Monday, February 27, 2012


Master Musician – Great Pianist

Now that he has retired from the concert platform, do we call him a past master? No, he is still in our minds a master and we salute him.

Who showed more teeth when performing, Alfred Brendel or Ken Dodd? Alfred hated waiting in the artists' room; he always hurtled onto the platform as if he could not wait to get on with the music. For many years his fingers oozed blood so that his fingers were covered with band-aids " I am the only pianist who cannot play unless he is plastered."

He obviously likes playing with words as well as piano keys so it was no great surprise when he started to write poetry; it is published and he has even had some of his poems set to music by Harrison Birtwistle. In his early days, he had many concerts in Germany and his native Austria with his baritone friend Hermann Prey. Their tours entailed many rail journeys and while waiting for trains they used to make funny faces into those four-shot photograph booths that you find on platforms, acting out lines from Schubert's Winterreise or Die Schöne Müllerin. Another. Another habit was collecting misprints. Alfred would hand you the latest from his wallet and scan your face eagerly until you got the joke when he would explode with laughter.

On the contrary, his performances were very serious, just occasionally to the point of being on the intellectual side when he could lose his spontaneity, over-phrasing simple tunes.

He researched music texts thoroughly, not even trusting so called Urtexts, searching out the original autographs whenever possible. At his usual best, his playing was a perfect blend of head and heart, backed up by technical perfection. Playing Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert and Weber (his playing of W's Konzertstuck was like a romantic dream), Liszt (in his early days), Busoni and Schönberg, peerless, he was one of the greatest pianists of his day.

He settled in Hampstead in a house full of native art; and when the house next door became available, he bought that too, so as not to be overheard by neighbours.

He became interested in the piano's innards in his constant search for a good piano, knowing just enough about things like pricking the felts as to be a bit of a menace to the piano tuners and technicians. He is obviously a good teacher – as witness his star student, Imogen Cooper. Marriages: two; children, also two, a son and a daughter. Adrian is a fine cellist, often playing recitals with his father.

Long may he enjoy his retirement!


The Overture, Concerto, Symphony concert programme that existed for such a long time seems to have been overtaken by the American habit of a programme with just two works, even beginning with a concerto. On February 9 in the RFH we started off with one of the weightiest of Piano concertos, the B flat, Brahms No. 2, Opus 83, composed about the time that he sprouted his beaver. Clara must have had her work cut out to get her maulers round it – surely it’s a man's work if ever there was one.

Rich, beautifully composed, a complicated structure, perfect in all its parts from the serene horn solo lead-in, through the chunky scherzo, the tender cello solo in the Andante, ending with the gay (old style meaning) finale. You almost forgive of the work coming to an end the way it happens, like a stately galleon coming into harbour.

The Russian pianist Arkadi Volodos whose masterly Rach. 3 some time ago might have made one wonder if he might take the Lang Lang road to the flashing lights – but no, his way with the Brahms was virtuoso, yes, but measured and serious, almost solemn at times. Bliss was it!

The second heavy weight of the evening was the Fourth Symphony of Shostakovich, composed while World War 2 was raging but penned while Dmitri was in peace and quiet faraway in a Soviet composer's hideaway. There are various hidden agendas that have been put forward, but hidden is the wrong word. No. 8 does not hide its message for it batters its way into the listener's ear and consciousness, it goes for the jugular, searing the hearer, despite some quieter moments, quite shattering even if the coda is a soothing glimpse of better times (wishful thinking on Dmitri's part?).

There are some similarities between No. 5 and No. 8 but whereas 5 has many melodic moments, 8 has few and is surely about DEATH. The DEATH of those millions who fought in the siege of Stalingrad and, just as surely, DEATH of more millions bulleted by the monster Stalin, and, quite likely, DEATH feared by the composer himself.

It is one of the wonders of our musical world that the persecuted Shostakovich was compelled by his inner self to go on composing, composing masterpieces too. A veritable miracle. certainly none in the audience in the RFH could forget it. The Philharmonia Orchestra under Tugan Sokhiev (Russian though the programme does not say so), played like virtuoso heroes and superb artists. Shattered we were in the audience, but somehow refreshed by a notable experience.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Jones Brilliant Production

"I prefer Offenbach to Bach often" – Also sprach Sir Thomas Beecham. So, hurry to the London Coliseum where on February 10 English National put on a scintillating new production by Richard Jones of Offenbach's perennial favourite, The Tales of Hoffman. Offenbach was a German who lived in France most of his life. Having written a string of successful operettas he decided to have a crack at a grand opera. Death began to overtake him and he could not finish it (the premiere was in Paris in 1881, the year after the composer died). Guiraud who wrote the recitatives for Carmen did the same service for the Tales and orchestrated the whole thing. Various editions exist but the opera is rather a mess. Offenbach's numbers, songs, arias, duets etc., are fine, rull of favourites melodies and fascinating musical ideas, but the bits in between are lumpy hackwork so that the score is a hodgepodge. But the plot is intriguing and the tunes are winners, that’s why it is still in the repertoire.

There are three Tales, each in a different venue (though all in the same single set in this production – i.e. no gondolas for the Venice Tale) and each is devoted to a different girl that Hoffman woos without scoring a hit: Olympia because she is a doll, Antonia because she is a sick singer, who will die if she sings, and Guiletta apparently because she is a tart. Barry Banks sang all the notes (its a difficult role) but he is no romantic heartthrob. Georgia Jarman, American soprano was stunning as Olympia, a lifelike doll (!), singing and acting the part superbly. Alas, in the other acts she sang loudly and her intonation suffered accordingly. Her tartiness consisted of swishing her skirt incessantly. The subsidiary parts (three venues means a big cast) were all well cast and played, headed by the always excellent Clive Bayley as Lindorf and Dapertutto, Christine Rice as Hoffmann's trouser-role boy companion Nicklaus, Iain Paton/Spalaanzani, Simon Betteries/Frantz and Tom Fackrell/Schlemil.

What a treasure that famous Barcarolle is! To be told that it was originally part of another work altogether is like being told that there aint' no Santa Claus; such a lilting lulu, the very essence of Venice one would think.

Permit a grouch and a suggestion anent surtitles: they are too small in this theatre, illegible to many of the audience. And why not indicate the name of the character as he or she sings for the first time? So often one needs to know.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Cosi fan Tutte

6th Covent Garden Revival

The revival of Mozart’s COSI fan TUTTE at Covent Garden, Friday, January 27th, was like a curate’s egg. Not good in all parts. Mozart was OK, Jonathan Miller’s production was OK, and the orchestra played well, the soloists in wind and brass, as usual, bang in the middle of any note. But that was more than you could say of the singers (with one shining exception – Thomas Allen - approaching his 300th assumption of the role of the scheming Don Alfonso). Mozart requires exact intonation without any bulging tones or distortion towards the upper register. These vocal imperfections have become something like my King Charles’ head but it is surely a critic’s responsibility to try and maintain standards.

COSI is a long opera and on this occasion it seemed very long indeed, even a bit tedious. Why? Imperfect singing and a conductor (Sir Colin Davis) who seemed to be on autopilot, not bad but lacking lustre.

I ‘discovered’ Colin when he was doing exuberant and stylish work with the semi-amateur Chelsea Opera Group and got him one of his first assignments, to conduct at Bryanston in 1951 at the Summer School of Music. After a time with the BBC Scottish he became director at Sadlers Wells; the big breakthrough came when he took over a Don Giovanni in the RFH from an indisposed Klemperer. For a time he was in charge of the BBCSO and eventually he got to Covent Garden in 1971 and the LSO I ’95. A recent heart attack seems to have slowed him down, his exuberant freshness seemed absent from this COSI. Tired Mozart is a contradiction in terms.

The Ferrando, Charles Castronove (American) was not new to the house but nearly all
the others were: Guglielmo – Nikolay Borchev (the two ‘Albanians’ were kitted out to look like caricatures of Nigel Kennedy); the other newcomers were Malin Byström (Swedish) and Dorabella, Michèle Losier (Canadian); Rosemary Joshua was a delightful perky Despina. All attractive competent actors. The outstanding performance though, vocally and histrionically, was that of Sir Thomas Allen, bang in tune and a joy to watch.

After the performance Tony Hall , Administrator of Covent Garden, made a presentation to Thomas and congratulated him on his 40th year at the Garden where he has sung over 50 roles, a warm high baritone voice and an ability to become the character he is portraying. He is easily the best Don Giovanni I have seen and his portrayals of Billy Budd, Wozzeck, the Count in Figaro and Gianni Schicchi were all benchmarks and a marvel to experience. (He’s a nice bloke too!)

Bream: Master of the Frets

"Mr. Bream" asked the German Ambassador after young Julian played some solos "you play this Spanish music so marvellous, you must have Spanish blood, nein?". "Wot me" answers Julian in his usual Cockney vernacular "I was born in Battersea, between the Pah (power) station and the Dogs 'Ome." Yes, true, but his commercial advertising Dad liked to play guitar jazz with the local lads of an evening. His little boy found the guitar about the house and was soon strumming, jazz-style riffs. But one day Dad brought home a 78 record of the great Spanish virtuoso, Andres Segovia, playing that fascinating Tremolo Study by Tarrega. In an instant Julian was converted to the classical repertoire – although he continued to play jazz.

From time to time, Julian played little gigs in people's parlours. Ladies fell for the young prodigal and raised money to send the lad to the Royal College of Music. No guitar teacher but he could learn the rudiments and music history. The guitar and Julian became popular among the students, so much so, that the Principal of the College actually forbade young Jules to bring his guitar into the building. More little gigs, his fame spread, bigger gigs. Julian was taken under the wing of Tom Goff (maker of harpsichords, pal of the Queen); he eventually persuaded Julian to play the lute, making for him a beautiful instrument so that Julian became the ruler of ancient staves as well as classical, romantic and modern 'dots', as Julian dubbed printed music.

He began a concert-giving career, broadcast, made gramophone records, became a favourite at the Aldeburgh Festival, inspiring Benjamin Britten to write the song cycle Songs from the Chinese (tenor and guitar) in 1957 and the solo Nocturnal after John Dowland in 1963. When Britten was ill or too busy, Peter Pears and Julian gave recitals together, sometimes with guitar, sometimes lute. In time Julian formed a consort 'playing the ancient stave' with players including Joy Hall on the gamba and (my wife) Olive Zorian on violin.

Julian organised his life with skill and artistic sensability. When he toured in exotic places, India for example, he would extend his tour in order to get to know the place, its people food and drink. He also made a deal with his record company so that he had a free hand to record what he liked, where to record it and who should engineer the disc, an almost unique and profitable system.

Many composers wrote music for Bream: William Walton a song-cycle Anon in Love 1959 and some solo Bagatelles 1972; and Malcolm Arnold his Guitar Concerto in 1959 (lollipop tune in the first movement, deep blues second movement).

Love life: vigorous and varied, including a lengthy affair with the cellist Amaryllis Fleming, and three marriages, the second short and not sweet, the other two lasting longer but not ending well.

Julian's vernacular continued to be salty and fruity. He described himself at the festival in Elmau, Germany, as being 'knee deep in girls'; on entering a Royal Academy exhibition room dominated by a large nude: "crikey, I know 'er – what a smashing pair of plonkers". At one time he would offer a cigarette: "have a choob of narcotic joy" and, anticipating government warnings, "have a cancer rod".

Cricket was a passion, slow spin, occasionally with gloves to protect his 'German bands' (hands); every year at one time there was an annual match against the local Dorset farmers, pre-match net practice obligatory. I was warned that the opposing team were sometimes stroppy and refused to 'walk', arguing the toss with the umpires. Julian wittily circumvented that by engaging as umpires a couple of local Jesuit priests.

Julian had a penchant for fast cars. Once on the way to Glyndebourne a naughty driver cut rudely across our path. A bit later we spied the same car waiting to turn right at a traffic-light. "Shall we put the wind up the bugger?" says Julian and revs up the car; we whistle past the car; but the space was less than anticipated so that it was us who got the wind-up. Silence for ten minutes then Julian says "bloody hell, Amis, that was fag-papers".

He came no less than eight times to Darting ton to the Summer School, to play, teach, smoke his Gauloises, entertain and cut a swathe thought the girls. One day in class he criticized the sound one student made. "All very well for you, you've got a custom made box." Julian said he had a point and went round the class playing on all the students' instruments one by one (making a good sound on each one, as it happened).

One day Julian bashed his car and himself on a local bridge going home after a jar or three "I knew that bridge well, but that night it had gotten smaller". He recuperated, then started playing again. But some of the magic seemed to have gone; Julian was never the cleanest of players (unlike his friend and colleague, John Williams). The great thing about Julian's playing was his power of communication with an audience. Despite the occasional squeak.

Sibelius at Sixes and Sevens

In the nineteen-thirties Walter Legge, the great record producer, ran the Sibelius society, a collection of albums containing six of seven 78 records, not obtainable singly. He had occasion to visit Sibelius in his Finnish home, Järvenpåå, the composer was then in his seventies, Legge forty years younger; it was the young man's first encounter with the old master; he was on his best behaviour. Business was discussed, drinks were served, cigars smoked.

Legge dared to ask a question: "at the time of the composition of the sixth and seventh symphonies, had Sibelius been studying the works of Italian masters like Palestrina? Sibelius rose abruptly and disappeared into the garden, pausing only to pick up a hunting knife from a stand. Legge went to the window and saw Sibelius by a fruit tree, slashing at it with the knife. Legge went into the garden and apologised for his question. Sibelius said to him: "Finnish plumbing being what it is, if you want to pee before you go, do it out here".

Fast forward seventeen years. Schwarkopf (Mrs Legge) was in Helsingfors (Strauss Four Last Songs performance). Legge rang the composer: would a visit be welcome?" Yes.

Sibelius received them in his grand seigneur manner: "I seem to remember that you prefer the Mumm marque of champagne …Romeo y Julia cigars and, the answer to your previous question is, yes."

Since Pekka Saraste had just conducted the two symphonies in question. I went backstage to tell the conductor the above story. (He anticipated the punch-line). The BBCSO had played well for him; the sixth came out rather more forcefully than it did under Beecham's delicate handling; the seventh like the masterly monolith that it is. I haven't heard either symphony for some years and was refreshed and stimulated by the noble trombone theme that rises from the depth like the Krakenwake, by the sudden flurries of string semiquavers, the plangent wind statements, the use of augmented fourths, added sixths, the sudden silences, the brass chords that bulge from piano to forte, the almost sentimental phrases that are turned as austere as Easter Island stones, and the archaic use of modes.

The first half of the programme turned from Finland to the other country with which it shares linguistic roots, Hungary. The programme began with the Dance Suite that Bartok (forty-two years old at the time) composed on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the unification of Buda Pesth in 1923. The pattern begins with woodwind and brass in rhythmic, masculine style, notes mostly around and below middle C; with contrasting string sections in longer notes, high and lyrical. It sounds for all the world like a sketch for the Concerto for Orchestra that came some twenty years later.

Before the interval came …concertante… a rather rare longer work, 2003, by György Kurtag (born 1926). Like Mozart's famous work, Kurtag's features violin and viola soloists. But these soloists do not, like the earlier work, have grateful, lyrical or virtuoso lines to sing. The later work is rather brittle, even scratchy. Even the programme-notes conceded that "everything seems uncertain". The soloist were Hiromi Tuchi and Ken Hakii.

Just One Mastersinger

Tomlinson Wins the Prize but not the girl

We all know that Wagner's Mastersingers of Nürnberg is about a singing competition. At Covent Garden on Monday 19 December there was one clear winner: Sir John Tomlinson, who proved himself again to be a National Treasure. He is surely the Wagnerian bass of our time. He is in his late sixties and the voice is a bit grizzled but he is a 'passed' master not a past-master. This is a voice of ripe maturity, seasoned and mellowed, every note a joy. He played Pogner the father who generously gives his daughter Eva to be the prize of the Eurovision competition of 1868.

Second prize goes to the chorus of the Royal Opera House, director, Renato Balsadonna, flexible, well-tuned and fresh. Elsewhere there was a shortage of beautiful vocal sound. Where have all the good singers gone? Of the later Wagner operas this is the one into which he poured most melody but the score needs beautiful and meaningful singing; this performance lacked that vital commodity. The voice of the Walther, Simon O'Neill, was accurate but dry and reedy, dressed all in white with a vulgar cod-piece, he tended to resemble a pregnant blancmange. Eva, Emma Bell, looked pretty but made too few pretty sounds. Hans Sachs, Wolfgang Koch, dominated in the final 'Honour your German Masters' scene but elsewhere lacked charisma, although note perfect, and he didn't look good: costume unsatisfactory, too young. Peter Coleman-Wright sang well and in time will surely fill in more of Beckmesser's character but at least he was a plausible town clerk. There were good cameos from Robert Lloyd as the Night Watchman and Donald Maxwell as the baker Köthner.

Antonio Pappano conducted in ship-shape fashion without reaching any great heights. Graham Vick's production was blessedly straightforward and concept-free. Richard Hudson's Nürnberg dollhouses were again on show. The Act Two riot was just that: a riot; all in all, an enjoyable evening but not one to equal past performances. Still there was the chorus ….. and the great Tomlinson.