One of the pieces we’re playing in Luxembourg tonight is a piano trio arrangement of Janacek’s first string quartet, known as ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ after a short story by Tolstoy. The story recounts how the narrator becomes jealous of his wife after she forms a musical partnership with a violinist, and in a fit of jealous rage he kills her. In Janacek’s string quartet, the moment of the murder is generally thought to be depicted by music given to the viola player.
I’ve been discussing the work with a violist friend who performed the work many times with his string quartet. Once, they made it the subject of a ‘workshop’ for a group of senior managers from the business world. The managers were interested in how ‘leadership’ and ‘shared responsibility’ work in the ultra-collaborative field of chamber music. After explaining the background to Janacek’s quartet and performing it, the quartet split up and went off into different rooms to ‘workshop’ it.
One of the participants asked my viola-playing friend how he prepared mentally for the act of ‘murdering’ someone. My friend said that he didn’t prepare in that way; he just tried to feel the music’s inner momentum as he played it. But he agreed to explore the idea of identifying with the task of ‘being the murderer’. They discussed whether it was possible to convey the right feeling to the audience if one was not possessed by the right feeling oneself. They talked about the fictional narrator’s state of mind, what it must feel like to be so worked up, what would be the trigger for an actual moment of violence, and how it would influence one’s playing if one really captured such a psychological state.
Afterwards, this discussion preyed on my friend’s mind. When he next joined his quartet to play the piece, he felt a terrible tangle of emotions. As he put his bow on the string, his arm was shaking with tension. He felt hostile to the musicians around him. He felt strangely detached from the performance, and when it came to the moment of ‘the murder’ he was so agitated he could scarcely control his playing. He said it was a powerful experience, but not an empowering one. And it taught him something about the paradoxes involved in performance.
I’ve written an article for The Guardian, due to be published tomorrow (Friday 5 June) in the Film and Music supplement. It’s about the trio’s festival plans to perform Beethoven’s Second Symphony in the composer’s arrangement for piano trio.
This year there are several works in our festival which are cut-down versions of works originally written for larger forces. In addition to the Beethoven Symphony, we’re playing a trio version of Janacek’s first String Quartet, and we’re also giving performances of two concertos, one for piano and one for cello, using a string quartet instead of an orchestra as our support. In case you’re wondering whether a ‘reduced’ version of these works means that they are shorter or structurally different, the music is exactly the same, just re-distributed among three instruments instead of being played by a quartet or a whole orchestra. Playing a slimline, frugal version of these works is an idea which arose for artistic reasons, but which now seems to make extra sense in our recession-hit times.
A trip to Luxembourg tomorrow will prevent me from giving the link to the Guardian page. But if you can’t read the paper itself, I hope you’ll easily find it online on Friday.
Over breakfast this morning I heard the sports announcer say that footballer Roberto Kaka is to join Real Madrid for a record-breaking transfer fee of £56 million. This sum is quite apart from the player’s own prospective earnings, reputed to be in the region of £160,000 a week. And what really amazes me is that even after these enormous transfer fees have been paid, it doesn’t seem long before these top players are moving on again, to another club in another city.
I can’t help comparing it with the world of classical music, which in some ways is also a world of teams. Over the years, many players I know have left one group or joined another, sometimes moving to another country to do so, but never has any money changed hands. Transfers have always been a finance-free zone. Yes, perhaps a player may be lured by the prospect of earning more in another group, but no ensemble ever pays another to release a player. This is probably not so much a question of high moral standards as of lack of money in the profession.
I couldn’t help fantasising about chamber musicians being transferred between groups for vast sums of money. What fun to be poached every other year by a fabulous piano trio from abroad, and then to hear newsreaders say that a transfer fee of many millions had been offered for me!
our first convolvulus flowers
The new little convolvulus plant in our garden has just flowered for the first time. Its six delicate purple flowers will be gone by the end of the day. Bob says there should be new flowers tomorrow.
We bought the convolvulus plant in homage to a wonderful sight in the Swiss town of Bern, where I played a concert. In the centre of the old town, luxuriant blue ‘morning glory’ plants trail from every balcony and arcade. Each evening, the day’s display of flowers dies, but the following morning there is a new outpouring.
A plant that produces new flowers every day, discarding the old ones, seems somehow familiar to me because of my life as a musician. Every day, practising by myself, I’m aware that sometimes lovely things occur, are not heard by anyone, and vanish. Happily new things can, with luck, be produced on the next day and the next.
In today’s Guardian, psychologist Linda Blair (writing about something completely different, but let that pass) remarks that it is a mistake to confuse instant happiness with lasting happiness. Instant happiness has its own special quality, as the convolvulus flowers remind me.
Today I’ve been rehearsing a quintet for piano and strings with some very fine players using some very fine old Italian string instruments. I’m never sure if it’s good to say who owns what, so I’ll just say that these top-league instruments sounded incredible. One of my colleagues said that when she acquired hers, she felt as if she were learning the repertoire all over again because the instrument itself seemed to suggest so many new possibilities.
I know it’s a fallacy to speak as if the instruments ‘sound’ all by themselves. Fritz Kreisler once responded to being told that his violin sounded amazing by looking ‘puzzled’, holding the violin to his ear, pretending to listen and then saying, ‘I don’t hear anything.’ Brusque but effective! Let’s not forget it’s the player who makes the sound, and a really good player can sound convincing on practically any instrument. That’s not to say they won’t sound their best on a world-class instrument.
When I find myself in the company of exceptional old string instruments, I can’t help feeling sad that there’s nothing quite equivalent for pianists. With pianos it is almost the other way round: the best ones are the newest. Steinway’s concert fleet consists of pianos less than ten years old. Of course a lot can be done to maintain and renovate the tone of an older piano, but generally speaking pianos deteriorate as time goes on. There’s no equivalent of a Stradivarius violin which has only now reached the peak of its powers after several hundred years. If you were to take a keyboard instrument made in the same year as a Strad, first of all, it would be a wreck by now, and secondly, it would be a harpsichord. Keyboard instruments have changed and developed enormously, whereas violins, violas and cellos are much as they were, give or take a few modifications. String players know that these actual instruments have been played, admired and loved since the 17th or 18th century. If a pianist is particularly fond of an old piano, however, it’s usually for reasons other than the sheer glory of its tone.