Haunted by Old Russia: Rachmaninoff’s lonely final years

Ask a roomful of concert pianists to pick their graveyard moment in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1909) and they’ll almost certainly point to five or so pages halfway through the last movement where an ant nest of piano notes infests a sparse orchestral threnody. When an elderly Vladimir Horowitz performed this passage – lank, dyed pageboy hair framing his Bela Lugosi face, hands darting over and under each other like butterflies – he looked more like a weaver at his loom than a virtuoso at his instrument. There are flickers of concentration, but the overall impression is one of extreme insouciance. ‘I am a Russian composer, and the land

How to see Switzerland by train

As we all know, the Swiss love their clocks, their cheese and their chocolate. They also adore their railway. The trains are clean, comfortable, convenient and you can set your (Swiss) watch by them.  The system is 175 years old this year, a fact recently celebrated by the running of the world’s longest train through the Swiss Alps. It was quite a feat and took years to plan. The 1.2 mile-long train comprised 100 carriages and passed over 48 bridges and through 22 tunnels during its 15-mile journey, setting a new Guinness World Record as it did so. If you’re exasperated by British trains with the constant strikes, delays, cancellations,

The roots of 20th-century German aggression

It is the contention of Peter Wilson, professor of the history of war at Oxford University and the author of an acclaimed history of the Thirty Years’ War, that military historians have focused too much on the German wars of the 20th century in trying to understand German ‘militarism’ as a distinctive characteristic – a ‘genius for war’ imitated by others. As he points out, Germany and Austria lost the first world war, and Germany, with Austria now attached, lost the second as well. A ‘genius for war’ evidently needs some rethinking. Wilson wants to place these modern wars in perspective, stretching back to the 15th century. To understand how

The timeless mystery of Charlie Chaplin

Eleven years ago, I was summoned to the Manoir de Ban, a huge white house overlooking Lake Geneva, to meet Michael Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s oldest surviving son. Charlie Chaplin had lived here for the last 24 years of his life. Now the house was empty, and the family wanted to turn it into a museum. I doubted it would ever happen, but I was keen to look around the house and I was eager to meet Michael. Chaplin’s biographer, Simon Louvish, had called him ‘the family rebel’. Michael had written a frank teenage memoir called I Couldn’t Smoke the Grass on My Father’s Lawn. The house was all shut up,

‘Staying Switzerland’ on Ukraine is impossible

The striking thing about the financial sanctions on Russia is not their severity, but just how many countries are joining in the effort. Switzerland has today announced that it will adopt the EU sanctions on Russia, particularly significant because it has been the biggest recipient of private transfers by Russians in recent years. The fact that such a traditionally neutral country is imposing sanctions will deepen the wedge between Putin and the rest of the ruling elite. Meanwhile in Asia, Japan, South Korea and Singapore have signed on to the economic measures on Russia. Their willingness to do this is as much about Taiwan as Ukraine; they know that China is

We could learn a thing or two from Swiss democracy

There was another referendum in Switzerland over the weekend. This one was about protecting the young from the evils of tobacco by banning advertising anywhere children might see it. This strikes me as a good deal more liberal than the measure from New Zealand’s mildly fascistic Jacinda Ardern, who insists that young people must never smoke at all, ever, or indeed the situation here where none of us is allowed actually to see a cigarette packet in case it gives us ideas. But it’s not just cigarette advertisements that the Swiss were voting on. There are other referendums on animal (and human) experiments in research as well as a couple

Even the greatest tennis players need to be adored

Louis MacNeice once wrote that if you want to know what chasing the Grail is like, ask Lancelot not Galahad. Because failure helps you see — the successful types are too busy succeeding. Two recent books on tennis put this theory to the test. The Master, by Christopher Clarey, long-time tennis correspondent for the NY Times, is about Roger Federer’s greatness. Clarey played for Williams College, where he ‘struggled and choked enough to understand just how difficult it can be to hit the shots that virtuosos like Federer make look routine’. Billie Jean King’s most recent autobiography, All In, is the second. She tells the story from Galahad’s point of

Brexit Britain can capitalise on the breakdown in EU-Swiss talks

It is a leading player in finance, and it’s companies are giants in life sciences and consumer goods. There were already lots of similarities between the Swiss and British economies, except that they are quite a bit richer and more successful than we are. Now we have something else in common: we have both been frozen out of the European Union’s Single Market. But hold on. Isn’t there an opportunity there as well? In truth, this would be the perfect moment to offer the Swiss a deal that would work for both sides – a common market. The Swiss have always had a fractious relationship with the EU. It has

Are Switzerland and France really ‘Islamophobic’?

Is Switzerland ‘Islamophobic’? Critics of the country’s decision to outlaw face coverings think so. The ‘Burqa ban’, which passed into law this week as a result of a narrow vote in a referendum, applies to any form of face covering in a public gathering, unless worn for health reasons, at religious congregations, or carnivals. The legislation is not, at least directly, aimed at Muslims. And, what’s more, very few Swiss Muslims wear a burqa or niqab: almost no-one in Switzerland wears a burka and only around 30 women wear the niqab, according to research by the University of Lucerne. But the condemnation has nonetheless been swift. It was ‘a dark day’ for Muslims, the Central Council of

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,

I went to hell and back to meet my new granddaughter

Wolfsegg, Austria I have finally understood what’s wrong with the modern world: motorways. These dehumanising slabs of asphalt covering our continents are Prometheus-like chains that lure us into non-stop movement and uniformity. But before you start screaming that you’ve been isolated for months and would give up a night with Jennifer Lawrence to roar down a highway, let me explain. It all began when Alexandra and I decided to visit my daughter and the new baby in Austria. It was my idea to drive there, the Swiss-German-Austrian borders having opened that very day. When the wife suggested a chauffeur, I said no. When the son assured me that I’d get

Swanky, stale and sullen, the summer music festival has had its day

‘Festival?’ said Nathan Milstein. ‘What is festival?’ I had naively asked the most immaculate of violinists where he used to play in the summer and he looked at me as if I had proposed an unnatural act. ‘Before the war,’ said Nathan, offering a glimpse of paradise lost, ‘Volodya and I would stay at Senar for six weeks with Rachmaninov.’ Volodya was Horowitz, his best friend. ‘In those days,’ he continued, ‘we liked to spend time with composers. A composer was someone you could talk to. He knew philosophy, literature, lepidoptery. Rachmaninov could name all the butterflies around Lake Lucerne. He liked me better than Volodya, maybe because I was

Switzerland is now an enemy of the rich

Gstaad The staff are back and all is well, as they used to say long ago in faraway places. The gardener and the cleaner are Portuguese, and they greet me, with their inherent dignity, from afar. The Filipina maid and cook almost gets me in a headlock trying to thank me for keeping her on salary while she rested at home. I shoo her away. Who does she take me for, a lowlife cheapskate like Philip Green? I didn’t hesitate to send them all home. Mind you, I’ve taken such a shellacking on the stock market that I’ll soon be applying for a job myself, perhaps as an ageing gigolo

Have we been fighting a very different disease to China?

One of the great mysteries of coronavirus is how the epidemic has become much more severe in Europe and North America than in the Far East. A disease which appeared to be on the wane in China, South Korea and elsewhere in mid-February suddenly erupted with a vengeance in Europe in March, with death tolls quickly surpassing those in Wuhan. Various explanations have been offered: from the Chinese lying about the extent of cases and deaths to the difficulties of enforcing lockdowns and launching intrusive tracking and tracing strategies in western democracies. But then have we really been fighting the same disease? A pre-publication paper from a team at the

High life | 7 March 2019

Gstaad   As everyone knows, the definition of serendipity is searching for a needle in a haystack, and instead finding a farmer’s daughter. Not so fast, as they say. I live among farmers and haystacks up here in the Alps, and I’ve yet to run into a farmer’s daughter who is worth the buckshot in the bottom. I was thinking of such matters all last week while skiing with my son and his two children. How happy I feel now, surrounded by wife and children and grandchildren — something I’ve avoided throughout my life while chasing daughters. Incidentally, the little turd Taki (just turned 13) is now so good a

High life | 7 February 2019

Gstaad   Here in Gstaad there is no worker alienation. Nor are the rich especially worried. The talk is about snow conditions, upcoming parties, the price of real estate, Brexit and, of course, socialism, a disease that strikes those far away from this Alpine resort, but has yet to infect any of the locals. I had a long chat with a friend of mine, born and bred up here, who makes his living teaching people how to ski and fixing their television sets after hours. ‘Don’t you ever mind when you see first hand how plush the new chalets are, especially of those like myself who made it the old-fashioned

Davos Notebook

Somehow I had managed more than a quarter of a century in journalism without ever going to Davos. It had become almost a badge of honour, the one gathering of global nabobs I had been able to dodge year after year. But here I am in the mountains of Switzerland, a new boy amid the pilgrims come to worship at the altar of globalisation. I am international by profession and inclination — could a diplomatic correspondent be anything else? — but I can report that this annual meeting of the world’s great and good makes itself easy to lampoon. One friend, also on his first Davos tour, says it is

High Life | 3 January 2019

Gstaad My annual end-of-year party in the Bagel was a bust. Too many people brought their friends and I ended up asking men and women to please leave both my bedroom and, especially, my bathroom. I had some very pretty young things drop in. Some even overstayed and — surprise, surprise — there were some items missing after the clean-up the next day. But that was then. I’m now in Gstaad for the duration. The good news for the nouveaux is that it rained like hell for three days, washing away all the snow. Skiing and new moolah don’t mix. Main Street now sounds a bit like Beirut — or

Where are the snows of yesteryear?

I like a book where you don’t think you’re going to be interested in the subject, but then find it’s so vigorously and engagingly written that you’re enchanted. This is one of those. I’m not a skier —I’m quickly bored when coffee-drinking mothers start recounting their children’s latest achievements on the piste — so I expected to have had enough by page five, as I set off across the blinding whiteness of this ‘biography’ of snow, written by a man who’s wearing ski-goggles in the jacket photo. But in Giles Whittell’s genial company, reading it was a great pleasure. An eloquent, witty writer, he bombards us with myth-busting facts, startling

High life | 6 December 2018

New York At times I used to think the place was real. The New York of films, that is. The reality is an urban agglomeration of millions, most of whom have a disinclination to speak English. Then there’s the celluloid city of 42nd Street, Annie Hall, Dead End, Rear Window and King Kong. This is the dream city I keep writing about, the one that stabs you in the gut because it’s gone. And it gets worse when you accept that it never existed in the first place. Like the woman of your dreams who has lost her looks and your best friend tells you they were never there. And