Thank goodness Busoni’s Piano Concerto is returning to the Proms

On 5 August, Ferruccio Busoni’s Piano Concerto will be performed at the Proms for only the second time. It should have been the third time, but a Musician’s Union strike in 1980 forced the cancellation of the concert at which Martin Jones had been booked to give the première. Jones is a fearless virtuoso, still recording in his eighties, but one can’t help wondering whether his disappointment back then was tinged with relief. In one place, the soloist’s fingers must wrap themselves around 128 notes in a single bar Garrick Ohlsson, a long-time champion of the work, describes its difficulties as ‘absolutely immense, and 25 per cent of this piece

Yunchan Lim’s Chopin isn’t as good as his Liszt or Rach

Grade: B- In 2022 the South Korean pianist Yunchan Lim became, at 18, the youngest winner of the Van Cliburn competition, displaying a virtuosity that stunned the judges. You could see conductor Marin Alsop’s astonishment as he bounded through the finale of Rach 3, combining accuracy and swirling fantasy at daredevil speed. It’s been viewed nearly 15 million times on YouTube. In truth, though, he’d have had to screw up badly not to win, because he’d already dispatched Liszt’s fiendish Transcendental Études with perfect articulation and mercurial wit; in places he out-dazzled even the current master of this repertoire, Daniil Trifonov. Decca snapped him up and here’s his first studio

The greatest female composer you’ve never heard of

One of the most intriguing piano concertos of the late 19th century is unknown to the public – and no wonder: so far as I can work out, it has only been recorded once, on a speciality label devoted to neglected French repertoire. As I write this, there are only 11 copies available from Amazon and I recommend that you grab one quickly, because the Second Piano Concerto of Marie Jaëll (1846-1925) demands repeated listening. If you want proof women of the era could move beyond well-carpentered clichés, listen to Marie Jaëll The concerto’s harmonic language is superficially conventional: sweeping tunes decorated by arm-swinging arpeggios. But the melodies are lopsided

Musings on harmony, melody and rhythm

Every Good Boy Does Fine – a banal phrase that also just happens to be the key to limitless wonder. You may have learned it, like Tom Stoppard, as Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, or perhaps as the rather more tension-fraught Every Good Boy Deserves Food (whose sinister implication haunted more of my childhood than I ever confessed to my parents). Whichever it is, this mnemonic for the notes that fall on the lines of the stave in the treble clef is where music begins for most of us: the key that turns hieroglyphs into sound and, eventually, meaning. So it was for Jeremy Denk. But, unlike the rest of

The musical note that can trigger cold sweats and sightings of the dead

Imagine that all the frequencies nature affords were laid out on an extended piano keyboard. Never mind that some waves are mechanical, propagated through air or some other fluid, and other waves are electro-magnetic and can pass through a vacuum. Lay them down together, and what do you get? The startling answer is a surprisingly narrow piano. To play X-rays (whose waves cycle up to 30,000,000,000,000,000,000 times per second), our pianist would have to travel a mere nine metres to the right of middle C. Wandering nine and a half metres in the other direction, our pianist would then be able to sound the super-bass note generated by shockwaves rippling

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 best recordings of the Goldberg Variations

I sometimes think the classical record industry would collapse if it weren’t for the Goldberg Variations. Every month brings more recordings of Bach’s monumental, compact and rhapsodic keyboard masterpiece. And that’s impressive, given that nowhere else does the composer demand such sustained technical brilliance from the performer, who must execute dizzying scales and trills that wouldn’t sound out of place in one of Liszt’s fantasies. If the Goldberg Variations are an ordeal for harpsichordists, they’re a bloody nightmare for pianists, because they have to tackle music written for two manuals on just one. Their fingers tumble perilously over each other; it looks a bit like high-speed knitting. When the 22-year-old

Alfred Brendel the Dadaist

How many people are celebrating the fact that, last week, one of Europe’s most inspired writers about music, modern art and aesthetics celebrated his 90th birthday? The answer is relatively few, which might seem surprising. He is a world-renowned authority on the grotesque and the absurd — territory through which he darts mischievously in his poems, originally composed in his native German. But you have to turn to his essays written in English to experience his refined sarcasm, which is either delicious or mortifying, depending on whether you feel incriminated by his strictures against intellectual laziness. He is quirky and rigorous — a combination associated with his beloved Dada, a

Alan Rusbridger on the joys of four-hand piano

One of the few social activities not yet prohibited under lockdown laws is four-handed piano playing. I don’t mean sitting side-by-side at one keyboard. That would risk infection and, if snitched on, the possibility of sharing a prison cell with Piers Corbyn. No, the four hands must be divided equally across two pianos, and the instruments must be end-to-end. Safely isolated in this manner — perhaps three or four metres apart — the ivories can be tickled for as long as you want. I’ve been a devoted four-hand piano player all my life — due entirely to the limitations of the two I was born with. On one keyboard I

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

Why did Balakirev’s beautiful, inventive works go out of fashion?

Anyone who invited the Russian composer Mily Balakirev to dinner had to be jolly careful about the fish they served. How had it died? Balakirev — mentor of Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov and regarded as the founder of the Russian nationalist school of music — would want to know. If the fish had perished on a hook, then he wouldn’t touch it. But if it had been clubbed on the head, fine. The many eccentricities of Balakirev (1837–1910) were regarded with amusement, horror and dismay by his contemporaries. Though, to be fair, the fish thing wasn’t a mad obsession of his own. Formerly an atheist, in his thirties he converted to

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,

The extraordinary paintings of Craigie Aitchison

One of the most extraordinary paintings in the exhibition of work by Craigie Aitchison at Piano Nobile (96–129 Portland Road, W11) is entitled ‘Georgeous Macauley in Blue against a Red Background’ (1968). It depicts the sitter, a Nigerian who was Aitchison’s favourite model of the 1960s and ’70s, wearing a peaked cap and double-breasted jacket. The catalogue quotes a reminiscence by the artist which provides a partial explanation of the headgear. ‘He wanted to be a traffic warden, and I said, “Why do you want to go about in the rain doing that?” And he said, “Because you get a uniform.”’ The art and life of Aitchison (1926–2009) were all

In his new piano concerto Thomas Ades’s inspiration has completely dried up

There’s nothing like a good piano concerto and, sad to relate, Thomas Adès’s long-awaited first proper attempt at the genre is nothing like a good piano concerto. Not in the version we heard at its UK première in the Royal Festival Hall, anyway. What a disappointment! Perhaps Adès can rescue it, but he’d have to hack away at the score as ruthlessly as Bruckner dismantling his Third Symphony. That work wasn’t necessarily improved by its revisions but, honestly, almost anything would be an improvement on the first two movements of the 21-minute concerto performed by Kirill Gerstein and the LPO conducted by the composer. You knew there was something wrong

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

Missing the beat

It was as though Damien Hirst had confessed a secret passion for Victorian watercolours, or Lars von Trier had admitted his life’s ambition to direct a rom-com. When it was announced that John Eliot Gardiner — pioneer of the early music movement — would conduct West Side Story at the Edinburgh Festival the reactions were extreme. What next? Harnoncourt conducts Hair? Les Arts Florissants sing Phantom? But is the leap from Bach to Bernstein really that big? Both live or die with rhythm, with the dances that pulse and lilt and churn through them. Minuet or mambo — really, what’s in a beat? And then there’s texture. The frayed edges

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

Line dance

Sean Scully once told me about his early days as a plasterer’s mate. At the age of 17 he was helping a craftsman who would often accidentally drop a good deal of plaster on his youthful assistant’s head, especially after a midday break in the pub. Scully spent his own lunchtimes differently. He would roar on his scooter to the Tate Gallery, and spend the time staring at a single picture: ‘The Chair’ by Vincent van Gogh. That picture is one of two reference points in Sea Star, his beautiful exhibition at the National Gallery. Scully pays homage to it in two groups of three paintings, entitled ‘Arles Abend Vincent’

Sinking the unsinkable

Garrick Ohlsson is one of the finest pianists of his generation. Why, then, was the Wigmore Hall not much more than half full for his recital last week? Brahms. Ohlsson is at present touring with four programmes, all Brahms’s solo piano music. He treated us mainly to solid chunks, though he ended with the enchanting and almost light-hearted Paganini Variations, fiendish for Ohlsson but enlivening for us. Actually, he played an encore by Chopin, the solitary Op. 45 Prelude, preceding it with a charming lecturette about how Brahmsian, avant la lettre, Chopin could be. Ohlsson was a student of the great Claudio Arrau, whose attitude to Brahms verged on the

Licensed to trill

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of approach to performing Schubert’s Winterreise, though sometimes there’s doubt or dispute about which one a given performer has taken. According to Jonas Kaufmann, Hans Hotter, for me the greatest of all performers of the cycle, as of so much else, insisted that the performer should be a narrator, not the Wanderer himself. But Kaufmann rightly insisted that Hotter’s various recordings are dramatic, with Hotter enacting, not narrating the monodrama. So it’s not always easy to tell. There was no doubt, though, in Christian Gerhaher’s recent performance of the cycle at the Wigmore Hall, with his long-time accompanist Gerold Huber, that we were witnessing