Sunday, 17 August 2008

Bruce Almighty / Conversations with Bryce Morrison Part II

The Master plays (Villa-Lobos)

The “big break”

That came about in 1972 at his hometown of Leeds. He was persuaded by the pianist Paul Crossley to write an article about the Leeds International Piano Competition. This was sent to the now-defunct periodical Music & Musicians, and the people there thought it to be “rather funny, facetious and with rude things about certain people”. “Who is this Bryce Morrison?” they wondered aloud. Soon he was plied with concert tickets to just about every concert venue in the land, and he felt “like a bat flitting from one nightspot to another”. (And sucking the lifeblood out of performers, one might be tempted to add.)

Morrison regularly writes for Gramophone (covering mostly piano recordings) these days but for years, he wrote for several daily newspapers including The Times and The Daily Telegraph. One of his editors was perpetually drunk, and while another so small-minded and insufferably arrogant (and so was his secretary) that it would seem a duty to “push them into the path of the next double-decker bus”. In the days well before wireless e-mails and text-messaging, he had to phone in and read out his review before the midnight deadline. These would then be typed out on a typewriter and submitted for the next morning’s paper. He dreaded certain Wednesday nights, when a certain elderly gentleman would be on the other end of the line, and greet his urgent call with, “Hmmm…let us see, how do you spell concerto?”

Piano Competitions

Morrison has been a regular judge at regional and international piano competitions, 52 at last count. The American pianist Claude Frank has referred to him as a “competition tart” and he’s rather proud of it. Although he feels there is a circus-like and often anti-musical atmosphere in many of them, he concedes that they are a necessary evil.

Strangely, the first international competition he was invited to judge was a guitar competition in Copenhagen, Denmark. One of the most eventful competitions was the first and last Ivo Pogorelich International Piano Competition held in Pasadena, California in 1994. The first prizewinner was to win US$100 thousand, while the judges were paid US$30 thousand each! Despite that, he came out feeling having being locked in a spin dryer for three weeks, given the politicking that took place. He remembered having an angry shouting fit and bursting out of the jury room, totally frustrated by the meddling exploits of the Pogorelichs.

But there were moments that compensated: After hearing an unusual and totally original performance of Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata by the Australian Michael Kieren Harvey which he positively adored, he was given a nudge by fellow-adjudicator Irina Zaritskaya. Half expecting the Russian to spew vitriol on an unorthodox rendition, he was completely taken aback by her assessment, “Wasn’t that just wonderful?” Having found an unlikely kindred spirit, the two consummated their shared enthusiasm with a warm embrace.

The Music Criticism class

One of the most interesting aspects of the Summer School was the variety of personalities that attended Bryce Morrison’s class. I was a regular throughout the entire week, sticking to him like a tenacious wad of chewing gum on the sole of a favourite shoe. Among my course mates: Maureen Galea Bonello, a Maltese pianist and postgraduate student (her thesis is on Bohemian piano music); Jacqueline Kieswetter, a South African Madame Sousatzka now resident in Dubai tending to piano prodigies with difficult parents; Ben Cameron, a 14-year-old with doctor parents and who wants to be a music critic (sounds very familiar); Aaron Liew, a Malaysian endocrinologist from Dublin, and an assortment of other students, young and old.

What happens in the class? Besides discussing about pianists, critics, competitions and personal experiences, there was much listening to pianists perform, “live” and in recordings. Aaron played Debussy’s Hommage a Rameau (Images Book I) and Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G minor (Op.23 No.5) while I tried my hand at Brahms’ Intermezzo in A major (Op.118 No.2) and Alan Richardson’s transcription of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise. Morrison was most encouraging and helpful, especially knowing that we weren’t going to be future Richters or Perahias. My take: Its better for us to keep our daytime jobs!

We listened to recordings of pianists past and present: the dowdy Dame Myra Hess breathing life into Brahms Intermezzo Op.76 No.3, a fiery Annie Fischer in Kodaly’s Dances of Marosszek, the frail Clara Haskil rejuvenated by Schumann’s ABEGG Variations, and the incomparable Martha Argerich ripping through Ginastera’s Danzas Argentinas. Those were among his “Leading Ladies”, an illuminating lecture he gave at the school. He also gave some time to the likes of Ilana Vered and Maria Joao Pires, the latter whom he remembered seeing on her farm looking the best part like a milkmaid!

Also heard and compared: several versions of the eerie finale to Chopin’s Funeral March Sonata. The consensus was the class preferred Cyprien Katsaris’ darkly detailed and positively malevolent reading to Cecile Ousset’s exercise-like routine or Wilhelm Kempff’s rather timid run through. Unfortunately there was no time left to compare the 12 versions of Samuel Barber’s Sonata I had brought from Singapore. Perhaps the next time.

Bryce Morrison makes a point

The two Joyces

One of Morrison’s favourite subjects was the Australian pianist Eileen Joyce. A flamboyant pianist well known for changing her outfits between works in her recitals, she retired from the platform at the age of 42. She was a “fabulous pianist without actually knowing very much about music” and Morrison offers this story. After performing a wonderful reading of Fauré’s Second Impromptu, the score was put in front of her and she looked up and asked, “That was rather nice. He’s French, isn’t he?” She was also a pupil of the great Artur Schnabel, but when asked about him, all she could say was that he made her a very fine mug of cocoa!

There is a CD issued on Testament of short pieces performed by Eileen Joyce. Bryce Morrison was instrumental for its production and in the booklet exists an informal and somewhat touching photograph of an unlikely trio in Joyce’s living room: Morrison, the pianist in her old age and her pet cat!

About Joyce Hatto, the perpetrator of classical music’s biggest hoax, he has decidedly less sympathy. One unforgettable vignette is Morrison’s totally wicked impression of a pathetic William Barrington-Coupe (Hatto’s conman husband) holding back his tears while describing her final “performance and recording” of Beethoven’s Les adieux Sonata. One of the many victims of an elaborate con job, he was plied with dozens of Hatto’s CDs and jars of homemade jam. “They’re probably from Tesco’s anyway!” he howled.

Has anyone told Bryce Morrison that he’d make a fine living as a stage actor as well?

Since the trip to Manchester, I did get to investigate the Fauré recordings of Germaine Thyssens-Valentin on Testament, acquired on my next visit to Hong Kong’s Shun Cheong Records. The master was right, here was the quintessential Fauré-player for all time!

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