Saturday, August 10, 2013

Dear Friends

I really appreciate all the warm, caring and loving messages I have received in the past week.

Many of you have asked for details of the funeral and memorial services.

The funeral will take place on Tuesday 20 August 2013 at 11am at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church, Holborn Viaduct, London EC1A 2DQ (directions below), followed by a short service and burial in Aldeburgh on Wednesday 21 August at 12pm, at St Peter & St Paul's Parish Church. All welcome.

A memorial service will be held on Tuesday 8 October at St Paul's Knightsbridge.

Love, Isla

Isla Baring OAM
Tait Memorial Trust
London, Friday August 2nd

Dear Friends.

Darling John died peacefully last night at the Chelsea and Westminster – I was with him at the time.

I will miss him enormously, but shall remember all the wonderful times we shared together with so many of our dear friends, and so grateful for the music which brought us together. As Humphrey Burton says, “the very spirit of music…unforgettable and irreplaceable”.

Love, Isla

Isla Baring OAM
Tait Memorial Trust

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Damnation of Faust

'Damn braces: Bless relaxes' William Blake

Goethe's Faust gripped the imagination of the civilised world. Hector Berlioz was gripped amongst those; he couldn't wait to start setting it to music. A vast cantata was his work although its dramatic possibilities have spawned many staged versions, thousands of performances in the Paris Opera where forty years ago I saw the fattest Marguerite and Faust ( memorable also because Dinh Gilly was the most mellifluous Faust ever).

The latest performance was given in the Royal Festival Hall on April 30 and it did full justice to this (mostly inspired ) work conducted by veteran  conductor Charles Dutoit with the orchestra whose director he is - the Royal Philharmonic, superbly supported by the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus, in the finale by the New London Children's Choir.

There are three protagonists : Faust himself , Marguerite and Mephistopheles. Faustsings like  mo st French tenors of his century, including the fashionable high C (Tenors visiting Rossini were told to park their high Cs  in the cloakroom before entering his drawing room).

Berlioz brilliantly avoids fully characterising the golden plaited Marguerite by giving her two of the most exquisite, touching and poetic songs in all music. 

Mephisto scoops the pool. this devil doesn't have quite all the best tunes (only most of them). His is the weirdest music, the most Berliozian, electric, he is the ear catcher. Sir Willard White has been singing this part as long as I can remember but he is still the best, musically as outstanding as his voice. He has a resonance only ever equalled by the great Paul Robeson.

The unforgettable orchestral moments were duly unforgettable - the three piccolos squirming about like eels, the graceful Sylphs , the eloquent viola solo and the Hungarians so brazenly brassy.  It was a great evening, only  slightly let down, as usual, when the bracing stops and the final heaven starts to bless too long.

A Mad Ariadne

This season is Vladimir Jurowski's thirteenth and last season as Music Director at Glyndebourne. If he is sad to go it is nothing to the our sadness that he is going. Because he is a great musician and conductor, moreover his principles are of the purest. His ego is minimal; his ambitions are entirely for the good of music. If there is one weak spot it is that he has not spoken out against productions that he must surely know go against the intentions of the composer.       

But that is a general operatic malaise of our time and as far as I know Solti was the only one who ever rebelled and said he would not direct a production that contravened the composer's intentions. On the whole conductors either go with the producer's ego flow or they give in because they need the money. It was known, for example, that Haitink disliked certain productions while he was director at Covent Garden but forbore to make protest.                  

The buck is in the court of the direction of the opera house. Nowadays there is no overall boss who is willing to say yea or nea; it needs a Diaghilev or a Ninette de Valois director to override if a production looks like being contrary to the wishes of its creator. Such overall directors with good taste and general cultural expertise do not exist anymore it seems.                                                     

Nowadays it appears that a director is chosen, for whatever reason, and is given a free hand. So that by the time of the first rehearsals, the die is cast and it is too late for anybody to protest.  

And so to Glyndebourne' new production of Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos which I saw May 25, the third performance. Contrary to what I had heard: music fine, production bad, I found the staging of the Prologue quite acceptable, dear old Thomas Allen in superb form as a commanding , irrepressible Music Master, in good voice, Kate Lindsey a spirited sympathetic Composer although without the vocal warmth of Jurinac or Soderstrom. But post-interval, what do see?  A replica of wartime Glynders, a makeshift hospital ward and just to date it, attaché cases marked ENSA, blimey, Zerbinetta's going to play Gracie Fields! And Laura Claycomb is just as vocally agile as Gracie was but she is the least sexy 'Netta ever seen. In her aria she is always surrounded by nurses and even straitjacketed at one point, poor girl. This whole episode became like Mad Scenes from Ariadne. Anybody seeing this as their first Ariadne should ask for their money back, it's a travesty of the intentions of librettist Hofmansthal and composer Strauss. One is told that this is the début production of Katharina Thoma (why should we pay her college fees?).  
Once again, incidentally, we are paying good money to hear musicians busting their guts out to give us a superb musical performance whilst on stage the producer is busting her guts out to go against the intentions of composer and librettist.

The Finnish dramatic soprano Soile Isokoski gave a beautiful rendering of the deserted heroine, playing the title-role. The final duet when Bacchus rescues Ariadne is often an anti-climax but not in this performance mainly because of the excellent singing and presence of the Russian heroic tenor Sergey Skorokhodov, kitted out as air pilot. The harlequins were allowed to look like clowns but the Naiads were playing nursey-nursey. O what a tangled web this German producer wove!   And what an insult to a great composer and a great opera!
Shall we drink a glass of Lachrymae (John) Christie?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Land Cruise in Turkey

With my Oldie came an offer of an eight day trip around S.E. Turkey for a derisory sum that included fares, hotel accommodation, guide but not the two main meals of the day. Catch somewhere? A few extras, that's all. So this Oldie went for it, my ever- loving tagged along (single beds only, no spacious ' matrimonial') and we had a really good week. The tour had as its highlight a visit to Ephesus which never fails to delight and amaze, three hours of sheer joy culminating in the double storey Library.

We travelled in a not quite full coach. The admin firm is German but our driver Ibrahim, handsome boy, and our guide Nazim were both local Turks. The quality of the guide can make all the difference. No praise would be too high for Nazim: totally literate with only the slightest of accents, no bothersome vocal bad habits and a command of English that not only told all you wanted to know but was capable of summarising Turkish history and politics and, moreover, making good jokes as if English were his mother tongue. And he saw to it that we were punctual even to the point of some pretty early starts.               
The hotels varied but were always adequate but were different each night but one. At one place we had amateur belly dancing but on our last evening we had a company which was not only outstanding but was tireless in its efforts. It is not easy to transmute physical energy into art but this troupe from Anatolia had the audience thoroughly stimulated and worked up.          

If there was a weak spot in the tour it was those lunches and dinners that we shelled out for. No one starved or lacked adequate nutrition.  But it was boring to have buffets all the time: chopped up salad to begin with followed by chicken or rather dry beef, plus rice and it all seemed to have been cooked and dished up the same way. I am sure that most of us have enjoyed excellent Turkish cuisine in England. I suppose it was to do with the costing of the tours. But each of the hotels was large with big restaurants serving many groups, all with these everlasting boring buffets.
If there is a repeat next year of a similar nature, we shall be on it.

2 New Britten Biographies

Both books are entitled: BENJAMIN BRITTEN. Paul Kildea's is sub-titled A Life in the Twentieth Century, published by Allen Lane, 666p, £30. Neil Powell's sub-title is A Life for Music, 512pp, £25, Hutchinson.

Melancholy was surely Britten's temperament, yet he composed some of this century's happiest music. I need only mention the finales of the Young Person's Guide to music and the Spring Symphony. He was blessed with triple gifts; a genius of a composer, as a pianist-partner supreme, and one of the best conductors of his time. No wonder that Michael Tippett thought him the most musical person he had ever encountered. Yet Ben needed to be reassured, as a nervous performer, always having recourse to strong drink before lifting his baton. There is a story of a friend finding him hopping about on a carpet in an Amsterdam hotel: if he could get to the door without treading on a line of the pattern it would prove that he was a good composer.

Yet making music must have given him pleasure. And he was a happy traveller; likewise he enjoyed his food (nursery fodder – weak tummy) and drink. He was a voracious and wide-ranging reader, poetry and prose, and he must have taken pride in his expert settings of various languages besides English. In his setting of our native tongue he showed himself a master, a worthy follower of Dowland and Purcell. He could open the ears of his listeners to fresh thoughts about words that he made always audible and that he positively illuminated. Sometimes he botched spellings but he wrote thousands of fine letters (now duly published). How did he find time to accomplish what he did? His powers of concentration must have been almost superhuman, likewise his ability to work long hours. His various devoted helpers sometimes could not keep up to his pace – sometimes twenty pages of full score a day. When did he get time to think and dream?

He was always happy to be with children (even little girls sometimes!) He frequently fell in love with boys but, as two of them testified, David Hemmings and David Spenser, there was never any 'hanky-panky' (they both used that expression) even though they sometimes spent time in his bed. Happiness there was but also a certain melancholy that Leonard Bernstein described as emotions not quite meshing. His childhood days seem to have been his happiest and I think he always regretted their passing. Nevertheless composing was his keenest joy, a joy reflected in the subtle charm that delights us, a charm that never cloys. With time there was less of that charm – the experience of visiting Belsen left its mark.

Britten was a genius. He was modest… up to a point. He sacrificed his life to this art, his health too. Maybe that was why he also sacrificed many of his friends and colleagues when they transgressed – or he thought they did. The list of his 'corpses' is long and distressing. He could be cruel as well as wonderfully kind.

Both of these biographies deal fully and fairly with the life and works of Britten. There are no conspicuous gaps. Powell veers towards the literary angle which is understandable because he is also a poet. There are a few opinions one could argue about in both books but nothing serious. Kildea thinks more highly of Owen Wingrave than most of us who find it curate's-eggish, that the plot inspired neither BB nor us (Walton called it Owen Windbag), likewise Powell favours the cantatas, academic or pitying more than most of us and he is 'down' not on Jemmy Legs but the novice-flogging scene in Billy Budd. But these are tiny pimples on the flesh of two fine bodies of work, well produced, difficult to choose between them. If you are in funds, splash out on both. Here follow a few notes which I add from my long knowledge of Ben and Peter:
There's no need for Pears
To give himself airs;
He has them written
By Benjamin Britten.

Punch spoke the truth. There is no performer in musical history who had so much music, most of it can be called great music, written for him as Peter Pears. From Grimes through to Death in Venice via song-cycles, folk-song arrangements, cantatas, canticles; the tally is unique. And Pears repaid the gifts with his gifts. Britten thought that nobody was a better artist than his life companion.

Peter doesn't come unscathed in these biogs. He had many peccadillos. He was also often impatient with Ben being ill so often. He was also not interested in Ben's works written for others to perform. And he could be wildly jealous when Ben fell in love: Arda Mandikian told me that during the production of Turn of the Screw in Venice she got little sleep in her hotel bedroom next to Peter and Ben, because they screamed at each other all night because Ben was so blatantly besotted with Miles-David Hemmings. It was a sexless affair that ended abruptly on the day that Hemming's voice broke; apparently Ben had no further contact with the boy from that moment on.

Ben and Peter were better at engaging than dismissing. My wife was a victim. Olive Zorian had been leader of the English Opera Group Orchestra for some years when she heard that she had been given the chop. Every member of the orchestra knew that she was to be replaced but nobody had told her.

Ben loved games. Cricket when he was very young, later tennis and croquet. His swerving serve could only be returned if his opponent stood practically in the netting (as I found myself). One day he was playing croquet at the Red House with frequent Aldeburgh Festival performer and first Miss Jessel in Turn of the Screw, soprano, Ben managed to manoeuvre his ball from just behind the line with a croquet that got him actually through the hoop. Incredulous, Arda exclaimed: "Oh Ben, how do you get your balls in round the back." He replied "Well, I've had a good deal of experience." (Game, set and match)

He was determined to win and could get shirty if he didn't. He placed a ball as skilfully as he set down a note, always knew how a note could be sung, bowed, blowed or hit, how the singer(s) could find the note.

When he wrote the Nocturnal for the guitarist Julian Bream Ben swotted up by getting hold of a technical manual so that when Julian pointed out that one or two passages were not possible Britten apologised but asked Bream if he'd thought of using this fingering or that position. Julian goes away, follows Ben's suggestions and finds that they work. The harpist Osian Ellis had a similar experience; he changed an octave passage for the sake of convenience. Sometime later when rehearsing for a repeat performance of the new piece (Suite for harp) Britten asked him if he would try out his original disposition of the hands as written); Osian tried it and found that, of course, the composer was right.

One day after lunch with Erwin Stein and his family in St. John's Wood, Ben sat apart at a table writing dots in a manuscript. After some minutes he joined us for coffee, saying that he had just written the final notes of the full score of Peter Grimes. Historical moment.

Later I sat with Erwin in the Stalls of Sadler Wells A1 and 2 for the première of Peter Grimes – June 7, 1945, another historical moment, this time for Britten and opera in Britain. After the performance I supped with Michael Tippett and his poet friend, Brean Douglas Newton.

The choice of the opera to re-open the house after the war had been the subject of much contention; older members of the company (Edith Coates, for example, who played Auntie in the opera) had wanted to kick off with Aida or even Merrie England but the new work proved to be an inspired choice, the finest full length opera an English composer had ever composed and brought to performance literally epoch-making as well as making the name of Benjamin Britten famous throughout the world (and another biff in the eye for those who still thought of the UK as Das Land ohne Musik).

Kildea does Britten one disservice by stating that the composer was suffering from syphilis. Britten's own doctor says this is not true and that Kildea has not properly checked all the medical reports. Whatever is the truth of the matter the damage is done and somehow Britten's reputation will suffer.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Lutoslawski Festival

A Modern Master

A cellist sits down and begins to play, not a tune but a pulse, steady, as if going for a walk (orchestra tacet). Solo communion, starts to doodle a bit but maintains the walk, orchestra still silent. Strike? No, there is a sudden BLAST from the trumpets, a quiet foreign note, aggressive. More instruments join in. In a sense this could be called a concerto for it is a soloist against the orchestra. And so Lutoslawski continues. It is more like a cartoon then any concerto heard before, but a serious cartoon, not a funny Hoffnung one. No ordinary concerto form, obvious tunes or subjects first or second but gestures, over twenty minutes of them. Once the listener accepts this, the time is well spent.

The clue to all this is that Luto likes to play games, to juggle, to match, to oppose (compare Hesse and his Glass Bead Games). Not fun and games maybe, but games nevertheless. The cello part is certainly no joke. Composed for Rostropovich, it needs a master to tackle it. On March 7 in Festival Hall it got one! The tall young Norwegian Trulls Mørk more than filled the bill.

Witold Lutoslawski (1913 – 1994) was born into silver-spoon stock but had to contend with trials, troubles, wars, poverty and a totalitarian state – Poland was rarely free from trouble. But Luto was clever and diplomatic enough not always to be the mouse in contests with the state.  He was left to compose educational music for many years. He won prizes and gradually emerged as a composer in his own right. He became internationally known and was able to compose and travel abroad. During the war when concert halls were closed he played – piano duets in cafes with composer colleague Panufnik.

There was something catlike about Luto: dapper, with impeccable manners, he pursued his own course, belonged to no school or sect; in addition to his successful compositions he was also an excellent pianist and conductor. At the Dartington Summer School he also was much in demand as a teacher of composition, not the 'do it my way!' kind such as Hindemith or Nadia Boulanger, more of the 'Lets do it your way but better' variety.

George Benjamin's New Opera

A Cardboard Turkey?

Opera houses feel, quite rightly, that they are in duty bound to mount new works; if they didn't they would not get subsidies. But what about the quality of the new works performed? Maw, Maazel, Caligula, Turnage, Birtwistle? Not a great deal of musical worth there for the majority of true music lovers.

And now we have five performances of Written on Skin by George Benjamin (b.1960) a co-commission and production with Covent Garden and no less than four other opera houses, Aix-en-Provence, Amsterdam, Toulouse and Florence, a rare honour and outlook for a composer (and a % for his agent!). The text is by Martin Crimp and the plot is about a book which you might think a bit weird for an opera. It is based on an old legend from Occitan (yes, the same name Provence as the firm that nowadays makes intriguing scents.)  

The protagonists  are: a so-called Protector, a wealthy landowner addicted to purity and violence who considers his wife Agnes 'his property' (but she doesn't) – thoroughly non P.C. but the action takes place 800 years ago. There is a chorus of Angels and a Boy (on stage he looked middle-aged and sang like a counter-tenor). There is quite a lot of sexual shenanigans; the Boy gets murdered and Agnes suicides. The text is not very appealing and the music matches it. The score does not frighten the horses but seems to have no particular character, quite violent at times (not always parallel with the words) music neither didactic, systematic, nor melodic or pleasure seeking, e.g. neither serial nor cereal.

The action was busy, supers dressing and undressing the landowner frequently, much scuttling round the bed. I asked my companion why the supers on the first floor kept on moving about in slow motion. She said 'that’s modern, you know'. Good set by Vivki Mortimer and the production seemed to fit the action which was frequently punctuated by light changes to indicate a new scene. There was no interval; the opera was in three parts, 15 scenes, two hours duration. The audience applauded generously (as they always do these days, my booing was not audible).

Cast: the Protector – Christopher Pruves, the Boy – Bejun Mehta, Agnes – Barbara Hannigan; the composer conducted.


Down-Dating in Art

Literally Zeitgeist means 'time-ghost' but it has come to signify the expression of a period of time. Art can transport you backwards in time, and also to a particular place: think Pelléas, think Mahler, think Elgar and, here and now, think Kurt Weill/Berlin/Die Dreigroschenoper. Actually this ballad opera has performed the trick twice: firstly in 1728 with The Beggar's Opera, the father of the genre of ballad-operas; and then, exactly two hundred years later in Berlin, with text by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill (It also had another British life when it ran in Glastonbury and then London for over two hundred performances in the Twenties).

Weill composed his music so that singing-actors could perform. He scored it for a dance-band combo: cello, bass, flute, clarinet, bassoon, trombone, percussion, keyboards, bandoneon, banjo and mandoline, guitars, and pairs of saxes and trumpets. Vladimir Jurowski conducted but couldn't keep his hands off the piano, sharing it with the always excellent Catherine Edwards, first-class all of them, a superbly decadent racket, more Cabaret then Cabaret. Choir and orchestra of the London Philharmonic were on top-obviously-enjoying-themselves-form, bunched together in a rhomboid, all span and spick in white and black. The soloists were tip-top: Sir John Tomlinson/Peachum, gutsy and guttural, Felicity Palmer as sleazy as all get-out, Mark Padmore/Macheath as smooth as a Comedian Harmonist and what do you expect of a Jenny whose name is given in the programme book as Meow Meow? Right, you got it.

We owe a lot to the conductor, Vladimir Jurowski; this is his last season in Sussex where he has done wonders and as director of the LPO where he has done consistently marvellous work and devised really interesting programmes, as witness this Dreigroschenoper.  Hey, Mister Jurowski, thank you and …. what about bringing the whole lot of you to Glyndebourne to perform the opera on the stage? (The hills would be alive with the sound of Kurt Weill).

Onegin in Barn

In the depths of the Hampshire countryside is a wapping great barn with a V-shaped roof, partly brick-walled. It seats about two hundred, has a stage behind it, with an orchestra of twenty-five, previous members of South Bank Sinfonia with director Simon Over. The chorus consists of a score of students; the cast is singers under thirty mostly. This is Bury Court Opera lined up for its annual show, Eugene Onegin, whose plot was near to the heart of Tchaikovsky because he, like Onegin, had received a letter in which the writer confessed love. But the composer, unlike Onegin, married the girl despite his homosexuality. Tchaikovsky spoke of his dislike of Onegin's treatment of Tatyana in refusing her advances.      

Tchaikovsky could not have foreseen that Onegin would be cherished and survive whereas his other operas with much more conventional scenarios would not be anywhere near as successful. T gave his operatic masterpiece to students for its premiere. He was surely right to do so for Onegin works much better in more intimate surroundings than the bigger houses and Bury Court proved it once again. Well produced by Sebastian Harcombe sympathetically, simply, and without any of the current production nonsenses we suffer the opera went to the heart as it should do. Tchaikovsky would have been as pleased as the audience was on March 16th in Hampshire (I think).
The singing was uniformly satisfactory neither reaching the highs (or lows) of opera houses where the average ticket price has many noughts. Ilona Domnich born St Petersburg trained London was a thoroughly convincing Tatyana, good voice and looked extremely beautiful; she broke more hearts than Onegin's in that final duet. Gerard Collett was her Mr Ruthless, eloquent; surely Onegin was right to put her off, they would never have been happy. The husband Gremin (Welsh James Gower was young for the part but musically satisfying (perhaps he died soon enough for Onegin to have another go at widow Tatty?) Andrew Dickinson (Lensky) got better and more convincing as the evening went on. Anglo-Czech Lucia Spickova was a charming Madame Larina. The weather that evening was horribly cold and wet but after half an act the music and performance had warmed us all up.

West Side Story

Bernstein in Clink

Just beyond Devizes in Wiltshire there was a sign with the word OPERA written large. This targeted the venue of a performance that evening, March 10, the last of four, of Bernstein's West Side Story in HM Prison, Erlestoke, in an enclave, low buildings; with high wire mesh walls (you would need strong wire cutters to evade the security). Close on five hundred men are locked in with a staff of 400 'carers'.

The cast consists of prison inmates except for the male lead Robin Bailey, 'Jet' – well cast, fine voice in the Romeo role, and the ten girls headed by Welsh soprano, Caryl Hughes, every inch and beautifully sounded note a 'Juliet'. These were professional, the rest residents. There were five hundred closely packed in the audience, all duly finger-printed and ticketed, a captive audience in two senses because the performance was first class.

Like the score itself. If only one work by Bernstein were to survive, West Side Story surely should be that one, together with Rosenkavalier, Turandot through to Peter Grimes and other Britten  numbers. Interesting that at least three of the masterpieces of the 20th century are hybrids, in corporating music of a popular style, jazz, musicals and so on. West Side begins with jazz and ends (somewhere) with a number that is almost Brahmsian. Inspiration ran high with at least half a dozen hits and masterly continuity. Toby Purser directed a small combo that did justice to a work that goes to the heart and is emotionally provoking.

The production (Nikki Woolaston) was of a thoroughly professional standard, dancing, costumes to match.

The idea of prison performances was conceived by Wasfi Kani, music director of Pimlico Opera and I remember seeing Sweeney Todd some twenty-two years ago in Wormwood Scrubs (in the murderer's wing!) Each year sees performances in various gaols in London and the home countries. Authorities, inmates and audiences have all enjoyed the experiences. How many prisoners have gone straight as a result is not known.

Youth at the Helm

A Cracking Good Concert

The playing of student and youth orchestras took a vast step forward when advisers and administrators realised that style is only acquired by experience; that teenagers can cope with Prokofiev and Mahler more readily than Bach, Mozart and Haydn.

In the plethora of concerts sometimes there is one that makes life joyful, when programme, performance and even acoustics are just right. The event becomes an experience, routine is banished. Such an occasion was the concert in the Cadogan Hall on February22 played by the orchestra of Chetham's School, Manchester. It was a most satisfying and exhilarating event. The conductor, Paul Mann, had a perfect rapport with his players who gave him and the composers whose work they played all that was asked for, the result exceeding the sum of the items. O.K., some of the solos lacked the refinement and superior virtuosity of famous orchestras that I have heard give superlative accounts of the Symphony No 5 of Shostakovich under Stokowsky and Bernstein but the spirit was thrillingly right. it all worked: the strange flute reference to Carmen in the opening movement, those low growling horns and macabre trumpets, the piano pickingups, the eloquence of the slow movements strings, the sardonic E flat clarinet in the Waltz, the ecstatic trumpet solo in the finale and the thundering coda's resolution, everything was realized. And the acoustic in the Cadogan being so much smaller than the RFH, Barbican or Bertie Hall made the audience much more than usually involved, even overwhelmed. Our ears were saturated, our hearts touched and our senses palpably stirred.

The first half of the concert was equally satisfying: first, Britten's farewell to the orchestra, his folk-song suite A Time there Was. Such innovatory combinations of sound and, towards the end, that heart-rending cor anglais solo that seems to stammer its life away.

Britten's valediction was followed by Prokofiev's impetuous entry into the concerto repertory, his number 1 with just about the most striking opening of any concerto, yearning, aspiring and quite gorgeous. The soloist was Yuanfan Yang (BBC Young Musician competition winner), still the slip of a boy but already a giant of the keyboard. The concerto is all bits and pieces but it somehow gels when played for all it is worth – and more. 

This was an evening to remember!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Aglaia Graf

Swiss Pianist

Good pianist, interesting programme. Swiss, daughter of veteran pianist. Peter Lukas-Graf. Venue, Swiss Church in Endell Street, Covent Garden, handsome –plain white room, altar the only clue to its ecumenism – alas, dreadful acoustic, bathroom style, fortes distorted.

Nice Schubert Sonata, the smaller one in A major, melodies to the fore but never running too long.

Next, Chopin's Andante spianato, not the best of this composer but some truly magical moments. Followed by Prokofiev a piece that I have never come across before in sixty years of recital-going with the title Après des vieux cahiers Opus 29, alternately gruff and rough like the second Concerto for piano, and lyrical, listener-friendly more like the third of his five.

The next work showed the pianist as a composer, talented at that. It was the world première of Announcement (of what we were not vouchsafed) the five-minutes of its duration gave no definite hint – hatch, match, despatch, certainly not bankruptcy. It featured one tone repeated many times, almost like a Fantasy on One Note. It paralled Le Gibet of Ravel but never sounded like that composer.

Finally, two of the Moments Musicaux of Rachmaninoff, one slow, one faster, not vintage S.R., no gorgeous lyrical passages but skilful wandering.

Aglaia is rising 27, pretty, nice manner on the platform, should have a successful career.
But I would have to hear her in surrounding more conducive to enjoyment than this Swiss church to write a meaningful review.

Jayson Gillham

One of the pleasures of being a critic is that you sometimes spot a tremendous talent before it becomes known to the public at large: in my sixty years writing about artists I was able to come across some young muzos that I recognised as being star quality. I was able to appreciate when he was only seventeen the conductor Simon Rattle, and the guitarist Julian Bream when he was in his mid-teens. And now I am happy to salute the young Australian pianist Jayson Gillham. I am not alone in saluting his talent: he has a following already, he has success with orchestras in various countries and has won important prizes such as the Gold Medal of the Royal Overseas League. At the 2012 Leeds Piano competition he was a semi-finalist and won warm praise from Sir Mark Elder; likewise in the Warsaw Competition he won praise from the great Marta Argarich.

Recently, I heard Jayson again at one of the Bob Boas Concerts in Mansfield Street when he played a recital programme of Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Debussy and two Liszt transcriptions. Each composer was done justice and the performances could not have been bettered. Gillham has virtuosity to spare but uses his technique as a springboard to making deeply satisfying and freshness of Bach (the G major Toccata), the wit and strength of Beethoven (opus 78, the ardent passion of Schumann (the Etudes symphoniques), the voluptuous poetry of Debussy (3Etudes) and the passion of Wagner (the Liebestod and the coruscating wit of the Rigoletto Paraphrase). It was a recital to cherish and remember. Jayson Gillham will surely have a big and important career.

Saturday, February 02, 2013


Curious that the conductors Monteux and Toscanini who gave fine performances of the Enigma Variations did not subsequently tackle Elgar's symphonies. I suspect that it was because those symphonies are, especially the first and last movements, subjective in emotional content whereas the Variations are more objective. I suspect that this was the reason for Beecham's high-handed, indeed ruthless cutting of the first symphony.

During the year after the premiere of that symphony the hundred or so performances of the work did not suffer the indignity of the Beecham treatment when he reduced the work's fifty or so minutes to a paltry 38.  The above thoughts were induced by attending the Barbican concert given by the BBCSO on January ll when Andrew Litton conducted a programme of British music. He proved himself once again to be yet another American conductor who can be relied on to get right inside the music of our composers. My only quibble concerns the extreme loudness of the playing; Litton seems to be suffering from a current delusion of performers: that volume equals intensity. The orchestra responded enthusiastically  and virtuosic ally to his exhortation, strings sang, bugles/ trumpets, likewise the muted trombones as they quietly barked out that four-chord phrase at the close of the Adagio, letting us hear Elgar's genius for inventing short phrases that are truly memorable.
In 1938 Benjamin Britten played the solo part in his new Piano Concerto, a dazzling performance (I heard it on the wireless) of a work that could only be written by a young man (curly-mop was just twenty-five at the time) The concerto does not outstay its 34 minute length, despite its show-off, look at me, mummy, quality. The four movements have genre titles, Toccata, Waltz, Impromptu and March, the third number being a replacement written for the revised version of 1945 (soloist Noel Mewton-Wood).

The soloist at the Barbican was another Benjamin, even younger than the composer was at the premiere but no less brilliant with the entire virtuoso pianistic. You may remember that Benjamin Grosvenor was a BBC finalist in 2004 when he was only eleven years old - he played the two-handed Ravel Concerto but the judges didn't give him the top-prize (because they thought he was too young, I heard). Andrew Litton presided on the podium meaningfully, artfully, successfully. The concert began with a twenty-minute number called Night Ferry; title derived from a poem by Robert Lowell where the ferry is depicted "huddled in a big sea, the whole craft ringing with an armourer's music." So, lots of scurrying strings and heavy brass but not somehow suggesting the ocean as well as composers in the past (Wagner, Debussy, Britten). The composer was Anne Clyne (born London 1980, living now and getting performances in the States). She seems to eschew melody and although there was plenty of movement in her piece there was little action.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Benjamin Britten - Musician and Man

In a sense, Benjamin Britten was a composer three times over: the genius who wrote the notes, the pianist who played as only a composer can play, aware of the music's structure and conjuring up the sound of the orchestra, and the conductor making music sound as though the ink were still dry. From the young man's hair-breadth daring brilliance through all the operas, songs of all kinds and instrumental pieces through to the last delicate look backs in tenderness. He could make magic at the keyboard in such a way as to cause Gerald Moore declare that he was the best accompanist there was. His playing at those operatic programmes where his Verdi was so compelling or the time when he played the opening bar's eight repeated chord of C minor of Fauré's Elégie before Fournier entered made one hold one's breath in sheer wonder. As a conductor he could raise a storm in The Hebrides that was shatteringly dramatic whilst his Mozart G minor Symphony was tragic in the extreme (with all possible repeats it took nearly three-quarters of an hour – heavenly length). 

Ben was a competitive chap: he wanted to be the best, he was modest in a way but sought to be the best. Generally, he was the best, even running the Aldeburgh Festival (how many other administrators could read a balance sheet as well as an orchestral score?) He was a good driver of fast cars (a sparky Jensen previous to a more sedate Rolls), he played tennis well with a vicious swerving serve that could only be received in the netting, he played croquet and even Happy Families (although Shostakovich won on his Christmas visit to Aldeburgh – I think Ben must have allowed his guest to win). On the other hand Ben admired people who did things as well as himself, in different fields mind you, as witness his duets with Richter or Rostropovich, Vishnievskaya. There has never in musical history been a love-match that produced so much music as Ben wrote for Peter Pears, at least eight song cycles and ten operas – from Grimes in 1945 to Death in Venice in 1973. The preponderance of subject matter relating to the corruption of innocence and sympathy for the oppressed must have had a lot to do with Ben's own experience, mainly because he was a homosexual. It may have been that he was always looking back to his childhood years.  

Britten believed his task was to write music for the living, to be useful to his fellow beings. Like Mozart, most of his music was composed with certain voices or instrumentalist in mind. he tailored the notes for the singers, for example, knowing which were the best ones wide, intervals or narrow, which parts of the voice 'spoke' best, was the singer better at quick music or slow; all the individually of the original singer is so much encapsulated in music that it amounts almost to a portrait of their particular voice. The music composed especially for Fischer Dieskau, Vyvyan, Baker, Mandikian, Vishnievskaya, Ferrier and Pears above all, still sounds like those singers even when others perform it. Britten also knew exactly how any instrumentalist was going to produce any note he wrote for him or her; which finger, methods of bowing, blowing, striking, pedalling, which string; you ignore his written indications at your peril. (By the way, none of this means that it is easy to perform: it is always possible though). Did he ever make a boo-boo in his orchestration? Just once, and he joked about it, it was so rare: he wrote a low note for the piccolo in Billy Budd which is off the instrument's range.  

Ben had charisma. He had the manner of a diffident prep school master, (clothes to match – a sports coat, grey bags à l'anglaise), speaking voice beguiling which the microphone distorted, it came out a bit like Prince Charles. He could charm you if he wanted something or liked you; but the charm would switch off if he didn't, or thought you might be hostile. There is too large a list of favourites who suddenly found that they were what he himself called 'corpses'. They were perhaps sacrifices to his career. But that was a dark side to his character. 

There were a couple of years when Ben would not work with the London Symphony because one day a couple of double-basses laughed at a newspaper joke while they had nothing to play for a few seconds. He thought they were laughing at him.  

His conducting was serious and penetrating; the heart and soul of the music was revealed.
It was curious about Peter's voice. With the consummation of their affair in the States, it changed, no longer that of a typical English choir tenor but, as some old friends pointed out, uncannily like the singing voice of Ben's mother. (Any comment, Dr. Freud?)

Perhaps Ben had one skin less than most of us. That might account for his sensitivity, his touchiness, maybe his genius.

Is the best of his music inspired by words? Not only are they impeccably set but they are set with an imagination that enhances and re-creates the original writer's spirit, style and imagery. He often chose words that you would think impossible to put to music or that would be destroyed in the setting. The only love duet, man and woman, occurs in The Prince of the Pagodas – wordless of course.

It was said that he turned down a knighthood but he was later awarded the Order of Merit and the first peerage ever awarded to a musician. He was happy to chum up with the Royals but that may have helped him to sleep nights in a country where, for most of his life, homosexuality was a criminal offence.

What a blessing it was to have lived at a time when it was possible to hear Britten play, conduct and produce a steady stream of wonderful new music!

Amis Anecdotage

Running parallel with the length of the main BBC studios in Maida Vale there is a narrow passage. One day the brilliant young percussionist Garry Ketell was carrying a large timp from backstage towards the main entrance. Coming the other way was Sir William Glock, at that time Controller of Music. They would have had to squeeze past each other; but when they were level Garry – a cheerful, cheeky Cockney bloke, said "Sir William, youre glocking my bangway".

In a BBC interview I talked to Garry about Pierre Boulez, chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra at that time, noted for his perceptive ear and his meticulous time-beating: did he ever make a mistake between time signatures, I asked? Oh yes, said Garry, he does sometimes. And what do you do when that happens? I sez to 'im, Boules, you just beat five and it should be seven (or whatever.) Sorry mate, he sez, and we do it again. Also sprach Garry Kettel.

One day in a master-class at Bryanston, a young soprano was singing a German Lied, a love song. Elisabeth Schumann stopped her and said 'Ach, my dear, I think you do not quite understand the German words." "But, Madame Schumann, I am German." "Oh, are you? but then you are very young; aber this is a love song and perhaps you have not been in love yet." "But Madame Schumann, I am married and have three children." "Ach, then I say nothing more, SING!"

Sir Charles Groves went to Bournemouth Symphony as a guest during the years when the all-year-round director was Rudolf Schwarz. Now Schwarz had been tortured in concentration camps and his beat took some getting together because his body worked in an eccentric way, the beat sometimes coming from unexpected quarters, behind his back or from his arm pit. Groves came on to the platform, bowed and stretched out his arms ready to give the upbeat to the Overture to Weber's Euryanthe. Just at that moment a fly settled on his nose so his left arm reached out to swat it. The orchestra played the first chord.

Did opera in country places begin with Glyndebourne? No, it was Glastonbury with The Immortal Hour, 1914, which became popular enough for a revival in Birmingham in 1921 and a run in London the following two years, 276 performances in all. It became a cult show, people went several times, even named their children after the heroine, Etain (remember the Faery Song: 'How beautiful they are'). The composer was Rutland Boughton 1878 – 1960; he organised an annual festival at Glastonbury with a series of operas on Arthurian plots. It was a truly rural affair, just piano accompaniment and the theatre so small that if a singer exited stage left, he or she had to leave the hall and run around in the open air if the next entry was stage right. So I was told by Gwen ffrangcon Davies, who sang the part of Etain; later she gave up singing to become one of our most distinguished actresses – I interviewed her when she was a hundred years old!

Boughton's idiom in those days was influenced by Wagner and the vogue for his music not survive the thirties.


Well into his eighties, Casals announced that he was going to marry again, to a Puerto Rico girl atleast fifty years younger. His doctor worried: the marriage could be fatal; your health might not stand it; You are well into your eighties: she is a young girl, again I say, as your doctor and your friend, Pau, the marriage could be fatal. Think about it. .....Casals pondered for several minutes, smoking his pipe, and then he said: "well, Diaz, all I can say is - if she dies, she dies. 

When Bax died in 1952 Walton was considerably miffed that he was not appointed Master of the Queens Music. The honour went instead to Sir Arthur Bliss. It so happened that, a few months before Walton died he passed out one day and was clinically dead for a few minutes but came round. While he was convalescing a friend asked him about those few minutes when he was clinically dead, what was happening on the other side, were they playing late Beethoven?"

No, William answered, "It was mercifully quiet, but then a fanfare started up, not one of mine.... Bliss, I suppose.   

EMIL GILELS was touring the States and one of his recitals took him to a remote place in the Boondocks. Nobody came to see him in the artist's room except just one person, obviously a guy from the sticks, sucking a straw. But Gilels was happy that at any rate somebody had come backstage to see him so they talked for quite a while. But as the guy was leaving, he said "Mr Gilels, you've been very kind, before I go could you answer a question that's been kind of bothering me, it's a matter of pronunciation: should it be Schumann or Schubert?

ALFRED KALMUS was a music publisher and administrator who joined the Viennese firm of Universal Edition as a young man he often met Mahler. The composer was always impetuous and in a hurry.  One day on hearing a noise from the street he rushed to the window, breaking the pane and cutting himself enough to make his forehead bleed. Knowing how accident-prone he was the office staff always looked out of the window when he was imminent. He usually came by tram but would often leap off before the tram had come to a stop. One day he got off so precipitously that a large package dropped from his overcoat pocket and the tram ran over the package, completely bifurcating it. Mahler picked up the two halves and stray pages of what was the proof of the orchestral score of the Symphony no. 9. Greatly upset he rushed into the office and the staff set about the tricky task of putting together the precious sheets of the Master's latest work.

One evening in Wembley after dinner Dr. K got out his visitors book and showed me a page where guests Alban Berg and George Gershwin had dined together with Alfred. Each composer had written a few bars of music from operas that never saw the light of day, publication or performance: Berg's Pandora' s Box and Geshwin's The Dybbuk. (Where is that visitor' book now, I wonder.)

Britten retained a certain innocence in things even when he had become a household name as the composer of Peter Grimes, the YPG et al. One day in the mid-fifties he said to Olive Zorian the leader of his EOG Orchestra at the Aldeburgh Festival: "I've lost no less than four Festival programme books this year. I can't understand it because I wrote my name on each one. 

Richard Strauss stopped a rehearsal of Don Juan and said: Gentlemen, you are playing like married men; but I want you to play as if you were engaged men.

Puccini used to send his friends and relatives a panettone by way of a Christmas card. One year he found that his secretary had sent one by mistake to his friend Toscanini. They were having a tiff. Puccini sent Toscanini a telegram: PANNETONE SENT BY MISTAKE. - PUCCINI. Back came another telegram: PANNETONE EATEN BY MISTAKE. TOSCANINI.                   


Some of the BBCSO were a bit uppity with Arturo the Great, none more so that the flautist, Robert Murchie. The conductor told him to leave the Queens Hall rehearsal. Slightly the worse for alcohol Murchie lurched towards the exit, knocking over a few viola stands on the way. At the door he turned to give Toscanini a few final cuss words but the conductor cut him short with: "Too late to apologise, you go"

A very pretty woman entered the Green Room. "Sir Thomas, I have a request; will you be godfather to my child?" Looking her up and down " Certainly, dear lady; but do we have to bring God into it?             


Leonard Bernstein employed a man whose main task was to stand in the wings with a lighted cigarette so that LB could take a couple of puffs in between taking bows on stage. - Herbert von Karajan employed a man whose main task was to stand similarly at the ready,  not with a cigarette but a brush and comb.


MALCOLM ARNOLD was playing the piano one summer's day many years ago. It was a hot day so the window was wide open. He was playing from the score a symphony by Mahler. Suddenly he was aware that somebody down in the street was singing or whistling the theme he was playing. He rushed to the window and called out: how do you know that tune? The woman down in the street answered: because my father wrote was Mahler's daughter Anna. She was at the time married to the conductor  Anatole Fistoulari. 

HANS KNAPPERTBUSCH found that his agent had booked him in to conduct a very dud orchestra in the Ruhr, the Bochum Philharmonic. He felt he had to honour the arrangement so he went. The chairman of the orchestra took him out to dinner, after the concert and during it he asked the conductor Herr Professor Knappertbusch, let's see, when was the last time you conducted the Bochum Philharmonic? Tonight.

GEORGE SOLTI was rehearsing the Royal Opera Orchestra in Covent Garden for a concert the work was the Fantastic Symphony. At one point he stopped and said to the fourth trumpet, what kind of instrument are you using? It sounds horrible. The player answered: It's a standard Boosey and Hawkes B flat. Horrible noise. Oh well, on we go. A minute later the first horn put up his hand: Sir George, what kind of a baton are you using?

SIR ADRIAN BOULT was known for his mildness, losing his temper perhaps once a decade. I asked him in an interview what caused that to happen, who did he lose it with? " Oh, railway porters and the like" So, usually he was good mannered and equable although he could be sharp if he thought a player inattentive. He was modest to a fault, which is perhaps why his autobiography Blowing my own Trumpet is rather bland and unrevealing, disappointing except for the first chapter, about his childhood. His strongest term of opprobrium was "you silly sausage" Asked once why his books on conducting concentrate entirely on the practical elements of the craft, never touching on the more intangible, profounder, side of the art, he answered " Well, yes, of course, there is that side of it.......but I am an Englishman, you know, and I don't go in for that sort of thing very much." 

One evening at Covent Garden Montserrat Caballé was the female lead in Ballo in Maschera.  Haitink looked up to give her the cue for her next entry in the love duet - but she wasn't to be seen. He managed to stop the orchestra, and then picked the phone on the conductor's desk. "

Get me the stage director; he hissed to the operator on the switch-board "I can't do that, sir. There's a performance going on"   "That, my dear, is where you are entirely wrong".