The ‘heavenly length’ of Schubert’s late works

Posted by Susan Tomes on 1 May 2018 under Concerts, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

This week I’m preparing for the last of my lecture-recital series in The Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh. On Saturday afternoon I’ll be speaking about – and performing – Schubert’s late A major piano sonata, one of the masterpieces of his last year.

These lecture-recitals have brought out a different sort of audience, perhaps one which has more in common with a book festival audience. They’re people who believe in the power of words. Naturally you can understand music deeply without needing words at all, but there seem to be plenty of people who find words helpful.

In his last years, Schubert wrote some of his greatest pieces, which are also his longest. Why was he so keen on writing long pieces, especially if he suspected that time was running out? In the last twelve months of his life he wrote the 9th Symphony (just under an hour to perform), the C major string quintet (55 minutes), the B flat piano trio (40 minutes), the E flat piano trio (50 minutes) the three last piano sonatas (about 40+ minutes each), the three-movement Fantasie for violin and piano, the F minor piano duo sonata, and the song cycle ‘Winterreise’. Schumann, who did a lot to bring Schubert’s late music to public attention, steered our reaction in the right direction by writing about its ‘heavenly length’. Not everyone agreed. In 1840s London the string players burst out laughing when they first rehearsed the finale of the Ninth Symphony with its many-times-repeated rhythmic patterns, but gradually everyone learned to love it.

Just to write down the notes of these works on manuscript is an enormous labour, and that’s to say nothing of the time involved in thinking them up first. If I were given the task of simply copying out all of these works with pen and ink in a single year I would protest at the unreasonable amount of work.  But in addition to composing those pieces and more, Schubert found time to meet with friends, attend musical evenings, correspond with publishers, go walking, read novels, and sit up late in cafes – despite the fact that his health was declining.

It doesn’t seem possible that he did all the things he did. Like Mozart, he appears to have had more than 24 hours in each day, or to have been able to bend time to his will – as indeed he does in his music.

In Lyon with fellow jury member Sergey Kravchenko

Posted by Susan Tomes on 24 April 2018 under Travel  •  Leave a comment

Today I received this nice photo from the Russian violinist and Moscow Conservatoire professor Sergey Kravchenko. It was taken by his wife and shows me and Mr Kravchenko at the drinks party aboard the houseboat ‘La Platforme’ in the Rhone after the final concert of the 2018 Lyon International Chamber Music Competition.

Lyon Chamber Music Competition – jury notes

Posted by Susan Tomes on 17 April 2018 under Musings, Travel  •  Leave a comment

I’m back from chairing the jury at CIMCL, the Lyon International Chamber Music Competition. It was won by the Trio Messiaen from Paris, who swept the board with almost all of the available prizes. In 2nd place was the Trio Hélios, also from Paris, and in 3rd place was the Trio Mosa, who live in the Netherlands but study in Paris.

At drinks following the gala concert in the Lyon Opera House (see photo), a few people said to me it was a curious coincidence that the top prizewinners were French. I can honestly say it was nothing to do with their nationality. They won because they were the best and would have impressed us anywhere.

Having said which, it was noticeable that many of the candidates were from France, or studying in France. But as one of my fellow jurors said, you can only win a competition if you go in for it in the first place! So I hope groups from more countries will enter this fine competition. As well as offering generous prizes, it also has prizes for career development, and to support educational projects.

I still have the notes I made while I was listening to the candidates. Most of those notes have not been useful to anyone other than me, because not many people asked for feedback. Completely understandable, because their opportunity to ask for feedback came immediately after discovering that they had been eliminated from the competition. Few people wished to speak to members of the jury at that moment. Some stepped forward bravely, but it was obvious that they were not really in the mood to hear our comments.

So if anyone wants to ask for feedback from me, let me know. I’m going to keep my handwritten notes for a week or so. On my home page, just beside my little photo in the left hand margin, there’s an opportunity to ‘click here to send an email’.

Looking forward to spring weather in France

Posted by Susan Tomes on 8 April 2018 under Daily Life, Travel  •  3 Comments

Tomorrow I’m off to France to spend a week on the jury of the Lyon International Chamber Music Competition.

This year the competition is for piano trio – the classic combination of piano, violin and cello. From time to time I come across people who think -very reasonably – that ‘a piano trio’ must consist of three pianos and three pianists, so I reckon it’s worth clarifying which instruments are involved in the traditional formulation known to Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and co.

Nineteen trios from around the world have been admitted to the competition. I’m looking forward to hearing different styles of playing, as well as observing different modes of presentation from South East Asia and the USA as well as Europe. In recent years I’ve often felt that ‘the visual element’ of performance plays a bigger and bigger part in everyone’s consciousness. I’m not immune to it myself, naturally, but in fact when people start playing I often listen with eyes closed in order to focus on the purely musical result.

In the UK I am still wearing woollen jumpers every day, with scarves and gloves for outdoors. It’s only a few days, in fact, since we had our last batch of snow in Edinburgh (see photo). Luckily, as I started packing today, it occurred to me to look up the weather for Lyon. What a nice surprise! Temperatures are predicted to be in the high teens and even up to 20 degrees and beyond. Warm spring weather! Out of my suitcase came the jumpers, scarves and gloves.  And then I looked up some pictures of the Lyon opera house, the music conservatoire, and the houseboat ‘La Plateforme’ moored in the Rhône in front of the Préfecture – all locations which are part of the competition at various stages. More pleasant surprises! Add to that the reputation of Lyon as a foodie destination and … I’m really starting to look forward to it all.

Ice dancing

Posted by Susan Tomes on 25 March 2018 under Daily Life, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

On a walk today I found myself passing the ice skating rink (‘the coolest place in town!’) where my late father was a devoted member of the skating club for about fifty years. He went every Saturday evening and every Sunday afternoon. We children tried ice skating as well, but were not as taken by it as he was.

I was already thinking of myself as a pianist, and at the skating rink it wasn’t long before I started to have ghastly visions of falling on the ice and having my fingers instantly sliced off by the sharp blades of someone’s skates as they whizzed by in mid-arabesque. I became afraid of falling, and that in itself made me a poor skater.

When we looked in at the ice rink today there was a club session in progress, but business was not booming. The organisers said that skating had suffered from the fact that everyone now goes abroad for their holidays. Going to the local ice rink was once a popular holiday activity, but no longer. TV shows such as ‘Dancing on Ice’ have brought a bit of a revival, but ‘people want instant success. They get discouraged when they find it’s going to take them a while to become good at it.’ Hmm. I felt I had encountered that attitude elsewhere.

But how my Dad enjoyed the club in its heyday! He was a ballroom dancer too, with a good sense of rhythm and a steady demeanour. He knew all the tunes. At the ice rink he was a popular partner with the ladies, glamorously attired in their spangly skating outfits. When I was learning to skate, I was occasionally invited to dance. As I gingerly waltzed round the rink my Dad and his partner would keep swinging gracefully into my orbit and out again, Dad’s contented gaze fixed on some distant utopia as he silently whistled along with the electric organ.

When there were skating competitions on the telly, his laconic comments told me what I should be looking for. I still look for those things today when watching the Winter Olympics. Grace, rhythm, balance and musicality – you can’t go wrong with those. And don’t look smug – it’s annoying!