Friday, December 31, 2004

Solti does it again

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...

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?


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...


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

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...

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.
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... 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?