consequently for reviews. An extraordinary number of new releases come out around now in order to be In Time For Christmas. And Christmas has a lot to answer for. That's another story, however. Meanwhile, I've been extremely taken with the latest CD by the Swiss/French flautist Emmanuel Pahud, which is a disc for all seasons.

The disc includes, however, only one original piece for flute and piano, Widor's Suite Op.43. The rest is Franck and Strauss - their violin sonatas, transcribed for the flute. I've often been wary of such inter-instrument transfers, but here it not only makes perfect sense but sounds phenomenal. Violinists might even be jealous, especially as Pahud plays the Strauss Sonata with all the passion of one of Strauss's amazing soprano heroines - the breathing and phrasing are pure opera. I've never been convinced by the Strauss as a violin sonata, but here, in Pahud's own transcription, it seems to take off as never before. Eat your heart out, Marie-Therese.

In the light of this, I've begun to think that over-fussiness about instruments being 'correct' or 'original' can lead to missed opportunities and a general narrowness of outlook. Bach, after all, could write exactly the same piece for one single violin as for full orchestra, choir and organ (best known as the opening movement of the E major partita). And anyone who has heard Myra Hess or Dinu Lipatti playing the former's piano transcription of 'Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring' would be likely to take it to a desert island for a reminder of the meaning of life.

But isn't all music a transcription to a certain extent - a transcription, for the composer, of what he or she hears inside and has, somehow, to get out?...Who knows whether what reached Brahms's manuscript paper was exactly what he had imagined, or whether something was lost in translation from mind to hand? However amazing music sounds to us, perhaps it would have sounded less good to the composer compared to the first concept of the sound inside his/her head? As Keats said, 'Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter...'

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Why info matters

Greg Sandow has this on creating the 'concert companion' - rather like an audio guide for going around art exhibitions.

I'm always amazed by the number of people in the musical sphere who think that knowing something about the music's background and structure can add nothing to one's enjoyment, or who think alternatively that only the most specialised academic labels will do for such matters. In the art world, audio guides are taken for granted. You'd be surprised to turn up at an exhibition, pay for your ticket and not be offered one. And would you try to put together a bookshelf together without reading the instructions? (well...)

In music, even top orchestras still sometimes print dry, useless, outdated programme notes, some concerts provide none at all - it costs money to print them - and many recitalists are still scared witless by the idea of talking to their audiences. What in heaven's name is so alarming to the establishment about accessible, non-patronising background notes? And what's so alarming to a musician about saying a few words before you play? It's nowhere near as frightening as playing the piano!

Seriously, though, an audio-guide 'concert companion' sounds like an exceptionally useful tool. I wonder how long it'll take British orchestras to catch up with the idea. Sweepstake, anyone? I say five years. Ten if we get a Tory government next.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

End games

To the Festival Hall last night to hear Stephen Kovacevich playing Beethoven (Op.31 No.2 and Op.109) and Schubert (B flat D960). Glorious, soul-enriching music-making: intimacy, inspiration and gentle philosophy that didn't shout at the back row but instead pulled the attention quietly in towards the platform.

But one major bugbear: a small number of people insisted on clapping a) before the last chord of Op.109 had died away, before Stephen had even lifted his hands from the keyboard, and b) after the first movement of the Schubert B flat.

I don't care if this sounds 'elitist' (the most dangerous and misused word of the English language over the last decade). If you clap between movements in a work which your programme clearly tells you has four of them, you are stupid. But if you break the magic spell of music before the artist does, you are an insensitive, moronic idiot. You are wrecking the experience for everyone in the hall, including the musicians themselves. Music isn't only about sound. It is equally about silence and its magic lies in its use of silence - during, before, after and in between.

After a post-recital drink in the People's Palace, my friends and I came downstairs to find the pianist in the foyer, happily munching his way through the world's best-earned Big Mac. Stephen, we said, how do YOU feel when people clap in the wrong places? He told us that it didn't worry him so much after the first movement of the Schubert, but at the almost-end of the Beethoven sonata it made him absolutely furious. You might expect it to be more bothersome between movements, but no: it's the quality of silent rapture that carries a work away back into the ether that is most precious and vulnerable.

Can't halls bear to make announcements about this? Yesterday we had to sit through a five-minute speech about fundraising before they let Stephen onto the platform (any thoughts of donating money to the South Bank Centre must have evaporated instantly). Why could they not add, 'Make sure your mobile phones are dead and please do not applaud until the music has come to a complete stop...'?

It's very easy: DO NOT CLAP UNTIL THE END OF THE END.

Finito.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Asking for trouble

If you name your cat after a fierce Hungarian conductor, you can bet he'll get into trouble. Solti appeared this morning with a cat war wound on his face and had to be taken to the vet to have the abcess lanced. Now he looks like an extra-mean feline Long John Silver, minus parrot (wouldn't put it past him to catch one, though).

Tom is currently in Brazil with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (he normally plays for the London Philharmonic, but these things happen sometimes). He reports that Sao Paolo in the rain looks like Manchester, Rio has great food, and Leonidas Kavakos, who's the soloist for Berg and Sibelius violin concertos, is one of the three top fiddlers on earth.

I've adored everything I've heard Kavakos play, and I find it most encouraging to reflect that here is someone who matches none of the International Star stereotypes yet knocks the spots off the majority of those that do. He's Greek. He has a moustache. He wears glasses. He is (I think) about 40. He doesn't have to be photographed in jeans or hugging wolves. It's not just technique, it's what you choose to do with that technique. This man doesn't only have a fiddle - he has a brain. And also, I think, a sense of humour. Read my review of his Ravel and Enescu CD on ECM here (scroll down to January 2004).

Incidentally, in case anyone is wondering why I have a violin fetish despite being a pianist, it all goes back to when I fell in love with my violin teacher in 1984...Talk about asking for trouble.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Latest violin epiphany

A friend recently lent us a DVD of a violinist whom we knew by name but nothing more. We sat transfixed, watching the film of him playing Sibelius in the mid 1950s. This man has a sound that can slice through your abdomen like the world's finest butterknife; the intensity is heartbreaking, the consistency silky and substantial from foreground to background, the integrity total. We read the booklet and first discovered he was born in 1933 - a moment of excitement realising that he could, should, still be alive - until a paragraph later came the shock that he committed suicide at the age of 49.

Little clue is given to his character, his motivation, his problems. All that remains is the testimony of his musicianship. I sent off at once for a set in the EMI 'Les introuvables' series (EMI being EMI, you have to get it from France, but that's easy with amazon.fr). It arrived yesterday, including two different recordings of the Faure A major sonata made a few years apart - the first as tender and delicate as a mountain stream, the other smouldering and sparking like a volcano, yet each perfect in its own way - but they are almost upstaged by his account of Faure's Second Sonata in E minor, which is often thought 'difficult' yet which he lights up with visionary luminescence, generous tone and intuitively perfect phrasing. One senses from such white-hot playing that for this person life and music were serious matters - that perhaps his sensitivity and personal standards were too high to allow him to deal with reality.

His name is Christian Ferras.

This is the DVD. This is the CD set.

Meanwhile, Alex Ross has the most eloquent words about Korngold I've seen in a long time here.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Damsel in major computer distress

HELP!!!! Any computer wizards out there? I came back late last night in the middle of what's been the Week From The Depths of Hell to find that my internet connection won't work. I am a technoignorama [good word...] and Tom (who, to be fair, isn't much better) is away on tour in Brazil.

It isn't as simple as it sounds. My computer and Tom's are networked together on a single broadband connection in which Tom's is the closest to the telephone source. His works fine, hence I am on it now. All I can get out of my Internet Explorer and Entourage, though, is 'The Specified Server Could Not Be Found'.

What's going on? Is it my computer hardware? Software? The network? (yes I HAVE checked that the wires are plugged in.) Do I need to reinstall all my software, will it help, will I lose all my info if I do so? Who do I call? The Mac man? The friend who set up our network, which worked absolutely perfectly until Tom and his suitcase and violin vanished Heathrowards yesterday? I think actually I need Superman.

Anyone out there got any SENSIBLE AND HELPFUL SUGGESTIONS? ***PLEASE?!?!?***

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Strange stats

So far I've had hits on this blog in 36 countries, including via a few very odd google searches. My favourites are:

General anaesthetic symbolism
Danish blondes
Hungarian communist apartment disgusting
Where can I find magic mushrooms in Scunthorpe
Latkes en francais

I think that a latke is a latke is a latke - except perhaps in Lithuania, their homeland, where they're called something else since 94% of the Jewish population was killed 60 years ago.

My first English-language article about my Lithuanian trip is out now in the Jewish Quarterly.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Getting into Korngold

A Comments note from Ken Nielsen in Oz asks where to start with Korngold. Here we go:

START with the films - Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Deception. You'll probably find you've heard them before, somewhere in your distant past. Next, the Violin Concerto is the best-known orchestral piece: try Gil Shaham with the LSO and Andre Previn. Happy? Now for his best opera, Die tote Stadt, in the recording by Erich Leinsdorf (don't bother with el cheapo Naxos, recorded live in Sweden complete with stage clonkings and swingeing cuts). If you get along with that, move on to Das Wunder der Heliane, the most ambitious of the operas and the work he regarded as his masterpiece - and turn the volume up high! If you can swallow Heliane, you are truly a Korngold person...

In which case, you can gorge happily on all those beautiful but underplayed orchestral works like the Sinfonietta, the Abschiedlieder, the Symphony in F sharp, the Cello Concerto (here with hot young cellist Zuill Bailey), and the Piano Concerto for the left hand (with the glorious Marc-Andre Hamelin); and the songs, gloriously sung by Anne Sofie von Otter (this recording also features some of the chamber music, which is interesting, but not really the best place to begin).

Er, Ken, do I take it you've read my book already? If not, here's the Amazon link...

Sunday morning in blogland

Did you know that Saint-Saens has the same birthday as John Lennon? It was yesterday. This pithy info is from Ionarts, where there's also a wonderful picture of Cantankerous Camille playing the organ.

There is more useful information to be gleaned almost everywhere today. There's news of a production of Zauberflote in New York by Julie Taymor - she's a producer unfamiliar, I'm afraid, to me here in London, but apparently this is so stunning that both Alex Ross and ACD are in agreement (unusual in itself!) that she must now do The Ring. Zauberflote is notoriously difficult to bring off. Glyndebourne has had two disasters with it, the worst when Peter Sellars set it under a Los Angeles motorway, in an Ashram seemingly dependent upon sign language. The Covent Garden production has its moments, but is set within a distinctly gloomy background. ENO's is so successful that they've stuck with it for years and years and YEARS. And that is before you even start wondering what to do with the music - to vibrate or not to vibrate...

Meanwhile Helen Radice has an alarmingly interesting post about whether something called Il Divo is any good (not). She has also learned how to switch on her oven (sorry, hob!).

Given that TV news on a Sunday morning consists of wall-to-wall football coverage, utterly depressing pictures from Iraq, Egypt and Israel and robotic people telling you that personal debt in this nation is over a trillion pounds, if you want to keep up with the latest in the arts, there is now only one way to do it. Read the blogs!



Wednesday, October 06, 2004

It was 20 years ago today

Well, yesterday. That was the day I went away to university. Thinking back I can't help noticing how much has changed in that time, not only in the world in general but music in particular. But the most obvious thing is that I well remember how chilly the weather was in early October 1984. I wandered around college in thick sweaters (including some knitted by my mother). And there'd be frost on the grass by the river when we walked back after concerts across town. Today the forecasters say it'll be 17 degrees and I'm at home in a tee-shirt. Makes you wonder what global warming will have done to us after another 20 years.

Otherwise, here are my top 10 musical changes:

1. The buzz-word then was 'authenticity'. Nobody talks about 'authenticity' any more because the concept has been so severely discredited. Now it's called 'historically informed performance' instead - a term that snobbily implies that any other kind of performance must be historically ignorant, which is nonsense. But in those days also, you could still hear a normal orchestra play Haydn and Mozart under great conductors in a style that didn't require toothgritting (some of those early instruments have the same physical effect on my teeth as chalk on blackboard). Today that is almost impossible - they are too frightened.

2. The buzz orchestra was the CBSO, rising and shining with Simon Rattle. If there is a buzz orchestra now, it's probably the LSO, though my ears tell me the only absolute edges they have over certain other bands are lots more money, a fantastic horn section and very classy PR.

3. My next-door neighbour in college used to put on recordings of Sibelius 5, Mahler 2 or the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony with the volume RIGHT up and we'd have a good wallow. I have a horrible feeling that music students today would probably say 'Who's Saint-Saens?'

4. A paradox, this, after No.3: rare repertoire was - well - rare. Hardly anyone had heard of Korngold and if they had, they weren't interested. Musicians just wanted to churn out the war-horses. Underrated composers are viewed, happily, in a far more upbeat way now.

5. There weren't many foreign music students, and in the orchestras there weren't many foreign players. Now, at least in the orchestras, they are pouring in from Russia, Poland, Hungary, China, Romania, not to mention France, Germany and Japan. Standards have rocketed commensurately as competition has increased. I was talking the other day to a young girl who is finishing her uni course and wants to go on to music college. She told me the postgrad entrance requirements - vastly more demanding than anything I had to do in 1987.

6. Conductors still alive included Tennstedt, Solti, Bernstein and Karajan. Pianists Richter, Arrau and Gilels (just). Violinists Milstein, Szeryng and, er, Menuhin. Special note for P: Krystian Zimerman had already made the big time and was 27 years old.

7. 20 years ago there was a massive split between academic music and practical music in this country. Each looked down its nose at the other. These days you can take a BA degree at the Royal Academy or specialise in playing an instrument at a university (though not at Cambridge, surprise surprise.)

8. It was quite difficult to find historical 'golden age' recordings in those days. Today they are as important as new ones and many young musicians cite them as their favourites.

9. The record industry was booming.

10. We did not yet have Symphony Hall Birmingham, the Bridgewater Hall Manchester or the new hall in Glasgow. Today most of Britain's major cities have a top-class, full-sized concert hall. Except, of course, for London.

Any more contributions to the list?



Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Exciting young musicians to watch

Late September is a hectic time on the London concert circuit. I'm writing a 'round-up' review for The Strad of five concerts this week, all of which feature superlative artists; and I've been lucky enough to hear some exceptional youngsters just starting out on their careers.

Alina Ibragimova is 19 years old and was clearly born to play the violin. She's the daughter of Rinat Ibragimov, principal double bass in the LSO, and studied at the Menuhin School and Guildhall. I first heard her about three years ago in a prizewinners' concert at the South Bank and was struck by her natural musicality, but since then she has developed into something very special. On Friday she performed the Britten concerto - a tall order for any musician, let alone someone so young - at St Luke's, the LSO's education centre in the City. She looks delicate and unaffected on the platform, but nothing stands in the way of her music when she begins to play; the violin becomes part of her and the music pours out straight from the soul. Mesmerising.

Jonathan Biss, a young American pianist who is one of the musicians featured by the Borletti-Buitoni Trust, an organisation that helps selected young artists to become established. Mitsuko Uchida is helping to spearhead the trust and on Sunday she played at the QEH with some of the award winners, including Jonathan, who accompanied fellow-winner the soprano Emma Bell in some Schumann Lieder and later played the Mozart A minor Rondo. It's a brave man indeed who plays that Mozart, a very 'revealing' piece: nothing to hide behind if you can't phrase everything perfectly, balance your counterpoint or convey the subtlest of emotions. Jonathan can, however, and does - with deep sensitivity, beautiful singing tone and real poetry. He too was born to play: his parents are Miriam Fried and Paul Biss and his grandmother was the cellist Raya Garbusova. He's studied at Curtis and even before he was snapped up by BBC Radio 3 New Generations I had heard great things about him from people in the US whose opinions I trust and value. They were right. Emma Bell, too, is someone to watch: bags of personality and a super voice with a big range and great versatility.

The rush continues. To St John's Smith Square this evening for the Chilingirian Quartet and Stephen Coombs (Faure! Yes!), then Truls Mork at St Luke's tomorrow lunchtime, Vengerov and the LSO at the Barbican tomorrow evening, the BBC Symphony Orchestra launching its season with Mahler 2 at the Barbican on Friday and the LPO and Masur doing Beethoven on Saturday. Next week the Wigmore Hall is reopening after its latest refit (and its boss Paul Kildea tells me that, among other things, they have a new chef, which can only be a good thing...). All this confirms what I've always felt: the London music scene really is incredible. I don't believe there's anywhere in the world to match it in terms of quality, quantity and variety.

Monday, September 27, 2004

A critic's best friend...

...is his/her cat. Alex Ross's cat, Penelope, looks as if she could be our Solti's little sister. Apparently she helps Alex with Bartok. Solti has proved his worth on many occasions, most notably over piano recordings. He hates bangy pianists. A couple of years ago I undertook a big comparative review for International Piano Magazine of about 50 different recordings of the Chopin B minor Sonata. Solti curled up near the CD player and sat twitching his ears happily through several top choices - Lipatti, Cortot, Katchen, etc. Enter Nikita Magaloff, however, and he was out of the room in moments.

He was also up in arms (or whiskers?) when I had to do a phone interview with another conductor the other day - and this cat has developed a meow loud enough to be heard through piano and violin being played together. I had to ask Martyn Brabbins to hang on while I shut cat in kitchen so we could have some peace, and added that the cat is called Solti. 'No wonder he won't let you talk!' exclaimed my interviewee.

Paws for thought...

Sunday, September 26, 2004

You look away for 2 minutes and...

...come back to find that cyberspace has gone completely bananas. The blogosphere, anyway. While I've been chilling out in rural and seaside France, Scott Spiegelberg, ACD, Alex Ross, Helen Radice et al have been engaging in a fast and furious debate about the difficulty, indeed the whole point, of writing about music. In blogging etiquette, as it evolves around us by the moment, I'm really too late to add my bit to this as everyone is now moving on to other matters such as the best way to blow the shofar (bravo, Scott, I'm sure you did brilliantly!).

Better late than never, perhaps, but I'll keep it short.

I believe that:

1. Writing about music is basically impossible. Music is a medium sufficient unto itself and its point is that it begins where words end.

2. Nevertheless, we keep trying. Why? Because we love it and want to communicate our love for it to those who haven't had the opportunities to know it as we privileged poseurs have. Yes, I am a privileged poseur (poseuse?) because my parents steeped me in music from well before day 1 and I learned three instruments (good at piano, so-so at fiddle, only ever scared cat with oboe). I'm bloody lucky and I know it.

3. It is fine for us in the PP camp to say that biographical details about composers are irrelevant and music has to speak for itself, but for those trying to find a way in to the classical spheres - which can seem very remote and hostile for exactly that reason - such matters are absolutely invaluable. And we PPs can't afford to ignore that, because if we do then the music we love is going to be cut back and killed off.

4. For some possible solutions, read the piece I wrote for the Indy a few months back. I'm not offering these solutions to the PPs, but I know for a fact that bringing storytelling back into music can help to recruit new audiences. We need new audiences whether we like it or not.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Reading & listening for the autumn

OK, OK, OK. I said I would be recommending books and CDs from time to time and a delicate correspondent has now told me that I don't do so often enough. So here is my latest selection: a mix of old and new, including both things I like that have landed on my desk this week and slightly older things that I've looked at again thanks to experiences like St Nazaire.


GREAT TENOR ARIAS: JUAN DIEGO FLOREZ (Decca). The latest release from my brand-new favourite singer. I've grown sick of starry opera singers who look good but actually can't do the business. This guy is different. He's an amazing vocal virtuoso with a wonderful high, bright, focused and open sound - and he's drop-dead gorgeous too. My birthday treat will be going to see him sing at the Royal Opera House in Don Pasquale. As I'm not habitually plugged in to bel canto opera, I'd managed not to hear him until June, when our Danish opera-buff friends, driving through the countryside near Aarhus, played us a tape of him singing Rossini at the Met. I nearly fell out of their Merc.

MATTHIAS GOERNE sings SCHUMANN; and also WINTERREISE (both also Decca). You have to be a bit of a masochist to love Lieder. It certainly casts your view of your own psyche in a new light when you find yourself lying on your study floor snuffling desperately into your third Kleenex thinking 'Why do I put myself through this? I could just press STOP...' Listening to Goerne singing these phenomenal songs is like having the skin stripped from your soul. Winterreise is out now, Schumann will be available from 11 October.

BARENBOIM PLAYS BACH (Warner Classics). Daniel Barenboim has recorded the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, using the full range of the piano's expressive abilities to penetrate to the heart of Bach's spirit. While the 'early music brigade' are all-too-often trapped on the surface of the flypaper, Barenboim goes straight for the honey underneath.

GRAFFIN AND DEVOYON PLAY CANTELOUBE (Hyperion). The CD includes the Violin Sonata No.1 by Pierre de Breville and Joseph Canteloube's Suite 'Dans la montagne'. The Canteloube is a real discovery - absolutely beautiful. Its 'Jour de fete' is full of clever, light-touch effects and 'Dans le bois au printemps' is a prequel to the Songs of the Auvergne. Philippe's bow arm is particularly stunning and sometimes reminds me of Errol Flynn wielding his rapier in those Korngold-scored swashbucklers, and Pascal's even-tempered sensitivity and gleaming sound comprises its perfect partner.

SHCHEDRIN PIANO CONCERTO NO.2 (Hyperion) played by Marc-Andre Hamelin with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Litton. Shchedrin at his most dazzling, mingling modernist fireworks with what sounds like a trip to Ronnie Scott's, switching from one idiom to the other in the twinkling of a Hamelin finger. Coupled with an exceptionally touching performance of Shostakovich's Second Concerto.

I, MAYA PLISETSKAYA. Madame Shchedrin's memoirs of her days as prima ballerina assoluta of the Bolshoi in haut-Soviet times. It's a chunky volume and I'm looking forward to it.

NATASHA'S DANCE by Orlando Figes. Figes transforms the cultural history of Russia into a fabulous tapestry, bringing together elements ranging from music to the Orthodox Church, Pushkin to Akhmatova, Glinka to Shostakovich, Turgenev to Solzhenitsyn. Not only a marvellously informative history, but a fantastic read as well.

Enjoy!

Friday, September 24, 2004

Encroaching shamelessness

I'm informed of the following: first, my PDF download section doesn't work. I couldn't figure out how to get it to work, so I've chopped it. Next, a pragmatic pal said "What's the point of having a website if you don't promote your books on it?", so, swallowing all my Best of British modesty, I have put up a new sidebar section with links to my books on Amazon.co.uk.

It's one of the big cultural differences between the UK and the US that in the latter, it's basically expected that you will be proud of your achievements, do all you can to further them and better yourself and the more you earn, the better. In Britain, we are oh so easily embarrassed. We are particularly embarrassed if we commit the cardinal sin of being good at something, of doing something that our friends and colleagues haven't done, of daring to shift above what could be perceived by others as our 'place' in life. We don't like to put ourselves forward or admit that we are ambitious. And heaven forfend that we should be paid for working hard at something we enjoy... this is a Very Big Problem for those of us who enjoy job satisfaction in the arts since we do have to pay the bills like everyone else...

So, yeah, I'm embarrassed to push my own books on my own website. But I can take comfort in the fact that the terms of the publishing contracts are such that I'm not likely ever to see another penny/cent from any of them anyway.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Francophilia!


Rehearsing Weber
Originally uploaded by Duchenj.

We are back home after ten fabulous days in France. First, a week in a 'gite' in the Loire Valley countryside near Angers, relaxing (me) and practising (Tom). Lovely food from local market, a little private 'piscine' in our jardin, some trips to see the chateaux at Usse and Azay-le-Rideau and a spot of wine-tasting for good measure... Then off to Philippe's festival, Consonanaces de St Nazaire, where I took this picture during a rehearsal for the Weber Clarinet Quintet.

Left to right: Philippe Graffin, Tom, Nobuko Imai, Gary Hoffman and Charles Neidich. And they were bloody fantastic. I sat by, watching the Tomcat and engaging in that time-honoured pursuit known in Yiddish as 'clibing nachas'.

The intensity of atmosphere in these chamber music festivals really has to be experienced to be believed. I've written about St Nazaire before (a post a few months back entitled 'My favourite festival') - suffice it to say that this small, quiet, pleasant, rather uneventful shipbuilding town on the Loire estuary is home to a festival that, thanks to Philippe, its artistic director, provides chamber music of the calibre more often heard at Carnegie or Wigmore halls. Apart from Tom's spot in the Weber with Charlie Neidich (who is a complete genius of the clarinet), another major highlight was hearing the Faure Second Piano Quartet in a performance by Philippe, Nobuko, Gary and Pascal Devoyon that made me feel I was hearing the piece for the first time - and so beautiful it brought on tears. The flow, the freedom, the richness of expressive range, the cohesion between the players and the sense of utter absorption in Faure's magical language - words, I'm afraid, don't do it justice.

Rodion Shchedrin was present throughout - he was the focus of the festival. Tomorrow Philippe is giving the world premiere of a new Shchedrin work, Concerto Parlando. Rather than sitting here blogging, I ought to get on the next plane back to Nantes... Shchedrin had brought with him one of his finest young interpreters, a hotshot Russian pianist named Ekaterina ('Katia') Mechetina who has just won the World Piano Competition in Cincinnati (more details here). She performed a number of his piano works, which are astounding: Shchedrin, a fantastic pianist himself, knows exactly how to exploit the instrument's potential and creates pieces for it that are immensely energetic and hugely demanding on any virtuoso's abilities, yet also deeply poetic. Cross Shostakovich with Keith Jarrett and double it.

Every festival, however, should have a British brass player. Martin Hurrell of the BBC Symphony Orchestra was there to be trumpet soloist in Concerto Parlando alongside Philippe (the idea was to create something along similar lines to the Shostakovich First Piano Concerto which features a prominent trumpet solo). Martin is a brilliant player but also happens to be the funniest guy on earth. His sense of timing ought to have propelled him onto his own TV show years ago. Around midnight a few days ago over a late-night repas of French wine and cheese, he reduced the entire festival table, including Shchedrin and his wife, the former Bolshoi prima ballerina assoluta Maya Plisetskaya, to helpless, howling rubble with his impersonation of a certain 20th-century dictator which would make Charlie Chaplin turn in his grave. The experience won't be quickly forgotten...

We didn't really want to come home. But Solti is very pleased to see us.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Happy hols ahead

I'm off to France this morning for 10 days. Back in town and in cyberspace on 20th September. We are renting a house in the middle of nowhere in the Loire Valley for a week, then going to St Nazaire. Watch this space for a report on chateaux, fromages, patisserie, the St Nazaire Festival and Tom's momentous day on stage with the Graffin All-Stars!

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Happy Birthday Dvorak

It's Dvorak's birthday - he would have been 163 today... My article about him for The Indy came out on Monday to trail today's all-Antonin Prom, which included Sarah Chang playing the Violin Concerto with the Czech Phil conducted by Charles Mackerras. The second half was the New World Symphony, which is the basis of my article.

That symphony was in the first concert I ever went to, at the Royal Festival Hall in (I think) 1973. I still remember it. It was the Royal Philharmonic - then a powerhouse presence on the musical scene, not the demoralised, cash-starved basket-case it has become today - with Rudolf Kempe conducting, on a Sunday afternoon so that hard-working fathers like my dad could take their children along at an hour when they wouldn't be missing bedtime (WHY don't we have Sunday afternoon concerts now? As a kid, I'd have never heard any live music without them!). If I've got this right, they started with the Berlioz Carnival Romain overture and then Miriam Fried played the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. What I remember most from the Dvorak symphony was a) loving the tunes, b) feeling desperately sorry for the flautist, Susan Milan, who was sitting right in front of the very loud brass and timpani.

30 years on, I've interviewed Susan Milan, and also Miriam Fried's son, Jonathan Biss, a young pianist we'll soon be hearing a lot more about. But today I felt as if I was hearing the New World Symphony for the first time, thanks to Michael Beckerman of NYU, whose superb book New Worlds of Dvorak explores the work's connections to the composer's abortive attempts to write an opera based on Longfellow's 'Hiawatha' (a task later satisfactorily accomplished as a cantata by his young Black British disciple Samuel Coleridge-Taylor). Dvorak, always considered a 'Czech Brahms', says Mike, always wanted to be a 'Slavic Wagner' instead. This book has all the warmth, gentle humour and humanity that is so often missing from musicological tracts, and it made a deep impression when I first perused it when writing liner notes for Philippe's recording of the Violin Concerto, coupled with Coleridge-Taylor's (see link on left).

Now, though, I can really hear it. This symphony is pure symphonic poem. It's all there - the death of Minnehaha, the demoniac dance of the magician Pau-Puk-Keewis, the great famine...and if there should be any doubt as to Dvorak's operatic aspirations, the final chord is straight out of the Ring Cycle, the woodwind sustaining into the beyond after the strings have vanished. Incredible. That b****y bread advert wrecked this work for many years with naff associations; in fact it's one of the late 19th century's finest efforts. It is both sobering and inspiring to return to a work like this and suddenly recognise that you have never appreciated it before.

Bravo Dvorak! And happy birthday.

APOLOGIES MEANWHILE for long blogging silence. I'm trying frantically to juggle family duties with finishing a bunch of articles before going away to France on Friday. GOOD NEWS: my NEW NEPHEW was born on Saturday! He is adorable, and reputedly responds positively to the CD of Nice Soothing Tracks that I put together for his mum, my brother's partner Laura. I'm told it has become the Soothing Feeding CD. It's is full of beautiful slow movements from various concertos, plus a good few chunks of Faure. Luckily enough, it seems to work.





Friday, September 03, 2004

Sir Georg's 15 minutes

A peculiar number of hits originating at a wonderful blog named Llama Butchers prompted me to investigate. Turns out that our resident feline Solti, a.k.a. Sir Georg, a.k.a. Poochface, is having his own personal 15 minutes of fame and has nearly won us a companion cat from the States. Voila: Llama Butchers.



Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Eating fire and words in Edinburgh

Two glorious days in Edinburgh at the tail end of the Festival have, I think, made me eat most of my former words about Scotland. Previously I've had a few nasty experiences there, but this trip was pure magic. Not least, that was because the sun came out - though Edinburgh is a stunningly beautiful city whatever the weather. Tom compares it to Prague, with the hilltop castle, the deep cleft valley, the historic grandeur that infuses the grey stone from which most of the city is built; and you can see the first hills of the Highlands in the distance from the centre of town.

Combine scenery, sunshine and the festival atmosphere with the rich acoustic in the Usher Hall, two concerts with the LPO at its very finest under principal guest conductor Vladimir Jurowski, innumerable wonderful cafes and fabulous vegetarian food (we particularly recommend Henderson's) and a fabulous party thrown for the orchestra by the sponsors last night in The Hub, a converted church on the Royal Mile, and - well, it was great. Even Tom felt as if we were having a glorified holiday, and he was working his socks off.

Of course, when everybody said that Vladimir set the Usher Hall alight with his electrifying charisma, they didn't quite mean the fire alarm to go off, which it did 10 minutes before the concert on Monday. Vladi was blameless, however: the culprit turned out to be an overenthusiastic tea urn in the ladies' dressing room... Earlier in the day I'd strolled down the Royal Mile, closed to traffic and boasting several fire-eaters juggling with flaming torches. Plenty of sparks flew in Edinburgh, one way or another.

The Scots don't always like to believe that life can be quite so marvellous and we found that the people we talked to were eager to point out that 'it isn't like this all the time!'. The Festival, they declare, is exceptional. A few weeks of intense, creative glory in which the place is packed with fantastic things to see, hear and do, and then back to normal: by December it's completely freezing and night sets in around 3.30pm. Tom complained that London doesn't have a festival - there are some fine local festivals such as Spitalfields, City of London and Hampstead and Highgate, not to mention the Proms, but nothing that unifies the city's lively arts scene across the board in the way that Edinburgh does. On the other hand, London is always full of things to see, hear and do - not just for three weeks of the year.

Still, COULD THERE BE a way to pull everything together in comparable fashion in London? Would it be sensible, practical or even desirable to have a London International Festival? Personally I reckon it would be virtually unworkable because of the sheer scale of the city, but I'm famously pessimistic. What does everyone think about this?

Friday, August 27, 2004

LSO US tour cancelled

The London Symphony Orchestra was supposed to have a three-week tour of the US in September, entitled 'The Music of Hollywood'. The programme was going to consist of music from the movies, including excerpts of John Williams's score for Harry Potter. According to most reports on American internet news sites, the promoter, Jeff Bown, has cancelled the tour because of sluggish ticket sales. One site cites 'travel difficulties' as the reason.

It's absolutely tragic for the orchestra, who presumably will be left out in the cold for that time with the usual British orchestra 'no play, no pay' situation. But dare I suggest that if the 'sluggish ticket sales' report is accurate, there may be a lesson to learn here? Faced with one of the great orchestras of Europe, probably with commensurate ticket prices, perhaps the concert-going public doesn't really want to hear it play Hollywood scores. Perhaps it would have responded a little more eagerly to a bit of Brahms, a dab of Debussy, a mouthful of Mozart... Alternatively, faced with a programme of film music, the people willing to sit in a concert hall to hear it maybe haven't heard of either the LSO or, indeed, London, which they may think is a little town in Canada.

Anyone know anything more about this?