JDCMB
Jessica
JDCMB is Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music & writing, with ginger, in London, UK. Author & journalist JD writes for The Independent.
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You know exactly why budding great pianists in their early to mid twenties are like London buses, don't you? That's right - you wait for a decade or so and then along comes a whole bunch at the same time. So please welcome yet another: to add to the roster of Trifonov, Grosvenor, Levit and Avdeeva, please welcome, from Brescia...

...Federico Colli, winner of the latest Leeds International Piano Competition, who made his London debut last night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in a stunning recital of Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann. Pictured, right, with a very happy Dame Fanny Waterman, founder of the Leeds, who can be rightly proud of her laureate.

Colli - playing a Fazioli, also the choice of Trifonov last week - began his concert with the Mozart Sonata in F major K283: a vivid, spirited account that established several strengths at once, notably the sense of "flow" that characterised the whole programme, an ongoing thread of musical connection that feels as if he is entirely one with the music, creating it from the inside out. He used a light, strong touch with singing tone, beautifully balanced voicing, extremely well-judged pedalling - an ideal blend of colour and clarity. I wondered briefly about a few exaggerated gestures - hand movements for each repeated note of the slow movement's melody, for instance - but by half way through the Beethoven 'Appassionata', any such concerns went out of the window as a tingle of recognition spread that we were listening to a potential true great.

Something magical began to happen with the first variation of the Beethoven's second movement: a pattern of figuration that in other hands can be nothing more than that, but that for Colli became a shifting lattice of subtle voices, light and shade - as if he could hear and imagine things that the rest of us can't. And while everything seemed thought out and judicious, there was no sense of playing it safe: let off the leash in the finale's coda, Colli tackled Beethoven's fall of Lucifer like a lightning bolt.

Schumann's Sonata No.1 is one of the composer's weirdest works, more fantastical than the Fantasy, less "sane" by far than all those supposedly difficult "late"compositions. Pulling it off is a very tall order, yet throughout its magnificent long span Colli made it entirely his own. He gave the fantasy its head, working in the dimension of silence together with that of sound in masterful fashion: the transitions, of which there are a great many, were not only handled with ideal pacing but became virtually the raison d'être of the piece.

By now one could forget technical concerns and take for granted the full yet never heavy-handed sound quality, the singing nature of the phrasing, the richness of colour, and move instead into another world. He made sense of the work by recognising that making sense is not the point; that this is visionary, groundbreaking music far ahead of its time. He had the hall breathing and concentrating as one with him and the piano and the sonata. This was his secret world, unfolding in front of us. He gave us all of Schumann and all of himself.

For an encore he offered the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy, in what I think must have been Pletnev's arrangement.

It was a short programme, but one of uncompromising and unforgettable intensity.

Meanwhile, my interview with him is the cover feature for the current issue of Pianist magazine. Enjoy.




4 months ago | |
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While we ate chocolate, they were busy with the axe.

It has not been a happy Easter for anyone who cares about music education in the UK. And, you know, many of us do - not that you'd ever guess that from the actions of a government that first commissioned a report broadly welcomed for its positive recommendations on the topic - https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/music-education-in-england-a-review-by-darren-henley-for-the-department-for-education-and-the-department-for-culture-media-and-sport - yet now is apparently telling local authorities that they should have no money to fund music education.

This article from Arts Professional sets out the situation neatly: http://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/pressure-mounts-councils-cut-music-education-funding
Deborah Annetts, head of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, has pointed out the chaos instigated by mixed messages from government and lack of joined-up thinking from those wielding the purse-strings. She says:
‘Following the confusion caused by the EBacc and other mixed messages around the value the Government places on music education, we now need an unequivocal commitment from the Department for Education that it supports music education and is fully behind the National Plan for Music Education.

‘Last week we celebrated as music was included in the Government’s GCSE reforms, but this week, we find that the Government is backing additional cuts to the music education budget worth millions.

‘The National Plan for Music Education supported by the Department for Education, was a visionary strategy for music education in England. The demand that local authorities should stop funding music services risks derailing this flagship Government initiative.’

The ISM is stepping up its Protect Music Education campaign. Please sign up to it. 

UPDATE, 22 April: this piece by Jonathan Savage contains more detail - please read.

Meanwhile, this article from the Guardian raises the idea that dismantling our youngsters' creative abilities may be more sinister a move still: "Indeed, it may not be too cynical to suggest that it actually suits some if the creative noise is kept down in poor areas. Talented working-class youngsters who learn how to use the tools of their artistic trade are notoriously prone to asking awkward questions with them." 
4 months ago | |
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In an increasingly off-the-wall Easter, we have here a fantastic greeting from Bechstein Pianos:



Meanwhile stunning soprano Sarah Gabriel - who was our premiere production Vicky in my Wagner play Sins of the Fathers - found her concert dress falling foul of Easyjet's carry-on baggage regulations the other day and in the resulting carry on, worthy of the eponymous films, she came up with a fine sartorial solution, which made it into the national papers.


Don't miss Sarah at the Purcell Room on 29 April, when she will be singing KORNGOLD - a special new arrangement of the Shakespeare Songs, by conductor Ben Palmer, who wields the baton of the Orchestra of St Paul's for the occasion. Booking here.
And finally, here is a recipe for something very Easteryjet dreamed up for our piano soloist the other night, who as his recording approaches says he is going a bit Scriabinanas: 
SCRIABANOFFIEV PIE:
Biscuit base: 100g butter (unsalted)300g digestive biscuits (gluten-free if necessary)
Caramel:175g butter85g white sugar and 85g brown sugar (but if you really love Scriabin, use only darkest brown sugar for a truly demonic twist) A tin of condensed milk
4 bananasCarton of double cream, whippedHigh cocoa-solids plain chocolate to shave over the top (pref 80+%)A shot of plain Russian vodka
Mix together melted 100g butter and the crushed biscuits in a saucepan and press into 19cm loose-bottomed cake base. Chill in the fridge. Make caramel by stirring butter & sugar together in saucepan over low heat until dissolved, then add the condensed milk and mix until boiling and golden (or very dark golden if using the all-brown sugar version). Pour over the biscuit base, spread evenly & chill. When set, chop the bananas and arrange on the top. Mix the vodka into the whipped cream and spread across the bananas. Sprinkle liberally with shavings of black chocolate. Serve with a show of coloured light and prepare for either a poem of ecstasy or a vision fugitive from your guests. 
Disclaimer: JDCMB cannot be held responsible if this pie turns out to be a complete disaster. Just make sure you don't burn the sugar and keep your paws well clear of the mixture while it's hot.
4 months ago | |
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The Silver Tassie, Sean O'Casey's great anti-war drama of 1928, is about to open at the National Theatre and I was delighted to have the chance to talk to the playwright's daughter, Shivaun O'Casey, about life with her father. The piece is in the Observations section of today's Independent, and here is the director's cut, so to speak. (I don't often do theatre features, but adore it.)

Dear mother, this helpless thing is still your son. Harry Heegan, me, who, on the football field, could crash a twelve-stone flyer off his feet.
Sean O’Casey’s anti-war drama The Silver Tassie, which is about to open in a new production by Howard Davies at the National Theatre, represents the great Irish playwright at the height of his iconoclastic powers. Showing the devastating impact of World War I on an Irish footballer and his friends, it features a surreal battleground scene, as shocking today as it must have been when in 1928 O’Casey first unleashed the text upon the unsuspecting WB Yeats, a director of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.
Although he had defended O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, which shot to riot-sparking notoriety there, Yeats rejected the new play out of hand. O’Casey, he declared, should not write about the trenches because he had not experienced them; and he objected to his sundering of conventional dramatic unities. O’Casey’s riposte? “Aristotle is all balls.”
O’Casey can easily sound like a fighter and a firebrand; and his socialist standpoint was distinctly at odds with establishmentarian mainstream theatre. His daughter, Shivaun, herself a theatre director before her retirement, nevertheless casts a different perspective on his nature.
“He hated fighting,” she declares, “but he couldn’t let things lie when he saw injustices. He had to say what he really thought. In fact he was the kindest person I have ever known.” His socialism sprang more from compassion than from communist convictions, she adds: “He was never a member of the party – he couldn’t ever be a member of anything, because he couldn’t toe any line. He was a free thinker. I think a lot of people don’t quite understand that.”
Born in Dublin in 1880, O’Casey started to write plays in his forties while working as a manual labourer. Shivaun relates that he occupied a small room in an overcrowded house on Dublin’s North Circular Road where, on returning from work, he would write by candlelight far into the night.
Coming to London to accept the Hawthornden Prize for Literature for Juno and the Paycock, O’Casey discovered a more congenial atmosphere than Dublin provided – he later remarked that “in Ireland they wore the fig-leaves on their mouths”. Here he met and married the actress Eileen Carey Reynolds in 1928. Shivaun, the youngest of their three children, feels that her father’s lessons in warmth, caring and honesty have never left her: “He would quote Polonius’s speech from Hamlet, ‘To thine own self be true,’” she remembers.
The family settled in Devon, yet Ireland stayed strongly in O’Casey’s consciousness. “It was inside him and he brought it with him,” Shivaun suggests. “He continued to create Irish characters all his life.” One such character in the play Red Roses for Me, she says, was based on a local from Totnes market who asked him repeatedly whether the banks were safe. (Totnes was their chosen home after George Bernard Shaw advised that Shivaun's two elder brothers should attend the progressive school at nearby Dartington: "That's the only school for the O'Casey children," he declared, according to Shivaun.)
Despite his prolific output, O’Casey made little money from his writing. “He wasn’t what you might term a popular playwright,” says Shivaun. “Yeats’s dismissal of The Silver Tassie didn’t help him, and neither did his politics. He was always fighting for equality, so he wasn’t an easy writer to put on if you wanted to be safe.”
There is certainly nothing safe about The Silver Tassie. Today, Shivaun adds, its message is as relevant as ever: “It’s a stark reminder of what war really is, and of its terrible waste of young life.”

The Silver Tassie, Lyttleton Theatre, currently previewing, opens 23 April. Box office: 020 742 3000
4 months ago | |
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Pick an occasion - any occasion - in the history of music at which you'd have liked to be present... Today I'll choose the Bach St Matthew Passion as conducted in 1829 by the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. The performance was organised by the young composer and his actor friend Eduard Devrient and the work enjoyed probably its first outing since the death of Bach himself, some 80 years earlier.

Apparently they only used about half of it, and Mendelssohn made plenty of changes to the harmonies, orchestration and vocal lines - but it still had the required effect. Goethe, hearing of the occasion, sensed its significance, saying: "It's as if I heard the roaring of the sea from afar."

Mendelssohn's aunt, a friend of CPE Bach's wife, a pupil of WF Bach and hostess of one of Berlin's finest artistic salons, had a number of Bach's manuscripts in her possession, including the St Matthew Passion. She presented it to her gifted nephew when he was 16 and consequently changed the course of history. Imagine a new world hearing it - even half of it - for the first time. "To think that it took an actor and a Jew's son to revive the greatest Christian music for the world!" Mendelssohn remarked.

Mendelssohn, born into a Jewish family, raised as a Lutheran after his parents' conversion, and a practising Christian for the rest of his life, saw no need for a conflict between his background and his faith. He achieved a unique point of balance that allowed him to embrace both - despite the widespread atmosphere of low-level anti-Semitism around him (I'm sorry to see that even Clara Schumann made snide remarks behind his back). In the bicentenary year, 2009, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies once remarked that he regarded Mendelssohn as "the prophet of light". I'm with him on that.

As for Bach, he takes us into another world. The St Matthew Passion makes us live the story and its processes as if from the inside. It offers music that cleanses the soul; even if you approach it as drama rather than religion, it doesn't seem to mind and will still work its wonders. It offers, too, an oasis of calm, reflection and redemption, along with a massive dramatic catharsis that might be felt especially keenly by anyone who has lived through the loss of a loved one. When my mother died, 20 years ago, I could listen to nothing else for months.

Here is the last aria of the St Matthew Passion, "Mache dich mien Herze rein". It's a marvel in its own right, heard alone; but at the end of the whole it arrives as a purifying sunrise after three hours (or so) of anguish, soul-searching and tragedy. It's sung here by the great baritone Thomas Quasthoff. Have a good Easter, all.






4 months ago | |
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Want to hold a musical soirée? Here is everything you need to know, in one easy blogpost.


Your pianist pal wants to try out some repertoire and has been eyeing your Bechstein hopefully. Sure, come over and play it through, you say. We'll invite some friends and have a few drinks and it'll be lovely...

Check how many you can seat. Be realistic. A piano can be loud in a smallish room; you don't want people actually sitting underneath it. See how many chairs fit in at a safe distance, and consider the ratio of sofa width to guests' average behinds. Don't forget to ask your performer if s/he wants to bring anyone. Chances are, if it's midweek, you'll end up with an audience of mingled neighbours and arty types or similar - which works well, provided (achtung!) that they are on speaking terms with one another.

People need to eat, so plan your menu and take everyone's dietary requirements into account (veggie, GF, etc...). Recommended: easy protein - cold meats/cheeses/smoked fish - plus non-dairy dips, bread/crackers/rice cakes, prepared salad, crisps, nuts & raisins. You will need soft drinks, plus wine of at least two colours. Balance your green credentials and decide whether to use disposable paper plates, or crockery that needs washing, but isn't wasteful of trees. And make sure there's something to feed your pianist upon arrival; the sooner you offer him/her that cup of tea, the better.

Check whether your piano needs tuning. (The answer in 99% of cases will be 'yes'.) Make sure you book the tuner at least three weeks in advance, preferably longer, because these guys seem to be really busy these days. If it proves impossible to get your piano tuned, but it sounds OK-ish, then you may get away with it, but do dust it so that it at least looks decent. Clean behind and under it, too, especially if you don't very often and you have a cat...you never quite know what's going to turn up...

On the day, do your shopping early so that the supermarket hasn't run out of the necessaries. Fix what time your pianist wants to arrive, because s/he will need at least an hour to get used to your piano and then might want to rest/refuel before the audience arrives. Set up the room earlyish, too; you don't want to be clonking about, carting chairs, when pianist is practising the trickiest bit.

In an average-sized living room, it is probably best if you don't put the piano lid fully up, unless everybody has brought ear protectors. Many modern grand pianos have a selection of stick lengths for the lid; a fine pianist playing colourful repertoire will be best served by a fuller sound than if the lid is kept resolutely down, but it can be most sensible to choose the shortest.

Arrange your buffet on the table before people arrive so that you're not unwrapping smelly cheeses while you welcome them, but don't forget to cat-proof everything with copious quantities of cling-film. If your spouse has scarpered at the idea of this event, or is busy elsewhere, so you're organising the whole thing alone, encourage people to help themselves to drinks, especially if they all pitch up at once.

Try not to start much later than the time your performer has requested, because he/she may get nervous if things are protracted, and the whole point is to put him/her at ease. Remember to give pianist a five-or-ten-minute warning before you're ready to start. Once everyone is settling with a drink, encourage them into the piano room.

You might wish to confine pets to another room while the concert takes place. Sensible animals keep their distance from live music, but some importunate ones march in and demand very vocally that all this noise must cease forthwith, and with immediate effect. No prizes for guessing who I'm thinking of.

Interval, or not? Be guided by your musician: if s/he wants a short break in the middle, agree. You don't know what his/her innards do. One pianist I know used to compare concert-giving to colonic irrigation.

If someone is late, you can do one of several things. You could leave the door on the latch and encourage latecomers (by text) to sneak in during an appropriate break. If you don't want to do that, then tell them to text you when they arrive, keep your phone open but SILENT and make sure you take a chair near the door so you can slide out and let them in.

After your pianist has finished, make a fuss of him/her. A house concert may be in a house, but it is still a concert and any musician worth his/her salt will feel obliged to deliver the full goods, whether it's for 800, 80 or 8 people. Frankly, the least you can do is give him/her an Easter bunny.

Next, zip out to the kitchen and take the cling film off the buffet dishes, keeping the cat clear. Furnish people with drinks and plates and encourage them to tuck in. If there's anything left over when everyone goes home, offer your pianist a doggy bag. If everyone is having a good time, it's a great feeling because you and your musician have given them a lovely evening to remember. But make sure they don't miss the last train.

Finally, wash up. By now it's gone midnight and you're probably wishing you'd used the paper plates after all.

The next day, try to have a lie-in. Then thank your musician (though best not to ring too early). It may be hard work hosting a house-concert, but it's not half as hard as doing the playing.

Last, but by no means least: huge thanks to our own pianist pal Anthony Hewitt and our old friend Alexander Ivanovich Scriabin for a stunning evening of magical preludes yesterday!

4 months ago | |
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I spent a fascinating hour yesterday afternoon interviewing Daniil Trifonov - it's a cover feature for PIANIST magazine and will be out in a few months' time. Backstage at the Barbican before his concert with the LSO, I had, in close up, the same impression that occurred when listening to him at the Southbank a little over a year ago: there's something in this 23-year-old Russian that seems lit from within. He talks about (among other things) total focus, composing - he is about to premiere his own half-hour piano concerto in Cleveland - and cause and effect, quasi-storytelling, in music. Watch this space for an alert to the feature as soon as it's out.
But all this, nonetheless, still wasn't half as astonishing as what he told us through Chopin's Second Piano Concerto in the concert. He makes it imperative that you listen to every note: each becomes as essential a part of the whole as every word is in, for instance, a Chekhov play. When phrases are repeated - e.g., that wonderful bouncy mazurka-like episode in the last movement - he never plays them the same way twice. The spiderweb delicacy of the second movement arabesques stopped the heart with their beauty, but there's power aplenty when he needs it - one senses no limits to this range - and his tone is an Aladdin's cave of glowing, kaleidoscopic colour. He sounds like nobody else; yet leaves you wondering why not everyone else plays like this. At the end the lady next to me turned round and remarked, "Maybe there really is a God."

He'll give his first Royal Festival Hall recital on 30 September and the programme will feature Bach - exactly which Bach he hasn't yet decided - followed by Beethoven's Sonata Op.111 and the small matter of the 12 Liszt Transcendental Etudes in the second half. Book here. 

In the meantime, here is a fascinating interview with him that pitched up on Youtube - it's from Zsolt Bognár's series Living the Classical Life. Stand by for...why it's a good idea to practise underwater.




5 months ago | |
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Rising star alert: Irish mezzo Tara Erraught is giving her London debut recital at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday afternoon. She is then singing Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne. I've been following her career for a good few years as she's worked her way up, not least via the Bavarian State Opera's young artist programme, and her enthusiastic advocates include pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who introduced and accompanied her in a big outdoor concert in Amsterdam a few years back. I asked her for an e-interview... First, an extract from La Clemenza di Tito in Munich...




JD: Tara, tell us about you. You’re from a big family in Ireland? How did you start to sing?  
TE: I am one of three children, but we grew up on my grandfather’s farm on the east coast, with all of my mother’s family.        I began to play the violin aged five, as we had a wonderful orchestra in the primary school, and all of my family had learned before me. However, when I was ten I was taken for my first singing lesson with the wonderful Geraldine Magee in Dundalk, with whom I studied until the age of 17. I was a huge fan of singing and I knew every word to the cassette tapes of Neil Diamond and the hits from the 60s that my parents had, so it was a good time to learn an appropriate song for a young girl! I loved it from the very beginning - there was never any question of which I preferred.

JD: What have been your big career breaks so far? Which roles/concerts have you enjoyed most up til now?
TE: I have been so lucky! Really blessed to have such opportunities. Firstly, I have been blessed with wonderful teachers, without whom one could not tackle wonderful opportunities when they arise. Before we mention professional success, I should mention how important it was to my career becoming a member of the opera studio of the Bavarian State Opera. That was already a "big break". Directly after the third year of my undergraduate degree, they offered me a position in Munich, which of course I jumped at! Two immensely important years that helped form my performance abilities, stage technique, understanding of the industry and audition practices. Without these things I would not be where I am today.             Since then, I think most everybody would say my big break was jumping in at five days notice to sing Romeo in the first night of Vincent Boussard's production of Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. It was an amazing evening, one that I will never forget for the rest of my life, so I hold that opera very close. I sang the title role in a first night of Rossini's La Cenerentola at the Vienna State Opera in 2013, another wonderful time, with a composer I LOVE! Of course I must also mention my last role debut as Sesto in a premiere production of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito at the Bayerische Staatsoper this past March. Another production I will never forget, a stunning role, surrounded by my best friends on the stage, this was a very special experience! JD: What has it been like to be on contract to the Bavarian State Opera? What does their young artist programme offer that is special? In what ways has it been good for you?TE: It is wonderful to be a principal Soloist at the Staatsoper, not only as a performer but also because many other incredible performances and artists surround us on a daily basis. I loved my time in the opera studio. There were only eight members and not only did we have singing lessons, repertoire coaching, drama class, language classes, but also one full production a year, as well as small roles on the big stage, the ability to watch performances, and more importantly, to watch other artists rehearse. What I learned there about my own voice, my performance abilities, was incredible, but it was so very important to watch older singers, to learn the tricks of the trade through observation.JD: You’re about to sing Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne. How do you like Glyndebourne? And how do you like Octavian? What are your thoughts about his character?
TE: Glyndebourne is the most stunningly beautiful place! You can’t imagine what it is like to take a break from rehearsal, and enjoy some air while walking through the gardens or around the lake! I mean, it’s something from a dream. I am loving our rehearsals, the cast and collective colleagues are a great team, and although we laugh a lot, we get a lot done! 
Without giving away much about my character, I will say that I don't play him, I try to inhabit him, and in turn I think there is quite a depth to this young man. He is not in an easy situation from any angle, and he goes from being a young lover, to being a man... it’s an amazing growth to experience. However, to say any more would be giving things away... I must say, I LOVE this music, it enraptures you! This is my first Strauss main role, and I tell you, it pulls at your heart strings! At our first musical rehearsal I didn't even make it to the end of the first act with shedding a few tears of total awe.
5. Tell us about your programme for the Wigmore recital - how did you choose it? (It is an unusual line-up of Brahms, Britten, Wolf and Haydn.) Are you excited about singing at the Wigmore?
TE: I cannot tell you how excited I am to make my British recital debut in the stunning surroundings of the Wigmore Hall. I have just finished my second recital tour in the USA and I loved every minute, so I am so looking forward to doing a recital here! A recital is a wonderful way to get close to the audience, to feel them, what they like, and to discover new levels in your own performance.            The programme: I wanted to do some of my favourite repertoire, which reflects where my path has taken me thus far. The Wolf and Brahms, both German, are so so much fun to sing, goodness me, I mean, talk about a belly full of fire! I desperately wanted to do some Britten as I have not yet had the pleasure to sing any of his operas, but I have always been a big fan of his music, and to take his folks songs out and present them seemed like the perfect idea! Finishing with the Haydn, I began singing in Italian as I learned my vocal technique, so to come back to this language is always a pleasure, and I just LOVE this piece! JD: What are your dream roles for the future? 
TE: There are so many - it all depends on where the voice decides to go. I would love to sing a Donna del LagoItaliana in Algeri andOtello from Rossini as well as Mozart’s Susanna from Figaro - those four are right up there on my list. Some day, I want to revisit Romeo, I will also look at Der Componist from Ariadne auf Naxos, Adalgisa from Norma, Orsini from Lucrezia Borgia and Sarah from Roberto Deveraux. But right now, I am happy with the roles I am singing! 
JD: Any more highlights for the rest of the summer or the 2014-15 season that you’d like to flag up?TE: I am very much looking forward to taking a supporting role this autumn in a new production of the Makropulos Case in Munich, a holiday performance of Hansel with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, singing Barbiere and La Cenerentola in Hamburg next winter, making my US operatic debut in Cenerentola at Washington National Opera, and returning home to Dublin for my first solo gala with the RTE next June.
5 months ago | |
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1. It was a great honour that this year I was asked to be on the jury. I was only able to emerge around Christmas from underneath the biggest heap of CDs that has ever colonised my study (dividing brooms syndrome) - but there could be many worse things in life than listening to c250 five-star discs in quick succession and exploring them over copious quantities of tea with respected colleagues. We had a ball, really. Best, in most categories we pick three and it is you, the readers, who vote for the one you want to win.

2. Alisa Weilerstein's Elgar and Elliott Carter cello concertos - with the Berlin Staatskapelle conducted by Daniel Barenboim - won Recording of the Year. Very wonderful it is. Here's an introduction to it. (And here's an introduction to Alisa herself over at Sinfini.)



3. At lunch I "was sat" next to Igor Levit, who was voted Newcomer of the Year. Perhaps paradoxically, he is already jolly well known: his debut CD of late Beethoven sonatas for Sony Classical sparked the sort of superlatives you don't see too often. Last year I interviewed him for the cover feature of International Piano. He is one of a remarkable bunch of pianists currently zooming to fame in their twenties: youngsters who already know their own minds and musicianship so well that they play with the assurance of seasoned masters. It's arguably the most interesting crop of young pianists we've seen in a long time, also including Grosvenor and Trifonov - all very heartening. Presenting yourself on the recording scene for the first time with with Beethoven's last five sonatas indicates no small ambition, and in Igor's case gambling on this repertoire was clearly the right choice. He will soon be recording some Bach. And incidentally he has a very natty way with ties.

4. Plenty of accolades for Jonas Kaufmann, whose Wagner album won the vocal category, despite powerful competition from an amazing CD of Hanns Eisler by Matthias Goerne. JK wasn't there in person, but recorded a touching video message for us from somewhere on his Winterreise tour, in which he added that the fact that the choice comes from listeners rather than critics makes this the biggest prize of all. I was on Easyjet from Moscow while he was singing Winterreise here the other night, and am I sick as a parrot about missing it or what. (Below: spotted outside the Moscow Conservatoire the other day. Missed him there too.)

5. Additionally, that Tosca from the ROH starring Angela Gheorghiu, JK and Bryn Terfel, with Tony Pappano conducting, grabbed the Performance DVD category. Bryn, who's currently starring in Faust at Covent Garden, was there to collect the award and told us fulsomely about their week of rehearsals for the performances at the ROH at which it was filmed. Angela, he said, moved everyone to tears in the studio when she sang 'Vissi d'art'. Jonas had flown in from New York and promptly got sick, so Bryn didn't hear him sing out until they were on stage. We were treated to an extract of film from Act II, when Cavaradossi sings 'Vittoria!' and Jonas emitted the kind of long, high, off-the-leash note that can flatten the entire music business at a stroke. At that point, said Bryn, even his threatening Scarpia-stare turned into "a small, wry smile," which he was glad the cameras didn't pick up.

6. Chamber category winner: the Ebene Quartet's gorgeous, impassioned, searingly intense recording of Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn. You couldn't hope for a more convincing advocacy of the neglected sister in this family duo than this from the lovely chamber-music boy-band of Paris; besides, the F minor Quartet comes leaping off the page as Felix's musical mid-life crisis that should not have been his swan-song, but was. With my Mendelssohnian hat on, this was my Record of the Year.



7. Rachel Podger's fascinating and velvety solo album of baroque violin rarities, Guardian Angel, scooped the Instrumental category. The first time I encountered Rachel was nearly 20 years ago in a festival in Australia, when she and her ensemble played their way valiantly through more than three hours of Telemann in high heat... Since then we've been watching her growth as an artist and now she is in her prime and flowering. This is the album of hers I have enjoyed the most, ever; sophisticated performing filled with sensitivity, intuition, character and insight. Brava! I'd also like to put in a good plug for another shortlisted disc, Richard Egarr's Bach English Suites, which I adored (yes, you read aright: I loved a harpsichord album.)

8. Orchestral went to Riccardo Chailly's Brahms Symphonies with the Leipzig Gewandhaus. They don't come much better than that. Yet for some of us, the surprise wild card of the year was a blistering account of the Strauss Alpine Symphony from...the Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra under Frank Shipway. Fair blew my socks off, that one.

9. Other highlights included a gargantuan quantity of Britten wins, a Premiere award for George Benjamin's opera Written on Skin, a vast film about Cavaillé-Coll and his organs, and the first-ever App Award, which went to the Touchpress/DG exploration of the Beethoven Symphony No.9. You can see the full list of winners on the magazine's website, here.

10. Last but not least, two dear friends and colleagues whom I've known separately for years told me that they're an item. This was the news of the whole day that made me happiest. Cheers, chaps!

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I've just been to Moscow for the first time. Since I've been mesmerised by Russian literature and music for as long as I can remember, it's taken me a while to get there. Yet much as I love the culture that I know, nothing, but nothing, had prepared me for the sheer magnitude of the real thing.

These guys do nothing by halves.

Moscow is a giant onion, one that makes London - less than half its size - seem like mere wild garlic. This onion is still growing. You can peel back layer after layer, prising them apart with some difficulty: Tsarist Russia, Lenin, Stalin, Putin, everything superimposed and juxtaposed or simply posing - but as fast as you slice, so the new skins slide into being. Everywhere you notice building, restoration, cranes, scaffolding. It's a city that never ceases the process of becoming.

I've been paying house-calls to a few personal heroes. While tourists queue to worship the hoard of silver, gold and Fabergé-jewelled treasures at the Kremlin's Armoury [note to self: Google how this little lot survived 1917?], I found real treasure in the love with which the modest composer and writer museums are cared for - I saw Scriabin's, Chekhov's, Pushkin's, Bulgakov's (the haunted flat itself), but there are many more, and almost every one with a little theatre or concert room attached. The Bakhrushin Theatre Museum is a gem, filled with its eponymous collector's assemblage of memorabilia including Chaliapin's costume for Prince Igor, some rare portraits and photos of Pavlova, Nijinsky, Karsavina, and much more...

Here's Chekhov's house on the Sadovaya Ring, his home between 1886 and 1890:















Today, though, his view over the road looks like this:















Scriabin's home is particularly excellent. The apartment, in a dark turning off Old Arbat Street, feels as if he and his family could walk in at any moment. There's even a little machine on which he would mix coloured lights, furnished with still-functioning bulbs. Here is his Bechstein:




Casts of his hands - and his top hat and tails, preserved in a glass case - prove that he was remarkably tiny in stature. Just picture him strolling up the street with his student chum, Sergei Rachmaninov...

Hours after visiting Scriabin's home, I encountered some of his music. Peter Donohoe played Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No.3 with the Moscow Philharmonic at the Great Hall of the Conservatoire (pictured at the top of this post, the conservatoire with its statue of Tchaikovsky) - an amazing performance in which Peter brought such a range of power and colour to the solo part that it was like having a second orchestra on stage. As encore he added Scriabin's Fifth Sonata - and, listening, to compare that little ring of coloured lights with the breathtaking wildfire of the composer's imagination is quite a leap. Moscow may seem vast; but the inward vision of some of its artists was treble that size. 

Peter, as it happens, was my cover star for the very first issue of my old Classical Piano Magazine, some 21 years ago (!) and is somewhat renowned for beating the Russians at their own game - notably the Tchaikovsky Competition at which he shot to fame in 1982. If you don't yet know his blog, please have a read. This British piano lion completely "gets" Russian music and the style of the Russian school, with all the necessary perspective, limitless expressive range and oversized scale of concept. He's a brilliant raconteur, too, and has much to say about his tours of Russia in the Soviet era. It was snowing just before his concerto the other day and the wind chill was around -6. Hah, said Peter, that's nothing. He once did a concert in Siberia in -58. And the hall was full. That was just the beginning...

The Conservatoire (pictured, top, with its statue of Tchaikovsky) has been restored, and beautifully so; the process is, of course, ongoing. The Great Hall feels bizarrely intimate given its generous seating capacity, and its acoustic is warm, vibrant and vivid - among the best I've encountered. The soaring staircases and foyers are painted delicate shell shades and portraits of composers adorn the walls. I had some fun with my limited knowledge of Cyrillic, working out how to spell HAYDN; it comes out as something resembling GAIDEYNI.

If you love literature and music you can't help enjoying the fact that the biggest statues around Moscow are of writers and composers; many streets, squares and Metro stations are named after them. This towering man is Mayakovsky, in the centre of a large square outside the Tchaikovsky Hall:


And here is the entrance to the apartment building housing Bulgakov's "odd flat" from The Master and Margarita:



In five days I have scarcely made so much as a first incision into the surface of this metropolis, one that can, conversely, swallow you up at a gulp. Only one solution: go back, soon.

I had a list six pages long of must-sees, and I saw about one third of one page. I've come home, though, with a still longer list of must-reads and must-hears. We read Chekhov here...but not Ostrovsky? We know about Glinka...but not Verstovsky? (Who he? - Ed. contemporary of Glinka's, vital Russian opera pioneer, but here name pretty much unspoken and music unplayed...). We know something about Stanislavsky - but we maybe didn't know that Chekhov's nephew took another branch of the Method to America with him and taught it to some of Hollywood's leading actors. And when do we ever stumble over a volume of Mayakovsky in sunny London?

Here is a memorial to Emil Gilels on the apartment block where he lived:



Hugely grateful to our wonderful Russian friends Alex and Erika, Sasha, and the British Council people who threw a very lively party in Café Tchaikovsky after a certain concert the other night, for making us feel so welcome and at ease in what might otherwise have been a daunting environment...and for taking us to some super restaurants - one Uzbek, another Georgian, and the Coffee Mania outlet beside the Moscow Conservatoire - plus the cafés of the Shokolade chain, where I sampled something delicious called sea buckthorn, packed full of vitamin C and jolly nice with honey and lemon.

After merely five days in Moscow, staying on Tverskaya Street (over the road from the Gilels plaque) amid unbelievable quantities of traffic (four lanes in each direction, or five?), with the thrill of seeing Red Square for the first time, and having to go "Pinch me, someone, I am really, truly, in the Moscow Metro..." it feels very odd to be home. Trips like this give you a new perspective, honest, guv. The South Circular? A little suburban side street. British weather? Mild, excessively damp, but kind. Surroundings? Green. Very green. You can smell the blossoms. It's quiet. As for cultural life - someone said that there are 40 orchestras in Moscow, most of them state funded. Theatres, concerts, ballet, opera, performance - it is part of a whole way of life. Like I said, these guys do nothing by halves.


You see what I mean?




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