Gramophone magazine review

Posted by Susan Tomes on 26 February 2015 under Books, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

The March issue of Gramophone Magazine carries a review of my book ‘Sleeping in Temples’. As the review is not available online except to subscribers, here’s an excerpt:

” ‘Out of Silence’ [my previous book] was written in diary form. ‘Sleeping in Temples’ is a series of extended and unconnected essays on all manner of things musical but written with the same clarity, honesty and questioning spirit. And, like ‘Out of Silence’, there were several passages that had me metaphorically punching the air.

…Though it is to those with an interest in classical music whom her book will chiefly appeal, paradoxically it seeks to demystify and illuminate the subject for the average Jo.

…Stimulating, insightful, full of ideas and passing anecdotes as she reflects, often wryly, on events drawn from her long career, Tomes brings to the page the same care, fastidious attention to detail and immaculate phrasing that she brings to her keyboard playing.”

Jeremy Nicholas, Gramophone, March 2015


The character of each audience

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 February 2015 under Concerts, Inspirations, Travel  •  3 Comments

After writing about my preparations for Monday’s concert at Wigmore Hall with Erich Höbarth, I’m delighted to report that we had a wonderful time. In fact, it was one of my most favourite concerts of recent years. Erich was tremendous, and I felt that I was ‘in the zone’, always easier to feel if you know you’ve done enough work beforehand, and aren’t having to pay much attention at the level of individual notes. The Wigmore audience was in great form, and the quality of their listening was a joy.

Afterwards, backstage in the Green Room, I said something about the character of that night’s audience, and someone asked me how it can be that an audience can have ‘a character’, when each audience is a collection of individuals who don’t know each other and have had no chance to develop any kind of strategy in relation to their behaviour as an audience. I agree it’s mysterious. Yet any performer will tell you that audiences differ, and that you can sense the character of any particular audience from early in the concert.

On Monday night, I had to open the concert with the very quiet and wistful piano melody which begins Schubert’s A minor Sonatina. It’s delicately written, and a tricky opening, easy to ‘throw away’ at the start of a big programme when people are still restless. Yet as I played it I felt the audience draw together with some kind of shared yet spontaneous concentration. The quietness deepened, if I could put it like that, and became a collective thing. That is inspiring for a performer to witness, because it makes you feel that if the audience is listening like this, then it’s worth trying for the finest, subtlest effects, and sometimes new things occur to you on stage just because of the way that people are listening.

Schubert at Wigmore Hall on Monday

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 February 2015 under Concerts, Inspirations  •  Leave a comment

It’s getting close now to my concert on Monday 16 Feb at my favourite hall (London’s Wigmore Hall, in case anyone didn’t know) with the marvellous Austrian violinist Erich Höbarth, leader of Quatuor Mosaiques, Concentus Musicus Wien, and an old friend of the Wigmore audience.

Our programme is all-Schubert and includes the magnificent three-movement Fantasie, which is rarely played. Why? Probably because of the level of technical difficulty, which with the advent of the heavier modern piano has acquired an extra layer of challenge. The Fantasy is unusual in that both instruments are treated to equal shares of the virtuosity.

Torrents of notes were all the rage when the work was first performed in Vienna, but nonetheless the 1828 premiere fell a little flat. A critic charmingly admitted, ‘The Fantasy occupied rather too much of the time a Viennese is prepared to devote to pleasures of the mind. The hall emptied gradually, and the writer confesses that he too is unable to say anything about the conclusion of this piece of music…’

Fast forward to my own lifetime, when I had a very different impression on first hearing the Fantasy in the wonderful 1931 recording by Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin. I found the introduction memorably, spine-chillingly beautiful. The way the violin line emerges from the haze of piano tremolos! The delicacy of both players’ touch! The main allegro passed by in a daze of admiration for the two of them zooming up and down their respective instruments with precision engineering, and suddenly we were into the ‘slow movement’, the set of variations on Schubert’s song ‘Sei mir gegruesst’, combining astonishing filigree work with melodic loveliness.

Then the hushed opening bars of the Fantasy returned, with subtle changes of harmony to mark the passage of time …. and so on. It stuck in my mind as one of Schubert’s finest works, enthralling on several levels simultaneously. I’ve since heard several excellent recordings, (my current favourite is the one by Szymon Goldberg and Radu Lupu) though I don’t think I’ve ever heard it played live, except in performances where I played the piano.

Polishing it for our London performance has taken time. Erich (in Vienna) and I have sent one another enquiries from time to time: ‘How’s it going with the Fantasy?’ ‘What metronome mark are you up to for the last movement?’ It’s exciting to think the concert is now at hand(s).

Metaphors, not modulations

Posted by Susan Tomes on 4 February 2015 under Concerts, Musings  •  Leave a comment

I’m pleased to say that my audience for the Beethoven lecture-recital yesterday was much bigger than I or the organisers had anticipated. Extra chairs needed to be put out, and there was a lovely buzz in the room when I came in. It seemed that people were pleased by the prospect of hearing a player’s thoughts on the matter at hand(s).

I said to one of the hall staff afterwards that I was surprised there was such a good crowd for a lecture-recital. With a straight face he replied, ‘Maybe if it had been just a recital there would have been twice as many of them!’

I had thought for a long time about how to speak about a late Beethoven piano sonata to an audience of non-specialists. That is to say, I knew there were a few specialists in the audience (fellow musicians, teachers) but I had to assume that the majority of people might not have been familiar with the piece at all. I also decided to assume that they were not familiar with the academic language of musical analysis: subjects, second subjects, expositions, key-structure, transitions,  recapitulations, stretto, coda, and all the rest. I’ve seen too many eyes glaze over when being told about modulation to the subdominant minor.

So, what to talk about instead? Well, luckily with Beethoven there is plenty of human interest to start from – and in the case of his late work, the effect of his deafness on his music. Then there’s the evidence of his late-flowering interest in formal religion and prayer, which seems relevant for the A flat major sonata. There’s his earthy humour, breaking through in the form of folk-songs with texts not stated but imparting a certain flavour to the music. And then there’s the way the work unfolds as if in a theatre piece, with larger acts and smaller scenes within them. There’s the way that it feels to play the piece, its physical demands and what those might mean. And there are all the metaphors that come to mind as one plays or listens to such a piece – striving upwards, exploring the dark depths, trying to be intact, failing to be intact, looking for stability, and so on. Using language of poetry or drama, it turned out to be possible to say all that I wanted to say without falling back on talk of cadences or metric modulation.

Beethoven in words and music

Posted by Susan Tomes on 30 January 2015 under Concerts, Musings  •  Leave a comment

I’m preparing for a lunchtime lecture-recital on Tuesday in which I’ve been asked to speak about, and then play, a late Beethoven sonata, the A flat major opus 110. It’s an experiment for all concerned; I’ve performed the sonata before, but have never tried to speak about it publicly, and certainly not during the same hour. There’s a lot to say, some of which is often available to the audience in the form of programme notes, but quite apart from historical and structural information there’s also much one could say about how it feels to play the music.

Speaking about music before performing it is a tricky balancing-act. When you perform, you try to let go of surface thoughts, dropping them down into a lower level of consciousness so that you can ‘go with the flow’ and focus on the music. You hope to be ‘at one’ with the music, and that means doing rather than thinking.

If you have to speak about the piece in detail, however, you obviously have to plan what to say, and remember what you want to illustrate and explain. Performing the piece immediately after giving a mini-lecture requires some swift internal re-calibration. As Gyorgy Sebok once said in a lesson, ‘you don’t want the music to sound like the illustration to a lecture being silently given alongside it’. The lecture must remain the commentary, not the main event.

So, how to make the transition from speaking to playing? My plan is to leave the room for a minute, to take a few deep breaths, wait until my heart rate has returned to something like normal, and then return to the platform.