A euphoric meat-and-two-veg programme: Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich/Paavo Jarvi, at the Proms, reviewed

We used to call it a ‘meat and two veg’ programme, back in my concert planning days: the reliable set menu of an overture, a concerto and a symphony. It was an unfortunate term. No artistic planner likes to feel that they’re playing it safe, still less (and sources report that this goes double at the BBC) that they’re giving the public what they want. Traditional formats, familiar warhorses, dead white males: yawn! Then Paavo Jarvi and the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich rock up at the Proms with a Beethoven overture, a Tchaikovsky concerto and Dvorak’s New World symphony and what do you know? The Royal Albert Hall was packed.  We got

What do Beethoven, D.H. Lawrence and George Best have in common?

This is not a book about tennis. Roger Federer appears early on, trailed by the obligatory question ‘When will he retire?’ He figures more prominently in the final 80 pages – still looking, despite the imminence of hanging up his racquet, as if he moves ‘within a different, more accommodating dimension of time’. There are cameos from some of the game’s other stars at various points on the way to the exit: the young Bjorn Borg (‘heir to some non-specific Scandinavian malaise’), the often crocked Andy Murray (‘a mumble-core Hamlet’) and the middle-aged, disgraced Boris Becker (afflicted by a ‘hitherto unseen condition called testicular elbow’). But the title is a

Playing until her fingers bled: the dedication of the pianist Maria Yudina

The 20th century was an amazing time for Russian pianists, and the worse things got, politically and militarily, the more great pianists thrived, despite the extreme danger and discomfort in which they lived and in which some of them died. If we think immediately of Richter, the greatest of them all, and Gilels, there are at least 20 more that we could add without exaggeration. One of the most important was without question Maria Yudina, born in 1899, who astonishingly survived until 1970. She was not just a sovereign artist but an eccentric of the kind and degree that only Russia seems able and willing to supply. Reading a biography

The history of music – at breakneck speed

From Ladybird’s The Story of Music (a dinky 50 pages, generously illustrated) to Richard Taruskin’s five-volume epic The Oxford History of Western Music, the history of classical music has been sliced and stretched in print to fit every possible length, format and agenda. Andrew Gant’s Five Straight Lines joins the cluster of works jostling and elbowing at the midpoint of these extremes. The Oxford-based academic (whose previous books on carols and hymns have introduced us to a genial, approachable narrator, with a welcome glint in his eye), shouts no provocative argument or USP from his cover, makes no novel claims for his survey. This is, quite simply, a narrative of

Small but perfectly formed: the Royal College of Music Museum reopening reviewed

Haydn is looking well — in fact, he’s positively glowing. The dignified pose; the modest, intelligent smile: it’s only when you squint closely at the portrait that Thomas Hardy painted in London in 1791 that you clock the full peachy-pink smoothness of his complexion. It’s curious, because Haydn suffered disfiguring smallpox as a child, and a contemporary waxwork bust in Vienna is cratered like a moon in a periwig. Hardy’s portrait is a promotional image, commissioned by the music publisher John Bland. This is the Georgian equivalent of a celebrity headshot: a photoshopped, endlessly-reproduceable selling tool, so potent that it’s still being used to shift recordings 230 years later. Well,

How the culture wars are killing Western classical music

Musicology may appear an esoteric profession. But several events in the past few years have pushed musicological debates into the columns of national newspapers, from the American academic who claimed that music theory was a ‘racial ideology’ and should be dismantled, to the Oxford professor who allegedly suggested that studying ‘white European music’ caused ‘students of colour great distress’, to the high-profile resignation of a professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, reportedly in response to academic ‘cancel culture’. These disputes have not emerged from nowhere. They are the result of longer processes that have forced serious questions about the very place of music, and above all the Western classical

The reasons Beethoven is my man of the year

I could have predicted that music would be the thing to sustain me in this strange, often traumatic year: it can be thrilling or consoling, aspirational or confessional, as the situation requires. It has so much to say about loneliness and, in spite or because of that, can make you feel much less lonely. And it is just the thing when you are one Zoom meeting or White House press briefing away from preheating the oven and crawling in. What I did not expect was that Beethoven would be the music that meant most to me in this time. Perhaps this was foolish: Beethoven has, after all, been my greatest

Jonathan Biss: The sadness and euphoria of playing to an empty room

My November was bookended by two characteristic displays of grace. I ushered it in by falling on all fours while out for a run, skinning both knees and demolishing my pride; masked and bleeding is not a good look, even (especially?) on Halloween. I bid the month farewell by leaving my house in a torrential rainstorm — having consulted the weather report — wearing socks and shoes with holes in them, and carrying no umbrella. It seems I’ve been distracted. In my… well, not defence, but perhaps something adjacent to it, it was a hell of a month. After a seeming eternity of nothing, everything happened in November. I played

Enter the parallel universe that is the Lucerne Festival

There wasn’t going to be a Lucerne Festival this year. The annual month-long squillion-dollar international beano got cancelled, along with the rest of Europe’s musical life, round about the time that we were all starting to get bored of banana bread. Then suddenly, in late July, it was on again. The Swiss government authorised distanced and masked audiences of up to a thousand, and a series of nine concerts was rapidly improvised with locally available talent — which, when you have the determination, contacts and (crucially) bank balance of the Lucerne Festival, means people such as Cecilia Bartoli, Igor Levit and, for these opening concerts, Martha Argerich and Herbert Blomstedt,

Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas were his musical laboratory – here are the best recordings

If you want to understand Beethoven, listen to his piano sonatas. Without them, you’ll never grasp how the same man could write the hummable, easy-listening Septet of 1799 and the scraped dissonances of the 1825 Grosse Fuge, which even today scares Classic FM listeners. It’s the 32 sonatas, not the nine symphonies or 16 string quartets, that join the dots. The symphonies are monuments rather than a guidebook. For example, the Second doesn’t warn you that the Eroica is about to explode in your face. The quartets, meanwhile, jump from the six of Opus 18, in which Beethoven essentially pours new wine into old bottles, to the three Razumovskys of

If your instinct is to undermine Beethoven, you’re directing the wrong opera: Fidelio reviewed

‘People may say I can’t sing,’ said the soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, ‘but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.’ There were groans of dismay as an official walked out before the start of the Royal Opera’s new Fidelio: Jonas Kaufmann was not feeling on top form, but he was going to perform the role of Florestan regardless, and begged our indulgence. The mind plays tricks and after an announcement like that it’s hard to be entirely sure whether you’re hearing a skilfully proportioned interpretation or a singer dialling it down. But let the record show that Kaufmann did sing, and if you’ve booked for this production on the

Weill’s Broadway opera is made for telly: Opera North’s Street Scene reviewed

It’s a sweltering night in Manhattan, circa 1947, and on the doorstep of a brownstone tenement three women are waiting for their menfolk to return. There’s plenty to gossip about. The Hildebrands upstairs are being evicted tomorrow, and the Buchanans are expecting a baby. And what’s the deal with Mrs Maurrant and Steve the milkman? Old Mr Kaplan reads the newspaper and denounces the bourgeoisie. A kid cadges a dime and big, kind Lippo Fiorentino arrives home from work with ice creams for everyone. At which point it becomes fairly safe to conclude that the America of Kurt Weill’s Street Scene is not the America of his Mahagonny. Forget the

This year, I’m performing all 32 of Beethoven’s sonatas. Here’s why

For the past several decades, little in my life as a professional pianist has been as constant as my relationship with Beethoven. It has been intense, immersive, impassioned, hugely demanding and hugely enriching. In the current season, though, it has become something it never was before: exclusive. Let me explain. Like any serious piano student, I first began to work on one of Beethoven’s piano sonatas around the age of ten. From that point on, the work has never stopped. Beethoven’s music, in addition to its mastery, beauty and spirituality, has a force of personality perhaps unequalled by any other artist’s work in any medium or any era. For decades,

Why did the Soviets not want us to know about the pianist Maria Grinberg?

Only four women pianists have recorded complete cycles of the Beethoven piano sonatas: Maria Grinberg, Annie Fischer, H. J. Lim and Mari Kodama. I’ve written before about the chain-smoking ‘Ashtray Annie’ Fischer: she was a true poet of the piano and her Beethoven sonatas are remarkably penetrating — as, alas, is the sound of her beaten-up Bösendorfer. Lim produced her cycle in a hurry when she was just 24; it’s engaging but breathless. Kodama’s set, just completed, is a bit polite. Which leaves Maria Grinberg (1908–78), whose recordings remain just where the Soviet authorities wanted them. In obscurity. That is shameful — and not because she was the first woman

Barometer | 11 July 2019

Ode to all sorts Brexit party MPs were likened to Nazis for turning their backs on a recital of ‘Ode to Joy’, the EU’s anthem. Yet Beethoven’s melody itself has one association which liberal-minded folk might find unsavoury — between 1965 and 1979 it served as the national anthem of Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, using the words: ‘Rise, oh voices of Rhodesia,/ God may we Thy bounty share./ Give us strength to face all danger,/ And where challenge is, to dare.’ It was during this period, in 1972, that the Council of Europe adopted the tune as its own anthem. It then became the European Community’s anthem in 1985. Police numbers Boris

Shock tactics | 30 May 2019

Igor Levit has rapidly achieved cult status, as he certainly deserves. He has already reached the stage where he can programme enormous and pretty obscure works, such as Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia. Clearly, Levit’s taste runs to large-scale works, but his recently released disc, Life, shows his command of shorter pieces too. His first concert in this run of three was Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a performance that commanded an instant hush and was greeted with almost unseemly cheering and stamping from the Wigmore audience. Levit began this masterpiece in a remarkably quiet way, almost casually, but with an amazing singing tone. Indeed, except for the punctuating rigorous canons, he cultivated cantabile

All about that bass

Are Beethoven’s ‘Diabelli’ Variations really ‘the greatest of all piano works’, as Alfred Brendel claims? It’s hardly what you would call received wisdom. Even Stephen Kovacevich, who has given us two visionary recordings of the Diabellis, thinks some of the 33 variations are ‘boring’. I don’t agree, but I can understand why Brendel’s judgment seems odd. When the minor composer-cum-publisher Anton Diabelli sent his jaunty ‘waltz’ — really more of a country dance — to dozens of composers, he was hoping they’d each write one variation. He probably wasn’t expecting to hear back from the most famous and cranky person on his list — so you can imagine his astonishment

Hype and anti-hype

Apparently it’s called ‘expectation management’. Pollux, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s new work for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, takes its name from Greek myth. But as Salonen explains in his programme note, there’s more: lots more. It’s intended to form a diptych with a second piece called (naturally enough) Castor. It’s also part-inspired by Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, and an image (Salonen compares it to Salvador Dali) of a tree growing out of an ear. And finally there’s a ‘mantra rhythm’, which Salonen heard played by a post-grunge band ‘during dinner in a restaurant in the 11th arrondissement of Paris’, which all sounds very civilised. Still, that’s a lot of concepts for

Sound judgment

I’m unlucky with Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata. Twice in the past year I’ve bolted for the exit as soon the pianist crossed the finishing line. The first performance was phoned in to the Royal Festival Hall by a washed-out Maurizio Pollini. The second was musical chloroform, so dreary that it would be cruel to name the perpetrator. Cruel but fair, since I paid 30 quid for the ticket: Piers Lane. Fortunately he’d programmed it before the interval. By the time he’d moved on to Chopin I was back home listening to an Appassionata from another planet — simultaneously thoughtful and daring, the finale taken at such a perilous speed that it’s

Inviting Jansons to the Barbican was like pouring vintage Pol Roger into a throwaway plastic cup

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Mariss Jansons Barbican NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover / Andrew Manze Symphony Hall At the end of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony Mariss Jansons asked the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra to stand up, and they refused. That’s not something that occurs in every concert; in fact, you might never see it happen. But this act of low-key mutiny is about the highest tribute an orchestra can pay to a conductor – to decline credit for the applause, handing it over in its entirety to the old maestro standing in their midst, looking shattered. A few moments later, Mitsuko Uchida presented Jansons with the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic