Tuesday, August 23, 2016


Not so very many years ago, two young students, already laurelled, each one, with considerable success, entered the Queensland Conservatorium in Brisbane, Australia. 
Paul from Grafton, NSW (piano) and Fiora from Launceston, Tasmania (soprano) quickly became best buddies, which meant, of course, being musicians, they made much beautiful music together. 

Everything from ‘Mein Herr Marquis’ to the songs of Copland …

And for a change from Strauss or Copland, they manufactured their own material

And it so happened that both of them, separately, moved out into the big wide musical world … and just happened to end up in the same place. Berlin, Germany.

Which is where I come in. On my second day in Berlin (ever, the first was Das Vetter aus dingsda), Dr Kevin Clarke took me to a concert at the Bar Jeder Vernunft. Australians? I come to Berlin to hear Australians? Paul in a new guise as singer-songwriter ‘Montmorensy’, Fiora backing him with stratospheric sopranoisms. 

I was blown away, and I rushed into print ...

Montmorensy went on to record a CD (Writ in Water), which became the joy of the cognoscenti, and then quietly slipped away to turn himself back into the pianist and composer, Paul Hankinson.

Fiora stepped out from the ooh-aah desk and up into the limelight, touring the world as the featured vocalist with DJ Armin van Buren to hordes of screaming fans …

And when she wasn’t touring, and he wasn’t away playing Haydn, Beethoven, Britten et al, and premiering his piano quintet (To Cross the Bay) in Australia…

the pair coincidentally both ended up in the Hochstrasse, Berlin. Living across a courtyard from each other. It wasn’t long before the string and a tin can were in operation. And the result? A few years on from ‘Pierrot’. Another song together. ‘Human Race’. Out this week, and already heading for the Top 100 in Russia!

You start off with ‘Mein Herr Marquis’ and you end up on the Russian hit parades, and itunes, and Spotify, and soundcloud and all those places I’ve never been …  

Music, music, music ...

Thursday, August 11, 2016

A day in the lovely life ....

We had breakfast with the birds (‘Martha, put your tongue in, the next bit of bread is MINE’)

 We went walking out on the breakwater, where the critturs live and the waves swirl and the sunshine glitters

And where sometimes you catch a blackfish

 We looked over the blue waters, back at home ..

 And the birds flew and the sea shone

And we came home and dipped into the complete works of Sevtap Yüce and …

 No ‘we’ this time! Paulie made the most delicious Seve-Turkish dinner. I just poured the wine …

 Good night, sweet world …

Friday, August 5, 2016

Suffering Sopranos! … or, Where did my aria go?

In the umpteen years that I’ve been working in the 19th-century music world, I’ve encountered endless names which were new and unexplained (duly, since, explored) and a great deal of music which was naught but a title to me. I’ve explored some of that too, with the help of youtube, but alas, that excellent teaching aid has some sad and, in some ways surprising, lacunae. Huge hits of the C19th are not there. I suppose no one has recorded them, their day of glory was in the years before recording was invented. So, I have to fall back on sheet music. But in one notable case, that too had left me bereft. Story.

In the early decades of the Victorian era there was one number, above all, which star sopranos, prime donne … and little girls at their pianos … put on show if they wanted to exhibit the then fashionable ‘elasticity’ and ‘flexibility’ of their voices. You know, like Cecilia Bartoli in her ‘Agitata da due venti’. It was not the Queen of the Night, not even ‘Bid me Discourse’, ‘Cease your funning’, ‘Non piu mesta’ or chunks of Proch and Pucitta. The piece was known as ‘Rode’s Air and Variations’. Must have a look at this, I thought.

Brick Wall. Youtube rendered up a piano version. How odd, a piano version of something so widespread, yet not a vocal one. Well, as I know now, the piece went by several different titles and appeared in a multitude of different arrangements. And I’m still not wholly certain which is which.

Pierre Rode was a French violinist, considered, with Viotti (his teacher) and Kreutzer, as one of the best players of, and writers for, the instrument around the turn of the C18th. He operated variously in France, Russia and Germany, was sometime named violinist to Napoléon and the King of all the Russias, and in the last years of the C18th early years of the C19th turned out some highly popular concertos for violin. But the most popular, it seems, was our ‘Air Varié’. Written in G major. When? Where? When was it first performed? Well, I have scrabbled through yards of old German script, and I have no precise answer.

The following Vienna sheet-music has to be very early 1800s, when Napoléon was still ‘premier consul’ of France rather than Emperor..

So it seems it was premiered (?) while he was in France.

Alas, Rode’s worklist is annoyingly muddled. Even the Bibliothèque Nationale de France doesn’t seem to have things ordered and dated. There is strange inconsistency in opus numbers. The 12 concertos (most, like his Caprices and Études, recorded in our day) are numbered 1-12, but the rest? Our Air Varié was published as opus 10 in Vienna (above) and France. Elsewhere it seems to be opus 12. One text says it was written circa 1794, which can’t be right. Opus 9 (the 7th concerto) seems to have been be premiered in 1803. And Opus 11 in 1804. When he was in Russia…

But I think I see our Opus 10 (?) already published in France in December 1802. I find it, by 1805, called the ‘bekannten Variationen von Rode’ in Leipzig (Einert) and Hamburg (Seidler). By 1812 they’re ‘die himmelschen Variationen von Rode’, and being played not only by the masters but by a 13 year-old amateur, a blind man from Munich, arranged as an organ solo … and I see versions (undated) for flute, for clarinet, for piano, for harp, for cornet, for concertina. In 1818 the ‘cellist Wranitzky is playing it …

So when did the vocal version happen. Well, it seems to have been round about this time. The first reference is to Catalani singing it ‘exactly as written’ at the Paris Italiens in the 1817-8 season. Apparently with no words. Just as Madame Mara had done with a similar Italian piece the year before. I haven’t yet found this performance (which must have provoked some reaction!) but I pick her up in September 1818 in Prague and Dresden in November showcasing her new number alongside her regular Pucitta (‘Deh frenate’, ‘Della tromba’), Paer (‘La placida campagna’), Guglielmi (‘Mio bene’), Portogallo (‘Vorrei frenar le lagrime’), Mozart ‘Done sono’ and the pasticcio ‘O dolce contento’), Handel (Messiah) and ‘God Save the King’ (of whichever country was appropriate).

One wee point. It wasn’t ‘exactly as written’. It had been transposed to E flat, so that the top note in the piece was theoretically B flat. But of course, Madame embellished the embellishments!

Other sopranos were on to it soon. I see Elizabeth Feron giving a very Catalani-esque programme, including the Rode, in Berlin as soon as 1819. And meanwhile the violinists and the clarinettists and the pianists (‘originally composed for the Violin, adapted for the Voice, and sung with extraordinary effect at Paris by Madame Catalani, and now arranged for the Piano Forte’) continued to give their G major variations.

In 1821, Catalani and the piece hit England. She gave two concerts in Birmingham and featured the piece both nights, she moved to London’s Argyll Rooms and out it came again. ‘The celebrated air by Rode with the variations as sung by Madame Catalani is published under her sanction …’. When Mary Ann Paton jumped on the bandwagon she stoutly announced her piece as ‘Rhode’s Violin Variations’.  And Skillern published it for harp. So did Bochsa. Lavenu published it ‘as sung by Mme Catalani’ for two pianos. The flautist Nicholson tried it and got a rapped knuckle: ‘If Mme Catalani will venture to sing a violin air, surely the flute-player may venture to blow it, but Madame C performs its most valourously note for note as M Rode plays it, while Mr Nicholson more prudently adapts it to the genius of his instrument’. And he added three extra variations.

Cheltenham muso Pio Cianchettini published what passed for an official Catalani arrangement, ‘which it would seem she deems to be the highest possible demonstration of her powers’. Later Levy made it over for cornet and Mr Purkis performed it on the Apollicon.

By this time it had somewhere obtained words. Allegedly by Catalani. I first see it billed as ‘Al dolce canto’ in late 1822. 1822, too, seems to have been the year of issue of the most successful of the other ‘arrangement of the arrangement’. Carl Czerny had heard Catalani sing her version in Vienna the previous year and come up with his piano version (opus 33). That’s the one on youtube. Gloriously played by Horowitz...


But the vocal version was about to get another fillip. Henriette Sontag took it up, and not only gave it in concert but introduced it into the lesson scene of her performances of The Barber of Seville. First in London and then in Paris. It was for the nonce an accepted part of Rossini’s score. Cramers even published it as a pair with ‘Una voce poco fa’.

In the years to come, other stars took their turn at the piece. I see Grisi (1834, ‘surpasses any other performance we have heard of the same piece’), Cinti-Damoreau (1835), Charlott Ann Birch (1846), ‘the return of Sontag’ (1849), Louisa Pyne (1851), Castellan (1851), Sofie Cruvelli in Il Barbiere (1852), Marie Comte-Borchard (1853), Alboni in concert and Il Barbiere (1856-7), Helen Lemmens-Sherrington (1859), Artôt (1860), and others less or unknown to fame, singing the now famous melody. Julia Harland, Mesdames Gautrot and Testar (Australia), Mrs Emma G Bostwick (USA), Herta Westerstrand, Molina di Mendi, Annie Thirlwall, Guiseppina Finoli, Pauline Rita, Pauline Lewitzky, Amalia Colombo, Caroline Schmeroschi, Rose Hersee, Elvira Gambogi, Antoinette Trebelli ..

By the 1880s it was occasionally qualified as ‘sadly hackneyed’ or ‘that useful voice-training exercise’ and by the 20th century it had largely gone back to being a violin piece and the vocal version was surrounded by journalistic mythology: ‘Rode's Air and Variations [was] sung by Miss M Blanche Foulke. The vocal arrangement was originally written for Mme Sontag who, jealous it would seem, of the effect Rode could obtain from the violin in this exquisite creation, determined to emulate his efforts. In spite of his decidedly expressed…’.

So there is its history. Enough of a history, surely, for a copy – just one copy -- of the vocal version to have somewhere survived. But for many, many years, in spite of the aid of some of the world’s most knowledgeable music librarians. I couldn’t find one.

Well, this week I have. In Germany, Russia, England? Breitkopf & Hartel? Cramer? Nope. In the U S of A. In good old Virginia. I’ve sent the URL to a few soprani of my acquaintance, and Paulie is recording the piano accompaniment so we can all have a go…

The vanished vocalises are vanished no longer. Maybe I can get Madame Bartoli to have a crack at them (only B flat, dear!). Well, let’s see!

Nota bene. Pougin states categorically that our base piece is the second of Deux airs Variés (en sol majeur) avec accompagnement d’un second violon, alto et violoncello … Op 9 et 12. He is doubtless right. But why doesn’t he give a date? And what happened to Opus 10?

Virginia’s sheet is of the Sontag Barber of Seville version of circa 1829, published in ... Chicago!

Monday, July 25, 2016

Becoming an addict, or, Masterchef Australia


It’s silly to say ‘I don’t watch television’ as if that were something to be proud of. I’ve been guilty of saying it, in the past. But, nowadays, I watch my share. When I’m in New Zealand, I watch some sport and the races, the very, very occasional bit of fiction (Midsomer Murders, Miss Marple), some of the travel and cooking shows (Rick Stein is my favourite) and some of the other programmes that Wendy likes, and which play between 5.30 and 8.30 pm … 

Here, in Australia, I am inclined to listen to the races on Trackside computer, as I don’t have Foxtel, and of the two TVs supplied with my flat, one hasn’t yet been turned on yet (3 months) and the other is keyed to the one programme that I watch without fail. I don’t shift it off that setting for fear I can’t find my way back! After our last power failure, it took me ages.

Oh, my unmissable show is, of course. Australian Masterchef. No, I don’t care for the uncharismatic English equivalent or any of the other like-style ripoffs. Just this one. Why? I’ve no idea. But the first year we watched, I got hooked by one contestant … she (she was Italian, and I think called Luisa) came second, I was indignant and shocked … but I had got hooked by the style of the show, and the people involved, and I just returned and returned and simply got addicted. Even though there are things that really irritate me … I can’t stop myself. I, a professional showbiz critic of some 30, oh Lord is it 40?, years standing, and a sometime food writer, go back nightly, in season, for more.

So why am I commenting on this? I couldn’t cook one dish on that is displayed on the programme, I am amazed how these youngsters have acquired such knowledge … but, then again, I couldn’t sing Pamina or Rosina or Scarpia, and I’ve been telling people how to do so, for half my life. So here goes!

I can’t rightly explain what gets me. The presenters-judges are a good combination and good fun – unpretentious, normal and pretty darned credible – anyway, kilometres above the types who ‘judge’ all those singing Talent Quests. The competitors actually have skill (unlike most of the Talent Questers) and we see them displaying it. There are no camp Cowell-esque pauses before announcing the winners. There are very few fake errors and breakdowns and dramas. We are allowed to explore these young folks’ talent unshowbizzed … 

So carried away was I with the show in that first year, that the wrinkles didn’t start to show till year two or three … and then the joins … and then ... other things.

I don’t know when it came to me that, as well as being cooks, the people involved aren’t bad actors, either. But the first thing that dawned on me was … the ‘judges’ taste, before the cameras and us, cold food. It is not possible for every dish to retain its heat through fifteen, twenty minutes. And once you see through the first bit of fakery, you look for others. And either I’m getting cannier or they’re getting careless, but this year the ‘joins’, the huge amount of editing that goes to making up the finished programme, has been more and more obvious. I suppose it has to be, but it is disappointing when you realise that what is supposed to be spontaneity is nothing of the sort. I’ve only done continuity on a film once, and it’s a stinker of a job … but it matters. Never mind. I try to ignore it.

So when I rule the world, what would I change about the show? Very little. But. First the opening of the programme. Far too much of the content is shown as a taster. I sometimes feel I don’t need to watch the show proper. Second, the opening titles, with the eliminated contestants greeting you every week. Update them.

The format of the contest? To me, it is almost perfect. Mystery Box/Invention Test ..  Team Challenges … Masterchef kitchen, on location … However, there are getting to be, I feel, too many ‘immunities’ and ‘powers’. I would cut the cook-off against the professional who has been previously asked if he would be willing to lose. These folk are competing against EACH OTHER. Not against the outside world. Yet.

The guest chefs. Yes, fine, great for recognition factor. Some are good value, some less. Some are more credible than others. Lovely Nigella was really there for her face. Then there is Marco Pierre Whites’s faux-fierce act with its ghastly crying of ‘yes, Marco’ which has me reaching for the mute button. That’s a nono. When he is normal, instead of acting, he is most enjoyably cuddly. Heston Blumenthal was my least favourite: until this year, when he put on a dazzlingly fun show and rose to Undisputed Number One on my hit-parade. His week of pop-up restaurants was, for me, the best week ever on Masterchef.

The contestants? The ’lingo’ bothers me. How come they all learned the same modern kitchenspeak, at home, in Cairns, Adelaide and Towoomba. Caramelised? You mean ‘browned’? Blast-chiller? Every country kitchen has one. Do they all, perhaps, go to Masterchef pre-school? And one really maddening thing, kids (and judges). Kill the pre-commercial break standard: ‘and if my parfait doesn’t set (gasp) I’m GOING HOME’. It’s become a bad giggle.

But in the end, it all comes down to the three anchor men, who make the show run on spiced olive-oiled wheels. I have to pause to recall their names, because unlike their vainer colleagues of the Talent Quests they don’t paste themselves in spangles and tinsel over the titles. Gary, little George, and the grand and glorious funny one. Matt. They just work together perfectly, like poached peaches and clotted cream and some divine liqueur, to drive along a splendid programme. If they are also responsible for the concept and the layout, I hope they are making (more) fame and (more) fortune than ever ..

One request chaps. When your editor is sticking the voice-overs and things together, DO stop the writers from making a contestant say ‘Oh dear, I think I put one drop too much rose water in my soup’ only to have the judges come out later on and say ‘very nice, but there’s one drop too much rose water in that soup’. Giggle. See what I mean about the joins showing?

OK. I’ve got to go. Its 7.32. The teaser and the credits will be over. Time to put the TV on. Last three tonight. Sound still on MUTE, because the three are doing some too repetitive heartfelt chat. Open some Aussie bubbly. I’ll switch on the sound when the action starts. My favourite is still there. She’s the best. But can she outglam the pretty boys …

Let’s see. Gooo Elena!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

'Watching Little Things Grow'

It’s nice, isn’t it. That’s why we have gardens. Until I came to Gerolstein, aged 55, I had never really had a garden of my own. The only places I’d stopped long enough to grow anything except roots were either in the heart of London, or in places which hired a gardener to look after their exteriors. The very occasional window box was my limit.

 When we arrived, Gerolstein had a rose garden and lots of trees. Then, thanks to Wendy’s work, it had several rose gardens, several other gardens and lots of trees. 

Then, thanks to bad-tempered grandmother Nature, half the trees got blown over and/or died, the gardens got flooded, diseased and, well, now it’s a work in progress all over again. And I have only half-an-arm and have gone back to one pot plant.

But when I arrived in Yamba, I discovered that, as well as having the beautiful gardens of the complex, the terrasse outside my bedroom had a little garden of its own, which my predecessor had tried to set up in herbs. Only a healthy parsley and a struggling bay seemed to have survived. So I thought I’d try to fill in the gaps. I tried the market, but alas very little in the way of herbs.

So I just planted what came along. Including my kitchen rubbish. And just when a lovely basil bush was flourishing and other herby things were peeping out, along came Yamba’s winter, both days of it in succession, and all my little things died.

So I paused, and watered, and while I paused some of the things started to respond. But what were they? Parsley, OK. And I know tomato when I see one, from school-holidays spent pruning and picking the things.

I know this is oregano because I bought it for $1 at the market

 But what is this? Decorative or edible?

And all this?

This is the bay tree, which has responded at last to my care, and is sprouting new bright green shoots, but don’t bays grow huge?

Similarly, I’m sure this is avocado stone I buried a couple of months back, and he’s growing at a rate of knots

Ah well, we’ll see if they survive the summer which starts as I leave town. (Yes, it’s WHY I leave town). Then review the situation next Easter. In the meanwhile, I'll try not to get particularly attached to any single one ...