Home from Prussia Cove

Posted by Susan Tomes on 5 October 2015 under Concerts, Inspirations, Travel  •  Leave a comment

IMG_20150925_094153292_HDRI haven’t written anything here for a while because I’ve been away at the International Musicians’ Seminar ‘Open Chamber Music’ in Prussia Cove, Cornwall. We had a week of rehearsals in Prussia Cove (see photo), and then eight of us did a week of touring, giving five concerts around the south of England: Truro, Bristol, Wimborne St Giles, Cambridge and finally Wigmore Hall in London. Apart from anything else, the tour allowed us to meet some delightful hosts and to stay in some exceptional private houses. All our concerts were great experiences, particularly the one in Wigmore Hall whose acoustics, piano, audience and sense of heritage combine to make a memorable setting.

A week of IMS chamber music in Prussia Cove is always a special experience, though it also seems to be an astonishing opportunity for the common cold to wreak havoc on a group of musicians working, eating and sleeping in the same place for a week. Every year, people seem to go down like ninepins. This time, when we went on tour, four of the eight people were suffering from ‘the Prussia Cove cold’, which made touring that much more stressful for them. I was impressed by how stoical they were about all the performances and the late dinners and late nights.

When we are in Cornwall I am always fascinated by how the natural environment, plus the company of like-minded musicians, inspires people to wax philosophical. Already on my first day there, as I fell into step with another player walking back after a rehearsal to the cottage where we were staying, my companion spoke about the passage of time, how it affects one’s perception, how valuable its effects can be, how it is expressed in music, and a number of related observations which I very much doubt would have been uttered in our usual urban contexts with their sense of anonymity and hurry.

The whole fortnight was like that. Everyone, including me, seems relieved to be in the kind of company where there are likely to be sympathetic ears for, and good responses to, anything you feel like saying about life or art. In the case of the eight of us who went off on the tour afterwards, the same spirit prevailed. Despite the boxes of tissues and the unpoetic environment of the minibus, we kept talking. This is one of the things I most value about the Prussia Cove experience.

Richard Tauber sings Léhar

Posted by Susan Tomes on 16 September 2015 under Concerts, Inspirations  •  Leave a comment

A reader has reproached me for not including the classic Richard Tauber recording in my previous blog post about different versions of Léhar’s aria ‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’.

He points out that the composer actually wrote with Tauber’s voice in mind, so mine was obviously a crucial omission. Here is Richard Tauber’s thrilling version from the 1930s.

Léhar’s aria

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 September 2015 under Concerts, Musings  •  1 Comment

One of the highlights of Saturday’s ‘Last Night of the Proms’ was Jonas Kaufmann singing ‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’ from Franz Léhar’s operetta ‘The Land of Smiles’ (Das Land des Laechelns). Oh my goodness, what a song! So beautifully constructed, such clever and effective use of harmony, such an irresistible sweep. Its wide melodic compass brought home to me how small and unimaginative are many of today’s pop melodies, often gnawing away on just a few notes close to one another.

When it comes to admiring Jonas Kaufmann I’m up there in the front line. He has a commanding presence, he’s gorgeous to watch and his vocal technique is a thing of beauty, but as I listened to the Léhar on Saturday night I couldn’t help wondering if the song didn’t seem a bit … insincere? On the other hand, he was singing in one of the world’s largest concert halls, projecting to an audience of thousands and no doubt keeping in mind a worldwide television audience of millions, many of whom were hoping for Entertainment. How intimate could one expect him to be? The roar of approval at the end was my answer.

Afterwards I found that the song had stuck in my head and refused to go away. It niggled at me until I felt inspired to go and look up some other performances on YouTube. There are quite a few, ranging from Kaufmann himself to Domingo with Villazon and Netrebko in a sensuously theatrical trio. Thrilling vocal artistry and effortless audience appeal from all of them, but again the word ‘insincere’ hovered in the back of my mind. Surely the song isn’t meant to sound quite so … smug?

Then I came across a splendid recording by Fritz Wunderlich, still one of the most beautiful voices I know. This was much more like it!

And even better, to my ears, was a 1929 recording made in the year of the operetta’s Berlin premiere by a singer I’d never heard before, the Austro-Hungarian tenor Joseph Schmidt, who died in 1942 at the age of only thirty-eight. Here was a compelling interpretation which somehow preserved the music’s integrity while being perfectly in style; light yet heartfelt (and what delightful orchestral playing!) It’s a subtle thing, but it seemed to arrange the elements of the performance with a different sense of priorities.

Noisy piano practice

Posted by Susan Tomes on 4 September 2015 under Daily Life, Musings  •  3 Comments

In the admin section of my website, I can see what search terms people are most commonly using. For months now, the most popular search terms have been ‘noisy piano practise in apartment’, ‘neighbour nuisance from piano playing’, ‘how to stop pianist practising nearby’ and the like. As a pianist, I find this disturbing.

Readers have asked why pianists can’t simply go and play the piano in their school or college. But of course that is only possible if you are a student in that situation. Lots of pianists, especially those finished with education, don’t have a piano to practise anywhere but their own home. Which young musician has money to hire a studio for hours every day? And though some have acquired digital pianos with a silent mode, to be used with headphones, most concert pianists wouldn’t dream of using digital pianos instead of the good old acoustic pianos we were trained on. The touch is different, the sound is different, and there’s little point in practising all the time on an instrument quite different from the type of piano you’ll be faced with when you get to the concert venue.

It’s striking that people are so annoyed by the sound of piano practice in an age when unwanted music and high volume levels have never been so prevalent. All day long we are subjected to music blaring from car windows, in shops, workplaces, airports. Diners move tables in cafes and restaurants to get away from hi-fi speakers. Builders play their radios loudly as they work. Thin walls reveal our neighbours’ musical preferences all too clearly. Cinema adverts blast out music at uncomfortable levels. TV documentaries have running musical accompaniments. Even doctors and nurses often have to work to someone’s choice of music in the operating theatre.

We’re expected to be tolerant of other people’s music every hour of the day. So you might expect the sound of piano practice to blend into the general melee, except that the opposite seems to be true: people are less tolerant of piano-playing neighbours than they used to be.

Maybe it’s because people have got used to being able to listen to music ‘silently’ at home, on headphones? Perhaps it’s because more of us live in city flats, at close quarters to our neighbours? Could it be that irritation at piano practice is connected with a lack of familiarity with classical music, and a consequent annoyance at the repetition of sounds that don’t immediately ‘make sense’ or seem tuneful?

Is it that live music has become a rare and peculiar thing? Has recorded music made people intolerant of hearing things tried over and over again in different ways? I don’t know the answer, but I’m struck afresh by how strongly people feel about the ‘unjustifiable’ disturbance caused by neighbours playing the piano.

LCMS review of my book

Posted by Susan Tomes on 28 August 2015 under Books, Reviews  •  2 Comments

Excerpt from a review of my book ‘Sleeping in Temples’, in the newsletter of the London Chamber Music Society (you can download the whole newsletter from their site).

‘I don’t usually ‘judge a book by its cover’, but in this case the cover is a lovely place to start: a reflection? an artwork? water and oil? batik? I’m still not sure what it is, but it’s beautiful and credited as a photograph by the author, the pianist Susan Tomes.

Initially unsure whether the book would be a group of lectures, anecdotes or theories, I ended up feeling I had had a few wonderful conversations, full of humour and insight, a very rewarding read. I should have remembered some of the newspaper articles by the same author, articles not to be skimmed, but read with thought. A wide range of ideas is discussed, and music is seen from both the professional and audience points of view.

As I am ‘audience’ I appreciated this angle, as books on musical topics are often geared towards a highly specialised readership. Tomes shows great affinity with her audience, perhaps dating back to the 1980s when she was a leading member of the piano quartet Domus, which took music to new audiences, performed in a geodesic-dome tent. More recently, as well as being a soloist and playing in various ensembles, she has been the pianist with the Florestan Trio, so her performing life has been incredibly varied.

As an audience we sit for a few hours, enchanted by the ease with which musicians perform for us, maybe comparing the music with our recordings at home or just happily humming along in our head or bowled over by a new composition – but probably vastly underestimating the years of study and the hours of practice required. In many ways the pianist has something of a lonely life, usually practising solo and having to adjust to new instruments in new concert halls. Tomes talks, however, of a ‘solitary paradise’, which can occur when a private rehearse achieves a certain clarity of moment, and only the pianist is privy to this.’ …

This is not a solid, solemn book. Anything but.’