This morning we flew back from Berlin. Yesterday’s thunderstorm had been swept away and the sky was a brilliant blue, with hundreds of fluffy white clouds bobbing about beneath us.
Sometimes when travelling by plane, especially on a dull day, the glorious sunshine above the clouds comes as a shock. It’s often crossed my mind that my favourite composers could have had no idea of this sight. For us it has become almost routine. But what would Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert have made of it? Vast as their imaginations were, surely they would have been stirred by the experience of seeing the bright space above the clouds, and the glimpses of our patchwork fields and settlements far below.
Off early this morning to Heathrow for a concert this evening with the trio in Berlin’s Konzerthaus. We used never to travel somewhere far away on the day of a concert, in case of delays. We’d had one or two nasty experiences which made us conclude that we must always go out on the day before our concert. However, as we’ve all become busier and our family lives more complicated, we’ve found it less easy to be so idealistic. And if we’re paying our hotel bills out of our concert fees, as we usually are, travelling out on the day before the concert means two nights of expense instead of one.
We’ve played three times this season in the Konzerthaus. These have been highlights of the year. During the time of Germany’s division into East and West, the Konzerthaus was beyond the Berlin Wall and inaccessible to Western musicians like us. Now it has been renovated and looks wonderful. The artists’ dark-panelled canteen backstage still seems ‘ancien régime’ but I rather liked that, and I liked the motherly server who advised me that the ‘dish of the day’ would be better value than the one I’d just asked for. I found it very touching to perform in this historic hall, and even more touching to encounter today’s young and extremely-switched-on Berlin audience who were cheering even before we’d reached the interval. I felt like scooping them up and taking them all in my suitcase back to London.
picnic in the evening light
Last night we attended the dress rehearsal of Handel’s opera ‘Giulio Cesare’ at Glyndebourne, thanks to a friend in the orchestra who kindly gave us tickets. Dress rehearsals at Glyndebourne, which are free but reserved for friends, family and supporters’ groups of the cast and crew, are possibly more fun than attending a ‘real’ performance because the atmosphere is more relaxed. Glyndebourne is famous for its beautiful gardens and for the length of its intervals, designed so that people can enjoy a picnic on the lawns. Dressing up for the ‘proper’ performances, and picnicking in one’s finery, are a cherished feature of the English summer and people go to enormous lengths to bring tables and tablecloths, ice boxes, picnic hampers and devices from which to suspend a bottle of champagne in the cool lake while they enjoy Act One. It all looks fabulous, but there can be an element of one-upmanship which makes one feel self-conscious.
I had never seen a Handel opera performed live. It was especially fascinating because I knew that three of the main roles were sung in Handel’s time by ‘castrati’, male singers who had been castrated as children so that their voices never broke. In adulthood, these men tended to be very large and their voices were magnificent and extremely loud, backed by a man’s full muscular power. The conductor Toscanini heard one of the last famous castrati, Moreschi, and was asked what he sounded like. Toscanini replied, ‘It is quite simple. He sounded like Ethel Merman.’
Castrating talented young boy singers has been illegal for a long time (I think it was even illegal in Handel’s time), and their roles today are taken either by women or by male countertenors. However excellent their voices – and last night they were superb – they must sound very different from the sheer vocal power and timbre of the castrati for whom Handel wrote. No matter how ‘authentic’ we try to be, that’s one thing that can’t be reproduced today – thank goodness!
The index finger of my left hand has been painful for some days. I think I whacked the piano keyboard too hard during a phrase marked ‘brutal’ in a performance of Messiaen last week. Next morning, I picked up a mug of tea and it really hurt to curl my finger around the handle.
Since then I’ve played three more concerts, each with an enormous programme. My index finger didn’t hurt too badly if I was able to keep it curved and play the key with the fingertip, but if I used a flatter hand and hit the key with the first joint of the finger, it hurt. In the heat of performance, one can hardly focus on this kind of thing, but pain was a reminder not to overlook it entirely.
When conditions were calm during the concerts, I re-fingered things so that instead of using my sore index finger, I used the third finger. This could only be done when the music was moving slowly enough. You can’t instantly re-finger something complex which you’ve practised a million times and whose pattern is stored in your subconscious. But it was interesting to try to intervene in my automatic finger-pattern memory of slower passages. It reminded me of piano professor György Sebök saying how hard it is to make changes in habitual routines such as shaving, or combing your hair. He commented that making innovations in such routines can sometimes have a surprisingly liberating effect. And so I found it in my three concerts: a little reminder that things can be different, a tiny sliver of fresh thinking.
I’m reading the American poet Mark Doty’s memoir about his two beloved dogs. It’s a charity shop find in a Large Print Edition, the oversize print giving me the impression that the author is talking to me slowly and in a loud voice. The sensation fades away as I get drawn into this lovely book, which I’m so glad I found ‘by chance’. Actually, a Small Print edition would have suited it better, to be cupped in the palm and pored over like an Elizabethan miniature.
At the front of the book, the author’s other works are listed, some of them in the category Nonfiction. I find this word slightly jarring. Paperbacks are reviewed in literary supplements each week, divided into the categories ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’. It’s as if fiction is the gold standard for literature, and anything which isn’t fiction has to dissent from it by calling itself Nonfiction, as if its lack of made-up-ness is a shortcoming. Puritanically I feel that Fact should be the prevailing standard, and works of the imagination, such as novels, should be described as Non-Fact. Imagine if prose and poetry were categorised only as Prose and Nonprose, or if all serious works were lumped together as Nonhumour!
One of these days I expect I’ll walk into a record store and find classical music filed under Nonpop.