Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Lebrecht, Sokolov…and Sokolov’s wife

Grigory Sokolov’s refusal of the Cremona Award, on account its having previously been presented to Norman Lebrecht, has generated much debate about the cause of their antagonism. Some have speculated that it’s a result of a blogpost Lebrecht wrote in 2013 questioning Sokolov’s greatness on the curious grounds of his not being willing to perform in the UK. But a reply to my previouspost on this story, from one ‘ADGO’, points to a more compelling reason. Here is the message in full:

“As Lebrecht refused to post my comment on his blog Slippedisc, I will copy-paste it here for all to read. He cannot bury his shameless actions forever.

Recall last year that soon after Sokolov's wife passed away, the pianist published a cryptic letter which began, 'To my astonishment, I have learned about some delirious inventions made on the subject of my wife's life'. This can be read in full on Sokolov's website or on AMC. The cause of that was most likely Norman Lebrecht's blog post in which he speculated about Sokolov marrying his dead cousin's wife, going into detail about the apparent Sokolov family tree. You can find this blog post still on Slippedisc, and the links at the bottom of it which lead to the old Sokolov website. Click any of those links and you'll see a message which states that Norman Lebrecht should not be believed. Lebrecht's rash and shameless speculation about Sokolov's recently deceased wife is most likely the reason why Sokolov refuses to associate with him. I want to make this clear as it is the only sensible public explanation for Sokolov's refusal. There may be private reasons no one can know about, but the public one is there for all to see.

On another matter....I've attended Sokolov's recitals for nearly 15 years and he is without doubt the greatest pianist I've ever heard. If you can't hear him in the UK--which I used to--then take a trip to Brussels or Amsterdam and it'll most likely turn into one of the great concert experiences of your life.”

And Sokolov’s response here:
As the earlier version of Lebrecht’s post on Sokolov’s site shows, “his wife was also his cousin’s widow” originally read “his wife was also his aunt”, a more lurid claim and, as it turns out, a false one. Lebrecht could probably have avoided this whole incident if he had issued an acknowledged correction and an apology, rather than the “update” we get instead. But, of course, that’s not how Lebrecht works.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Evidence Grigory Sokolov refused the Cremona Music Award

A fascinating document came to light this morning, a letter from Grigory Sokolov to the committee of the Mondomusica Festival, apparently turning down the Cremona Music Award on the grounds that it would mean he appeared on a list with Norman Lebrecht, a previous winner. His closing line is particularly incendiary “According to my ideas about elementary decency, it is shame to be in the same award-winners list with Lebrecht.”

But is it real? The website on which it appears,, has no official links with Sokolov or his management. From what I can gather, it is registered in Australia and hosted in Israel. Given the antagonism that Lebrecht generates, there could be no shortage of potential candidates for a forgery, although the handwriting is impressively similar to that on a Sokolov letter that does appear on his management’s website.

Well, here's proof at least that he was announced as a winner of the award, but that he had been removed from the list by the time they were actually presented. Here is the webpage announcing the winners today:

And here is how it looked on 12 September, four days before the date on the letter (courtesy of the Google cache).

No doubt the details will all become clear in due course, including the Lebrecht connection, for which I’ve no proof here. But it certainly seems that Sokolov turned down the award.

UPDATE (28/9/15): Gramophone Magazine confirmed the letter to be genuine today, after contacting Sokolov's General Manager, Franco Panozzo. For more on the story, please visit:

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Marsyas Trio Elena Firsova CD Launch

A Triple Portrait: The new CD from the Marsyas Trio presents chamber music by Elena Firsova. The Trio is made up of flute (Helen Vidovich), cello (Valerie Welbanks) and piano (Fei Ren), and they are joined on the recording by a violin, viola and two voices. So there is an eclectic mix of sound colours here, but Firsova’s style is focussed and distinctive, bringing unity to the programme. Firsova and the Trio have been working together for several years, and the work that gives the disc its title was commissioned by the ensemble in 2011. It has certainly been a fruitful partnership, with the young players making a real commitment to Firsova’s lyrical but often challenging music.

As a launch event, the Trio gave a recital on 6 May. This turned out to be just a few weeks after Firsova’s 65th birthday, to which the event was also dedicated. It took place at the Marylebone home of Bob and Elizabeth Boas, a fabulous Georgian townhouse which regularly hosts performances by up-and-coming performers. I was invited to give a presentation at the start of the event, a short conversation with the composer. Here we are:

Four of Firsova’s works were included in the concert. Night Songs, op. 125, is a sombre setting of Osip Mandelstam, a poet whose work permeates Firsova’s music. Lost Vision, op. 137, is a volatile piano piece, its composition triggered by a misdiagnosis suggesting that Firsova was about to lose her sight. Meditation in the Japanese Garden, op. 54, dates back to Firsova’s first months in the UK, when the family was based at Dartington, a time of great tranquillity it would seem. And to conclude, Tender is the Sorrow, op. 130, a reflective piece for a larger ensemble, with violin and viola, dedicated to the memory of Firsova’s aunt, but just as significantly, dating from 2010, at the start of the Trio’s collaboration with the composer.
Left to right: Valerie Welbanks, Patrick Dawkins, Elena Firsova, Helen Vidovich, Fei Ren, Morgan Goff

As a bonus, we were also treated to an exhibition of artwork by Firsova’s son, Philip Firsov. He was commissioned by the ensemble to create a piece for the cover of the CD and, given the group’s name, he came up with something suitably gruesome. His work is vivid, but finely nuanced in colour and texture. There is a strong Russian dimension too, I was reminded of Oscar Rabin, though Firsov was only a young child when the family moved to the UK. Check out his excellent website here.

An excellent evening all round, and the ideal way to launch the Marsyas Trio’s debut recording. (It's on the Meridian label: CDE 84635). Review to follow – watch this space.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Saffron Hall: A Musical Miracle in North Essex

It has taken me a year and a half to make a visit the new concert hall in Saffron Walden, but now I wish I’d gone sooner. What a venue! Saffron Hall’s story is well-known: It is in the grounds of a state school and was funded through a single contribution of £10m, from an anonymous donor though a local charity, The Yellow Car Charitable Trust. 

The Saffron Hall Trust had the good sense or fortune to hire Angela Dixon, then Head of Music at the Barbican, to run the venue. She has put together a truly staggering programme of events, every concert by a performer or ensemble of international standing. Last night it was the Czech Philharmonic with Jiří Bělohlávek and Chloë Hanslip, and what a spectacular show it was.

The hall was full to capacity, though that is more the rule than the exception. When Nicola Benedetti recently performed here, she ended up repeating the concert the following night, filling the 750-seat venue on both occasions. The venue’s publicity stresses “in the community” both as its location and its ethos. In fact, Saffron Walden is only eight miles from Cambridge, one of several English cities (you can guess what I’m building up to here) in desperate need of a good concert hall. Until that happens, Saffron Hall looks likely to become its de facto venue. Already, the supposedly Cambridge-based Britten Sinfonia has put down roots here. And why not? It is a fabulous venue. Cambridge’s loss is Saffron’s gain.

The big news is the acoustic. The Czech Philharmonic is always going to sound good, but the orchestra’s sound was just spectacular here. The warm, rich string tone was projected with clarity and intimacy. The woodwind soloists, too, had all the required detail, the brass their requisite power. And all this heard from the cheapest seats at the very back of the hall (very reasonable ticket pricing incidentally, yet another virtue of the Trust’s miraculous financial model). The Hall is wood-lined, and although nominally rectangular, it’s not a shoebox. It is more square than the longer hall designs that are more common for new halls, and many of the sides and corners – around the back of the stage and the back of the auditorium, are offset to give a more rounded feel. The acoustic gives the orchestral sound just the right amount of space, a resonance with an enriching but never distracting warmth. The primary virtue is how natural the hall allows the orchestra to sound. It isn’t one of those venues that draws attention to itself with a signature sound, the performers always come first.

Could it be better? Well, I could imagine a little more immediacy for the woodwind solos; they are always crystal clear but you are aware of the distance (at least to the cheap seats). A little more bass projection would be nice too, and I wonder if Bělohlávek positioned the double basses along the back of the stage to counter this. And just while I’m grumbling, the foyer space is a bit crammed, and there is a surprising lack of toilets – even the gents were queuing in the interval. 

But the hall itself is a spectacular success, and an unexpected treat for anybody who ventures this way. It also puts an interesting perspective on London and its current plight. It is notable that the Czech Philharmonic missed London out of their six-city UK tour. And while it is unlikely that acoustics played a big part in that decision, Saffron Hall certainly did them more favours than Cadogan, their usual London bolthole (ironic, given that Cadogan has probably the best acoustic of any London orchestral venue).

Realistically, though, this hall would not be suitable for London. It only has 750 seats, so it is hard to see how that would be viable. In fact, its size is one of its assets, acoustically speaking – most of the great orchestral venues of the world are on this sort of scale – the real challenge for acousticians is to retain that intimacy and clarity but triple the size.

The management won’t thank me for this, but perhaps the answer is for London to appropriate this venue in the same way that Cambridge has. After all we call nearby Stansted Airport “London Stansted” and find a way of getting there when we need a cheap flight. I understand that a free bus service was laid on last night to the nearest station, so measures are in place. If nothing else, those who are arguing against a new concert hall for London should come and hear the results in Saffron Walden. This is what we are missing out on. This is how an orchestra should sound.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Music is Power

Stand up for something and you’ll get smeared - that seems to be a given in British classical music journalism these days. Musicians are more susceptible to political smears than most artists it seems: the motivations and supposed deficiencies of their work are always open to divisive interpretations that the music itself cannot contest. This morning we heard from Damian Thompson about “Classical music's greatest political butt-kissers”. Gergiev, Pollini, Dudamel and the entire El Sistema are the predictable targets, but Rattle gets a poke too; apparently he’s New Labour.

Thompson has his axes to grind of course, but he undermines every argument he makes by equating the politics he dislikes with poor musicianship. The famously communist Pollini, we are told, “these days plays the piano with all the dexterity of Les Dawson”. Rattle has “been a disappointment” in Berlin, and when the Philharmonic replace him with the nationalist Christian Thielemann, they’ll get the discipline that Rattle is too liberal to impose.

None of which is true. Pollini is in his 70s, but he is as fine a pianist as ever, just listen to the last volume in his recently completed Beethoven sonata cycle. Rattle’s time in Berlin has been a success by almost every available measure – whatever complaints the players may have had didn’t stop them voting him into office in the first place and then voting to renew his contract. And Thielemann gets disciplined performances because of the time and care he puts into preparation and rehearsal, not because he’s a Nazi.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, and recent examples from across the political spectrum are numerous. Just look at Gergiev’s recent fall from grace in the UK. When it was fashionable to boycott his concerts (and I suggested doing so for a time), many who should have known better appended their comments about his politics with views on his artistry – as if that were at all relevant. And now Gergiev can do no right. I haven’t noticed any significant deterioration in his work in recently, but it’s not often you’ll read a positive review, in English anyway.

So, it’s back to the old debate about music and politics. But don’t worry, there’s no need to open up that can of worms again, as the issues here are quite contained. Namely: When a musician is of high standing, they have a power that can be harnessed for political ends, and not always their own. The debate about the Israel Philharmonic at the Proms a few years ago only mattered because the IPO is an excellent orchestra. That is why is has the power to promote the State of Israel, and even by extension its government’s policies. Similarly with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, and it seems hypocritical not to treat visits from both orchestras in a similar light.

These and other musicians face two lines of attack. The first is to suggest they are naïve pawns in political games beyond their knowledge or control. Thompson indulges that one, quoting an unnamed but ‘renowned’ conductor as saying of the Simón Bolívar musicians “Politics isn’t something they’ve thought deeply about. They just slip into the soft-left consensus”. I can’t speak for them, but I can for many listeners, and when Thompson says “El Sistema exported pro-Chavez propaganda as well as Mahler symphonies to gullible global audiences” he is taking his argument too far. Audiences are well aware of the political context in which classical performances take place. If not, then why has Gergiev become such a toxic brand that the World Orchestra for Peace can now barely half fill the Albert Hall, a venue that until recently they always filled to capacity.

The other line of attack is easier but more insidious: to claim that the musicians you disagree with are no good. In theory it is an effective policy: If Maurizio Pollini does indeed sound like Les Dawson then his political views must also be junk, right? And if nobody in Berlin likes Simon Rattle, he must be wrong about everything. But it doesn’t work like that. Great musicians have political and social power simply by virtue of their being great musicians. Saying it ain’t so doesn’t change anything.