Thursday, September 21, 2017
Evgeny Kissin’s name has certainly become a recognizeable name for all classical music fans. Now we have a new recording that celebrates his performances of the following works by Beethoven: Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 3 in C major, Op. 2 No. 3 Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2 ‘Moonlight’ Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 ‘Appassionata’ Variations (32) on an Original Theme in C minor, WoO 80 Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 Piano Sonata No. 26 in E flat major, Op. 81a ‘Les Adieux’ All performed by Evgeny Kissin (piano) Evgeny Kissin skyrocketed to international fame as a piano sensation in the 1980s. He thrilled international audiences with captivating interpretations of Romantic masterworks during his teens, and has since flourished as one of the world’s most charismatic and visionary performers. Today he is a living legend, one of the most iconic names and magnetic personalities in all of music.. Kissin’s discography so far contains landmark recordings for Deutsche Grammophon, critically acclaimed collaborations with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan and Claudio Abbado among them. Selected by the artist himself, this luxurious Beethoven double album represents Kissin’s personal journey with the composer’s solo work over the last decade and includes some of Beethoven’s greatest and best-loved solo piano works such as the “Moonlight” Sonata or the “Appassionata” – most of them never released before. This album is a first in a series of releases renewing the relationship between Kissin and Deutsche Grammophon. Here is Mr. Kissin in the Sonata number 32 by Beethoven:
The death of Pierre Bergé reminds me of the unexpected consequences of the wealthy fashion mogul’s decision to sack Daniel Barenboim as music director of the new Opéra Bastille in 1988. The cause of dismissal was, ostensibly, Barenboim’s $1.1 million salary, which Bergé wanted to cut by half. Bergé argued that Barenboim lacked operatic experience (true, at the time), that his programme was heavily weighted towards German operas (also true) and that he was too independent (tick that, too). But when Bergé got on the phone and tried to hire a replacement, he ran into a wall of maestro solidarity. No conductor of any consequence would agree to replace Barenboim. Most shocking of all, Herbert von Karajan cancelled a concert he was supposed to give at the Bastille, saying (through a spokesman) that ‘as Daniel Barenboim has been fired in debatable circumstances, he is no longer coming. He will conduct in Paris, but not at the Bastille.’ Now Karajan detested Barenboim. Richard Osborne, in his biography of the conductor, relates that the old Nazi practically leaped up from his sickbed after a heart attack when he was told that the young Israeli might replace him at a couple of Berlin concerts. Karajan never met Barenboim, never invited to him conduct at Salzburg or Berlin and never had a good word to say about the circle of musicians who hung out in Daniel’s den. Despite these prejudices, the conductor-for-life of the Berlin Philharmonic joined and actively led a boycott against the Bastille, outraged that a state-appointed dilettant like Bergé could impinge on the powers of a legitimate music director. In a passion, he picked up the phone and called Barenboim in Paris, asking what else he could do to support him. I don’t remember the details of the conversation, which Barenboim once shared with me (‘I was astonished,’ he said), but the essence of it was that all maestros must stick together or the whole of civilisation will fail. In retrospect, this would prove to be the final roar of the maestro myth . Karajan died in July 1989. Five years later, record labels sacked their conductors wholesale and the power of the podium was broken.
The last interview given by Sir George Solti before his death, twenty years ago today , was given to the present author at the end of July 1997, in his home on Elsworthy Road, Hampstead, a conductor’s street that once housed Edward Elgar and Henry Wood. Here is the full copyrighted text: SOLTI seemed so relaxed, so beamingly content, that I was almost tempted to believe the old typhoon had eased up. He had, just that morning, packed off to his publisher the third and final draft of an unexpectedly revealing autobiography, and was about to throw an engagement party for his elder daughter, Gabrielle, a London primary school teacher. Solti adored his two daughters, kept their mobile phone numbers taped to his desk so he could reach them at all times. Holding them as newborn babies, he confided, was the closest he ever came to a religious experience. The beam broadened, the serenity turned surreal. Shuffling about his St John’s Wood studio in a woolly cardy and a rollneck and sensitive to English draughts even in midsummer, Solti at 84 could be mistaken for an ousted potentate embracing benign patriarchy. Yet one glance at his piano lid gave the lie to any illusion of repose. The surface was littered with orchestral scores in states of disrepair. Solti did not read music, he tore in and ripped it apart – jabbing, snatching, scribbling, scrabbling for meaning and mastery. His favourite operas shuttled back and forth to the binders. He had been known to stab himself with a baton while conducting. “Nussing,” he sighed in his quaintly Magyarised English, “comes easy to me.” Nothing? I wondered “Almost nussing,” conceded Solti. His memoirs suggest he had no difficulty at all where women were concerned. Many willingly testified to his magnetism, going all hot and cold when he entered a room. He shot me a quizzical look, flirting disclosure. In the public eye, Solti played to perfection the part of Great Conductor – tyrannical and inspirational by turns; bristling with energy, yet preserving emotional aloofness. His very posture repelled intruders. He had been known to throw out an interviewer on the second question. His inner life was protected by a fireproof mask. All of which usefully fuelled a maestro mystique that, with the deaths of Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein at the turn of the Nineties, earned him an awesome solitude. “Solti,” said a senior record producer, “is the last of the giants. When he gives up, we can all go home.” “You know the nicest thing about Georg?” a woman friend had said. “He cannot believe the success he has achieved.” “That’s quite true,” agreed Solti, “although I know how hard I worked for it. Harder than anybody.” He started out in Budapest, the son of an unsuccessful businessman and a strong-willed mother who made sure there was enough money for piano lessons when little György – he became Georg on the German opera circuit – turned out to have perfect pitch. He gave his first piano recital at 12 and was quickly admitted to the Franz Liszt Academy, supplementing the syllabus with six weeks of private lessons from Bela Bartók. At the premiere of his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, Solti turned pages for the great composer. Had he stuck with the piano, he could have made a decent career. But Solti was determined to conduct, an unattainable dream in Admiral Horthy’s crypto-fascist Hungary. “It was out of the question that a Jew, which I am, should get any sort of state job – and all the orchestras and opera companies were owned by the state,” was Solti’s blunt recollection. Retracing his steps for autobiographical research, Solti had a whole village turn out to welcome him to his father’s birthplace, planting a tree in his honour and aggravating a deep-seated ambivalence. “It was a strange, moving occasion,” he said. “It brought me back to my Hungarian origins – because I strictly refused to have anything to do with them for years. I was chucked out twice, and that was enough.” In October 1932, aged 20, Solti went to Germany to work as an assistant to the conductor Josef Krips in Karlsruhe. Hardly had he found lodgings than a Nazi violinist tipped off the Volkische Beobachter, which launched a poisonous attack on Krips for engaging an “eastern Jew”. Back in Budapest, he scratched around for piano dates and worked as a repetiteur, rehearsing singers at the Opera. The conductor, Joseph Rosenstock, said he had never seen anyone “so talented, or so shy”. Finally, in 1937, he took a letter of introduction to the president of the Salzburg Festival, Baron Puthon, craving permission to observe at rehearsals. As luck would have it, he arrived during a flu epidemic. “Do you know The Magic Flute?” said the Baron. That afternoon, he was playing the rehearsal piano for the cast when Arturo Toscanini, the most fearsome conductor of all time, entered the room. “My heart stopped. I froze. With one finger, he gave me a tiny beat. I followed. After a while he said one word: ‘Bene.’ ” I heard Solti recount this story on his return to Salzburg 52 years later, breaking off a family holiday in Italy to stand in for the dead Karajan, a power-playing ex-Nazi who had placed every possible obstacle in his path. Remarkably, there was neither triumphalism nor bitterness in Solti’s voice, only a sense of wonderment. He next saw Toscanini in Switzerland in the summer of 1939, hoping to accompany him to America. Unable to get a visa, Solti received a cable from his mother telling him to stay put. Hitler had invaded Poland and Hungary was unsafe. During the war, his father died of natural causes; other relatives were murdered in the Holocaust. Trapped in a neutral state, without friends or a work permit, he was taken in by a tenor, Max Hirzel, in exchange for being taught the role of Tristan. In 1942, fearing repatriation, Solti chanced his hand at an international piano competition. “You know how hard it was for me?” he demanded. “I have no visual memory. Unlike Karajan and others who can turn a page and fix it in their minds, I have to learn bar by bar, and tone by tone. “I had what pianists call a finger memory, but, in the excitement of the Geneva competition, I lost it. We were four finalists and I was playing last. I arrived half an hour early and sat at the piano to warm up. I played the fugue from the middle of Beethoven’s opus 110 sonata, a very simple motif, and suddenly I didn’t know where to go. So – panic, sheer terrible panic. “I went out, wanted to go to the office to say I’m not playing, I’m sick. But nobody was there. I came down just as the other pianist finished. The usher said, ‘It’s your turn – go.’ I have no idea how the hell I got through it. I won first prize, but it was terrible. I was a wreck. Since then, I have learned music note by note.” The prize earned him enough money to live on for five months and official permission to teach five pupils “not one more”. Swiss neighbours reported him to the police for practising too loudly – “Why couldn’t they ask me first to be quiet?” he wondered. When the war ended, Solti was 32 and no nearer to his podium ambition. He got in touch with a Hungarian exile, Edward Kilenyi, who was in charge of music in the US occupation zone of Germany, and offered to head the opera in Munich. Rejected on sight, he went to Stuttgart and conducted Beethoven’s Fidelio, signing a contract as music director virtually the next morning. However, hearing that Munich was having second thoughts, he slipped out of town and went for the main chance, abrogating his contract and earning the enmity of the Stuttgart mayor, a future president of the Federal Republic. Most maestros cover up such moral lapses in their august memoirs, but Solti did not mind exposing the indecency of his haste. Having only ever conducted two operas – Figaro in Budapest and the Stuttgart Fidelio – he found himself in charge of a company hallowed by the two Richards, Wagner and Strauss. “It was not for several years that Munich began to discover I was conducting everything for the first time,” he said. He spent six years in Munich – “they chucked me out; the minister wanted a German, non-Jewish conductor” – and nine in Frankfurt, where the administrator eventually said to him: “Solti, you must go now; you are too good for us.” He was almost 50 before he hit the world stage, flying out to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra – only to fly straight back after a challenge to his artistic authority. He arrived in London in 1961 as music director at Covent Garden. The rest is unalloyed glory. Over the next decade, he raised the Royal Opera House to rank with the world leaders – Vienna, La Scala, Paris and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Under Solti, London saw big stars and epochal productions – the Callas-Gobbi Tosca, the first Moses und Aron, the most memorable of Arabellas. He taught Britain how to run a top-flight opera house and helped British-trained singers break into Europe. Dames Gwyneth Jones, Margaret Price and Kiri te Kanawa are all shoots from the Solti nursery. In 1969, he took up the baton at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and held sway for a quarter of a century, burnishing a big-band sound that raised a brash ensemble from the Midwest into world contention with Karajan’s all-conquering Berliners. The Chicago-Solti combination sold five million records. In all, Solti made about 300 recordings, including the major symphonic cycles and the first recorded Ring. No living maestro comes close. In America, where titles matter, he was pronounced the World’s Best Conductor. Yet, perhaps due to the frustrations of his delayed start, Solti pushed for more. His podium style, always ungainly, was likened by one US critic to shadow-boxing. In quieter passages, where other conductors put on a dreamy look, he fidgeted and fretted. “Why do you conduct all the time with both hands?” Richard Strauss once asked him. Some of his performances seemed driven to the point of pain. In rehearsal, his rages were apocalyptic. At Covent Garden, they called him “the Screaming Skull”; in Chicago, he was accused of replacing strong-willed players with sycophants. Musicians in the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which he directed from 1979 to 1983, referred to him in a volume of interviews as “poison”, “greedy” and – this from the LPO’s vice-chairman, Nicholas Busch – “the worst conductor ever”. The oldest member of the orchestra looked forward to dancing on his grave. Not one player in the whole book had a good word for him – yet Solti stepped in time and again to save the orchestra’s season when a music director fell sick or a management disintegrated. Everywhere he conducted there are musicians he helped in distress – with a quiet chat, a glowing reference or a personal cheque. He was an absolute pushover for hard-luck cases and refugee causes. When the Chinese opened fire at Tiananmen Square, Solti called off a Chicago tour and donated the proceeds of a London Messiah concert to stranded dissidents. “I became a refugee in August 1939,” he told them. “I know what it is to be cut off from my home.” Close friends found him warm, considerate and charming. Women found him irresistible. We were chatting about one of his Frankfurt friends, the Marxist dialectician Theodor Adorno, when Solti reflected that they shared a love of wine, women and good music – “in reverse order”. “Much the same as you do,” I ventured. “Not wine,” corrected Solti, whose evening tipple was a malt whisky. “But women?” “Always.” He recalled the sweet beginnings. “Until I came to Switzerland, I was very faithful. I had one girlfriend and I wanted to marry that girl. If I didn’t have such an intelligent mother, who said, ‘Just wait another year – you have no money’, who knows what might have been?” The loneliness of exile drove him to seek more varied company. His head was turned in the street by passing blondes, and very often he found them responsive. Later on, at Covent Garden, it was rumoured that Solti gave white mink coats to the singers he slept with. Counter-rumour had it that some singers bought themselves white minks to give an impression of intimacy with the music director. Who knows what to believe? In his memoirs, Solti has preserved a gentlemanly discretion. “I have been as truthful as possible in the book,” he said. “Listen, what’s wrong with liking women? Vat you want – I should be homosexual? It’s the natural way. A musician loves life. I love life in all directions.” But the act of love was never far from his mind. At a recent record industry party, he recalled being lobbied by an American executive who was defending three-minute shellacs against Decca’s long-playing record. Solti heard the man out, then said: “Tell me, what do you prefer – coitus interruptus, or coitus? Myself, I like coitus.” He married for the first time in Switzerland – a girl called Hedi Oechsli who was pregnant with her second child when they met, and left both husband and children for the penniless musician. Solti made no bones about the illicitness of their liaison. Nor did he make much of the fact that her husband was a member of parliament who could have had him expelled. Solti credited Hedi with getting him to read books and polishing his table manners. In London, she did much to smooth his path with the Covent Garden toffery. He met his second wife, Valerie Pitts, when she went to interview him one Friday night at the Savoy for BBC Television, and stayed. She was married and, at 27, barely half his age. “It was a violent affair,” he once said. Valerie opened his eyes to the visual arts and gave him a family, for which he would sacrifice anything – racing out of Chicago concerts to reach London in time for his little girl’s birthday. He lay awake worrying what could be done to bring young people back to classical music. He planned to collar Tony Blair and urge him to increase Covent Garden’s subsidy in exchange for cheaper seats. “Otherwise, better to close it down than to carry on muddling,” he believed. He made repeated attempts to push through a merger between two London orchestras and create a world-class ensemble. “It is a great sadness that we can’t play a better operatic or symphonic standard here,” he lamented. “The musicians deserve better and the public deserve better.” Latterly, I would watch him stand back in the podium and allow himself to enjoy the music. “He is extremely demanding and egotistical,” said a close associate before Solti’s death, “but, at heart, he is a very humble person.” In Chicago, he prayed for his successor, Daniel Barenboim, to do well, “because then I can be forgotten”. Asked how he would like to be remembered, Solti shrugged and seemed, for the first time in my experience, lost for words. As I moved towards the door, he made a parting request. “Would you kindly,” said Solti, “not bring out so much my love of ladies?” He shot me another of those male-to-male looks. “Anyway,” he added, quite unconvincingly, “I am an old man now.” (c) Norman Lebrecht, 1997
Publication of the Ultimate Classic FM Chart and a subsequent Guardian article has sparked some useful debate about what Kate Molleson terms in her article 'gateway drugs to classical music'. This debate prompts me to republish an article I wrote back in 2005 titled 'My first classical record' which I have conflated with a relevant extract from an even earlier post about collaborative filtering. Too little attention is paid to how people 'get' classical music. I hope republishing these somewhat discursive pieces from a more innocent time of music blogging may prompt others to usefully share the experience of their first classical record. What was the first classical record you bought? Mine was an LP of Herbert von Karajan conducting Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony, the 'Pathetique', with the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon 13892SLPM. I bought it in 1969 from a music shop in Reading where I was at University. The shop had listening booths with acoustic tiles, and it sold sheet music, musical instruments, and classical records. The LP is playing as I write. I have just serviced my Thorens TD125 turntable with SME arm (a capacitor in the motor control circuit blew after 30 years) seen below. The LP sound through my Arcam Alpha 10 amplifier and B & W Nautilus 803 speakers is magnificent, when the planets are aligned beneficially vinyl can still deliver a musicality that surpasses CD. (Thankfully I have kept my LP collection, and the surfaces are immaculate apart from the inevitable pressing blemishes). What overgrown path led me to buy that LP of the 'Pathetique'? Well, I can answer that question quite easily. Some years previously (1961?) I had been taken by my parents, while on holiday, to hear Tchaikovsky 6th played by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the Winter Gardens in Bournemouth. The conductor was a dynamic young Singaporean maestro Choo Hoey. (Googling for Choo Hoey pulls up references to a conductor active in the Far East, could this be the same one? - I must have seeen him more than forty years ago). Did that early hearing of Tchaikovsky 6 burn irreversible patterns into my neural networks a la Mozart Effect? Did the B minor key signature programme me towards an near obsession for Masses in minor keys in general, and Bach's masterpiece in particular? Was it that adiogio lamentoso last movement that inclined me towards the melancholic of the Four Temparaments? (Post coming up, time permitting, on a CD called the Four Temparaments - no not Carl Nielsen - it is an excellent new release from the innovative viol consort Phantasm, and it includes a setting for viols of the Byrd Four Part Mass!) Could it have been that brooding Siegfried Lauterwasser cover photograph of Karajan (this link gives an interesting perspective on Lauterwasser, who was HvK's 'court' photographer) that headed me towards a career that took me from the BBC, and then to EMI where I worked on some of Karajan's projects including his recording of Debussy's operatic masterpiece Pelleas et Melisande? That project summed up the Karajan conundrum completely, sublime music making and an odious personality. My favourite Karajan story is about when he was conducting at Bayreuth with Hans Knappertsbusch. There were just two lavatories at the end of a long corridor backstage. Karajan's personal secretary, it is said, put a notice on one, 'For the exclusive use of Herr Karajan'. An hour later a notice appeared on the other one written by Knappertsbusch, 'For all the other arseholes'. I was also involved with others in the Karajan circle. When Walter Legge died in 1979 I created an exhiibition at short notice for the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall in London. Legge's wife Elizabeth Schwarzkopf (below) viewed the exhibition before a Philharmonia Orchestra memorial concert, and complained to me that I had described Legge in the display as an 'entrepreneur.' Now I have often been wrong in my choice of words, but in that instance I am convinced I was dead right. But the path didn't just lead me to Karajan and his circle . My second LP was Bernard Haitink conducting the London Philharmonic in Holst's Planet Suite (A strange choice, the reading with its odd tempi has long since been deleted). Haitink resoundingly disproves the rule that you need an odious personality to be a great conductor. (And also Colin Davis - interesting he has no 'personal' web site, this is a quote from the article I've linked to.. I detest all that charisma stuff. It leads to unmusical things like the pursuit of power. The older I get, the more wary I am of power. It is a beastly ingredient in our society - he said that in 1990!). I lunched once with Haitink in the staff refectory at Glyndebourne to seek approval for the cover design of his recording of the Brahms Double Concerto with Perlman and Rostropovich (approval was given without a hint of the vanity and petulance cultivated by Riccardo Muti and others). In those days conductors had cover approval in their contracts, nowadays they have to start their own record labels to make a recording. While driving down to Glyndebourne I had been listening to Previn's first (and by far the best) recording of Walton's First Symphony on RCA. I suggested that Haitink looked at the score, and he subsequently recorded it for EMI. It wasn't a great commercial success, it was a lesson in leaving A & R planning to the professionals. (But I do remember suggesting that Previn recorded the Korngold Violin Concerto and Symphony in F sharp in the 1980s, only to be told he wouldn't touch film music. It is amazing how principles adapt to economics). Haitink later did go on to record a fine cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies for EMI after I left. I am always puzzled as to why this fine conductor never plays or records Sibelius. With his achievements recording Bruckner I have always thought Haitink would be a natural Sibelian. Just recently I've been interested, used, and worked on the peripheries of collaborative filtering. Amazon's recommendations are both maddening and very useful, and I have to say I've bought or borrowed from the library many recommendations. Most of my knowledge of, and passion for classical music has come from the serendipity of switching on BBC's Radio 3 before it was dumbed-down to the commercial benchmark. [This was written in 2004!, hearing a piece of music, and following that thread onwards. Like many I came to Mahler through the serendipidity of Visconti's Death in Venice in the early-70's, a serendipity aided and abetted by the Mahlerian style being digestible by a graduate who had been living with the Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and the Moody Blues for a few years. That's why I'm interested in musicplasma which I mentioned in an early post, it offers spontaneous links from one musician to another. My dream is to be able to work back from a CD and produce a map of every thread that led me to play it, every piece of music on route, and most importantly every fork that I took to reach it, and equally importantly the forks that I didn't take. I selfishly think that recreating even parts of that route may lead readers to similar delights and discoveries to those that fill my days with sunshine. Article first published on April 1, 2005. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Now also on Facebook and Twitter.
Classical music has always had its high earning high profile celebrities. But in the era of Karajan and Stokowski healthy admiration for their music making was mixed with an equally healthy scepticism about their excesses off the podium - see above. In the era of Dudamel and Rattle admiration for their music remains; but scepticism about their excesses - see below - has been replaced by remorselessly enforced approval. This unwillingness to accept that those with golden batons can also have feet of clay is driven by the widespread misapprehension that classical music needs a new messiah, and therefore any prospective saviour must be worshipped without question. Classical music is not dead. But it is under attack by the music Taliban who zealously enforce their own interpretation of the classical revelation. These Taliban use public platforms to deride anyone whose views deviate from the orthodoxy as a "tedious collection of cynics, snobs and the professionally underwhelmed". Karajan photo via chientewu blogspot. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.
The Swiss conductor will be awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society’s gold medal at the BBC Proms this week. press release: One of classical music’s highest honours, the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal, has been awarded to the Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit. He becomes the 103rd recipient since the medal was founded in 1870 in celebration of the centenary of the birth of Beethoven (London’s Philharmonic Society commissioned Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and enjoyed a close association with the composer). The medal will be presented to Charles Dutoit at the BBC Proms, on Thursday 17 August as part of a concert at the Royal Albert Hall (and live on BBC Radio 3) by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.* Charles Dutoit is Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and conducts a programme that includes Saint-Saën’s 3rd Symphony, commissioned by the Philharmonic Society in 1886. Current RPS Gold Medallists include Martha Argerich, Janet Baker, Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel, Placido Domingo, Bernard Haitink, György Kurtag, Antonio Pappano, Thomas Quasthoff, Simon Rattle, András Schiff, John Tomlinson and Mitsuko Uchida. Distinguished conductors previously awarded the RPS Gold Medal include: Thomas Beecham; Bruno Walter; Arturo Toscanini; Felix Weingartner; Adrian Boult; John Barbirolli; Herbert von Karajan; Leonard Bernstein; Georg Solti; Colin Davis; Pierre Boulez; Claudio Abbado; Charles Mackerras and Nikolaus Harnoncourt.