Race and culture: where to draw the line?

The tragedy of George Floyd’s murder and outraged worldwide reaction to it has got me thinking. With statues being torn down and cultural icons with xenophobic tendencies potentially blacklisted where does that leave Jews and guilt over ‘enjoying’ or performing the work of those who would sanction anti-Semitism? Wagner, obviously, one of the greatest composers of all time whose rabid and loudly voiced prejudice has in no way discouraged great Jewish musicians from espousing the Wagnerian cause – think of Mahler (whose Wagner even Hitler defended against Viennese anti-Semites), Friedrich Schorr, Erich Leinsdorf, Georg Solti, George London, Alexander Kipnis, George Szell, James Levine, Artur Bodanzky, Artur Rodzinski, Fritz Reiner, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Semyon Bychkov? The list goes on and on. And Wagner is merely the most obvious target. If Jews themselves can separate the man from his work, often stepping up to perform his music with sovereign command, then maybe that’s where the higher ground lies. Were we to try and identify all racists active in the upper reaches of our society, past and present, we’d have a job and a half on our hands. Current actions against ethnic minorities – yes, bang ‘em up is what I say. But to outlaw from our culture all those who have in the past harboured prejudice, either privately or publicly, would be to deprive ourselves of countless good, even great works. Views please?

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A diamond in the sky: historic recordings guru Allan Evans dies in New York


There are people (like me) whose voices suggest someone far younger than they are while others (like the late Allan Evans) look far younger than they sound. My friend the pianist-composer Jed Distler has just informed me that Allan, one of the most significant historical audio restoration pioneers, died yesterday in New York. I’m gutted. Allan was a diamond, always concerned for others, good fun and most important as far as posterity is concerned, a brilliant teacher, scholar and an historian whose non-profits arts organisation Arbiter, which he founded in 1996, published more than 150 recordings by historic interpreters, some of them obscure to the point of previous invisibility – but always worth hearing.

I will never forget the first time we met. It was at the (London) Swiss Cottage home of Michal Hambourg (1919-2004), daughter of pianist Mark Hambourg (1879-1960) and the violinist Dorothea Muir Mackenzie (1881-?). I’d previously only conversed with Allan over the phone. He sounded like a wise elderly gent and when he answered the door, I just couldn’t square the young-looking guy in front of me (Allan was merely in his early sixties when he died) with that deep, gravelly voice. We had a ball, Michal cooking the freshest vegan meal you could imagine while reminiscing about her Dad – ‘old school’ isn’t the word, Mark’s playing as recorded was positively Shakespearean – and how they recorded Liszt together for HMV. Thereafter Allan and I kept in touch. His book on – and passionate advocacy of – the Polish-Jewish pianist Ignacy Friedman (1882-1948) illuminated the art of a player whose every recording shines like a beacon in the firmament.  Largely because of Allan, Friedman’s legacy has appeared on, for example, Danacord (who had first reissued it, on vinyl), Naxos and Pearl, with individual albums on APR, Marston and Allan’s own Arbiter label. Allan’s superb book ‘Ignace Friedman: Romantic Master Pianist’ is published by Indiana Press.

But writing on Friedman and the Liszt-pupil Moriz Rosenthal, as well numerous cd booklet notes, was far from being Allan’s sole talent. His biography will tell you that he was ‘dragged into music when first hearing the music of Gospel singer/banjo-and-guitar player Rev. Gary Davis and became his last pupil’. His recording excavations delivered to our door, in addition to copious first-releases of recordings of the great Polish-American pianist Mieczysław Horszowski, the likes of pianists Alfred Hoehn (in Brahms), Iren Marik, Madeleine de Valmalète and the ‘lost legend of Cairo’ Ignace Tiegerman – a Friedman pupil, ‘the greatest talent papà ever worked with’ was Friedman’s own assessment according to his daughter Mme Lydia Walder. You can check out the amazingly wide-ranging Arbiter legacy for yourself on https://arbiterrecords.org/  Allan Evans was a true musician, the sort of listener who because of his passion for what he heard made you want to listen all the more carefully. He is survived by his wife Beatrice and his son Stefan. God rest him.

When locking down means opening up

We’re told that we’ve reached the COVID-19 peak, that we now have to look towards a ‘new normal’, that the economy has to rise again, first to its knees, then to full height, that easing lockdown also has to be gradual. True. I can’t wait to cuddle my granddaughter again, to see my brothers, and to meet with friends or relations face to face. And yet in a strange sort of way I feel we’ve been cleansed, improved; that the ‘new normal’ is somehow better than the old, that by concentrating our funds on people who care for us rather than on useless chattels or greedy investments we have learned the real value of money. Social distancing has, quite by chance, taught us that we may have undervalued what it is to be physically close to someone, how a ‘high five’, a spontaneous hug, even an affectionate peck on the cheek can elevate the moment.

Just now I’m watching couples walk past my study window. That never used to happen, at least not often. It was a case of ‘through the car door and out again the other end’. People seem to have re-learned what it is to stroll … and I’m not talking much-vaunted exercise, which is of course important, but the chance to take in your surroundings, the beauty of trees for example, or of birdsong … and the air – how much cleaner is that, now that traffic has eased (and should ease more). And speaking of song, there’s of course music, whether making it yourself or listening to others make it; and reading those books you always intended to tackle but never had the time. Proust maybe, or Tolstoy, Dickens, or the novels of Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates. New-found talents are also important: writing, drawing, painting, photography and other ‘new’ ways of experience what used to be a dusty old, world. If you have a novel waiting in the wings – go on, write it!

My great worry is that once the locks are off and ‘normal’ is no longer quite so new, we’ll return to the bad old ways, start rushing around again, forget what the recent past has taught us, not that the economy must once again maintain a healthy complexion – that’ll happen soon enough – but that our personal economy must factor in what should be the most crucial aspect of our lives: love.

Coronavirus, Anne Frank, George Floyd and Michael Tilson Thomas: meaningful alliances

While still partially housebound by lockdown and profoundly depressed by George Floyd’s murder I prepared to spend a few enviably happy hours once again delving into the many Beethoven symphony cycles that have come my way for review. But my mind kept harking back to the Secretary of State and Social Care Matt Hancock’s rather patronising mantra on last night’s Coronavirus briefing: ‘black lives matter’. Sorry? Do we need to be reminded of that vital fact? Would it have occurred to anyone that black lives don’t matter? Then, by chance, a small package landed on my mat. Its contents, a quite remarkable work by the gifted American conductor-composer-pianist Michael Tilson Thomas, ‘From the Diary of Anne Frank’ for narrator (in this case Isabel Leonard) and orchestra, proof, if proof were needed, that in 1940s Holland Jewish lives certainly didn’t matter, at least not as far the Nazi occupiers and collaborators were concerned.

The philosopher and social critic Theodor Adorno once famously asserted that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. Sadly, we could apply Adorno’s words to numerous genocides that have happened since.   But then to experience Anne Frank’s poetic style as penned during that same period and Tilson Thomas’s affecting musical response to it rather contradicts that assertion. Tilson Thomas’s work opens, not among expected shadows, but to an incoming breeze when windows might be thrown open on a sunny spring morning, the sort of setting that would prompt any youngster to rush into the nearby fields. Still, the route to tragedy doesn’t take long to register. At the beginning of part two Frank confides, via her diary, to her imaginary friend Kitty the weight of restrictions on all Jews – curfews, not being able to sit in their own gardens, being forbidden to visit all public places (cinemas, theatres, swimming pools, sports grounds) …. Sound familiar? Superficially, very superficially …maybe. Tilson Thomas scores all this with a kicking/dancing sense of protest that harks back to Leonard Bernstein. In fact, throughout the work he realises musical prophecies that had long been hinted at by Mahler (most notably), Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Copland, even, ultimately, the ‘darkness to light’ aspect of Steve Reich’s stylistically very different masterpiece ‘Different Trains’.

Tilson Thomas’s employment of instruments is often exquisite, his sense of melody equally so and the beautifully recorded San Francisco Symphony plays magnificently. Make no mistake this is extremely memorable music. If you passed a house where it was being played you’d likely knock on the door to find out what it is. In fact, at just 42 minutes, ‘From the Diary of Anne Frank’ could happily be used to introduce youngsters to modern concert music, not only because it has an instant and dramatic appeal but because the (excellent) narrator keeps us gripped and the score backs up her words rather like a quality film soundtrack might. Were President Donald Trump to declare a day of National Mourning for George Floyd – which he should surely do – then ‘From the Diary of Anne Frank’ could well be performed in Floyd’s memory, reminding us that you don’t have to be Jewish to be murdered on racial grounds.

There’s a coupling, too, Meditations on Rilke, six reflective, and sometimes animated, settings of the great German poet whose oeuvre ranges across so many aspects of our inner lives. MTT’s work is a sort-of great nephew to Mahler’s song cycle Das Lied von Der Erde (The Song of the Earth), the fine singers here being mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny. Perhaps the best place to sample would be the fourth song Immer wieder, Again and Again, about lovers lying together beneath ancient trees. Tilson Thomas’s Mahlerian credentials are conspicuous by their presence. As modern – or nearly modern – music goes, you won’t do better than either work.


Tilson Thomas: ‘From the Diary of Anne Frank’; Meditations on Rilke

Soloists, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas

SFS Media SFS 821936-0079-2

Also available for auditioning via Spotify

Ideas for combatting Lockdown

Jonathan Sacks’s new book Morality (Hodder & Stoughton £20.00), great in some respects but had JS written the Introduction ‘Cultural Climate Change’, which bemoans how by celebrating the narcissistic ‘I’ we’ve lost sight of the all-embracing ‘we’, during the current Coronavirus crisis I’ve a feeling his thesis would have been very different. Never have I witnessed such wholehearted concern for others and whatever you might think of Boris Johnson in political terms the sincerity of his gratitude to the NHS (who nursed him back to life from the brink of death) cannot be doubted. The book also addresses social media, human dignity, meaning, religion and other crucial aspects of our spritual life. Sacks’s work is never less than uplifting and this book is, in general, no exception.

The Routledge Handbook to Music under German Occupation, 1938-1945, Propaganda, Myth and Reality (Edited by David Fanning and Erik Levi, (Routledge, £190.00. Also available on Taylor & Francis eBooks)

Mega-bucks I know, maybe one to order from your local library. I’ve prepared a full review for a future edition of Gramophone so I shan’t duplicate what I’ve written there, save to say that there are surprises galore – both depressing and inspiring – that will extend what you know, and probably what you feel, about this shaded period in twentieth century musical history, whether it be the great Václav Talich conducting the Czech Phil in wartime Dresden and Berlin (thanks to the support of Goebbels), Callas rousing her audience as Beethoven’s Leonore in Occupied Athens, or the European premiere of Porgy and Bess in Occupied Copenhagen – the first performance in a run of 22 that thrilled audiences before the Nazis pulled the plug on it! A real page turner and well worth the price of what might, under different circumstances, have been a good family night out.

Beethoven the Complete String Quartets Beethoven Quartet (Melodiya MEL CD 1002587, eight cds. mid-price)

The Beethoven quartet is best known for its association with – and recordings of – Shostakovich’s Quartets. As to these recordings of their namesake’s cycle, I’d call it gritty, passionately expressive (some unforgettable slow movements), boldly assertive, sometimes impatient and aside from the odd patch of dodgy intonation, superbly played. The sound is occasionally rough-edged and the cello would have benefitted from a fairer recorded balance but in general this is a set to relish, an uncompromising confrontation with some of the greatest music ever composed.


Continue reading “Ideas for combatting Lockdown”

Old Masters in New Music

‘A brilliant group that flashed like a meteor across the cultural scene and was gone by 1956.’ So claims expert annotator Tully Potter for one of the more unexpected volumes in Sony’s ‘Original Jacket’ series (19075925432, ten discs), its subject, the New Music String Quartet, who made their first recordings in May 1949, two pieces by Alan Shulman for Artie Shaw’s LP ‘Modern Music for Clarinet’. The relevant jazz-inflected tracks are featured in the current collection on a cd that also includes a Clarinet Quintet by Douglas Moore, and Wallingford Riegger’s Second Quartet. Most of the featured ‘modern’ repertoire is highly palatable (works by Lou Harrison, Virgil Thomson, Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, Colin McPhee, Jerome Rosen and Ilhan Usmanbas), the one tough nut being John Cage’s profoundly static String Quartet in Four Parts where, virtually for the duration, the players abandon their decidedly Juilliard Quartet-style vibrancy and adopt instead a white tone that suits the music’s primitivistic ‘minimalist’ slant.

A number of albums originally appeared on vinyl in Columbia’s ‘Modern American Music Series’, the last represented here being Vol. 20. This has the further implication that not everything included involves the New Music String Quartet. I’m thinking in particular of McPhee’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Octet and Thomson’s Capital Capitals for four men and piano. Maybe Sony could consider a ‘Modern American Music Series’ box as well as a box of their valuable and often superbly performed pre-Boulez Second Viennese School performances (mostly with Robert Craft and some superb soloists, such as violinist Israel Baker). Returning to the set under review, we have highly impressive separate Classical and Romantic programmes, with compelling Mendelssohn (Quartets Nos. 2 and 5), an especially sympathetic coupling of two Schumann quartets (Op. 41 Nos. 2 and 3), energetic and sweetly expressive Boccherini quartets, chipper Mozart (Quartets Nos. 2-5) and possibly most impressive of all, an impassioned all-Hugo Wolf cd consisting of the Italian Serenade and the D minor String Quartet. As to personnel, all were first-rate players in their own right, violinists Broadus Erle and Matthew Raimondi, viola player Walter Trampler with only the role of cellist shifting, almost imperceptibly, from Claus Adam (who would soon join the Juilliards), David Soyer (destined to become cellist for the Guarneri Quartet) and for the sole 1956 programme Aldo Parisot (who died last December aged 100). Great playing, this, in a range of repertoire that really put the Quartet through its paces. They also made impressive recordings for the Bartók Records label which could usefully be revived.

Those who manage to sample the set, either the box itself or online, please comment



John Ruskin and Climate Change

At a time when we’re acutely aware of climate change and its destructive implications I can’t resist quoting from an excellent new little book on the great artist, art historian and writer John Ruskin by Suzanne Fagence Cooper

‘In Ruskin’s eyes, the natural world was God’s creation. Again and again he writes of God breathing life into plants and animals, mountains and rivers. For him, our relationship with and understanding of these things comes from God: he encourages his readers to hope for ‘all the knowledge of the waters and the earth that God meant for you’. Put another way, it is the job and the joy of mankind to look after the earth, its waters and its creatures. But by refusing to honour and care for nature, by plundering and polluting, by wasting and littering, modern men and women indeed behave as if there is no life after their death, no need to worry about anything bigger than their own immediate desires. Ruskin did not need God to tell him that the consequences of squandering the earth’s resources would be disastrous. He could see the fragile webs that connected meadow flowers with pollinating insects and sources of clear water and clean air. If we trample and muddy them we will alter the ecosystems that he drew so tenderly.’


To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters by Suzanne Fagence Cooper, p 64-65

Quercus 2019, 230 pp, £12.99


also very strongly recommended ‘Ruskinland : How John Ruskin Shapes our World’ by Andrew Hill

Pallas Athene 2019, 305 pp, £19.99


Celebrating Donald Zec on his 100th birthday


I’d like to share a family celebration with you, the 100th birthday, last Tuesday, of my uncle Donald (Zec), one of eleven siblings born to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, all the other siblings now passed (including my own mother). Donald’s celebrity, principally as the Daily Mirror’s film critic, brought him to the grateful attention of millions. His interviews included amusing and often perceptive dialogues with Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, James Dean, the Beatles and many others. But rather than add to accolades already voiced at his birthday party and elsewhere and/or appreciations from the party table by Howard Jacobson, Don Black, Michael Grade and, as expected, Her Majesty (the latter two via letter) – I would like to pay tribute to Donald’s support of me, personally.
It began in the early sixties when he got wind of the fact that I’d fallen in love with classical music. One Sunday lunchtime he and his lovely (late) wife Frances turned up at our front door, whisked me off to their home where they fed me my favourite meal (still is – egg & chips!), enthused about music and played me records. Delivering me back home afterwards they gifted me a generous pile of 78s (still a currency of the recording medium in those days), including the whole of Smetana’s Má vlast, already a firm favourite, and so I was guaranteed hours of pleasurable listening.
But that wasn’t the most significant of Donald’s prompts. Years later, when I started to make modest headway along the career path I’m currently following, Frances phoned and invited my wife and I for a meal with a view to marking a certain level of progress on my part. Both meal and meeting were a triumph. Donald and Frances were affectionate, encouraging, amusing, enquiring, compassionate, in fact everything you’d want of older relations, the sorts you’d be proud to credit as being your ‘uncle and aunt’. And so our relationship blossomed into true friendship, past Frances’s tragic passing into Donald’s late phase of creativity (ie, in his eighties and nineties) – which meant learning to sight read and play on the piano pieces that Frances had played to him (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin), more prose writing (as well as verse), painting (with oils and, later, Ipad), sculpting and engaging in rigorous conversation concerning politics and current affairs. Our emails and phone calls are frequent, our personal encounters perhaps less so, but still immensely nourishing. Donald’s humour is still a given, with too many vivid examples to relate here – except maybe one occasion when I phoned him at lunchtime to check things out, asked him whether he was eating and he shot back, quite spontaneously, ‘who’s this … the Yom Kippur police?!’ His love of music was always uppermost in our conversations, mostly concerning great violinists. When younger he’d played the violin himself and took loan of my cello for a while 25 or so years ago.

So, how to sum him up? A renaissance man who loves family, culture, intellectual and creative challenges, tradition, and relating to people (as Don Black said he’s still making new friends), and who is endlessly curious about all aspects of life. Are these specifically ‘Jewish’ qualities? Not at all. But there is surely something about this mélange of virtues that you can identify with numerous distinguished Jews – think of Jacob Bronowski, George Steiner, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jonathan, Lord Sacks, Daniel Barenboim, Leonard Bernstein, Bronislaw Huberman and others. And Donald definitely has a keen sense of his own Jewish identity, something worth remembering especially now when anti-Semitism is once again lurking in the shadows of our society. So in closing I would say that not only am I grateful to be Donald’s nephew, but because of him, I’m also very happy to be Jewish.

First loves forever?

Do your first purchases of great music on disc still stack up? With me, some do, some don’t. Here are a few examples.

Brahms Symphony 4            Bruno Walter/NYPO              No     Toscanini and the BBC Symphony stepped ahead of Walter

Heifetz @ co in Mozart’s G minor Quintet                         Yes

Karajan and the Philharmonia in Sibelius 2                     No (no edge to the performance)   Monteux, Ansermet and Toscanini (1940), all vastly superior (IMHO)

The Oistrakhs/Kondrashin in Mozart’s E flat Sinfonia concertante    Yes

Verdi’s Falstaff – Toscanini, NBC                                          Yes

Furtwängler Tristan                                                               No – in general I prefer the leaner, fierier Carlos Kleiber

Mahler 9 Bernstein NYPO                                                     No – Walter pre-Anschluss gets me every time

Bach solo violin Sonatas – Heifetz                                       Yes … but Hilary Hahn is coming close

Can I have some of your hits and misses?








Sir Colin Davis’s ‘Berlioz Odyssey’

‘First rate’ would be an understatement when it comes to describing Sir Colin Davis’s various performances of major works by Hector Berlioz, and no matter what period in Davis’s career you’re taking about. But the ultimate accolade surely has to go to the concert performances he gave with the LSO from early in the new Century, with first-rate recordings produced by the late James Mallinson now collected in ‘Berlioz Odyssey’ on LSO Live LSO0827 (6 SACDs + 10 CDs). Pride of pace must go to the operas The Trojans(with Ben Heppner and Michelle de Young), Béatrice et Bénédict, and Benvenuto Cellini, while L’Enfance du Christ, the Requiem and Te Deum benefit from the leadership of a conductor who appreciated the difference between intimacy, scale and bombast. In the case of The Trojans the older Davis faces significant competition from his younger self with Jon Vickers, Josephine Veasey and the Royal Opera House forces (Philips), not to mention, on CD, Jon Nelson’s Award-winning version with Joyce DiDonato (Erato, now in their big Berlioz ‘complete works’ box), another stunner, Charles Dutoit (an absolutely complete recording) and historic performances under Sir Thomas Beecham (Malibran) and Rafael Kubelik (Testament). But Davis at The Barbican packs a fair wallop, while his trademark ability in Berlioz, so crucial, to balance Classicism with Romanticism is everywhere in evidence. La Damnation de Faust is also excellent and as to Roméo et Juliette I fondly recall hearing the original broadcast – or at least a Davis broadcast of the work from around this period – and trying to guess who was at the helm … Munch, maybe, or Monteux or indeed, Davis himself? I’d heard him conduct the work live at the South Bank many years earlier, also with the LSO, but with nothing like the levels of intensity achieved in this Barbican performance. As to the rest, Harold in Italy with violist Tabea Zimmermann is more dynamic and keenly shaped than Davis’s Philharmonia version with Menuhin and the one mild disappointment, the Symphonie fantastique which although thoughtfully moulded and often excitingly played is just a little wanting in spontaneity. I note that most performances originate from recordings made over more than one day, which begs the question how ‘live’ is live? Still, anyone wanting a trusted guide to Berlioz could hardly do better than Sir Colin Davis and for that reason alone this ‘Berlioz Odyssey’ is like manna from Heaven.

Perhaps readers would care to offer critical comments on Davis’s Berlioz in relation to other interpretations on CD, either new, rather less than new or vintage? I’d be delighted to hear from you.