Friday, March 20, 2009


Sonya Orchard, Harper-Collins

The Virtuoso is a remarkable book by a young Australian musician turned novelist – rave reviews before and since the launch last month in Melbourne and Sydney. The unusual format is a sort of biography within a fiction, about a young boy student who falls in love with Noël Mewton-Wood a gifted Melbourner who debuted with Beecham, had a good career, made over a dozen first-class records of concertos, played at Proms, Wigmore Hall and Aldeburgh, great friend of Tippett, Britten and was part of the London Musical scene. He was a depressive and tragically, committed suicide in 1953, aged only 31. The author’s name is Sonia Orchard and she lives in Melbourne with her husband James and their two baby daughters.

Why did Noël commit suicide? His lover-partner, Bill, non-musician, sometime British Council rep in Germany, died of a ruptured appendix and Noël felt guilty. Also he considered, mistakenly, that his career was in decline. He was a remarkable musician with a sure technique, rather in the Clifford Curzon mould, although with more leanings towards contemporary music. Lately critics have praised the recent two-set Decca CDs of his recordings of concertos; Beethoven 4, Tchaikovsky 2, the Shostakovich with trumpet, and Schumann’s solo Kinderszenen, etc. Later this year his complete oeuvre will be issued by Decca, including Tchaikovsky 1, Chopin1, Bliss etc. The slow movement of the Chopin is the best version I know and the Bliss equals Solomon’s. Noël was at his best in the recording studio. He recorded the Busoni on EMI with Beecham conducting. It was with Beecham that he made his debut in London and the old conductor conceded at rehearsal that Noël was right when the cherubic seventeen year old corrected him; “out of the mouths of babes and sucklings” he responded.

The novel story is told by an I, a young male student pianist in love with Noël who has an affair with him. Orchard writes graphically, flowingly, poetically at times and evokes quite remarkably the London musical scene. She tells a good yarn, making many interesting musical points on the way. I think, in fact I am sure, that even those who don’t know his name, will find it a book to cherish and perhaps shed a few tears over. None more than myself to whom Noël left his concert grand piano. The night before he took cyanide he talked to me for an hour on the telephone with not a word about dying.

A link to an Australian site selling the book,

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