Saturday, 31 March 2012

16th. Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival Warsaw 25 March - 6 April 2012

Unfortunately I have little time to attend all the concerts of this festival (my own writing and research takes up so much time) but at least two of the pianists interested me greatly.

25 March

The splendid miltitaristic and certainly festive performance of  Wellington’s Victory, Op. 91 appropriately opened the Festival followed by what must be considered a unique assemblage of talent. The Triple Concerto in C major, Op. 56 was performed with three winners of the recent Tchaikovsky Competion in Moscow on their various instruments.

Daniil Trifonov – piano

Sergey Dogadin – violin
Narek Hakhnazaryan – cello

The chamber music section of the competition meant these three must have already had an immense command of ensemble playing and for me it was remarkable performance of this admittedly light, charming work. Daniil Trifonov listened carefully to the other solists and played in his usual intensely sensitive and musical manner. One of the most gifted young musicians of our time. The orchestra, in fact the whole ensemble, emerged as a seamless blend of conversational musical interchange of parts with the orchestra [Clemens Schuldt conducted the Beethoven Academy Orchestra]. I was particularly struck by the deep musicality of the cellist  Narek Hakhnazaryan whom I feel is a profound musical spirit who has come among us. Sergey Dogadin is also a musician who moves the soul and heart with his warmth and whose technique is beyond compare.

I got the distinct feeling of a potentially great Trio in this asemblage of brilliant talent - along the past lines of the youthful genii Barenboim, Zuckerman and Du Pre. However with the decline in interest in chamber music in concert halls together with Lieder performances (pace the wonderful Wigmore Hall in London and BBC Radio 3's superb week devoted to Schubert) and I suppose under the intense pressure of competition and the marketing pressure of record companies and their agents they will pursue individual careers. I truly hope ensemble playing and solo work can be combined for them. It was a truly wonderful performance. 

Call me prejudiced, unfair and narrow-minded if you will but I find it terribly difficult to listen to modern performances of the Brahms symphonies these days. However brilliant the orchestra and conductor they always fall short of Herbert von Karajan or Wihelm Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic or Vienna Philharmonic. I have lived with these historic recordings all my long life and cannot get the phrasing and climacterics out of my inner ears. I simply can no longer be objective about those compelling performances.

All this being said it was a fine interpretation of the Brahms Symphony No. 4 by Clemens Schuldt and the Beethoven Academy Orchestra. 

28 March

I first heard Russian-German pianist Igor Levit play at the Duszniki Zdroj Festival in 2005. As well as a sonata by Mozart and Prokofiev and the Schumann's Fantasy in C major op.17, he gave a fine performance with a very moving spoken introduction to Schumann's final work, the Geistervariationen WoO24 (1854) or 'Ghost' Variations. Afterwards we spoke with reverence of the two greatest living pianists in his opinion - Grigory Sokolov and Alfred Brendel.

It was with great pleasure then that I anticipated hearing him again in Warsaw playing Beethoven's 'Emperor' Concerto in E flat major, Op. 73. I had written of him in my literary travel book about Poland A Country in the Moon:

The soulful young  Russian Igor Levit is deeply involved with the music of Schumann. He movingly reminded the audience of the genesis of the ‘Ghost’ Sonata [sic], written when the composer was on the brink of suicide in a mental institution and where after completing the final variation he fell forever silent.

I must have been thinking of Strindberg's chamber play 'The Ghost Sonata' when I erroneously and embarassingly wrote 'Sonata' instead of 'Variations on an Original Theme' which is the correct title of this work. Levit pointed this out to me without realising my discomfiture, being rather a perfectionist in my researches myself.

Levit was quite superb in the Beethoven with a complete grasp of the classical style and grand, almost grandiose even militaristic gestures this concerto demands. He played with great sensitivity, verve and elan - qualities that are required in what is perhaps Beethoven's most imaginative concerto, despite his having lost faith in the 'Emperor' (Napoleon) of the title. Andrey Boreyko, the  conductor of the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker worked together well with the pianist although I always feel these days that not nearly enough time is able to be spent in rehearsal.

Incidentally this is one of the reasons the great Grigory Sokolov does not play concertos in public performance. This perfectionist feels that with the limited time allowed for rehearsal he cannot come to a satisfying joint conception of the work in question with the conductor and orchestra.

As an encore Levit played a superb interpretative account of the  Wagner-Liszt Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. This was one of the finest and most sensitive performances I have heard for many years - marvellous. I believe Levit is presently deeply involved with Liszt's music and will soon give a concert in the wonderful city of Weimar.

A fine young artist of immense potential and of whom we are bound to hear a great deal more in the future.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Eccentric Club Dinner at the Savile Club, 69 Brook Street, Mayfair on the evening of 21 March 2012 in the presence of H.R.H. the Prince Philip

Pretentious moi?  Probably but it's fun in is own way. One only lives once and the standards one was brought up with should be maintained as one ages. I cling desperately to the coat-tails of the 'inequality onslaught' as my once comfortable income is unpleasantly reduced by the recession and the financial chaos in Europe. The oligarchs rise inexorably in a triumph of mediocrity. I also fight a thankless task against the frightful levelling of 'political correctness'. This club and the art of individualist and fearless conversation it maintains helps somewhat to foster a normal sense of human proportion and morality. Nil Nisi Bonum - Nothing But Good

Click on pictures to enlarge

I made a special trip to London from Warsaw for this entertaining event and was so pleased I did so. The venue was the Savile Club at 69 Brook Street London W.1 once owned by Viscountess Harcourt. The club occupies one of the greatest original Mayfair interiors. Here the subject of my recent biography in progress, my great-uncle Edward Cahill and his musical partner George Brooke, played for Queen Mary and other distinguished guests on 1 July 1924. The Queen had not been 'out to dinner' for many years. Edward was mentioned in the Court Circular concerning this recital and so it became the astonishing beginning of his glittering London career.

The Savile Club at 69-71 Brook Street Mayfair
By some extraordinary serendipity I had dinner in this very same house, probably very same room as 'Uncle Eddie' with the Eccentric Club patron and royal of my own day, H.R.H. The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh together with Lord Bath and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and about 60 fellow members of the Eccentric Club. An absolutely extraordinary coincidence 88 years later. We ate in the opulent former Ballroom, surely the most outstanding survival in a private London house. The Ball in the Fourth Series of Downton Abbey was filmed here. The silver and blue colour scheme was based on that of the vastly more ornate yet exquisite Amalienburg, a small mansion pavilion de plaisance in the gardens of the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich. Oddly enough I had visited this palace last summer and think it deserves a detailed representation here, although not 'strictly to subject'.  

The Amalienburg, one of the most beautiful small buildings in the world, is a high point of the exuberant Bavarian Rococo and a wonder of Bavaria. It was designed in 1734 by the ugly and diminutive Walloon Francois Cuvilles but who posessed an inner life of the greatest beauty. This maison de plaisance is his masterpiece. It is the first of four charming and highly artistic pavilions in the Nymphenburg Palace Park. The Electress Amalia (wife of the Elector Karl Albert) would shoot from the platform on the roof which is surrounded by a gilded grille (this can be seen in the photograph). One can imagine a scene here as being worthy of a painting or tapestry: a miniature palace, the Electress surrounded by ladies of the court, driven game and leaping stags. The facade is of great elegance.

Detail of the highly ornate blue and silver interior of the octagonal Hall of Mirrors in the Amalienburg - surely the apotheosis of the eighteenth century rococo. Against the pale blue-grey walls a riot of silver cupids, cornucopias, musical instruments, quivers of arrows, nets and fish, hunting-horns - a tumultous adoration of the chase. Across the flat domed ceiling fly pigeons, duck and snipe as if frozen against the azure sky. It is small wonder that the Viscountess Harcourt wished to imitate this room in Mayfair but with less bucolic Bavarian fantasy and dreams. Sir Henry 'Chips' Channon, the great diarist, also imitated the Amalienburg in his house in Belgravia.

Detail from the Bedroom. The Elector Karl Albert in hunting garb on one side of the bed niche is flanked by his wife Maria Amalia (also in hunting attire) on the other. The superb woodcarving on the wall panelling was executed by the court woodcarver Johann Joachim Dietrich
Detail from the Kitchen decorated in superb Dutch tiles
Detail from the painted panelling in the Dog and Gun Room

The choice of sartorial accoutrements is vital at such an event. Understandably wishing to appear 'individual' and at least a little 'eccentric' one treads a fine line between the dullness of unadorned Black Tie and the exhibitionist nature of Union Jacks and lurid ties that revolve.

I decidedly wished to avoid any comments passed on me reminiscent of one evening at the historic George Inn at Southwark when I was drinking at the bar dressed in a black Naval jacket with brass buttons, gold coronet and sporting a tie with Davidoff cigar motif. An inebriated specimen, a master of the elegantly turned phrase, leaned over and far too close to my face vilely uttered in mellifluous Cockney

'People who dress like you make me puke!' 

'Good Lord! Steady on.' was my inadequate reply.

I certainly wanted to avoid that sort of thing, one does, although it would be highly unlikely among gentlemen of this club.

I had brought from Warsaw my absolutely correct single-breasted, peaked lapel dinner suit (one button closure) tailored by Ede and Ravenscroft of Chancery Lane and Savile Row, trousers held aloft by their beautiful black silk Moire braces with braided loops. The less expensive notched lapel dinner suit with two button closure are not really on to my mind. Shawl collar is fine for relaxed Black Tie events. Marcella formal shirt with conventional collar avoiding like the plague the (inappropriate for Black Tie) winged variety. Barathea self-tie bow tie, again avoiding the made up model lest I be blackballed from the club. Onyx and gold studs and links. 

My single eccentric gesture was to wear my deep green velvet waistcoat with gold embroidered Imperial Napoleonic bees, an item I fell in love with instantly sometime, somewhere in the St. James's bazaars and which cost a fabulous amount at the time. 

In some trepidation, as I had been warned of their fragility, I also ordered a Gardenia boutonniere from a florist (Paul Thomas Flowers) in Mayfair. The correct preparation of this superb flower for a buttonhole, cut directly from the potted plant, was a fascinating and complex technical exercise to witness. No pocket handkerchief if one wears a boutonniere.   Owl and clock badge of the club (similar to that on the dinner menu) fixed to the other lapel. Patent leather court shoes by Church and calf-length New and Lingwood evening socks completed my outfit. At the dinner I received only effusive compliments on my waistcoat thank goodness.

The invitation requested that one arrive at the eccentric hour of 7.13pm. I think Lord Bath and myself were the only members who actually observed this directive as we arrived at Brook Street simultaneously at that exact time.

Rather than rabbit on about the food let me just say it was excellent, clearly from the finest sourced ingredients and perfectly cooked. To produce around 80 beautifully pink and hot Saddle of Lamb at the one time requires a chef and  kitchen organisation of no mean order. The menu was chosen by H.R.H. The Prince Philip himself and reflects English cultural preferences concerning food at their finest and most traditional, reminiscent of many other famous Eccentric Club Dinners. Piper-Heidsieck champagne was served from the moment of arrival and throughout the meal in addition to other carefully chosen table wines.

'Old Friends' Lt. to Rt. Lord Bath, Lord Montague of Beaulieu, H.R.H. The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
The rather dashing and personable hatter Alex Torun-Shaw (Laird & Co Hatters of Covent Garden) with (to me at least) an unknown lady. Needless to say he too is married to a beautiful Polish girl - all the best men are! (She is not pictured here).

H.R.H. The Prince Philip clearly preoccupied with more striking matters than chatting inconsequentially to yours truly standing expectantly on the far right. However following this moment of bliss he did engage me briefly in conversation.

H.R.H. The Prince Philip made one of his famous ‘quick off the mark’ and barbed repartee remarks when I spoke to him. Very amusing it was and perfectly in character. I had briefly explained something of my great-uncle:
‘Your Royal Highness, my great-uncle, played Chopin for various members of your extended family in the 1920s – Queen Mary in this very house in 1924, also Princess Beatrice, HH Princess Helena Victoria' and so on. He listened attentively and then remarked with quite terrible irony as he turned to the next interlocutor ‘Well...lucky for them!’.
A superb put down….though not particularly deserved I thought!

Towards the conclusion of the meal after the Sabayon and engaged in 'deep conversation' with my glamorous friend Jan Taylor-Strong, raised in Hollywood and a Mayfair hostess of the traditional school (note the resting Imperial Napoleonic bees and other etceteras).

A wonderful, convivial evening meeting with old and making many new friends. I was one of the last to leave the Savile Club Bar at 1.30am. 

Nil Nisi Bonum runs the motto of the club Nothing But Good.

Heartily observed on this night.

Note on Imperial Napoleonic bees: Symbol of immortality and resurrection, the bee was chosen so as to link the new dynasty to the very origins of France. Golden bees (in fact, cicadas) were discovered in 1653 in Tournai in the tomb of Childeric I, founder in 457 of the Merovingian dynasty and father of Clovis. They were considered as the oldest emblem of the sovereigns of France.

General view of the dinner in the Ballroom as it appears today

See also


For an account of the dinner with H.R.H. the Prince Philip in February 2010 at the 'old' Arts Club

Grigory Sokolov in Warsaw 24 March 2012

          Today there are a few truly great pianists - then there is Sokolov

I returned to Warsaw from London and my researches early on Friday especially to experience a musical soul whom I consider to be the greatest living pianist. Each recital promises to be a profound musical experience and a new adventure into  interpretative recreation possible at the instrument.

I first heard Sokolov in 1993 playing the Op. 25 Chopin Etudes in the small concert room in the atelier of the Chopin Museum in Warsaw, a room sadly no longer in use for this purpose. He was a legend in the Chopin Society even then, his very name breathed with reverence and awe. It was a shattering musical encounter I have never forgotten. I would cross great oceans in a twinkling to hear him perform.

Sokolov is that rare species, a pianist at home with the entire Classical and Romantic repertoire but also attracted to music originally written for the harpsichord - composers such as Froberger, Bach, Francois Couperin and Rameau. His astounding technique, variety of articulation, dynamic range and felt depth of emotion make his interpretations or rather recreations of this music, deeply convincing despite 'purist objections' to the contrary.  Another sound and spiritual dimension opens before one. 

He began his recital with the extensive Suite in D Minor by Rameau of 1724. Baroque ornamentation and performance practice, so important in these works, in particular the ubiquitous trills, are exceedingly difficult technically  to bring off convincingly on a modern concert Steinway. Such ornaments must remain part of the melodic line rather than become unsightly accretions plastered onto the decorative scheme or insistent doorbells ringing unanswered. This is a formidable task as the keys of the modern pianoforte are so heavy compared to a featherlight harpsichord and control of the dynamic and velocity is thus so problematical. They bear no relation to Beethoven's extended trills.

However Sokolov's glittering technique and enormous variety of staccato and legato made his performance of the suite an absolute tour de force. A unique light was shone on Rameau's sound world, a domain on the piano that became more solid but in some ways less plaintive, vulnerable or yearning than when performed with the resonant complex colours, eighteenth century associations and terraced dynamics of the harpsichord. The piano to my mind acts upon the blood, the harpsichord upon the nervous system. Of course the more bucolic elements of Rameau, the peasant roughness of the hurdy-gurdy, dance and the astringent rustic 'garlic' possible on the harpsichord were lost but an unaccustomed expressive range of 'romantic' even feminine sentiment were surprisingly revealed. What a challenge Sokolov set himself here and how he managed it with such superb panache and virtuosity.

He then played the Mozart Sonata in A Minor KV 310 of 1778. I must admit to not being convinced by this account and felt it could have been performed with less weight, more refinement at a significantly lower dynamic. I felt it lacked elegance, clouded humour and the light-weight elan, even on occasion affectation that makes Mozart so seductive and a perfect expression of the eighteenth century galant style. Mozart is not Beethoven although  both are lumped together as 'Classical' composers. 

Perhaps I have heard too much Mozart on elegant Graf, Walter and Stein fortepianos. I feel the Mozart piano sonatas and the concerti benefit from that particular feeling of tension that arises from the restraint of passion and the indication of darkness rather than a bald statement of tragedy or joy. Of course I had ringing in my ears the refined Mozart of the 'classical' rather emotionally cool Alfred Brendel, or Walter Giseking, Annie Fischer, Radu Lupu  or the young Barenboim - all masters for me of the Mozartian style.  All these interpretative judgements are very personal....everyone has their own view of Mozart. He was considered trivial by serious and worthy musicians as recently as the 1930s and even later.

After the interval the Brahms. I felt there would be an 'elective affinity' between this composer and this artist. How right I was...

He opened with the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel Op. 24 0f 1861. Some time ago I learnt that Brahms had actually edited a complete edition of the music of Francois Couperin which astounded me - could two composers be less alike? But Brahms was attracted, like many composers of the period, to what they termed  'antique music'.

Our ears had already been 'historically prepared' as it were by what had come before the interval. Sokolov slowly and methodically erected a vast cathedral structure in sound of monumental proportions, his transcendental technique taking us into philosophical and musical realms only dreamed of by lesser pianists. It was a regal and magnificent conception, striking one in the same manner as say the cyclopean mountains ranged about the shores of Lac Leman in Switzerland 

Then the three Intermezzi op. 117 of 1892. Words fail me to express the effect of his sublime interpretations of these profoundly meditative works. The audience were fused into a solid block of rapt attention and concentration. Few felt they wanted to break the extraordinary spell woven in sound by  this great Russian soul at the conclusion. Deeply moving and unforgettable. The finest account of the Intermezzi I have ever heard. As a friend of mine commented afterwards 'He seems to love every single note he plays, every sound he makes.'

Among his many encores a final fragment by Scriabin took wing like an angel and hovered, suspended above us until the sound faded into oblivion....

Accuse me of hyperbole if you will, I am seldom prey to this failing, but if you were not there you cannot charge me with being prey to it.

What a tragedy that a mindless and philistine bureaucracy has deprived English audiences of hearing this uniquely powerful musical voice and absorbing into their hearts his exalted musical spirit. 

(As a Russian citizen I believe he refuses to be fingerprinted for a visitor's visa required for him to perform in Britain. The bone-headed authorities will make no exceptions even for this musical genius).

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

In Search of Edward Cahill's 'At Home' London recitals. A recent walking tour of Mayfair and elsewhere in and around the great metropolis

Edward Cahill (1885-1975)
For those of you who have been following my ongoing work in progress in the many postings over the last two years concerning the brilliant but forgotten Australian pianist Edward Cahill, I have been in London for the last two weeks searching out the surviving great town houses that 'Uncle Eddie' played in and the residences he lived in during the 1920s and 1930s. Some houses were bombed during WWII and some buildings completely redeveloped such as Brook House in Park Lane (now an Aston Martin showroom).
Here is a selection of photographs I have taken with my trusty Leica.           

Click on to enlarge

28 Kensington Court London W.8  The London home 'lent' by the Dowager Lady Swathyling where Edward Cahill performed in January 1926
Some of the fine houses in Kensington Court London W.8. Mainly nineteenth century Flemish Gothic.

28 South Street London W.1 where Edward practised in an empty house on a piano owned by Gwyneth Quilter in 1926 

'Stranraer' Warrington Crescent London W.9 where Eddie gave his first harpsichord recital on a modern Pleyel instrument with Major Benton-Fletcher the great harpsichord collector, in attendance (file photo)
69 Brook Street London W.1 owned by Viscountess Harcourt where Edward Cahill and George Brooke played for Queen Mary and other distinguished guests on 1 July 1924. The Queen had not been 'out to dinner' for many years. Edward was mentioned in the Court Circular concerning this recital and so it became the astonishing beginning of his glittering London career. Now the premises of the Savile Club.

By some extraordinary serendipity I shall be having dinner there next week with our patron HRH the Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Lord Bath and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and about 60 other members of the Eccentric Club. An absolutely extraordinary coincidence 88 years later. I covered the last dinner with the Duke which took place at the Arts Club on 17 February 2010 in the posting

26 Randolph Crescent Maida Vale London W.9 where Eddie lived during his First and Second UK Tours 1923 and 1927
General view of Randolph Crescent Maida Vale London W.9 where Eddie lived during his First and Second UK Tours 1923 and 1927
The Hyde Park front of Norwich House, 4 Norfolk Street (now Dunraven Street) London W.1  'lent' by Mrs. Robert Emmet where on Monday June 29th 1925, Edward Cahill gave a recital in the presence of H.R.H. Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll. Reminiscent of the bow windows of a seaside promenade as if overlooking the 'sea' of Hyde Park.

Edward Cahill's patron Maud Denny's London residence at 73 Grosvenor Street London W.1 where Eddie and George hosted their own 'At Home' in May 1925. Now the London headquarters of Estee Lauder cosmetics.

77-78 Pall Mall, Westminster in 1950. Schomberg House - not to be confused with the other Schomberg House almost opposite. Home to HH Princess Helena Victoria and her sister HH Princess Marie Louise and where Edward Cahill gave a number of recitals in the 1930s

November 8, 1928 concert at 26, Belgrave Square, home of Lady Stradbroke.

Lady Quilter's (mother of the English art song composer Roger Quilter) house at 39 Upper Brook Street where Edward and George gave a concert in June 1925

On May 12th 1937 Eddie watched the coronation processsion of King George VI from this balcony at No. 7 Carlton House Terrace London SW1

Entrance to the home of Lady Violet Astor at 18 Carlton House Terrace London SW.1 where on May 19th 1924 Edward Cahill gave a piano recital for the benefit of the Irish Loyalists.

No.2 Carlton Gardens London SW.1  A Mr. Alfred Bossom MP for Maidstone lived at No. 5, Carlton Gardens. On June 14th 1928 Cahill gave a recital there where among distinguished guests  H.R.H. Princess Beatrice was to have been in attendance but she became ill. Cahill gave the recital to Princess Beatrice privately the very next day at Kensington Palace when she was feeling better. Lady Stradbroke and Lady Helena Rous were also in attendance. No.5 has now been redeveloped into a block of luxury apartments.

Below are some views of Horwood House and Gardens, Little Horwood, Buckinghamshire around 50 miles from London. The home was built by Sir Frederick and Maud Denny, great patrons of Edward Cahill. He stayed and played here for royalty on numerous occasions in the 1920s and 1930s. The gardens were designed by the renowned gardener Percy Thrower. Now a large business conference centre.

The etang

The etang from an upper room

Edward Cahill can be heard playing Liszt and Chopin using these free links: