The greatest piano recital

19 08 2015

Well, possibly, No Boulez or Beethoven, though both in their own way are great. This recital is to highlight the Romantic virtuosic stuff, most of it not well known. The programme:

Thalberg                                                 Grand Caprice sur La Sonnambula di Bellini

Alkan                                                       Bourree d’Auvergne

Hamelin                                                  Etude d’apres Alkan

Tanaka/Pianeet                                     Die Gewehr Fantaisie


Grieg/Ginzburg                                    In the hall of the Mountain King

Alkan                                                       Scherzo focoso

Offenbach/Gimpel                               The song of the soldiers of the sea

Raphael                                                  The Hatikvah variations


…and here it is, in your living room (or wherever):









and for encores, two Volodos transmutations!
The amazing Yuja

and the man himself


Barcelona 1

3 09 2014


James Raphael: the real piano McCoy

11 04 2013

James Raphael is a jeweller, a very successful one, who is also a pianist.

He appeared at the 2011 Cliburn amateur competition, but as is the way with the slightly maverick ones, didn’t progress. However, there’s no doubt about his talent. He’s pretty secure technically, lots of brio and a bit splashy, but fun, and a real showman. Try the de Falla  Ritual Fire Dance, and check out the lifted hands!

Anyway, he’s had a few CD’s, and the one I picked up by chance going cheap in Edinburgh, has two stupendous sets of variations in the full romantic style, with Raphael as the composer. The finest is Hativka: 13 variations and fugue on the Israeli national anthem, with his Variations on a theme by Nino Rota from The Godfather, being a close runner up.

Seriously good pianism and a lot of fun. The most refreshing chance find since Latimer’s take on Alkan’s Concerto for Solo Piano.

Paul Lewis is not a great pianist.

12 01 2012

Uh oh…here we go again.

I prefer Ashkenazy actually...

Gramophone’s “recording of the month” is Paul Lewis playing Schubert:  D840, D850, D894 plus the Four impromptus D899 and the Drei Klavierstucke  D946.

Unusually. it’s not a typical Bryce Morrison swoon, full of Gerald Manley Hopkins quotes, but written by the doctrinaire Harriet Smith.  Try a few quotes:

arguably the finest Schubert interpreter of his generation (quite, very arguably)

an unerring instinct for pacing (huh?)

the intellectual acumen of Alfred Brendel (this is not good when you’re actually playing the piano. Earl Wild was right)

confidence and sureness….finesse and musicality (yawn)

restrained rhetoric (dull)

etc etc et bloody cetera

This is the problem. Lewis is the establishment figure, and he’s rapidly become very boring.

It’s telling who Ms Smith uses as the comparisons: Brendel, Schiff, Uchida, Andsnes, Goode, Volodos and Zimerman. Of that lot only the last two are really great players, and Volodos’ D894 is by some distance his worst effort yet. I’ve tried – God knows I’ve tried – but it’s in one ear and out of the other. Same for Andsnes’ D850, a work that should be nearly impossible to bland out on, but he manages.

So far so predictable. You do occasionally read the truth about Lewis in the media, but like the other curly haired Brit muppet, Simon Rattle, he generally gets plaudits just for turning up. This is emphatically not the glorious pianism of Anda, Horowitz, Pollini and yes, even Lang Lang. At least he’s not boring.

For respite, may I suggest the following:

D840: Richter

D850: Ashkenazy

D894: Arrau

The Impromptus: Fray

Drei Klavierstucke: Pollini

You would be far better taking a chance with second hand bargain bin stuff  (like the unheard of Gregor Weichert in D840) and really exploring Schubert’s astonishing solipsistic dreamscapes, than rushing off to buy Lewis, Uchida etc, just because their pals recommend them.


Lepanto, 7th October 1571

21 09 2011

The Venetian galeass San Lorenzo, by Radojavor

White founts falling in the Courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard;
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips;
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.
They have dared the white republics up the capes of Italy,
They have dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea,
And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross.
The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;
The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass;
From evening isles fantastical rings faint the Spanish gun,
And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun.

Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young.
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war,
Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold
In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,
Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.
Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,
Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world,
Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.
Love-light of Spain–hurrah!
Death-light of Africa!
Don John of Austria
Is riding to the sea.

Mahound is in his paradise above the evening star,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
He moves a mighty turban on the timeless houri’s knees,
His turban that is woven of the sunsets and the seas.
He shakes the peacock gardens as he rises from his ease,
And he strides among the tree-tops and is taller than the trees;
And his voice through all the garden is a thunder sent to bring
Black Azrael and Ariel and Ammon on the wing.
Giants and the Genii,
Multiplex of wing and eye,
Whose strong obedience broke the sky
When Solomon was king.

They rush in red and purple from the red clouds of the morn,
From the temples where the yellow gods shut up their eyes in scorn;
They rise in green robes roaring from the green hells of the sea
Where fallen skies and evil hues and eyeless creatures be,
On them the sea-valves cluster and the grey sea-forests curl,
Splashed with a splendid sickness, the sickness of the pearl;
They swell in sapphire smoke out of the blue cracks of the ground,–
They gather and they wonder and give worship to Mahound.
And he saith, “Break up the mountains where the hermit-folk can hide,
And sift the red and silver sands lest bone of saint abide,
And chase the Giaours flying night and day, not giving rest,
For that which was our trouble comes again out of the west.
We have set the seal of Solomon on all things under sun,
Of knowledge and of sorrow and endurance of things done.
But a noise is in the mountains, in the mountains, and I know
The voice that shook our palaces–four hundred years ago:
It is he that saith not ‘Kismet’; it is he that knows not Fate;
It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey at the gate!
It is he whose loss is laughter when he counts the wager worth,
Put down your feet upon him, that our peace be on the earth.”
For he heard drums groaning and he heard guns jar,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
Sudden and still–hurrah!
Bolt from Iberia!
Don John of Austria
Is gone by Alcalar.

St. Michaels on his Mountain in the sea-roads of the north
(Don John of Austria is girt and going forth.)
Where the grey seas glitter and the sharp tides shift
And the sea-folk labour and the red sails lift.
He shakes his lance of iron and he claps his wings of stone;
The noise is gone through Normandy; the noise is gone alone;
The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes,
And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise,
And Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room,
And Christian dreadeth Christ that hath a newer face of doom,
And Christian hateth Mary that God kissed in Galilee,–
But Don John of Austria is riding to the sea.
Don John calling through the blast and the eclipse
Crying with the trumpet, with the trumpet of his lips,
Trumpet that sayeth ha!
Domino gloria!
Don John of Austria
Is shouting to the ships.

King Philip’s in his closet with the Fleece about his neck
(Don John of Austria is armed upon the deck.)
The walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin,
And little dwarfs creep out of it and little dwarfs creep in.
He holds a crystal phial that has colours like the moon,
He touches, and it tingles, and he trembles very soon,
And his face is as a fungus of a leprous white and grey
Like plants in the high houses that are shuttered from the day,
And death is in the phial and the end of noble work,
But Don John of Austria has fired upon the Turk.
Don John’s hunting, and his hounds have bayed–
Booms away past Italy the rumour of his raid.
Gun upon gun, ha! ha!
Gun upon gun, hurrah!
Don John of Austria
Has loosed the cannonade.

The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,
(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)
The hidden room in man’s house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.
He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea
The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery;
They fling great shadows foe-wards, making Cross and Castle dark,
They veil the plumèd lions on the galleys of St. Mark;
And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,
And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,
Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.
They are lost like slaves that sweat, and in the skies of morning hung
The stair-ways of the tallest gods when tyranny was young.
They are countless, voiceless, hopeless as those fallen or fleeing on
Before the high Kings’ horses in the granite of Babylon.
And many a one grows witless in his quiet room in hell
Where a yellow face looks inward through the lattice of his cell,
And he finds his God forgotten, and he seeks no more a sign–
(But Don John of Austria has burst the battle-line!)
Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.

Vivat Hispania!
Domino Gloria!
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!

Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight for ever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade….
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)


A few references: 1, 2, 3, 4



17 09 2011

“Life can’t be all bad when for ten dollars you can buy all the Beethoven sonatas and listen to them for ten years.”

William F Buckley Jr

It was cheap when I bought it...

The one and only Maurizio Pollini

9 01 2011


Maurizio Pollini is special. Not just technically impeccable, but also genuinely recognisable by his sound and playing. Not that many pianists would come through a blindfold listening test, but he certainly would.

The Guardian have an excellent new interview with him, in the build up to his London dates. It touches on his political beliefs (left ++) but as usual with presumably rich and bourgeois artists, it doesn’t get under the skin of  this apparent contradiction.

Nevertheless, a good read, as are the recent Pollini reviews in the same paper, here , here, here (a relatively bad one!) and here. There’s also lots of the great man on YouTube.

One aspect of his work that goes unmentioned usually is his conducting. The hard-to-find set of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago is quite brilliant.