JDCMB is author and journalist Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music & writing, with CHOCOLATE AND SILVER, in London, UK.
1819 Entries
We all need a bit of escapism and there's still nowt like a good book to carry us away into another world. This has been a pretty interesting year for books about music, perhaps surprisingly so under the circumstances. A lot of them have crossed my desk and here is a selection of my personal favourites, with which you might like to fill your Christmas stockings.

Robert Schumann: Advice to Young Musicians. Revisited by Steven Isserlis
Faber & Faber

Cellist Steven Isserlis, a great Schumann devotee, has adapted the composer's slender volume of aphorisms for the budding musician and added thoughts of his own that amplify them for the 21st century. They are beautifully turned and succinctly expressed. "Nothing great can be achieved in art without enthusiasm," Schumann declares. Isserlis, noting that the business of music can sap that enthusiasm, responds: "That makes it all the more important, then, to remember why we wanted to be musicians in the first place: because music lives in our hearts. And we have to keep it there."

Schumann's Music and ETA Hoffmann's Fiction
John MacAuslan
Cambridge University Press

The former administrative director of the National Gallery, John MacAuslan, has produced a fascinating book (based on his recent doctoral thesis) about Schumann's relationship with the writings of ETA Hoffmann. The tales of Hoffmann pervade so much of the composer's early piano music - yet oddly seem not to be required reading for piano students - that no amount of exploration could ever be too much. Kreisleriana, for a start, will never sound the same again once you've looked into this. Bach, Beethoven and the writings of Jean Paul (on a novel by whom Papillons is based) are crucial figures too as MacAuslan traces, delicately and precisely, the thought processes of this most literary of composers.

Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music
Anna Beer

Ignore the first part of the title. Only a publisher could have added such a tag to a book about the struggles for recognition of those fine composers - from the 17th to the 20th centuries - who happened to be women and had always to contend with exactly such sentiments as "sweet". Anna Beer tells the story of eight fascinating figures, in different locations, eras and societies. She blasts apart some myths, too: Clara Schumann is shown on walks outpacing Robert, and the supposedly waif-like Lili Boulanger parties all night. And there's resilience all round, from Fanny Mendelssohn's grit-like determination to Elizabeth Maconchy as a young mum falling asleep at her piano. Now plenty of scope remains for a Volume 2, and hopefully many more.

Beethoven for a Later Age: The Journey of a String Quartet
Edward Dusinberre
Faber & Faber

The first violinist of the Takács Quartet takes us on a forensically examined yet often very funny ride through his musical life and his ensemble's, shining it through the prism of the Beethoven string quartets, a lifelong journey in themselves. Dusinberre was recruited as a young violinist from Britain by the three highly experience Hungarians of the quartet after Gabor Takács-Nagy departed, not least so that he could be shaped into the leader they wanted: "Asked by András [Feher] about my professional chamber music experience, I described the handful of paid concerts my student quartet had performed while I was at the Royal College of Music in London before going to Juilliard. A highlight was our appearance at a Downing Street Christmas party hosted by the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - from my account of this illustrious engagement I omitted my fifteen-pound fee and the fact that she had criticised our choice of too slow and lugubrious a tempo in 'Ding Dong Merrily on High'."

Franz Liszt: Musician, Celebrity, Superstar
Oliver Hilmes, trs Stewart Spencer
Yale University Press

The life of Franz Liszt springs off the page in Hilmes's well-turned prose - and what a topic it is, filled with characters larger than life and intrigues to match. Even if one might wish for more consideration of the music alongside the scandals and the soul-searching, Liszt can admittedly be tricky in this department because he was so desperately prolific. I'm inclined simply to suggest a lot of listening alongside the reading of this vivid and exact book.

Mozart's Music of Friends: Social Interplay in the Chamber Works
Edward Klorman
Cambridge University Press

The Juilliard professor and violist Edward Klorman explores the deeply civilised nature of Mozart's chamber music: the balance of conversational exchanges within the music and the cross-currents between the musical and the human at every level. In an age where the Enlightenment sometimes feels as if it must have happened to another planet, there is a lot to learn from the humanity and perfectionism in Mozart's music and the means by which it is achieved. This is one chiefly for the musicians, but its message can, should and does go further.

Music for Life
Fiona Maddocks
Faber & Faber

Most of us turn to music for support at emotionally challenging moments. In this personal selection of "music to see you through", Fiona Maddocks, music critic of The Observer, gives succinct thoughts on the emotional import of works ranging from the evident to the surprising, in categories ranging from humour to mourning. It's one of those short-sectioned, dip-in books, but Maddocks' writing is as exquisitely chiselled as the finest cut crystal and involves no need to ramble. Some of the pictures are fun (there's one of a car half-submerged in Venice's Grand Canal) and one wishes they could have been bigger and brighter. The book looks like a chocolate box, but its content is meaty.

Carols from King's
Alexandra Coghlan
BBC Books

One occasional measure of a really good book is the thought "how come nobody did this before?" This is the young critic Alexandra Coghlan's first book and she has homed in unerringly on what is probably the strongest untapped Christmas present market in the British musical sphere: the beloved Christmas service at King's College, Cambridge, of Nine Lessons and Carols. Here she gives more than a history of that event. This is really a history of the Christmas carol and indeed of Christmas itself, with engaging, objective and often subtly humorous writing.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology
Collected and edited by Melanie Spanswick
Faber Music

This one is for the pianists - the budding pianists, the lapsed pianists, the would-be pianists, and the piano teachers looking for ideas and motivation for their pupils. Melanie Spanswick brings together a delicious collection of short pieces carefully chosen according to progressive level, variety and concision, but happily non-dependent on exam syllabuses. For those who need new choices for practising and sometimes feel a bit daunted by the quantity of options, and unsure of their difficulty, it helps to solve the problem in one easy package. Choices range from Für Elise to a Satie Gnossienne and from a Fauré Romance sans paroles to a Snuffbox Waltz, no less, by Dargomyzhsky.

Mozart: The Man Revealed
John Suchet
Elliott & Thompson

Classic FM's splendid presenter and author of several tomes about Beethoven (including a brilliant three-volume novel), John Suchet has turned his hand to Mozart, bringing the dizzying talent, impossible father, roller-coaster life and heavenly music to life in his typically readable, direct style. With a big Mozart year ahead - the 225th anniversary of WAM's death - this is a timely book that should appeal across the board.

The Noise of Time
Julian Barnes

Scary for any smaller-time novelist to find a literary giant such as Julian Barnes producing a book based on the life of Shostakovich, but this is a wonderful creation: the writing is as concentrated as vodka as Barnes envisages, meditates and in a way deconstructs the psyche of his subject within the claustrophobic atmosphere of Soviet Russia. The image of the composer waiting daily with his suitcase, expecting deportation, is very difficult to shake off.

1847: A Chronicle of Genius, Generosity and Savagery
Turtle Bunbury
Gill Books

Not a music book per se, but if you love to put music in context, you might find it irresistible. The Irish historian takes us on a rollicking journey through the international upheavals, inventions, conflicts, famines, personalities, beginnings and endings from January to December of one year. It's a cumulative portrait of a world in flux, taking in the rapprochement between a German explorer and a Native American tribe as well as circus presentations, the founding of the Mormon Church, the writing of "Oh, Susanna!" and the death of Felix Mendelssohn - and the mysterious did-they-didn't-they relationship between that composer and the "Swedish Nightingale" Jenny Lind. (Incidentally, a thorough study of the evidence by George Biddlecombe, published in the Journal of the Royal Musicological Association, has concluded that they probably did.)

[And if, after all that, anyone still wants to read Ghost Variations, you can get the e-book from the link in the sidebar or order a paperback, for which please visit the book's Facebook page for further details...]
3 months ago | |
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Happy Monday.

HerbstLudwig Rellstab 
Es rauschen die WindeSo herbstlich und kalt;Verödet die Fluren,Entblättert der Wald.Ihr blumigen Auen!Du sonniges Grün!So welken die BlütenDes Lebens dahin. 
Es ziehen die WolkenSo finster und grau;Verschwunden die SterneAm himmlischen Blau!Ach, wie die GestirneAm Himmel entflieh'n,So sinket die HoffnungDes Lebens dahin! 
Ihr Tage des LenzesMit Rosen geschmückt,Wo ich den GeliebtenAns Herze gedrückt!Kalt über den HügelRauscht, Winde, dahin!So sterben die RosenDer Liebe dahin. 
(English translation here)
3 months ago | |
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In case you haven't yet seen this extract from The Nose, courtesy of the Royal Opera House and director Barry Kosky, here it is.

And here's my review of this gleefully nuts early Shostakovich opera, at the Critics' Circle website (I forgot to post it when it first came out, but hope it's still reasonably entertaining).

For Barrie Kosky’s Royal Opera debut you could only expect the unexpected. The Australian director, head of Berlin’s Komische Oper, picked a work that has never before been staged at Covent Garden. It’s an extravagant, radical and often very loud take on Gogol’s surreal story in which Platon Kuzmich Kovalyov wakes up to find his nose has gone walkabout and is living the high life in St Petersburg. Premiered in 1930, but dreamed up three years earlier when the composer was 21, it’s so off-the-wall and tonally anarchic that it could almost have been written three decades later...

...Not for nothing has Kosky (going against his own policy at the Komische Oper, where he prefers opera in its original language) plumped for English rather than Russian; the earthy and up-to-date new translation is by David Pountney. It’s helpful to understand it in real time as it careers by with reference piling on reference: Cabaret, Yiddish theatre, Freudian association, Jewish jokes, Russian legend, this Nose knows it all. “Oy gevalt! The 8.23 to Kitezh has been cancelled – they couldn’t find it...”
If you want to read symbolism into it, help yourself. Is The Nose about keeping people in their hierarchical place, or about losing another person who’s part of you, or a euphemism for fear of losing another body part, with everything that implies? Or is it just pre-Python surreal nonsense? Maybe all, possibly none: Kosky lets the options flit by in front of our, er, noses, and leaves the decision to us....Read the whole thing here.
3 months ago | |
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Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016). Photo: Deep Listening Institute

This year, as everyone has already noted, has taken many amazing people out of this world. The latest is the composer Pauline Oliveros, creator of the concept of Deep Listening and music to match, who has died at the age of 84.

“In hearing, the ears take in all the sound waves and particles and deliver them to the audio cortex where the listening takes place. We cannot turn off our ears–the ears are always taking in sound information–but we can turn off our listening. I feel that listening is the basis of creativity and culture. How you’re listening, is how you develop a culture and how a community of people listens, is what creates their culture.” -- Pauline Oliveros, 2003

Read more about her here.

Here is A Love Song by and for her.

What is Deep Listening?
Deep Listening Institute (DLI) promotes the music and Deep Listening practice of pioneer composer Pauline Oliveros, providing a unique approach to music, literature, art, meditation, technology and healing.  DLI fosters creative innovation across boundaries and across abilities, among artists and audience, musicians and non-musicians, healers and the physically or cognitively challenged, and children of all ages.  This ever-growing community of musicians, artists, scientists and certified Deep Listening practitioners strives for a heightened consciousness of the world of sound and the sound of the world. Deep Listening Institute has merged with RPI to becomeCenter for Deep LIstening at Rensselaer under the direction of Tomie Hahn.  For information on programs please contact Hahnt at RPI.edu. 
CDL website:   http://www.deeplistening.rpi.edu/FaceBook:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/570842616417932/

4 months ago | |
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Susanna Mälkki with the New York Philharmonic last year. Photo: Chris Lee

I had a terrific interview with the conductor Susanna Mälkki for Opera News, ahead of her debut at the Met, New York, with Saariaho's L'amour de loin.

Here's the whole article, with a little taster below...

WITH CONSCIOUSNESS about the situation of women conductors expanding, and creative initiatives springing up around the world to combat the inequality, observers might conclude that the battle is almost won. This is not entirely the case. “I think the biggest change actually is on the public side,” says Mälkki. “I’ve met a lot of musicians who have been totally fine about a woman conducting, but it’s taken such a long time for the business to catch up with it—and also the press. And I think those two have been the slowest to react, because they may have been wanting to cherish old images of—well, you know what I’m referring to!” Indeed—the grand maestros of the past, those controlling, all-powerful alpha-males. Even so, the role’s challenges in reality have nothing to do with gender. “I think conducting is a 360 degrees kind of work, because there are so many different responsibilities,” Mälkki says. “It’s a job where you should be everything to everybody. People have so many different expectations, and these can be sometimes really disconnected from the music at hand. I think the pragmatic side and the pragmatic training for it—keeping one’s feet on the ground and concentrating on the music—has definitely helped me, and little by little I’ve developed my way to deal with the rest.“In terms of music-making, what I find interesting to see in retrospect is that working with living composers has always been such a central, essential and natural part of my work as a conductor—and that’s going back to the basics. That’s what this profession is about. Therefore I’ve been following the other discussion feeling sometimes frustrated and sometimes amused, because I’ve been happy to be working on the real issues with real substance all the time—and contemporary composers have been extremely happy with what I’ve been doing.” ...http://www.operanews.com/Opera_News_Magazine/2016/12/Features/360_Degrees.html

4 months ago | |
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Tomorrow I'm off to Gateshead to present the Hungarian Dances Concert of the Novel at The Sage, our violinist Bradley Creswick's home hall - and, indeed, home hall of the project, which was premiered there in 09, having been suggested to the Fiddles on Fire Festival by a canny librarian. Bradley, who on other days leads the Royal Northern Sinfonia, plays the living daylights out of the Gypsy repertoire - expect some surprises! - and he and Margaret Fingerhut have been working together since their college years. It's incredible to be on stage with them, and super-exciting when it's at The Sage, one of the best arts centres in the country.

Looking forward to seeing lots of North-East friends and enjoying Newcastle-Gateshead, which is not unlike Budapest: two different cities joined by a magnificent river and its bridges.

More info and booking here. (And if you are into praying, please pray for no disruption on the railways...the weather is a bit wild...)
4 months ago | |
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Writing a piece about the Golden Age of Pianists for Primephonic, I couldn't resist including one of the most startling, inspiring and terrifying musicians I have yet encountered on record: the Hungarian pianist Ervin Nyiregyházi. You may not have heard of him, but maybe it's time you did. All you can expect of him is the unexpected.

Kevin Bazzana's biography reveals the life of a man who lurched between genius and mental breakdown, from wild success to sleeping rough in the subway, from wife to wife - ten of them (eat your heart out, Henry VIII) - yet who was never anything less than his own true self.

The cover to be. Photo: Yoshimasa Hating
Tomoyuki Sawado of Sonnetto Classics is having a Kickstarter to raise funds to release Nyiregyházi's comeback recital of 1972 on CD. Please have a listen and consider contributing. He has 9 days left to raise the remaining 49 per cent. More details at the Kickstarter page here.

My Primephonic article explores what exactly the magic of those so-called Golden Age artists was about. It's not a comprehensive survey or a Top 300 list or similar, and is designed for general music lovers as well as serious pianophiles. I chose a selection of pianists from different places, with contrasting personalities and life stories, and wondered what brings them together under the same umbrella. It's a personal choice and assessment. There are probably 50 more who could have been included, yet the article is already double its intended length.

Anyway, hope you enjoy it. And do take a look at that Kickstarter.
4 months ago | |
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Listening to Christoph Prégardien singing Lieder by Mahler, Schubert and Schumann the other night at the Wimbledon International Music Festival, I couldn't help wondering if that's where Leonard Cohen got it from. The journey to the darkest regions of the human heart dates not from today's finest singer-songwriters, perhaps not even from Mahler, but from the 1820s. Schubert's settings of Heinrich Heine in his last song cycle, Schwanengesang, are a strong contender for the title of bleakest, most nihilistic music in history, should we ever need to present such an accolade. Their intense pain is only increased by their beauty - and by the craftsmanship by which Schubert is able to kick our guts out with the upward step of one semitone in 'Der Doppelgänger'.

Christoph Prégardien. Photo: Medici.tv
There's something almost masochistic about a really good Lieder recital. We're put through the crushing emotions of lost love, of longing for death, of self-imposed suicidal isolation, and the more it hurts, the better the singer is presenting it. We're put through an emotional mangle and sometimes we weep. And the more of that there is, the more likely we are to offer him/her a standing ovation at the end. Because actually we come out feeling better.

Is that because it's over? Nope. It's good, old-fashioned, Greek catharsis. We have the chance, listening to these songs, to go into the secret, suppressed chambers of our own hearts and concentrate on feeling, unimpeded, the emotions we might not want to let out otherwise. It hurts, but it's an experience, a meditation and a release.

The fact that Christoph Prégardien was singing in Wimbledon at all is quite a triumph for the WIMF, whose programming these days wouldn't disgrace a festival three times its weight in the centre of some gorgeous European capital, rather than suburban south-west London, where we all go wombling free (even Alfred Brendel, who lives north of the river, was in the audience for this one). Prégardien's artistry is streamlined, focused, essential: with beauty of tenor tone absolutely intact - he is 60 - diction impeccable, emotions of text and tone fused and explored to the last degree, he is the consummate Lieder singer. His partnership with the excellent pianist Sholto Kynoch matched all of that. He brought splendour, agony and ecstasy to Mahler's Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen first; bitterness, irony and a heady intelligence to Schumann's Dichterliebe in the second half; and those Schubert Heine settings in between are still alive and reverberating with wonder and horror somewhere in my subconscious several days on. You want it darker? Try Schubert.

Incidentally, the artistic director of the WIMF, Anthony Wilkinson, has for some years been spearheading an effort to get a world-class concert hall built in Wimbledon; and at the moment, he tells me, things are progressing quite well. More power to his elbow.

The festival continues with a feast of great music-making until 27 November: Christian Tetzlaff in solo Bach and Bartók, Tabea Zimmermann and Dénes Várjon, Michael Collins, Raphael Wallfisch, a Klezmer night with Balkan Voices, the Tetzlaff Quartet, the Bach Christmas Oratorio and more. Wimbledon is a short train ride from Waterloo, or take the southbound District Line to the end.
4 months ago | |
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Kathryn Stott. Photo: http://www.kathrynstott.com/index.htm
British pianist Kathryn Stott has just been announced as the new artistic director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville, taking over from Piers Lane.

The town in Far North Queensland has its fair share of palm trees, sunshine and proximity to what remains of the Great Barrier Reef; for decades the festival has welcomed the great and good of the music world to its delights. Piers has been in situ 11 years and Kathy will be only the third director to hold office.

Born in Lancashire, Kathy studied at the Yehudi Menuhin School and at the Royal College of Music with Kendall Taylor. Aged 19 she was a finalist in the Leeds International Piano Competition and shot to fame; now she has long enjoyed a busy career juggling solo work, chamber music including a duo partnership with Yo-Yo Ma, teaching at the Oslo Conservatory of Music, and the occasional curating of festivals and concert series. She tells me she had been keeping an eye out for something longer term in that department, but is more than thrilled to have been recommended to the AFCM, where she has been a frequent visitor, by Piers himself.

I'm not sure for whom I'm happier: the festival having her, or her having the festival. Congratulations all round!

Here's Kathy playing Fauré's Impromptu No. 2.

4 months ago | |
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The Paris Philharmonie. We want one too! Photo: Charles Platiau

It's dead - supposedly. Theresa May's government recently decided Rattle Hall, or The Centre for Music to use its official title, wasn't "value for money" for the taxpayer (though this, one presumes, depends which taxpayers you ask). In today's Times, Richard Morrison points out that that doesn't mean it's not going to happen: it's just that it will have to be funded entirely by private money, and possibly by someone who might roll up loving Sir Simon Rattle enough to stump up a few hundred million. Well, we can dream...

The news has been greeted with a peculiar mixture of anger, relief and cynicism, and while the prevailing anxieties are Brexit and Trump, nobody seems able to get excessively worked up about it. Yes, we need a new orchestral concert venue in London because the acoustics in the Barbican and the Royal Festival Hall really are several hundred light years away from today's state of the art possibilities, which are exemplified by the work of Mr Toyota. There's only a limited amount of good that their expensive refits could do them; the RFH is now over-clinical, with funny bass-treble balance in some parts of the hall, and the Barbican is louder without being warmer. But the Museum of London site is far from ideal. If we're to have a truly world-class new hall, please can we get it right this time?

What concerned me the most about the plans, as far as they went, was in fact not the location, nor the argument that the money would be better spent on music education - it never would have been in any case (different budgets). Arguably the hall would have been a major incentive to improve music education locally, if not nationally, since it would have provided top-notch facilities to be used by schools and young people and - crucially - sent out a positive and encouraging message about the value of the arts to society, the exact opposite of what pulling the plug does. Parties of children could have flocked there daily on "enrichment" projects.

No, the worrying thing was the implication for the rest of London - indeed, the rest of the country. A new hall has to be built. After that, it has to be run. And where does the money come from to do that?  Yes, government. What is the government doing to the arts? It is cutting their budget. Is there any prospect of that changing? Not while this lot is in power. So where would that money come from? Other organisations, run from the same budget, being slashed, obvs.

Musicians and audiences in London want, need and deserve a hall to match the finest in Tokyo, Berlin and Paris. What we don't want is an organisation that comes to life by snuffing out the competition. Whatever their limitations, we wouldn't be happy to see the Royal Festival Hall stripped of its orchestral programmes, which are already somewhat reduced, or the Barbican put entirely out to pasture, or ENO killed off; if that were the price for the Centre for Music, it would indeed be too high. Arts in the "regions" are to be a greater priority now - and quite right, too - but London is a massive city, and growing fast (unless we lose a six-figure number of bankers as they shift to Paris and Frankfurt post-Brexit, which could happen), and can easily support as many arts organisations as it has, and more. Especially since we expect a steady influx of tourists who can now come over more easily because of our tanking currency, and are definitely not heading here to bask on a beach.

If the new hall were to be built, with private money, in an ideal world it would be an "as well as" rather than an "instead of". As long as that is the case, it would be much better that it happened than that it didn't.

But we can't predict anything now, things being as they are, so the whole idea may yet remain one more vape dream: an empty gesture, stripped of substance.

4 months ago | |
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