Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Somehow the Wigmore Hall atmosphere is always sympathatic during the annual Ferrier Awards, people come every year and there is friendly support for the singers. The date of the finals was 23 April and the winner was the South African baritone, Njubulo Madlala (28). His voice was the only one of the six contestants that sounded mature with all the registers balanced and he made a warm sound. His programme was chosen wisely to display what he could do best.

A Bellini aria was followed by Butterworth’s song on Bredon Hill, Schumann’s Lied Balsazar, a folksong from the kraal and a passionately warm aria from Leoncavallo’s Zaza (good idea to sing music that the judges might not be too familiar with). His musicianship was impeccable and he didn’t make the mistake that other contestants had made, of singing too loud, and he had ‘the gift to be simple’. He was a winner whose name is worthy to be placed alongside previous winners, who include some of the finest singers of recent times.

Madlala was awarded £10,000; the second prize, half that sum, went to Dubliner Sarah Power with a voice not quite mature but with enough purity and style to win through (though she should beware of a shrill edge to her tone, probably caused by nerves). Bellini again, a bit of Stravinsky’s Rake, R. Strauss and a delightful children’s song by Poulenc with the voice and piano in chattering unison. Anna Cordona her excellent pianist (she won the accompanist’s prize of £3000). I was sorry that the Australian baritone Duncan Rock did not win anything but a lot of sympathy from the audience; he has a good voice and dramatic sense, strong to the point of occasionally hectoring.

To complete the honours: the Song Prize of £4000 went to Manchester soprano Laurie Ashworth with her Strauss, Purcell, Jonathan Dove, Mozart and Je suis Titania from Mignon.

The judges included three eminent singers: Della Jones, Felicity Palmer and Sandy Oliver, pianist Roger Vignoles and administrator Gavin Henderson.

Monday, April 26, 2010


Prodigies? Well, there’s Mozart of course, Mendelssohn challenging Shakespeare, Saint-Saéns with 32 sonatas under his pianistic belt, the infant Yehudi and the brilliant young Dimitri’s first symphony; but then what about the kid from Pesaro not yet had his 5th birthday (Leap Year Baby), already producing his 13th opera and he’s only 21? Ferrara, Milan and Venice had staged numbers one to twelve and here in Milan comes Turco in Italia in 1811, the year Napoleon abdicated, two years before the Barber arrive.

This is a revival five years on of Turco in the Royal Opera House (April 19). The production by Moshe Laiser and Patrise Caurier is lively, imaginative, witty and effective, excellent pit direction by Maurizio Benini.

Rossini called it a dramma buffo. A randy Turk, his old girlfriend, a nifty new Italian pick-up, her ancient husband, a tenor rival and a Poet manipulating the situation as grist for an opera libretto he wants to write. This Poet is a bit of a throw – back to Don Alfonso, a connection with Cosi fan tutte that Rossini and his new librettist Romani allude to. Like Cosi, Turco was a moral feather ruffler, I say!., married woman having it off with an infidel. Tut, tut.

Rossini was a cool cat, more interested in situations than characters but he knew how to cater for his cast and their strengths. The plot bristles farcically, twisting wittily. The music is not Rossini’s finest vintage, there are no melodies to go home with, but the score is tuneful, elegant, merry and professional to a degree, abundant with tricks, sorties, sallies and clichés of the period, formulae which are justified in a winning way. Patter and coloratura (several notes to one vowel) provide pegs for slick singing which it gets nicely here.

Tom (he insists on Sir Thomas) Allen is in brilliant form as the Poet, more Italian than any Italian, up to the mark, down to the wire. But the character who brings down the house is Geronimo, Alessandro Corbelli, a droll to cherish, a baritone to admire. Aleksandra Kurzak, Polish soprano, is his wife, Fiorilla, she has the lioness’ share of the notes with an attractive, athletic voice, stratospheric notes a speciality and she fits the flighty bill. The Turk is glamorous and excellent, Ildebrando d’Arcangelo and no archangel when it comes to speed courting. The outsider Narciso is a tenor to watch, fluent, mellifluous and South African, Colin Lee by name. Zaida who gets the Turk in the end completes the cast successfully, performed by Leah-Marian Jones (she’s Welsh, would you believe it?.)

A happy evening.


Still a Modern Pioneer

Of famous composers only Webern left fewer compositions, just twelve, all played during a mini-festival devoted to Edgard Varèse 1883 – 1965. He was born in France, studied with Roussel, d’Indy and Widor. All his early works were destroyed in a fire probably during WW1. In 1915 he went to America, remaining there the rest of his life. He made his conducting début with the vast Requiem of Berlioz.

His music is still startlingly original, strings rarely used in favour of brass and loads of percussion. He writes little that could be called melody, or harmony; his rhythms can suggest a sort of counterpoint, layer above layer. He referred to his works, not as music, but ‘the organization of sound’.

Varèse had few performers and he had lengthy periods of depression but he was sustained by the friendship and support of many visual artists such as Picasso and Giacometti as well as composers like Busoni, Debussy and Schoenberg (though he no truck with serialism). Latterly he excited the interest of Boulez, Cage, Stockhausen, Frank Zappa and Charlie Parker. His music looked always to the future, he was one of the first to use tapes and electronics; enthusiasm for the new was part of his personality.

His works have interesting titles (fancy?) such as Octandra, Hyperprism, Equatorial and Ionisation. The festival (April 16 and 18 in the Queen Elizabeth Hall) opened with the latter piece whose title is explained: ‘the disassociation of electrons from the nucleus of their atom and their transformation into negative or positive ions’ – not exactly non-fluting! The performance were convincingly played and conducted by David Atherton with the London Sinfonietta. Tapes were used and video, devised by Pippa Nissen, on three screens – landscapes, cloud-scapes, moonscapes, Mars-scapes although we were once brought down to earth by a hand putting powder into a glass. Some of the works were sung well by the soprano Elizabeth Atherton, the Sinfonietta Chorus and, sportingly we all thought, by John Tomlinson, authors Huidobro, Tablada, Verlaine and chants from the Mayan.

Was there a downside to all this startlingly original pioneer music, composed at much the same time as the work of those other pioneers, Charles Ruggles and Charles Ives? Most of the audience seemed to think otherwise, applauding vigorously throughout, But some of us found that the ear gets as tired as the brain with works that seem to have no logic, no intimation of climaxes or summation. In the thirties it might have been labeled by the acronym ODTAA – One Damn Thing After Another; rumble-rumble-bang-crash-wallop. Sometimes there were sequences, sometimes beautiful incantatory solos; Varèse can do pianissimo but more often the noise level was extremely high. The first ten minutes were more enjoyable than the last. But there is no doubt that Varèse at his best had a kind of magic. His work has been described as ‘music in the pure state’. ‘tornadoes of sound’ and ‘a nightmare dreamed by giants’. There are designs in the piece for producing grief and anxiety but none for drama. Varèse often thought of his work to be parallel to crystals: “In spite of their limited variety of internal structure, the external forms of crystal are almost limitless.” Just so.

Varèse was without doubt a great original but for the average concert-goer he needs to be taken in small doses.


He was a lad in his early teens when I first met Julian Bream. He was born in Battersea and he sounded like it; he kept his cockney accent all his life (so far) although sometimes he would try to talk posh but it did not disguise his origins. His dad worked in advertising but played jazz guitar. Julian started playing that way but one day Dad brought home the recording of Segovia playing the Tremolo Study of Tarrega; the die was cast. Several doshed folk helped pay his fees for him to go to the Royal College of Music. At that time the guitar was scarcely known straight music apart from the great Segovia. Julian’s personality and his guitar soon had the other students flocking round him, so much that the director actually forbade him to bring his instrument into the College. He played at parties and the girls adored him.

Parties, little concerts, a broadcast or two, gradually he became known. He acquired a contract with RCA Victor and his records sold like hot cakes. He came many times to the Summer School of Music that I organized at Dartington, sometimes with Peter Pears, sometimes just recitals, later on master-classes and with a consort that he formed to play what Hardy called ‘the ancient stave’ my wife Olive Zorian played violin with him) and one year he brought the slightly younger Australian guitarist John Williams. These last two played some happy concerts together and it was fascinating to compare the two players: John a cooler player but technically more reliable whereas Julian was the great communicator even if he took more risks and squeaked more often.

Julian’s contract with RCA was unique. I think. He was able to record what he liked, where he liked and with whom he liked. Julian’s talent and his personality enabled him to get many composes to write pieces for him: Malcolm Arnold, Henze, Walton, Maxwell Davies, Rawsthorne, Tippett and Benjamin Britten.

Some Juliana: mutual friend John Warrack went with Julian to the Royal Academy show one year and they went into one room dominated by a large nude. Julian:”Christ, I know ‘er”. Silence in that room and bystanders waited for the next pronouncement. “What a smashing pair of plonkers”.

While on a longish tour of India (he made time to see a bit of interesting countries) Julian lent his Earl’s Court flat to a singer friend. She found eighteen pairs of evening shoes under the bed, all worn down at the heels, likewise a cupboard containing a couple of dozen dirty evening shirts and a sack full of unopened letters and telegrams.

Down in Dorset there was an annual cricket match (Julian was a good slow bowler), myself one year on Julian’s team playing the local farmers. Julian said they were nice chaps but they argued when the umpire gave them out and wouldn’t walk. Julian got round problem by getting the local Jesuit priest to umpire.

Julian encouraged me to come to the annual English Music Week in the Bavarian Alps at Schloss Elmau. “Great place, nice people, good music, good tucker and I was knee-deep in girls”. I couldn’t refuse and went the following year: it was, they were, it was and he was...

Alas, some of the fire and that power of communication declined after Julian crashed his car on a bridge near home after a convivial evening (“That bridge got smaller that night”) and after a 70th birthday Wigmore recital he decided to retire. Sadly he has become rather reclusive, living alone, walking the dog but not seeing or communicating with his old mates.

Julian was a one-off. His musicianship was profound yet full of joy. Like the greatest of musicians he knew his stuff but played on his intuition. Never routine, never playing to the gallery except sometimes when chatting to the audience, he enriched the repertoire and he enriched the musical experience of his audience. And his programmes were never boring like so many guitarists were. Building up the architecture of the great Bach Chaconne, loving the line of an ancient pavane, savouring the lollipop Malcolm Arnold Concerto, tearing away passionately in a Villa-Lobos study or just frivolling some encore meringue, he was unique.