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High marks for Steven Isserlis, but not for Birmingham,
with Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice,
I've bought Steven Isserlis' recent recording of Bach's Six Cello Suites, which are amazingly musical and the sound is sublime, but I can sometimes hear his fingers thudding. I was always taught not to thump the strings and to press unobtrusively. Am I nit-picking?
Fussy in Kingston

Dear Fussy,
Go immediately and wash your keyboard out with soap.
Fussy does not begin to describe it!!!!!!!!!!!

Steven Isserlis. Photo © Tom Miller

I know what you mean, of course, though I've never heard any cellist less obtrusive on the pounding finger front -- it's a danger inherent in playing soloissimo that you hear absolutely EVERYTHING. Also, if you notice, he never does it on the slower movements, just occasionally in the nippy ones you can hear a discreet little thud, as the divine Isserlis' insanely inspired fingers press a teensy weensy smidgeon harder than normal. Still, it's a small price to pay for practically perfect intonation, sound, imagination, pacing, and style -- and the meticulous research that went into this set will, I feel, never be approached, let alone equalled. I only wish my ex-teacher William Pleeth was still alive to hear it!!! He used to try to make us play unaccompanied Bach on a modern set-up but with Baroque panache, speeds, bow strokes and emphasis on colour and he would have adored these recordings. The subtle differences between the repeated sections alone would have sent him dancing around the room in ecstasy playing on his Strad standing up, as was his rather charming wont.

William Pleeth

No, other cellists will live, and die, and some of them in between will have a go at equalling this set -- and all in vain.
And how often can you say that?
You and I both have in our CD collection the definitive recording of one of the cornerstones of our repertoire. We live in exciting times!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Ask Alice

Dear Alice,
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought I saw you in Symphony Hall, Birmingham yesterday looking marginally frazzled -- yet you weren't in the concert. What gives?

Dear Howie,
Frazzled is right!!!!!

After an amazing concert Saturday at Birmingham Cathedral (about which more next week) I spent the night at my friend Anna's in a delightful part of Birmingham called King's Norton. On Sunday afternoon I followed her car (practically banging into it with me in my anxiety not to get lost in that hellhole) into the center of the city only to discover that every Brummie in the world was there, queuing for inadequate parking facilities because of some silly German event (outdoor German food, etc, which most sane people would queue to AVOID eating) -- not to mention the beginning of Christmas shopping. Every car park near the Adrian Boult Hall was packed, and people were promising to sleep with carpark attendents to be allowed to queue there so she brilliantly led me about 95 miles away to a car park where they at least allowed us to QUEUE to get in. With my luck, the machine broke down as I entered, however, and I had to 'press the button for assistance' ... Anyway, one way or another we got separated in the suburban car park and I found myself MILES away from what passes in Birmingham for civilization, without a single clue as to the location of said Adrian Boult hall, except that our original target car park was close to Symphony Hall. After asking directions from about nineteen Brummies, all of whom were most kind and two but only two and a half of whom I could understand the accents of, I found myself in Symphony Hall, asking the Hall manager for directions to the only other concert hall within a few miles.

I thought at first that he might have had trouble with MY accent, but then it transpired that he'd never heard of the place, and got on a walkie-talkie, which kept breaking up, to his manager, who -- unbelievably -- had never heard of Adrian Boult Hall either. I was just losing the will to live when a passing concertgoer overheard and directed me there, which polished off my back for good. After the rehearsal, Anna and I decided to move our cars to a car park in the correct time zone when it would be quieter (at six instead of 1:30) only to get caught up in the most appalling traffic jam, where I almost lost Anna's car (again). And all this for German sausages!!!!!!!! -- The Brummies are good-hearted souls, but, between you and me, they definitely lack taste.

As usual, Jane Austen got it right:

'One has not great hopes from Birmingham. I always say there is something direful in the sound.'

Yours dubiously,

Copyright © 29 November 2007 Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK

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