JDCMB is Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music & writing, with CHOCOLATE AND SILVER, in London, UK. Author & journalist JD writes for The Independent.
1385 Entries
You'd think Sergei Rachmaninov would be the most peaceable and easy-to-love of all composers. But it's not as simple as all that...

Last night the LPO's Rachmaninoff: Inside Out celebration got off to an astounding start at the Festival Hall. Phenomenal playing in The Isle of the Dead and the Symphonic Dances (let's leave aside the soloist in the original version of the Piano Concerto No.1 for now), with man-of-the-moment Vladimir Jurowski at the helm, fresh from the announcement that he's staying on as principal conductor for another three years. Great audience and much enthusiasm. But immediately we ran into trouble. The series - the biggest-ever celebration of the composer's works with orchestra, involving operas, concertos and lots of different versions of things, and extending across 11 concerts this season - is called RACHMANINOFF: INSIDE OUT. Meanwhile we have all been writing about RACHMANINOV. With a V not a FF. Which is correct?

A flood of responses on Twitter has proved inconclusive, if amusing. A small selection:

"Russian pronunciation would be nearer Rakhmaninav, no? #canofworms" (@DaveGnu)

"He always signed Rachmaninoff" (@chadrbowles)

"Rachmaninov. End ov." (@larkingrumple)

"You should know that Jessica! B&H use OFF, everyone else uses OV." (@PhilLittlemore)

"RachmaninON" (@jules141)

And a quick dip into the video introductions on the LPO website thickens the plot when their presenter names him SERGE Rachmaninov/ff, not SERGEI, which was his name.

Meanwhile, woe betide any concert-goer in London who doesn't like Serge/ei Rachmaninov/off, because over at the Barbican during the course of this season the LSO is busy doing him too, with Gergiev (when he's around - he has quite a busy schedule just now) and pianist Denis Matsuev, who for some reason is their featured artist this autumn.

Didn't someone check the calendars? Or maybe as the LPO is doing RachmaninOFF and the LSO is doing RachmaninOV, no clash was perceived?

Well, whatever you call him, it is high time Mr R was recognised as the first-rate composer he always was - time to shake off the silly old prejudices about tonal music in the 20th century, please - so all this comes not a moment too soon. The more, the merrier.

Here is a very special introduction to the composer as human being, featuring film of Rachmaninoff (sic) himself...

3 months ago | |
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This is the Russian pianist Lev Oborin playing 'October - Autumn Song' from Tchaikovsky's The Seasons, filmed in 1971. It's mesmerisingly wonderful. Sounds - and images - from another world altogether...

This remarkable piano cycle - still desperately underrated - was commissioned by the editor of a Russian magazine named Nuvellist: one piece was printed in each monthly issue through 1876. What a good idea - how about the editor of a monthly culture journal commissioning one of our leading composers to write something similar? Come on guys, what are you waiting for?

Here is some more info about Oborin, courtesy of the Fryderyk Chopin Information Centre, Poland:

Lev Oborin – 1st Prize winner, 1st International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw (1927). Lev Oborin was born into a middle class family. His father was a rail transport engineer and his mother a lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine at the Moscow University. Due to his father’s frequent relocations Lev Oborin’s early childhood was spent in several cities, including Homel’, Vitebsk, Orsha and Minsk.In 1914, when the Oborin family settled in Moscow, the talented son, who had long desired to take up an instrument, was sent to music school. As a result of the rapid development of his talent it was decided that the boy be moved to the Gnessin Music College to study with Professor Elena Gnessina. A former student of Ferruccio Busoni, she taught him a modern approach to the piano according to the teaching of her master. Results quickly followed.Alongside his piano studies, Oborin took composition lessons with Alexander Grechaninov, with admirable results. In this manner, Elena Gnessina wanted to give Oborin an alternative track for developing his musical abilities, should his career in piano be hindered by his somewhat weak hands.In spring 1921, Lev Oborin graduated from the Gnessin Music College, playing Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in B flat minor and Chopin’s Impromptu in C sharp minor, Balakirev’s The Lark paraphrase on Glinka’s song, and Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor.That same year (1921) Oborin enrolled for the Moscow Conservatoire at two departments – piano and composition. His teachers for piano and composition respectively were Konstantin Igumnov and Georgy Catoire. After Catoire’s death Oborin continued his composition studies with Nikolai Miaskovsky. He also took conducting classes with Konstantin Saradzhev, and occasional teaching from Bruno Walter and Hermann Abendroth who travelled to Moscow for concerts. It is from student days that Oborin’s friendship with Dmitri Kabalevsky, Vissarion Shebalin and Dmitri Shostakovich originated.Oborin started performing in public while studying at the Conservatoire. He completed his piano studies in 1926, graduating with honours with his name being inscribed in gold letters on a white marble plate in the lobby of the Small Hall of the Conservatoire. For his graduation concert, he played Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, Prokofiev’s 3rd Concerto in C major and some other works. In autumn 1926, he gave a sensational performance of Prokofiev’s Concerto in C major with Moscow’s highly praised ‘Persimfans’ Orchestra (short for “Piervyj simfonicheskii ansambl byez dirizhora”, or “First symphonic orchestra with no conductor”).In December 1926, the announcement for the 1st International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw reached Moscow. Igumnov immediately thought of his student Oborin. Since Oborin did not have the repertoire required by the competition rules ready, he mastered all the works in a month and played them at a concert at the Great Hall of the Conservatoire on 14th January 1927. Unfortunately he managed only to play Chopin’s Concerto in F minor with orchestra, having to leave for Warsaw the following week.Oborin’s performance at the competition was a triumph – he received the 1st Prize. Professor Stanislaw Niewiadomski wrote in the Warsaw press:“The first place among yesterday’s candidates was taken by Lev Oborin […]. The general level of playing was of the highest order […]. For the Slav listener Oborin’s poetic, touching simplicity, highly spiritual understanding of Chopin’s music, modesty and spiritual purity of his performing art are uplifting […]. Each piece from the beginning to the end had a proper plan, intelligible and appropriate to the content of the work and spirit of the author. In a word, we are standing on real art territory.”And famous Polish poet and writer Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz thus wrote on Oborin’s playing:“With his driving energy, youthful unevenness, phenomenal musicality, and technical bravura, Oborin appears as some fantastic musician from E. T. A. Hoffmann’s stories. Like the Pied Piper he has captivated the Warsaw audience […], which has exploded with hysteria hearing the young Russian […]. Oborin’s success took on acute symptoms of psychosis.”Audiences throughout Poland keen to hear the young pianist, he went on a country-wide tour playing in Warsaw, Lódz, Cracow, Poznan and Vilnius. He also appeared several times in Germany.After returning to Moscow, Oborin quickly completed his post-graduate studies with Konstantin Igumnov and started teaching at the Moscow Conservatoire (1928). Until 1945 he performed exclusively within Russia. In 1935 he played for the first time with David Oistrakh, marking the beginning of a long-term musical partnership. In 1936 he gave the first performance of Aram Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto, beginning a series of first performances of modern composers’ works, including Shebalin, Miaskovsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. Between 1941 and 1963, Oborin together with violinist David Oistrakh and cellist Sviatoslav Knushevitsky formed a world-famous chamber trio.After World War II, Oborin played in Poland (1949,1950,1955), many European countries, Japan, and the USA (1963).As a piano teacher Oborin worked with many distinguished pianists, including Vladimir Ashkenazy, Mikhail Voskresensky, Dmitri Sakharov, Alexander Bakhchiev and Andrei Egorov.Oborin sat in the juries of the 4th and 5th International Chopin Competitions in Warsaw, as well as competitions in Moscow, Lisbon, Paris, Leeds and Zwickau.His rich discography includes piano concertos by Balanchivadze, Beethoven, Mozart, Rachmaninov and Khachaturian, solo works by Beethoven, Borodin, Brahms, Glena, Debussy, Liszt, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Scribing, Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Schumann, and chamber works by Bach, Beethoven (complete recording of violin sonatas with David Oistrakh), Haydn, Greg, Dona, Mendelssohn, Miaskovsky, Prokofiev, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, Svetlana, Taney, Franck, Tchaikovsky and Schubert.
Stanislaw Dybowski
3 months ago | |
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I wrote this for the Indy's 'Observations' section last weekend, but can't find it online, so here it is in full glory...Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West opens at ENO tonight, with Susan Bullock as Minnie. Enjoy.

Sometimes you can wait two decades for a new production of a particular opera, only to find three turning up within a year. Until recently Puccini’s La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) was a relative rarity on these shores. But with stagings this year at Opera North, Opera Holland Park and now English National Opera, where a new one directed by Richard Jones opens on 2 October, it looks as if this entrancing work’s day has arrived.
It is not before time. The composer regarded it as one of his greatest; leading sopranos put its heroine, Minnie, at the top of their role wish-lists. Yet this piece can raise awkward expectations in a movie-drenched public: it’s an operatic western. Puccini gives his all in the service of a story about miners, bandits and a feisty female saloon owner. Maybe opera-goers are more accustomed to tales of consumptive courtesans perishing by inches in 19th-century Paris.
To Puccini himself, though, the Californian gold rush was wildly romantic; as exotic as those topics he tackled elsewhere, such as the Geisha girls of Japan (Madama Butterfly) or rebellion, torture and passion in 18th-century Rome (Tosca). Basing the opera on David Belasco’s play of the same title – and, so the story goes, inspired by an illicit female muse a little way from his home at Torre del Lago, Tuscany – he set to work at fever pitch. The world premiere took place at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 1910.
In Minnie he created a gigantic leading role, requiring great stamina and strength. It is a dream part for sopranos with the right voice and personality to carry it off; today such stars as Eva-Maria Westbroek and Susan Bullock, who takes the lead at ENO, cite it as a top favourite.
A passionate, complex character, with music to match, the saloon keeper Minnie risks all for love. She falls for the mysterious Dick Johnson, only to discover that he is a bandit in disguise. Despite the deception, she is willing to save him – with her own life, if need be – and the opera offers that rare treat: a happy ending.
The Wild West nevertheless may not be its only problem in reaching the modern public’s hearts. It lacks set-pieces that can be plucked out and popularised. There is no show-stopping aria like ‘Nessun dorma’ from Turandot or ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca that can be played time after time on the radio. Instead, the entire score is magnificent, in a whole different way: it is riveting music-drama, a play set to sophisticated, wonderfully orchestrated, through-composed sonic treats. Take on Fanciulla and you take all or nothing.
Perhaps this gold rush of productions shows that finally we are ready for that. Meanwhile, if operatic westerns are having a moment in the sun, it is maybe time for a British company to present the American composer Charles Wuorinen’s recently premiered opera of Brokeback Mountain.
The Girl of the Golden West, English National Opera, from 2 October. Box office: 020 7845 9300

3 months ago | |
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Thank you, PIANIST MAGAZINE, for this rather to-the-point image! Attention BIRMINGHAM: he is doing the whole thing again tonight, in the Town Hall...

(Update: PIANIST mag tells me this inspired bit of imagery arrived originally from our doughty friend Yehuda Shapiro.)

3 months ago | |
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Well, the north face of the piano repertoire: Liszt's complete Transcendental Etudes, live in concert. I'm still reeling. Here's my review for The Arts Desk. (Do take out a subscription: it's well worth it, top-notch reviewing for the price of one coffee per month!)
3 months ago | |
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I've just signed up to GO SOBER FOR OCTOBER, the charity initiative raising funds for Macmillan Cancer Support. My mother, father and sister all died of cancer within six years and during this traumatic time the support provided by Macmillan's specialist nurses was simply incredible. I don't know where we would have been without them.

So to help raise some cash and awareness, many of us have already elected to join this scheme. It's healthy, it doesn't involve getting on a bike or running unconscionable distances in the rain - and if you bear in mind that I am a >journalist<, you will recognise that it's not as much of a doddle as it sounds.

You can help in many ways. You can sponsor me (page here) or you can join in.

WE HAVE NOW FORMED TEAM JDCMB. All you need to do is sign up as an individual here, and then add yourself to our team effort here.

And remember - we start TOMORROW. Not a drop until 1 November. Go for it.

Thanks so much,
JD x
4 months ago | |
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Tomorrow night Daniil Trifonov is making his Royal Festival Hall recital debut - and if you're in London or within easyish reach of it, you need to get there. 
His programme is:

Johann Sebastian Bach: Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV.542 arr. Liszt for piano
Ludwig Van Beethoven: Sonata in C minor, Op.111
Franz Liszt: 12 Etudes d'exécution transcendante, S.139

Now, it has been drawn to my attention that this concert hasn't sold terrifically well, and this, dear concert-goers, seems absurd. What's the matter? Have you already committed yourselves to another gig - perhaps Behzod Abduraimov's piano recital at the Wigmore Hall (in which case we forgive you, because a clash of this magnitude isn't your fault and should be preventable in an ideal pianophile's world). Or do you perhaps consider that Liszt's complete set of 12 Transcendental Etudes is a bit much, a bit niche or a bit too, well, Liszty? 

Is admitting to enjoying Liszt, perhaps, still a little like the guilty pleasure of laughing at the opera? Have you ever really heard these things? If they are played by a pianist who knows how to put them over as the 11-dimensional masterpieces they are - and to do so, he/she needs a totally transcendental technique, as the composer suggests - then they can shine out among the greatest piano works of the 19th century. 

Here is No.11, the desperately sexy Harmonies du soir, played by one of the Lisztians I love the most, Louis Kentner:

Daniil is 23 and one of the most fascinating artists I've had the pleasure of hearing and meeting. (Here's my impression of his QEH recital in 2012 and you can read my recent interview with him in Pianist magazine - order the back issue here.) He reminds me of a lion cub with big paws: already an astounding creature, but one who visibly has the potential to grow and grow and keep on growing. Last time I looked forward to a 23-year-old pianist's RFH recital so much, it was 1980 and the artist in question was Krystian Zimerman. (I was 14.)

Book here. Do it now. And remember, at the concert: Try Phone Off.

4 months ago | |
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The young Belfast-born ballerina Melissa Hamilton of the Royal Ballet is making her debut as Manon in a couple of weeks' time. I had a lovely talk with her for the Independent (out today, here), but it's been rather truncated, so here's the "Director's Cut".

Blessed with long, powerful legs, beautifully fluid arms and an opened-out, all-giving style of expression, the young Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton has been compared to “Charlize Theron in pointe shoes”. Now she is preparing for a crucial debut on 13 October as Manon in Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet of the same name – possibly her biggest challenge to date. British-born female principals have been in short supply in the company of late (the sparkly Lauren Cuthbertson is currently the only one), so hopes run high for the future of 26-year-old Hamilton from Northern Ireland, whose official ranking is “first soloist”.

Hamilton’s delicate looks belie her ferocious strength, both physical and mental. She started her training in earnest only at 16 – many others attend vocational schools from 11 – and it is her sheer single-minded determination that has enabled her to make up for lost time. 

Growing up in Dromore, near Belfast, she took ballet lessons as a hobby, until attending a summer course in Scotland when she was 13 opened her eyes to the possibility of dancing full time. “In Northern Ireland it was virtually unheard of to become a professional dancer,” she says. “My parents knew nothing about the ballet world, so it was difficult for them to advise me. That course showed me that if you want to be a ballerina you can’t just do one lesson a week. I had so much to learn.”

Her father and mother, respectively a builders’ merchant and a teacher, persuaded her to complete her GCSEs first, keen for her to have “an education to fall back on”. Still, the drive to dance remained; and though rejected by the Royal Ballet School, Hamilton won a scholarship to the Elmhurst School of Dance in Birmingham. 

There the full extent of her disadvantage as a late starter struck home. She says she felt constantly discouraged and after a year she was advised to abandon her dream altogether. Fortunately, fate seems to have had other ideas. The husband and wife team Irek and Masha Mukhamedov, former stars of the Bolshoi Ballet, arrived at the school as teachers and spotted her potential. After a year, they left for Irek to become director of the Greek National Opera Ballet; aged 17, Hamilton elected to decamp solo to Athens for intensive one-to-one coaching with Masha. 

Melissa Hamilton, photo by Bill Cooper
It might have seemed a leap of faith, but Hamilton says it was a no-brainer. “I didn’t see the point of staying somewhere where you’re trying to convince people,” she comments. “It probably looked impulsive, but I went with my gut instinct. I think when something’s right, then as human beings we know it.” Private study with Masha Mukhamedov was utterly different from anything she had experienced until then: “It was more than a teacher-pupil set up; it was more as if she was the mentor and I became a product. She was creating me, just as much as I wanted to be there. We found each other completely and it worked.”

It certainly did. After winning the Youth America Grand Prix in 2007, Hamilton was offered a contract with American Ballet Theatre, yet her overriding dream was to join the Royal Ballet in London. She sent a DVD to the company’s director, Monica Mason, and was invited to take class with them. A place in the corps de ballet was soon hers. 

She rose through the ranks via that same focused determination to work, work, work. “I lived in a little bubble in Covent Garden,” she says, “and in the summer I’d only take one week off, then go back to the studio and practise on my own.” 

About six months ago, though, she began to feel that something had to change if she was to move on to another level. “Sometimes if you want something so badly you become your own worst enemy,” she says. “I’ve often tried to make things work instead of letting them happen. Now I’m learning to let go. 

“I realised that my friends’ lives had changed, but mine hadn’t. I felt I couldn’t keep living the way I’d lived until then.” She moved to a leafy part of north London, near some of her friends and with her new home went a new attitude: she decided to stop “fighting”.

“I think my whole initial work life has been a fight,” she says. “I’ve never hidden that it was a struggle. It was. It was hard. It was traumatic to a certain extent. From the get-go I was fighting against people who said I couldn’t do it. You get into a routine of thinking this is just the way it is – but it doesn’t need to be like that.

“I felt I was holding myself back, because I was still het up about living like I should be living, rather than living in the moment and appreciating everything that happened to me fully. It has been one of the most liberating experiences of my life: I’m able to live right now, rather than thinking constantly of the end goal. It’s a much more pleasing way to be.”

This, she says, is why she feels ready at last to tackle the tragic heroine of MacMillan’s ballet, based on Abbé Prévost’s novel Manon Lescaut. “You need to have had a certain amount of experience both on and off stage to do this role well,” she says. “Now I’m at a point in my own life where I’m ready to grasp Manon.” 

Melissa Hamilton in Raven Girl,
photo by Johan Persson
Torn between true love for the Chevalier des Grieux and the lure of filthy lucre, Manon makes all the wrong choices and is destroyed by them. “I think she’s in genuinely in love, but ultimately she loves herself more,” says Hamilton. “Des Grieux gives himself completely, yet she tires of it because there’s no game, nothing to keep her fighting to get it. She needs to be adored and draped in jewels to make her feel something. That’s her ultimate destruction – she can’t be content, she constantly wants and needs.” 

Her des Grieux is the Royal Ballet’s Canadian star Matthew Golding, who joined the company in February (and if Hamilton resembles Charlize Theron, Golding looks uncannily like Brad Pitt). The pair have already danced Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet DGV together, but Manon will be their first major appearance as a partnership. “We’re finding each other as people and as characters, building something together, which is very exciting,” Hamilton enthuses.

Now her horizons are broadening in other ways. She has begun to love travelling; and a recent visit to Barcelona brought her to the studio of the sculptor Lorenzo Quinn, with whom she is hoping to develop a collaboration. Invitations to appear abroad as a guest artist “seem to be popping up,” she says; and recently she has become the insurance company Allianz’s cultural ambassador to Northern Ireland. With their backing she hopes to find ways of raising awareness of and access to ballet there, whether touring with colleagues or setting up courses or masterclasses. 

“It seems a shame that if you want a career in ballet, you have to leave the country,” she remarks. “The public in Northern Ireland doesn’t know that a girl from there is now dancing with the Royal Ballet. I think that’s sad, because you should be able to feel some sense of pride that someone’s done that.

“I’d like to develop ways to help young dancers have an easier path into ballet than I had,” she adds. “It’s a wonderful world that so many people don’t even know exists. If I can bring that back to Northern Ireland, then it’s an honour.”

Manon, Royal Ballet, from 26 September. Melissa Hamilton dances on 13 October. Box office: 020 7304 4000

4 months ago | |
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This octogenarian popstar - essentially, a performance poet with musical knobs on - just gets better and better and better. In this song, 'Slow', from Popular Problems, his magnificent latest album, we find the words: "I always liked it slow, I never liked it fast; with you it's got to go, with me it's got to last."

I think we could take some cues from this song to describe the values of our own corner of the music world.
4 months ago | |
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My piece about the context of Muti's resignation from Rome:

I wonder if [>irony font<] the culture of chaos in the Italian opera world is so deeply embedded that things just wouldn't be the same there without it... [>/irony font<].

Nevertheless, this kind of mess doesn't really help anybody. Come on, guys. Drama belongs on the stage, not off it.

(New York could note that as well right now.)
4 months ago | |
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