Category Archives: Opinions

Welcome Mahler Initiative from UK Government

Prime Minister David Cameron, Mahler biographer Henri Louis de la Grange and Home Secretary Teresa May announcing the new “Mahler Licence” scheme

I never would have expected that David Cameron was sufficiently savvie about music and about Mahler in particular to come up with this idea, but I have to say it all sounds surprisingly sensible, and makes me change my opinion about the man. Isn’t it nice when you form a bad opinion of somebody and later find out that you were wrong? — (though I doubt if I will ever have that experience with The Poisoned Pixie).

Anyway, follow this link to find out what I’m talking about.

Well done, Thomas!

Thomas Hampson appeared on the BBC TV programme ‘HARDtalk’ on 29th July. I wonder if he knew what he’d let himself into? The interviewer, Sarah Montague, is in the Jeremy Paxman mould, by which I mean she adopts an aggressive, confrontational attitude from the very outset, bandying about opinionated and emotive phrases about opera and its supposed elitism and so on. She also uses the old reliable technique of this type of interviewer by asking a question and then not allowing here interviewee a chance to answer it before she interrupts and talks over him.

But Thomas counters very effectively. Watch the video. See what you think.

Kristian Bezuidenhout

I keep on mentioning him and praising his recordings on fortepiano of concertos by Mendelssohn and Mozart, so it’s good to be able to feature a video of the man himself taking about his instrument and his love of Mozart. Kristian is one of the ten musicians on the final list for Gramophone Artist of the Year. I’ll be happy if he gets the award.

By the way, I’d really appreciate it if someone could tell me the correct pronunciation of Kristian’s name. He introduces himself on the video, but does so too quickly for me to catch it.

10 Greatest Pianists

Limelight magazine in Australia has just published one of those dreaded Ten Best articles, but this time it’s of interest to us and the list has been arrived at not by the general public but by people who should know what they’re talking about.

The article in question is The 10 Greatest Pianists of All Time and has the tagline “The most influential legendary pianists, as voted by modern-day masters of the instrument”. The list of modern-day masters definitely gives added credibility: included are Jonathan Biss, Cyprien Katsaris, Paul Lewis, Pascal Rogé, Stephen Hough, Cédric Tiberghien, Roger Woodward (?), Barry Douglas, Ingold Wunder (again, ?) and Leslie Howard (also involved in the nomination process were András Schiff, Ronald Brautigam, Garrick Ohlsson, Michael Endres, David Fray, Eldar Nebolsin Steven Osborne, Imogen Cooper, Till Fellner, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Fazil Say, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Alfred Brendel, Benjamin Grosvenor, Stanislav Ioudenitch, Alice Sara Ott, Olli Mustonen, Lars Vogt, Simon Trpceski, Jayson Gillham, Margaret Fingerhut, Howard Shelley, Anna Goldsworthy, Piotr Anderszewski, Freddy Kempf, Gerard Willems, Konstantin Scherbakov, Stephen Kovacevich, Denis Matsuev and Alexey Yemtsov — so there can be no quibble with the credentials of the ‘panel’.

The 10 Greatest list is interesting, with few surprises. All I’ll say is that I am quite surprised at which pianist gets the top spot.

Anyone need a hint or two? How about some photos, would that help?

Video wonders!

RTÉ, and yes, even the once-great BBC, should be ashamed of themselves. Mediocre coverage of the Dublin Piano Competition every three years if we’re lucky here at home, and a few Proms on BBC4 (provided they’re not too challenging, of course), and that’s about the extent of serious music on TV from these two broadcasters.

And then just look to our Continental neighbours and see what’s on offer there! Ron regularly keeps us in touch with the content he has access to thanks to his satellite and the Arte channel, and it’s difficult not to feel just a little bit jealous of what he can watch while we’re stuck with the likes of Strictly Come Dancing. Well now, thanks to the dear old internet, we can rid ourselves of some at least of our jealous feelings thanks to Arte’s web presence at Arte Live Web.

The site is only available in French and German, but that’s a small price to pay for such wonderful material so readily available. Among current offerings are the following: Veronique Gens in a concert titled Romantic Heroines (a promo tie-in to her CD of the same name); the gala performance of Russlan and Ludmilla from the refurbished Bolshoi Theatre, L’Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in a programme of works by Rossini, Berlioz and Mendelssohn, and even a complete Ring cycle (a ‘pared-down’ version, with just 18 musicians rather than a full symphony orchestra).

I’ve only just stumbled on this myself, and haven’t had time to do any more than dip into a few of the offerings, but I thought it right to share with you guys. Well worth a look, and perhaps an address to add to your browser bookmarks.

Marek Janowski on Regietheater (and his Wagner project)

Long ago, I pinned my colours to Marek Janowski’s mast, and I stick to my opinion that he is one of the greatest living conductors (if you can at all, listen to his recordings of the Brahms symphonies with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra). His latest recording project is tied in to the next big upcoming anniversary (the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth in 2013), and is an ambitious one — performing the ten major Wagner operas and recording the concert performances for Dutch label PentaTone, the first time this has been done with the same Orchestra, Choir and conductor. Maestro Janowski explains in this video interview his thinking about going for concert performances, and his main reason is his dissatisfaction with current opera productions in Germany.

The interview is longish (about 50 minutes), but some at least of you may find it worth persevering with.

Steve Reich: WTC 9/11

Who can forget Galen’s choice of music by Steve Reich as his first presentation to the Group? Well, the grand old man of Minimalism (Steve Reich, I mean, not Galen) has produced a new work inspired by the events of 9th September 2001. Its title is WTC 9/11, and it’s scheduled for release on the Nonesuch label on 20th September. The new work is joined on the disc by performances of two other Reich compositions: Mallet Quartet (2009) and Dance Patterns (2002).

Further information about the new work is available at the Nonesuch link above, and the CD can be ordered there as well. In the mean time, the wonderful NPR (eat your heart out Lyric, Classic FM and even BBC Radio 3) provides an opportunity to hear the whole thing as part of their First Listen series. A digital EP is available immediately which consists of WTC 9/11 on its own (downloadable from iTunes or from Qobuz).

I wouldn’t count myself as an especially dedicated fan of minimalism, but I have to say that WTC 9/11 is well worth a listen (especially the final movement). Follow that NPR link and see what you think. The piece is a little over 15 minutes in duration.

In case you don’t catch the link on the NPR page, they also offer an opportunity to hear Steve Reich speak about WTC 9/11.

Incidentally, the photo shows the composer with the members of the Kronos Quartet, who perform all three quartet parts on the new recording.

The Dude wows the Proms

I should have remembered, but other things took over on Saturday evening and I missed The Dude’s Proms performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra. Reading this review in yesterday’s Telegraph certainly makes me regret my oversight.

Executive summary from the review?

Expectations: colossal. Achievement: beyond that.

Yup, I’m sorry I missed it. Did anybody hit the Record button?

All of Liszt

Last month, Hyperion released their mammoth collection of the complete piano music of Franz Liszt, an undertaking which involves the massive total of 99 CDs (£250). This month they added a download option (£200). Total playing time for the lot is 7255 minutes 52 seconds, which is just about 5 days of non-stop listening. The recording project was a remarkable undertaking, of course. The first release was in July 1987, the final one in January this year. Leslie Howard has been the pianist throughout.

This all begs the question: why bother? Strangely (and I think I’ve mentioned this at one of our music sessions) my very first CD purchase was of Liszt piano music, despite the fact that I’m no great lover of much of it (generally more show than substance for my taste). I’m not alone in this opinion, and poor old Mr Liszt has been roundly castigated by critic after critic for the often poor quality of much of his enormous output (of which the piano music is just part). The other day, I came across an excellent article by Damian Thompson in The Spectator magazine. In Hit Liszt, he muses about how much of Liszt’s music shows him at or near his best, and how many of the 120 CDs it would take to hold Liszt’s entire output would remain if a collector decided it was time for a bit of spring cleaning. A first attempt reduces things to just 5 CDs, while a more ruthless set of criteria pares things down to just one double album.

I urge you to read the entire article. It’s well written, and makes several good points. Just one quote to give a flavour:

With Liszt, however, not only is there lots of irredeemable rubbish, but elsewhere it’s difficult to distinguish the tinsel from the magnificence, as Schumann put it. The same piece can sound noble or overblown, heartfelt or syrupy, depending on the interpretation. You could never say that Liszt is ‘music better than it can be played’: no composer of piano music is so completely at the mercy of the performer.

A bit harsh? Actually, the article isn’t as anti-Liszt as it may at first appear (the author has nothing but praise for the B minor piano sonata, for instance — “the greatest piano sonata composed since the death of Schubert”), and concludes by making an appeal (sort of) for a re-appraisal of Liszt’s work.

Remember, we’ve scheduled our own Liszt Day on 22nd October. Let’s see then who’s delved a bit and come up with a hidden gem or two.

Komische Oper’s ‘Fidelio’ too much for Carl St.Clair

On a cold Wednesday in Berlin this week, Carl St.Clair […] sat in the Potsdamer Platz wearing an overcoat and talking on his cell phone to a reporter back home in Orange County. He was getting his fix of Mexican food.

The topic of conversation was the surprise announcement, made May 10, that he would be leaving the Komische Oper, where he has served as general music director for three years, at the end of this season, two years before his contract was up. A press release cited “artistic differences” between St.Clair and the company’s intendant, Andreas Homoki, as the reason for the conductor’s departure.

The nature of those differences involves […] Regietheater, or “director’s opera,” St.Clair explained, a specialty of the Komische Oper. Regietheater gives a stage director complete control over how an opera is produced, and these days, in Germany especially, the result can be provocative, silly or scandalous, sometimes all three at once. The straw that broke St.Clair’s back is the company’s latest production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” which he is conducting.

“In this particular production I experienced what I would consider the darkest side of Regietheater,” St.Clair said, “where the back of Beethoven was used for a concept. … This concept used and abused Beethoven’s greatness in a way that was very disturbing to me.”

This is the opening of an article in the Orange County Register of 13th May. The production in question was Ron’s final musical event in his Berlin marathon (six operas, one concert), so it’ll be interesting to hear his take on this story.

Obviously, it’s premature to interpret Carl St.Clair’s decision as signaling the beginning of the end for baby-in-a-fridge opera productions, but it’s interesting all the same that this story comes hot on the heels (actually, also on 13th May) of a report in the LA Times of open criticism of LA Opera’s new staging of Wagner’s Ring by two of the singers involved. The LA Times article begins like this (follow the link for the whole thing):

In a rare public airing of artistic differences, the two leading singers in the Los Angeles Opera’s costly and ambitious staging of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle have harshly criticized the director, saying the production is artistically flawed and physically dangerous for performers.

Getting back to Fidelio, I was interested to read in the Orange County Register article that, not content with re-interpreting the staging of the opera, the director also actually dispensed with Beethoven’s overture! Whatever about determining what happens on stage, it does seem to me that interfering with the musical content is more than any director should have a right to do (sorry, despite all my best intentions to maintain a neutral tone, I just couldn’t help myself on this point).