JDCMB is Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music & writing, with CHOCOLATE AND SILVER, in London, UK. Author & journalist JD writes for The Independent.
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March 20 marks the centenary of a pianist without whom the history of 20th-century music would have looked very different. Sviatoslav Richter was a colossus, the dominant figure of the instrument in his age, the artist whom everyone aspired to be. He was born in Zhitomir on 20 March 1915, and his story was that of his century, his country and his art.

Yet he was always an enigma - the title that the director Bruno Monsaingeon wisely chose for a film portrait of him, made in 1998. We knew strangely little, during his lifetime, of his personality, his attitudes, his private life, let alone his politics. At times it could almost seem that Richter was a blank slate onto whom were projected the hopes, fears, aspirations, loves, hatreds and musical attitudes of generation after generation of pianists and pianophiles.

His playing to some was a force of nature, to others almost too perfect; to some brutal, to others overrefined. The truth went beyond the lot. The legend of his performances have extended to disc after disc issued and reissued: some are of genius, among them the Sofia Recital, recorded live in 1958, which contains perhaps the most intense and visionary account of the Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition that one could ever hope to hear. This was my only choice - my only possible choice - when I did a 'Building a Library' article on the work for BBC Music Magazine a few years ago. Here's an extract:

This towering Russian pianist made it his mission to convey Mussorgsky exactly as written, but to embody in his performance of the unadulterated score all the emotion and philosophical great-heartedness that others try to achieve (usually unsuccessfully) through embellishment.
Richter regarded Ravel’s transcription as “an abomination, a decorative travesty of the most profound masterpiece of Russian piano music”. His own interpretation offers what the filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon described as a “wild and intractable purity”. It’s some of the most extraordinary piano playing you could hope to hear. His ‘Catacombae’ magically transforms every chord into a great cave, seeming to achieve that supposed pianistic impossibility, a crescendo in mid-resonance. Baba Yaga has a terrifying, pagan, monolithic power – contrast this with the delicacy of the unhatched chicks and the innocence of the Tuilieries children. In the grand finale the radiant carillon of Kiev and the evocation of Russian orthodox choirs behind cathedral screens are unforgettable. There’s a conceptual scale to Richter that goes beyond what most pianists can imagine: he throws himself into Mussorgsky’s truth and fuses with it.

Behind the Iron Curtain, Richter spoke perhaps more openly than he ever did in the West. The byways of the Internet have turned up some gems, notably this blog that reproduces some fascinating material. Here is an extract of an interview from Budapest in 1958 (retranslated by Zsolt Bognár):

Interviewer: "Please tell us about yourself. How do you live? Where did you spend your summer?" Richter: "I have a small house on the river Oka. I lived there during the summer, close to the water and far from people, four kilometers from the nearest village. There I was surrounded only by nature, the forests, fields, the air... this I enjoy tremendously. There everything is natural, tranquil, and I have no distractions or worries. One can bathe in the nude. If a thunderstorm comes, one experiences the elements very close-up: the house is of wooden construction, and when the rain patters on the roof, to be inside is like being in a dream."

I nearly met Richter (though not quite) when I was about eleven years old. My then piano teacher, Patsy Toh, was married to the pianist Fou Ts'ong and they lived in a big house in a Hampstead side street. Each weekend my dad would take me up there for a lesson and usually would wait in the car for an hour while Patsy put my unruly self through scales, studies and grade exam pieces. The Steinways were on the ground floor; Patsy taught upstairs in a smaller studio. Ts'ong, who had made a dramatic defection from China, knew Richter well from earlier times. One day I pitched up for a lesson to hear some exquisite Schubert emanating from behind a closed door off the hallway. "That's Sviatoslav Richter," Patsy whispered, ushering me towards the stairs. She remarked that shaking hands with him was like holding a beefsteak. I may not have known the full significance of the figure in the lounge, but I knew it was something that would interest my father, so before we started my lesson I zipped out, banged on the car window and said, "Dad, Richter's in there, practising!" Dad leapt out of the car and dashed up to the house; I don't think I ever saw him run quite so fast as then. Upstairs I delivered Hanon with rather sweaty palms.

The one time I was ever lucky enough to hear him in recital must have been his last performance at the Royal Festival Hall - given in darkness, but for one angle-poise lamp on the piano. He began with an account of the Schubert G major Sonata in which the first chord went on for so long that I thought we were all going to die (and yes, it was symptomatic of the movement's entire tempo that day). To end, though, there was Prokofiev: I remember the numbness and incredulity that passed through me at the thought that this man not only was friends with the composer, but gave the first performance of several of his masterpieces and was now bringing us all into direct contact with that history as his notes filled our ears. [UPDATE: A kind friend tells me - and sends proof - that on this occasion Richter played the Sonata No.4. I remember it, and wrote about it earlier, as No.7. Clearly I am mistaken, and therefore have amended this post accordingly - yet very oddly I can hear it in mind and memory as No.7.... well, 1989 was a while ago. The programme also included the Schumann Nachtstücke.]

Richter performed rarely in London in his later years, but he would sometimes do what we'd now called pop-up concerts. Yes - Richter would pop up. These very occasional surprise concerts would take place in churches, some like St James Piccadilly, others off the beaten track; they would be announced at the last minute and word of mouth would be spread by his fans, who'd drop everything and run; and the concerts, by all accounts, would be full, and intimate, and pure, free of media attention, social desirability or anything extraneous to passion for music. Something about this remains both remarkable and wonderful. I can think of several pianists who I wish would follow suit.

Bruno Monsaingeon's film, made when Richter was ageing and already ill, is in many ways a sad portrait, deeply moving, occasionally astonishing, and empathetic in the extreme. As we remember Richter this week, do see it.

2 months ago | |
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Sobering to wake up the morning after this particular opera to see on the news scenes of devastation from the cyclone in Vanuatu. A hurricane is the central force - in some senses - of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Brecht and Weill show us the impact on the city's collective psyche of nature's approaching Armageddon, turning the place from deathly, over-regulated calm to equally deathly venal over-permissiveness. The hurricane, though, takes a "detour" - despite the "footnotes - of which Brecht & Weill are unaware" that the director at Covent Garden, John Fulljames, brings us.

Yes, Mahagonny, written in the late twenties and premiered in 1930, feels as if it could have been written yesterday, in certain ways. But that is not because of the hurricane, even though there was one. It's because of the corruption, the moral vacuity, the drunkenness, the greed, the selfishness, the falsity. Focusing on climate change, which is specific to our times, but was not to the late 1920s, at the expense of these other qualities, specific to all times, is only the first of many problems I had with the production and the performance. (Reviews so far have been mixed,  but I don't seem to have seen the same show as any of them.)

The trial scene, including Anne Sofie von Otter as Widow Begbick (centre)
and Kurt Streit as Jimmy (right, on the box).
(c) ROH, photo by Clive Barda
Dystopian societies were order of the day for composers, film-makers and authors in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Think of them: Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (published 1932), Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane (- yes, really - 1927), and that's just for starters. One can trace influences to the rise of the Soviet Union, the seismic devastation left by World War One barely ten years earlier, the runaway inflation that followed it in Germany and Austria, the boom and fearful bust of the late 1920s, the rise and rise of the USA and its skyscrapers (construction of the Empire State Building began in 1929). As John Fulljames put it when I interviewed him a couple of weeks ago, Brecht's vision is "America with a k"- the work is set there because that was the new place, the boom place, but it's an imaginary version of the country: today you might perhaps choose Dubai or Shanghai.

The production has one desperately powerful and chilling concept. It is built - by Es Devlin's inspired design - around shipping containers, which double as brightly coloured houses rising as far as the eye can see. But when you see a shipping container, what do you think of? Personally, I can't help associating them with people being smuggled and suffocated therein. Early on in this opera, a chorus of men in grey suits and hats - implicitly western city workers - are herded into a container to be taken to Mahagonny. The staging, with its climate change warning, points to our own likely dystopia: we will all have to flee our cities and find somewhere new to go, because, as Brecht puts it, translated by Jeremy Sams, we don't need hurricanes, "we're spoiling the world just fine."

Brecht does like to bash us over the head with his messages, though. He can never simply put a fable in front of us and let us draw our own conclusions. A good red pen wouldn't have gone amiss from time to time. The four lumberjacks from Alaska who are destroyed by the place, one by one - except for Billy - recap their words about the terrible winters and the great pine trees they felled so often that a gentle excision or two wouldn't have hurt - except that I suspect Brecht would have given you a black eye if you'd tried.

Another problem, though, for which we can't entirely blame Brecht & Weill: strophic songs are awkward on an opera stage. This stage especially. The set takes up most of the space, so the action is confined principally to the very front. When it acquires more than two dimensions, it goes upwards into split levels. Perhaps that solves part of the intimacy problem - it's a large house for not a large troupe and a piece in which words are all-important - but there's less room to play with and the fable-like nature of the story perhaps invites a more symbolic, static approach than a naturalistic scenario might. But in short, there's not enough going on in the strophic songs. Yes, we need to focus on the words - but we need a little more action, too, or the pace can really sag, and it does.

In similar fashion, many of the cast are under-characterised. These individuals are archetypes, of course, but they need to come to convincing life. Only our hero, Jimmy McIntyre - sung magnificently by Kurt Streit - assumes a measure of actual personality. Even Christine Rice, in fabulous voice as Jenny the prostitute, could give the role more nuance; when she refuses to help Jimmy, who loves her, it should probably come as a sickening shock, but doesn't. Then there's Anne Sofie von Otter as Widow Begbick - one wants to admire her, given that she is a magnificent artist and one of today's very great singers, but this role needs an overwhelming presence, a true battle-axe personality, and neither she nor her direction - which turns her into a dip-dye-pink-haired Estuary type - provides enough of that essential force. (Have a look at the extracts on Youtube of Patti LuPone in the role in the US). Sir Willard White is a brilliant Trinity Moses; one wants more of him. Peter Hoare as Fatty does not have much to do either, but his very presence, standing still and smoking, carries a fabulous weight of imagery. The singing is often operatically beautiful, especially from Streit and Rice - and according to Jeremy Sams, whom I interviewed for my article last week, so it should be. Full marks to orchestra, chorus and Mark Wigglesworth on the podium.

For me, the message of Mahagonny is not about what Brecht puts on stage, but what he doesn't. If this society is eating itself away through ennui and self-destructiveness, feeling something's missing, why? What is it that is missing? Try these:

No families. The only women on stage are prostitutes and the Widow Begbick. No children. No older people. The men can have sex, but apparently only with women who are doing it for money.
No art. The populace possesses nothing creative, nothing expressive.
No sport or fitness or teamwork. They do have bare-knuckle boxing, which is singular and kills its combatant.
No community. Every man (and it's mostly men - but it's true of Jenny too) for himself.
Nothing for people to do except indulge their basest appetites well beyond their hearts' desires. No orchestras or painting classes, that's for sure.
No education.
No history.
Nothing to encourage any actual sense of humanity or kindness or relationship.

Only money, appetite and self-interest have any value here. There is one grim reference to religion, right at the end. Brecht bashes us on the head with it, and so does Fulljames, turning Jimmy's execution into a scene reminiscent of the Crucifixion.

Some of this is also why the updating doesn't quite work. The nature of the piece is much of its own day; there isn't space within it to turn it into a convincing picture of our own times and the make-up of our society. Filmed images of the front of the ROH and the blown-up bus in Russell Square 2005 do little to help.

Inside us all there is, perhaps inevitably, a personal opera-director who pipes up: "I want to see it like this instead..." My mini-me would like to see it set...
...in Germany, in 1930. Performed as it might have been then (and in German - I liked the translation and can see why it perhaps needs to be done in translation, but I'd rather hear it in German anyway). I would set it as a play within a play, amid the society it would have been in; people impoverished, desperate, surrounded by the rise of fascism, with the work's message bowling out loud and clear and horrific. "Nothing can be done to help the living," goes the final chorus, sending us out thoroughly depressed. Brecht and Weill don't leave 'em laughing. No redemption here. Imagine that message in Germany three years before Hitler took power.

'Nuff said. Shudder. I'm off to comb my cats.

2 months ago | |
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...everyone's telling jokes for Red Nose Day and Comic Relief, so here's a viola joke I rather love.

A viola player's sitting at the back of the section when the conductor suddenly keels over in the rehearsal just before the concert and is rushed off to hospital. A big tour's about to begin, and there's only an hour til this launch performance. No time to find another conductor. "Can anyone conduct?" the orchestra manager pleads, at his wits' end. The viola player volunteers - he had a shot at it once at uni, a few decades back, so he remembers the basics. The concert is a huge success! "Can you do the tour as well?" the orchestra manager asks, booking an extra violist.

The tour begins the next day and everywhere the orchestra goes there are standing ovations and rave reviews. The viola player on the podium is flavour of the month. A Twitter storm demands he be made principal conductor, nay, music director, right now. His Facebook page attracts 750,000 likes from all over Europe and the US.

After two weeks of this, the orchestra comes home and finds that its conductor is alive and well, out of hospital and on the podium. The viola player returns to his seat at the back of the section. His desk partner turns to him and says: "So, where've you been all this time?"

Boom boom.
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Yesterday I interviewed a wonderful composer. I love interviewing composers. You can't get closer to the source of the art we love than you can by talking to the people who create it. Let's not forget, music is a human creation. Every note, squeak and silence is a choice made by a person with a pen - OK, these days it's someone with a Sibelius computer, but a choice nevertheless. We are fortunate to go and talk to John Adams, Judith Weir, Philip Glass and the rest - but certain others are no longer with us....so I've availed myself of a new-fangled invention to solve the problem. Here is my Dream Interviewee No.1.

He is ROBERT SCHUMANN. I visited him in my new Parsifal 3000 Travellation, in which time becomes space.

Dear Herr Dr Professor Schumann, it's a great pleasure to meet you.

Mrs Duchen, likewise, likewise. Welcome to Düsseldorf. I trust your extraordinary time machine gave you a smooth journey?

It was, let's say, an interesting experience...but I'm very happy to be here, in the Schumann family living room!

Excellent, dear lady - please have a seat, and Marie will bring in the coffee.

You are very lucky to have such a helpful daughter.

Especially for my wife, Clara, Marie, our eldest, is an angel from heaven. For the little ones, so is our friend Hannes!

I hear he comes round and entertains them by doing gymnastics on the banisters?

Haha, and more, and more... He's a young lion, you know, a veritable eagle whose music will soar into the future. Do you know him where you live, in the 21st century?

Do we know Johannes Brahms? Er, we do...

And how is he regarded?

Well, he is one of the all-time greats - we talk about the Three Bs, and they are Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

I knew it! I knew I was right. I enjoyed being a critic, unlike many others... I edited a magazine too, you remember? That was enormous fun, but hard work, always having to turn away people who thought they could write well, but never actually read anything.

You have always been very literary, haven't you?

There is always music in good words. Without it, they will never rise from the page. Remember that, my writer friend! And there must be meaning in good music. It goes beyond the capability of words, but it must be there. Otherwise we will turn away from it and play music that does have meaning. After Beethoven our question is: what next? How can we possibly follow him?

So, tell me what was it like the first time you met Brahms?

Well, he turned up on our doorstep, unannounced. It was a few months ago, October 1853, and we weren't home, but Marie was, so there is a knock on the door, she trots along to see who's there and on the step is this boy of 20, blond hair, blue eyes, cheekbones and the rest of it, and she is quite impressed. He has a letter of introduction to us from Joseph Joachim, which he leaves with Marie. We read it and it sounds quite positive. Joachim, you know, is the leader of Liszt's orchestra in Weimar and a powerhouse, in his own cantankerous way, even though he isn't much older than Brahms himself. He played under Mendelssohn's direction when he was only Marie's age. We have known him for years, through Mendelssohn, and he sends Brahms to us and the young man just arrives.

I think it was a happier experience for him to come to us than his visit to Liszt. You know what happened? Haha! He goes to Weimar and finds Liszt holding court, playing the piano to all his adoring acolytes. Brahms has been travelling all day and he is tired out. He sits at the back of the room, and Liszt plays the whole of his rather long Sonata in B minor - which, you know, is dedicated to me! - and Brahms does his very best, but despite himself he nods off. Not a good move.

So, he arrived on your doorstep and...

And I gave him some coffee and wondered what it was that was so special about this rather shy, squeaky-voiced lad. He takes out of his bag an enormous sheaf of manuscript paper covered in thick black scrawls, places it on the coffee table in front of me, then goes to the piano and begins a sonata and I nearly fall out of my chair.

I waited until a quiet moment - it's a noisy opening, the C major Sonata, because he is trying to write Beethoven's 'Hammerklavier' - then I stopped him. He looked most distressed. He must have thought I didn't like his music. No, no! I wanted to call Clara, who was attending to her correspondence upstairs, and I told her: you have to come into the music room, right now, this minute. You have to hear this. She did so, curious, and there, in front of me, she gazed across that room and her eyes and Brahms's met for the first time.

Something about him shone. He sat at our piano and he just - shone. He lit the room as if we had raised a hundred candles above him and his clothes and skin were made of mirrors. Clara sat beside me and he began his sonata again. What a voice emerged from it - a giant personality, springing from its parent creator's head fully formed like Pallas Athene! Some would-be composers never find their voice. Others are imbued with it as if in the womb. After about half a minute Clara gave me one sideways glance. You know, I think, when you meet someone who is going to change your life.

Herr Doktor Professor Schumann, it is generous of you to speak about Brahms like this. I would like to ask you about your music, too, of course. Why the alter egos? Why did you introduce Florestan and Eusebius?

Why? That is an interesting question - they have been with me for so long that I can scarcely remember. I nearly became a writer. I used to write, in my youth - I wrote a few novels, but eventually I found music could take out more of myself, if that makes sense to you?

It does indeed...

I have, you know, a remarkably vivid dream world. As a boy I lived in dreams much of the time, and it became a habit. I don't draw much distinction between reality and what I know to be my dreams - because they become reality. That is how you create the world, through dreaming, through imagining.

Do you know Richard Wagner?

I do - a bumptious gentleman, isn't he? He has stolen a lot from my music, I understand, but what he does with it is supposed to be quite good.

Well, he once said - though I don't know if he's already said it - that imagination creates reality.

There you go. Nothing is new under the sun, no? So, to my friends, the poets. I was very young, of course, my father was a publisher and a writer, and the house was full of books. It was, too, full of pain. My sister died, you know. This boy I was could scarcely bear the loss - the weight of the world, of all adult grief, wrapped me closer and closer, like an instrument of torture. And I discovered the worlds of Goethe, Jean Paul and ETA Hoffmann. I would take their books and dive in, as if into a great blue mountain lake with whole universes beneath the azure surface, and there I would swim, free at last, with those worlds of discovery before me, my inner self becoming first one character, then another. I found Florestan and Eusebius in Jean Paul, and each was like me, though totally different. Therefore in them I saw two sides of one person. Human beings have many facets, every writer knows this - today I don't think it is so extraordinary.

But why create music based around them?

Not based around them so much as informed by them, I'd say. Why? Because it is enjoyable to do so. I said earlier that music must have meaning. But that meaning does not have to be weighty and frown-ridden. It might be, on occasion. Yet think of my Clara. She doesn't like it if I experiment too much. She says always: think of the people who play your music, think of the people who buy it. If you are too peculiar, too obscure, they'll choose something else instead. Where does that leave you? I am their puppet-master in the music, sometimes - Maester Raro, mediating between them. I might be playing at my piano - you play music, but you also play at music! - and I improvise, and I invent. The music might be tender, quiet, reflective, so a Eusbius creation; or my thoughts might be turbulent and impassioned, in the guise of Florestan. I am glad if people find this interesting, and it is a way of bringing literary allusion to one's work without having to set about the laborious process of actually telling somebody else's story in your own sounds.

We make quite a lot of this, you know...

Haha! Please feel free to make of my music what you will. I am merely glad to know that it has lasted so well.

Who did you know? Who were your favourite people?

My dear lady, I have to tell you, I have never had a friend, or missed a friend, like Felix Mendelssohn. What a man. What an artist. Nobody could resist his charm - not even my Clara! She used to flirt with him like never with anybody else, and in front of me! There was just...nothing she could do about it. Despite him being, you know, from another race. He was an Israelite. She was of a very sheltered background, my Clara, and she found this distinctly strange, even though he had apparently converted as a child and was indeed more a devout Christian than we ourselves. But perhaps it added to the fascination. Like the Gypsies. Nobody can resist them either. Brahms is transfixed by their musicians.

So, er, yes...so Mendelssohn was close to you? 

His death was terrible. So young. Not even forty. I think he worked himself to death - though others say it was the demise of his sister that made him fall to pieces, others gossip that there was perhaps another woman, and still more say that there was a weakness in the family inheritance that caused them to have strokes too young. For us, left behind, the shock has been fearful. I dream of him often and I wake sweating, convinced I shall see him again, convinced that his fate presages something of my own. Clara tells me not to be silly, but the idea haunts me like the ghost of Felix himself...come along, my dear, let's have some more coffee, shall we?

A good idea, thank you.

And how long will you stay in Düsseldorf?

I must go back to London today - but now that I know my Parsifal 3000 Travellation is so effective, please may I come and see you again?

Of course you may. You play my music yourself?

On the piano. Badly. I've played Kinderszenen, Kreisleriana, Papillons, some of the Fantasiestücke, I've bashed through the first and last movements of the Fantasie, though I can't play the March, and at the moment I'm learning Waldszenen. It makes me cry every time.

Ahh. Then you know me better than you think.

2 months ago | |
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James Galway has a very big birthday this year and BBC4 has just screened a new documentary directed by Brendan Byrne about his life and work, entitled Being James Galway. It went out last night, is repeated on Friday on BBC4 at 8pm, and is also available on the BBC iPlayer, here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0555wj1/being-james-galway

Interest declared: yours truly was called upon as a talking head. But really the best things about it are the substantial quantity of musical performances; the historical footage, including film of Galway playing with the Berlin Philharmonic, and under Leonard Bernstein; the Belfast-born flautist's own inimitable personality and humour; and a beautiful familiar voice-over, whom I recognised but couldn't identify. Turns out it's Jeremy Irons...
2 months ago | |
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Aidan Turner in Parsifal (photo (c):Metropolitan Opera)

Jonas Kaufmann in Poldark

2 months ago | |
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If you know my novel Hungarian Dances, you'll know I have a bit of a bee in the bonnet about this type of violinist... Roby Lakatos is the real thing: the descendent of Janos Bihari, the great primás who created many of the melodies snaffled by Brahms and Liszt, but more to the point, an utterly sensational violinist. The morning after his Barbican concert with the LSO last week, I interviewed him for The Amati Magazine.

Read it here - and do come and hear him in the bijou setting of the Langham, London, at the Amati exhibition on 29 March. Booking here. It is my very great pleasure to be introducing the ensemble on the night. (Good excuse for a new frock, too.)

2 months ago | |
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Here's a piece I wrote for The Independent about Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, which opens at the Royal Opera House on Tuesday. It's never been staged there before and it's about time. It stars Sir Willard White, Anne Sofie von Otter, Christine Rice and many more, and is staged by John Fulljames with a new translation by Jeremy Sams.

This exploration of the opera's themes by Will Self is well worth a watch, too.

2 months ago | |
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This recording is pretty good quality for 1928. This was the year in which votes in the UK were extended to include all women over 21 (not only those over 30). Here is the incredible Jelly d'Arányi - pupil of Hubay, great-niece of Joseph Joachim, inspirer of Ravel's Tzigane, Vaughan Williams's Concerto Accademico, certain bits of Bartók and much more - playing Brahms's Hungarian No.8. Happy International Women's Day!

2 months ago | |
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Just found online the radio broadcast from 1963 in which John Amis interviews the glorious Dame Myra Hess, whose cut-glass accent and irrepressible humour are firmly in place. She remembers what happened when she took a "wrong turning" in Brahms 2 with Sir Henry Wood in 1908, a concert for which she received the "large fee" of 3 Guineas. "Sometimes I was ten and six to the good!" she declares of her mother's book-keeping.

Beecham, she says, was "impossible, because you never knew when you were going to get a rehearsal". And he was "terribly naughty", she adds, performing without the score in music that he didn't always know terribly well.

She reveals, too, that she used to play her own cadenzas, but the manuscripts were now "destroyed and burned". And she talks a good bit about the National Gallery wartime concerts.

Fab quote: "If Mozart isn't spontaneous, it's dead."

2 months ago | |
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