JDCMB is Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music & writing, with CHOCOLATE AND SILVER, in London, UK. Author & journalist JD writes for The Independent.
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One of the most enjoyable commissions I had last year was a set of programme notes for the pianist Angelo Villani's debut CD. It's a breathtaking musical journey through Dante's Inferno, featuring some of the characters the poet encounters in his exploration of hell: Tristan, Isolde and Dido are all there, even Franz Liszt (well, in a way).

Among the pieces are Angelo's own transcriptions of music from Wagner's Tristan and of Dido's Lament by Purcell, along with an extract from Liszt's Années de pélérinage and an exquisite, little-known piece by Hans von Bülow. The lynchpin of the disc is, of course, Liszt's Dante Sonata.

The CD is now ready for release by Sonetto Classics and Angelo will launch it at the salon of 49 Queen's Gate Terrace, South Kensington, London SW7 5PN, on 4 February. Tickets for the event (£20 including wine & canapés) are on sale and may be reserved by contacting Veronica Davies at vernon@vef.org.uk.

Here's a taster of the interview I did with Angelo about the repertoire for the CD booklet.
The other rarity is a piece from Liszt’s Années de Pélérinage (Years of Pilgrimage): ‘Sunt lacrymae rerum’ (‘There are tears for things…’) from the third ‘year’. The title is a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid – a reference again to Dido. “This is very dark piece, full of pathos,” says Angelo. “Liszt’s late works seem to contain a vision of the future, looking forward into the soundworlds of Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin and others. There’s an otherworldly feeling to this piece, and an element of deep romanticism buried beneath its dark exterior.”
 Angelo credits this work with changing his life. Aged 17, he heard a recording of it by the Hungarian pianist Ervin Nyiregyházi, a one-time prodigy whose adult career (and life) traversed terrifying polarities of low and high. His musicianship reflected this extremity. “It’s an overwhelming, powerful recording and I was quite hypnotised by it,” Angelo says. “I grew up listening to many great pianists on record – Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Horowitz and Georg Cziffra, among others – but hearing Nyiregyházi transformed my ideas. It opened my eyes and ears to a completely different soundworld. I realised that this is the road for me. This was my catalyst for developing my own aesthetic. “My spiritual tie is primarily with the 19th century, so I felt grounded when I heard these great players that were linked to the past. They seemed to play with enormous expressiveness and a deep romanticism. It’s something very personal.”

You may well have read about Angelo on JDCMB before. Born in Australia to a family of south Italian extraction, he started out as a child prodigy, but a trapped nerve in his neck kept him away from his piano for some 20 years. A few years back it was finally cured and Angelo, who has lived in London for a long time, made a comeback recital at St James Piccadilly. He is a remarkable musician, an artist taking his cue from the "golden age" pianists he loves on recordings, and I for one can't wait to hear what he has done with this repertoire. The performance at Queen's Gate Terrace will include the public premiere of the Dido transcription.

Do come along and hear him! More details on the event's Facebook page.
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Seen English National Ballet's Le Corsaire? Swept up in the colourful fantasy of those costumes and sets? The man who created them is Bob Ringwood, the leading British theatre designer whose work has brought him into contact with Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn and Batman. I had a fabulous chat with him a few weeks ago and the interview is in the Independent today. Perhaps most significantly of all, Bob tells me that part of the secret of his success is that he has a degree of autism. He has harnessed the extra energy and imagination with which this endows him and turned it to advantage, and he hopes that his experience can help to inspire others who are tackling the condition's challenges to recognise that they "can do anything".

Here's the director's cut, below the photo.

Le Corsaire: Tamara Rojo and Osiel Gouneo wear costumes by Bob Ringwood. Photo: courtesy of English Naitonal Ballet

It seems a long way from Bob Ringwood’s wooden house by the sea on the Kent coast to the fantastical worlds he has created for film, theatre, opera and ballet. The British designer, twice nominated for Oscars, is particularly celebrated for his ability to make fairy-tale or sci-fi spheres into palpable reality. When English National Ballet called upon him to take over their 2014 production of the 19th-century extravaganza Le Corsaire, having parted company with the original designer, the stunning visual results, replete with oriental glamour and magical transformations, drew superlatives all round. A revival is now on at the London Coliseum.
This ballet is just the latest manifestation on an extraordinary path, which the ever-lively Ringwood remarks has been partly luck and partly down to his willingness to seize opportunities with both hands. At 69 he is semi-retired, at least from film – he suffered a stroke around nine years ago – but he still bubbles over with energy and creativity.
“Originally I wanted to be a painter,” he says. “But later I realised that that meant being in a room on your own. I like very much working as part of a team, so I went into the theatre and then cinema. I’ve loved it – and have done for 50 years. I haven’t had a life; I just work. But it’s like any vocation: if you love what you do, you become a slave to it.”
In some ways, though, this is more than a vocation. Ringwood says he has a degree of autism – and he is convinced that without it he would not have had such success. “I’m very obsessive, I have an elaborate fantasy life and I dream amazing dreams every night,” he says. “I can’t switch my brain off; I’m either asleep or switched on, and I have huge amounts of energy because of the autism. It really motivates you. Designing is like being allowed to wander in the landscape of your own imagination and create it for real. It’s an amazing gift that theatre and film producers give you – and if you’ve got an overactive mind that’s endlessly visual, it’s a wonderful release.” Having turned the condition to his advantage, he wants to encourage others with autism to do likewise: “Remember, you can do anything.”
That overactive imagination had nearly free rein in the exoticism of Le Corsaire, set in what Ringwood describes as a fantasy version of Istanbul. “Designing for ballet is all about line and movement,” he says, “and the sets shouldn’t overshadow the dancers. I believe the sets are part of the costumes and the costumes are part of the set. Tamara Rojo [artistic director of ENB] liked the painterly quality of my work and she wanted a design that looked 19th century; so we emerged with something like a painterly modern interpretation of a 19th-century staging.” 
(Above: Le Corsaire pas de deux starring Alina Cojocaru and Vadim Muntagirov)
He transformed details from thousands of “orientalist” 19th-century paintings to devise skylines and palaces; and for the costumes he sourced much-beaded Pakistani, Indian and Afghani fabrics on Southall High Street. “It was a gold mine,” he declares. “And it gives a ring of authenticity to the look – these materials bring their history with them.” Add a sparkling of well-placed Swarowski crystals and the magic is complete.
Ringwood, who was born in London in 1946, studied at the Central School of Art, where his mentor was Ralph Koltai: “He was a clever teacher and tough as old boots – you either shaped up or shipped out,” he says. “I loved him.” While he was on the design diploma course, the Old Vic closed for refurbishment and the National Theatre, based there under Laurence Olivier’s directorship, was left temporarily without a stage – so elected to work with the college. “Three of us were chosen to create stage productions with the National Theatre actors,” Ringwood recalls, “and the producer was the director of the National Theatre – so, imagine, as a student you’re showing your work to Laurence Olivier.
“My parents, who were very ordinary people, came to the opening night,” he says, “and in the interval Sir Laurence came over to us. I introduced them and my mother curtsied! He lifted her up and said, ‘I don’t think you need to go quite that far’ – and he talked to them through the whole interval. PR people were calling him, but he could see my parents were nervous and he stayed with us.”
Fresh from art school, Ringwood won an Arts Council bursary to work in a theatre for a year. He went to the Glasgow Citizens Theatre, under the direction of Giles Havergal and Philip Prowse, he relates, and promptly won an award on Scottish TV. “I jumped in and was a success, quite by chance, from the beginning,” he beams.
It was Katharine Hepburn who helped him find an unexpected route to Hollywood. Ringwood had worked with the director Noel Willman on a play for the Chichester Festival Theatre; Willman was friendly with Hepburn and the design work was done in the actress’s US home. Hepburn, Ringwood says, saw his designs, was impressed and requested that he might take on The Corn is Green, George Cukor’s 1979 film in which she was to star. The producers would not entrust the design to someone new to movies, though; the job was offered to David Walker, a more experienced friend of Ringwood’s.
“David called me one day to see if I would help pick out some clothes for Hepburn,” Ringwood says. He went, met Hepburn and was asked to help with fabric shopping the next morning – but that very day Walker fell ill and dropped out of the project. “Katharine Hepburn wouldn’t let them bring in another designer. She said: ‘I want that boy who was here yesterday.’ So I ended up doing the film after all. She said to me, ‘I wanted you at the beginning and in the end I got you!’ And she kindly wrote a letter to the film union in Hollywood, which let me in because of it. The whole thing was fate.”
Destiny soon intervened again. Finishing that film, Ringwood found himself in the studio canteen at the next table to the director John Boorman and overheard him lamenting that he had just lost his costume designer for Excalibur. “I leaned over and said, ‘Excuse me, but I may be able to help…’” he recounts.

(A scene from Le Corsaire. Source of some of this gorgeous costume material: Southall High Street)
Equally serendipitous was the arrival of Batman. Ringwood had had to resign from a James Bond film, which was to be shot in Argentina, due to his mother’s serious illness. Walking down the corridor from that meeting, he says, he spotted Chris Kenny, the associate producer with whom he had worked on Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, sitting with his head in his hands. “He said, ‘It’s awful, we just lost the costume designer on Batman…’ So that’s what started my so-called ‘rubber goods’ career.”
“In a way,” he adds, “I changed the course of superheroes. Tim Burton wanted to cast Michael Keaton as Batman. Until then, superheroes had been like Christopher Reeve, wearing tights. Michael’s not tall, and I said we can’t put him in tights, it’ll look ridiculous. So I had to find a way to make him into a superhero. I gave him a completely armoured body based on the original concept of Batman and so I went into the rubber world and sculpting. But the costume budget was so small that it didn’t cover even the rubber suits. I begged, stole and borrowed to get that film done.”
“Over several films,” he says, “we perfected these rubber body suits until we got to Val Kilmer’s [Batman Forever, 1993] with the famous nipples on it. I found a wonderful sculptor, José Fernandez, who supplied much of it – I wanted it to be sleek and sexy like a panther, and it’s known as the Panther Suit. I put nipples on it not to be provocative, but because if you’re sculpting a body it would seem bizarre not to have nipples – they’re like punctuation.”
Jack Nicholson, as The Joker, had other concerns. “His costume had to reflect the original comic strip, so it had to be purple and green,” Ringwood says. “Jack said that I could do whatever I liked as long as he didn’t look silly. Luckily it turned out that aubergine, the colour of his overcoat, is one of the colours of the Lakers, the basketball team he supported.”
Ringwood was nominated for Oscars, first for Empire of the Sun and later Troy, which lost out to The Aviator. “They should have given that one to me,” he growls. “The Aviator was dressed in 1930s clothes, but we had to create everything for ancient Greece from scratch, including 18,000 pairs of sandals in Bucharest and thousands of suits of armour.”
But of all his films, he names as his favourite Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract. “I did the sets, and everyone was working for love rather than money,” he says. “We did everything ourselves, on a tiny budget – and it looks amazing.”
Shouldn’t he write his memoirs? “I don’t think so,” he remarks, “because you can’t tell the truth. I’ve seen things so outrageous they’d take the skin off the back of your neck.”
But he wouldn’t say no to another ballet. To judge from the joys of Le Corsaire, companies could do worse than beat a path to his door.

Le Corsaire, English National Ballet, London Coliseum,13-24 January. Box office: 020 7845 9300
4 months ago | |
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You may have wondered why I've been posting clips of late Schumann and asking you to have a special listen. Now I can reveal all...
The campaign to launch my new novel, Ghost Variations, goes live TODAY via the groundbreaking 21st-century-style publisher Unbound.

Our heroine: Jelly d'Arányi
1933. A world spiralling towards war. A composer descending into madness. And a devoted woman struggling to keep her faith in art and love against all the odds.
Ghost Variations, inspired by real events, tells the extraordinary tale of how the great violinist Jelly d’Arányi rediscovered the long-suppressed Schumann Violin Concerto with the aid of supposed messages from the spirit world. The concerto, Schumann’s last orchestral work, was embargoed by the composer’s family for fear that it betrayed his mental disintegration. As rumours of its existence spread from London to Berlin, Jelly embarks on an increasingly complex quest to find the manuscript, upon which the Nazi administration has designs of its own.
Though aided and abetted by a team of larger-than-life personalities – including her sister Adila Fachiri, the pianist Myra Hess and the musicologist Donald Francis Tovey – Jelly finds herself confronting forces that threaten her own state of mind. Saving the concerto comes to mean saving herself.

Clara and Robert Schumann
We have 90 days from now to crowd-fund the book: https://unbound.co.uk/books/ghost-variations. If you enjoy my other books, my articles and JDCMB, or if you just like the sound of this one, please come on over and be part of it! This digital e-book publication is worldwide, so it doesn't matter where you are - Sheen or Sydney, San Francisco or Singapore, you'll be able to get your e-copy. 
For a pledge of just £10 you receive the e-book upon its release, are credited as a patron in its pages and gain access to the “shed” (a new blog at Unbound in which I chronicle the book’s creation).
A range of further rewards attend higher contributions.
For example, a special Early Bird deal includes a ticket to join me and fellow patrons to attend the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s performance of the Schumann Violin Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall on 6 February (violinist is Patricia Kopatchinskaja, with Marin Alsop conducting). We’ll have a drink and discussion after the concert. ONLY 9 PLACES AVAILABLE and you need to book by 31 JANUARY. 

You could sign up for an option which gives you a special print of the cover art, access to a playlist I'm creating to illustrate the book, a credit as a SuperPatron and an invitation to the launch party.
Or you could sponsor a character from the cast of real-life musicians: in addition to all the above, you’ll receive an information pack about her/him, compiled and written by me, including recommended reading and listening lists, plus a special credit in the book. Choose from Jelly d’Arányi, Adila Fachiri, Myra Hess, Donald Francis Tovey and Yehudi Menuhin.
To see the full list of pledge levels and associated rewards, please go to: https://unbound.co.uk/books/ghost-variations
To learn more about Ghost Variations, please join us for a special evening at London’s Hungarian Cultural Centre on 21 March. I give a short lecture about Jelly d’Arányi (who was, of course, Hungarian) and David Le Page (violin) and Viv McLean (piano) perform some of the music associated with her – including Ravel’s Tzigane, music by Bartók and Brahms, and a spot of Schumann. Admission is free, but booking is required: please phone 020 7240 8448 or email bookings@hungary.org.uk.
I look forward very much to bringing you this extraordinary tale and hope that you will be as swept up in it as I have been for the four-or-so years it's taken to write. 

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We've been away for a couple of weeks, escaping British winter (the Pierre Boulez appreciation was written on the beach).

For the last couple of days, the weather on the island was distinctly odd. The sea was delivering surfing-style breakers instead of tranquil bathing water and everything turned slate-grey instead of turquoise. The wind was strong and rain fell from otherwise clear skies. The hotel put up a notice saying that, very unusually for this time of year, we were experiencing "strange sea conditions" and one shouldn't bathe when the red flag was raised. Perhaps, we wondered, something far away to the north was causing problems from a great distance, since there is nothing between except ocean across which all that energy can cascade unhindered.

The other night we flew back - and some very uncomfortable things began to happen around 2am, somewhere mid-Atlantic.

The sensation that everything is shaking. The feeling that the dipping and plunging might be limitless and there's a wild ocean beneath offering more of the same. The impression that at any moment you might be turned upside down or knocked sideways out of your seat, and you don't really know what's going on because it's officially night-time on board and all that has happened in the cabin is that the pilot has turned on the Fasten Your Seatbelts sign.

We got back in one piece, just about. "Sorry about those few lumps and bumps along the way," remarked the cheery pilot.

This is Alex. Say hello.

On the train back from Gatwick we read this: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/hurricane-alex-is-the-first-atlantic-storm-to-form-in-january-since-1938-a6813226.html

We'd clearly flown through the effects of Storm Alex. Honest, guv, I will never understand those people who like going on roller-coasters at fairgrounds for fun.

So what do you do when you're on a plane and you think you may die and you can't do anything about it? Some people pray. I sing Bach to myself. I got through Storm Alex by imagining this.

Highly recommended. Thank you, Johann Sebastian.
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Pierre Boulez has died at the age of 90. A visionary who owned a muse of fire. Farewell, Maestro, and thank you for waking us up and changing our lives.
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I had a lovely interview the other week with the American pianist Mona Golabek, whose mother started out as a child prodigy pianist in Vienna. Once Hitler had annexed Auatria, though, she was fortunate to escape, one of the several thousand Jewish children permitted to come to Britain on the Kindertransport - but leaving their families behind. Mona wrote a book about her mother and now performs an inspirational one-woman show telling the story through words and music. She's bringing it to the St James Theatre, London, later this month.

My piece is in The Independent today: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/the-pianist-of-willesden-lane-mona-golabeks-moving-one-woman-show-about-her-mother-a6796511.html
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The pianist and composer Ben Dawson has written a song about all those xxest of the xx artist biographies. You know the ones.

Ben says: "Being a musician for a living means you have to write, and then keep re-writing your professional biography to put in concert programmes, on websites, for publicity etc. It's unbearably tedious and painful having to stretch the truth about oneself in the third person without sounding like a d*ckhead. That doesn't, however, stop numerous musicians from calling themselves 'the greatest/most admired x of his/her/their generation'. They can't all be the greatest living whatever, can they? Someone, somewhere is lying... 
Every lyric (almost) is from a real biography I have seen in print over the past year or so."

Here's Rachel Weston singing it, with Ben at the piano. Enjoy.

And on that merry note I am off to do some intensive writing for a week or two. Back soon...
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I'm not quite sure how this came about, but last week Angela Hewitt came round and played the Bach Goldberg Variations on my beloved Bechstein to us and a few friends in the living room.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? One of World's Great Bach Players pitches up and gives you a private concert, and afterwards you cook risotto primavera. What's certain is that this setting, an ordinary room where the listeners are at close quarters with the performer, is far and away the best way to listen to music on an intimate scale. Even so, this was a house-concert with a difference.

You might remember a piece I wrote about St Mary's Perivale, the 12th-century church in west London, a year or so ago. It was about "sacred space" syndrome: an atmosphere that a special place bestows on a performance. I wouldn't normally count our living room as a sacred space, though, so last week's magic had nothing to do with that. No, this was about Bach, and about Angela's particular mastery of the Goldbergs.

Back in the days of Wanda Landowska, Myra Hess and Rosalyn Tureck, great female soloists were sometimes termed 'high priestesses' of their art. It's worth pausing to think about what that really meant. It implies a pure, holy-ish approach to the music: at the keyboard these phenomenal performers would be perceived as handmaidens, if you'll excuse the slightly ghastly term, to the sacred spirit of Bach, Beethoven et al. Today this is an unfashionable idea.

Angela Hewitt. Photo: C M Yamanoue
Still, something extraordinary happened during the 80-or-so minutes in which Angela held us all under Bach's spell. It's not easy to articulate this. Around variation 9, one could sense a subtle change in the air. By 13 the stillness was absolute; and by the time the final toccata-style variation before the Quodlibet emerged as if on full organ, the illusion - if illusion it was - that we were experiencing some kind of spiritual visitation that was blessing us could not have been stronger if we could see its presence in the room. At the end I think we were all in tears.

You can attribute this "state of grace" (I write as an atheist, by the way) to many things. You can put it down to Angela's supreme control of technique, pace, concentration and drama - without which nothing would have happened. You can suggest a "sacred fire" descends while certain artists play certain works and that it's beyond anybody's control; either it happens or it doesn't (a view I've heard espoused about the playing of the violinist Jelly d'Arányi - of whom I'll be writing a lot more soon). You can attribute it to Bach himself, to the incomparable construction and inspiration of the music - though this requires the interpreter to bring it to life. Add to that the listener's state of heightened awareness, arrived at through intense focus and concentration, akin to the nature of a deep meditation. You can put it down to a combination of all these factors, while additionally admitting that on a further level it is close to miraculous.

I mentioned the sense of "divine visitation" to Angela afterwards. She nodded and said that, yes, this can sometimes happen with the Goldberg Variations...

The ultimate issue is that only music can do this, and only the very greatest music, performed by someone who is entirely at one with it, artistically and technically, and only when it is played live and shared, perhaps congregation-like, with others. That's why we have and need live musical performance at the ultimate level, and that's why all those much-discussed peripheral issues (what to wear, when to clap, bringing in drinks, etc) will remain peripheral, because they're not relevant (we wore everyday clothes, we had no desire to make any kind of noise until the very end and we had some wine, but rarely touched it while she played).

This kind of experience is rare, but it's possible. It brings another dimension into life that might otherwise be missing. If that is a sacred fire, and its summoner a high priestess, so be it. It's the essence of what musical experience is all about.

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New Year's Eve in London. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

Good morning, everyone, and happy 2016!
A warm welcome back to JDCMB if you're a regular reader and a big Aloha if you are new to the site.

The blogging sphere has become quite strange since I started JDCMB by mistake back in March 2004, so here's a little about my mission statement, such as it is.

I'm not "a blogger"; I'm a writer who has a blog. I trained initially as a musician and I write mainly, though not exclusively, about music. I've been in music journalism for 27 years. I held a number of editorial posts on music magazines and since 2004 have been freelancing for The Independent. I've written biographies, novels and plays. Right now I'm working on an opera libretto and my fifth novel.

JDCMB is relatively random and spontaneous. I hope the linking thread is a certain set of musical values, headed by quality and equality. I employ a rather British sense of sarcasm and irony (so do watch out for that if you're not used to it). I try to keep a sense of perspective - life's taught me not to sweat the small stuff - and I don't like the hysteria, witch-hunting and irrationality that's invaded discourse on many topics, including music.

I live in London, UK, and I use English English, not American English.

You can follow JDCMB by signing up for email alerts in the box at the top of the sidebar. Every post is then sent direct to your in-box. (This is an automated system, so I won't actually have your email address.)

JDCMB is free to read and unpaid to write. If you enjoy it, you're invited to support the site in several ways. You could come to my concerts and talks, buy the books, and support my next novel - on a very musical topic - which will be up for crowd-funding with Unbound later this month.

I receive many requests for coverage here, but I can't do everything. If you would like your event, recording or product to be visible on JDCMB, you might like to consider taking an advertisement, or alternatively a Solticat Memorial Sponsorship paragraph, at a highly competitive rate, which contributes to cat food for Solti's successors, Ricki and Cosi.

JDCMB does not invite reader comments, but we have some lively discussions around the posts that are shared on Facebook.

What you won't find on JDCMB: ad hominem attacks, porn, conspiracy theories, twisted thinking and malice.

What you will find: good humour, solid artistic values and plenty of passion. I believe that everybody deserves truly great music and arts in their lives.

Last but not least, Pierre Boulez once said to me: "When things are wrong...you cannot just stay in front of it without doing anything." He's right. So sometimes I try to do something. Very occasionally, it works.

Happy reading, happy listening and, above all, happy music-making!
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