Pulses racing in Shostakovich

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 May 2009 under Concerts, Florestan Trio  •  Leave a comment

In my work as a classical performer, nothing beats the feeling of playing to a sold-out Wigmore Hall, with people standing at the back. That was my trio’s fortunate experience in London last night. I had invited a friend who doesn’t often go to concerts of this type. She was very struck by the audience’s intense concentration. Indeed, during quiet passages the hall was so silent that from the piano (I don’t face the audience when I play) it was possible to imagine nobody was there at all. It almost gives one a start when 550 people suddenly cough and rustle things at the end of a movement. 

Closing our programme was the famous piano trio by Shostakovich, rightly described in the notes as ‘chilling and harrowing’. There’s a lot of very anguished, almost brutal music in this work and it demands some powerful physical involvement from the players. Last night, when I finished playing the fast and violent second movement, I paused for a few seconds and then, as always happens at this moment in performances of this work, my heart started to thump madly. I’m not aware of it while I play – it seems to happen when there is a moment of rest. When your heart thumps like that, your vision is slightly disturbed and your hands shake slightly too. And the next thing I had to do was to begin the very slow lament which follows. I had only a few moments to compose myself, and I sat there trying to breathe deeply in the hope of quietening my thumping heart enough that I could set the right kind of mood in the slow movement. I often wonder if composers ever know about or consider the physical effects of their music on the people playing it!

Vanishing Bowl

Posted by Susan Tomes on 6 May 2009 under Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

A few days ago I wrote about our cat dragging her water bowl around the kitchen floor. It’s a topic I never thought I would mention again.

However, last night when we were giving the cat a bit of supper, we suddenly noticed that her pottery drinking bowl had gone. It was simply not there. We’re used to finding it in funny places, so we looked all around the kitchen and then out into the hall. I wondered if perhaps I had absent-mindedly picked up the bowl earlier that day, intending to replenish it, and put it down somewhere silly. So I looked in the other rooms, and then I looked outside. I even looked in the tool cupboard and in the fridge, because in times of stress I have been known to put frozen peas in the tool cupboard and spanners in the fridge. But there was no sign of the bowl. For a mad moment I wondered if one of our local foxes had wandered in while the back door was open and pinched the bowl for his china collection.

The cat looked innocently up at me as I opened and shut cupboard doors. Bob says that in one of the Sherlock Holmes detective stories, Holmes says that when you have eliminated the impossible, then whatever is left, however improbable, must hold the key to the explanation. I don’t know if we have eliminated the impossible yet, but we certainly explored the possible. So what’s left? Has the cat managed to drag her bowl into another dimension?

Live on BBC radio this evening

Posted by Susan Tomes on 5 May 2009 under Concerts, Florestan Trio  •  Leave a comment

If anyone would like to hear the Florestan Trio playing live on radio and chatting about its Wigmore Hall concerts this week, we’ll be on BBC Radio 3’s drive-time programme, In Tune, this evening between about 6.15-6.45pm. We’ll be playing Beethoven, Shostakovich and Haydn and talking to presenter Sean Rafferty. You can also listen via the BBC website, or to a podcast, via http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/intune/.

The trio will be playing a concert at London’s Wigmore Hall tomorrow, 6 May, at 7.30pm. The concert is sold out, so only returns may be available.

Haydn among the asparagus

Posted by Susan Tomes on 4 May 2009 under Florestan Trio, Travel  •  Leave a comment

Up at 6am to fly to Frankfurt and then on by road to the Schwetzingen Festival, where my trio is opening a series of concerts celebrating Haydn’s wonderful piano trios. Arriving suddenly in Schwetzingen on a Sunday lunchtime makes me realise that I carry my London tempo around with me, and that it grates in other places. Bells ring lazily, people stand chatting in knots on the pavement, and locals are gathered for leisurely Sunday lunches in cosy old inns along the cobbled streets. I burst into the dark panelled restaurant of our inn, in search of a quick lunch before our rehearsal. People glance round, their attention caught by my air of hurry. And why am I in a hurry? There’s new asparagus, white and succulent, to savour in a dozen different sauces. Bees drift in on the sunlit air from the terrace. I’m the only person dining alone, but no female reader of MFK Fisher allows herself to be daunted by the social challenge of lone dining.

Our concert is in the stunning palace with its formal gardens laid out rather like a German version of Versailles. Playing Haydn feels perfect in the dove-grey beauty of the Mozartsaal. We’ve been asked to contrast two of Haydn’s piano trios with twentieth-century masterpieces by Ravel and Charles Ives. In this setting, the crazy Ives Trio feels even more iconoclastic than usual, yet an elderly German lady tells us afterwards that she found it the best piece on the programme. The audience is extremely warm towards us.

The director of the festival kindly invites us for a bit of supper afterwards, but somehow the combination of early flight and enormous, demanding concert programme has done for me. I feel so weary I just want to lie down on the floor of the restaurant and go to sleep among the plates of asparagus.

Trio Masterclasses

Posted by Susan Tomes on 29 April 2009 under Florestan Trio  •  1 Comment

My trio has just spent two days giving masterclasses to three excellent postgraduate piano trios: the Trio Duecento Corde from Hungary, the Pescatori Trio from Germany, and the Van Halsema Trio who are currently based in London. Each year, the standard of playing seems to get higher, to the point when we’ve jokingly told some of our ‘students’ they’re so good that we might have to kill them at the end of the weekend.

Each trio typically contains players from several countries – this year, for example, one of ours had members from South Africa, Holland and Germany. And each year I sit there worrying about whether such diversity will tear them apart in the long run. When they are all studying in the same place, it’s easy for them to work together regularly, but when their courses end, the challenges of keeping in touch become enormous. It’s hard enough to stay together when you’re all from the same country. I hate the thought that all their shared knowledge and expertise may melt away.

What I like best about our masterclasses is that we can talk deeply about rather specialist matters we rarely discuss outside our own group. When we meet up with other trios, it turns out that they are preoccupied with the same questions. How to match instrumental tone to musical content. How to make the structure clear in a long movement by Schubert. Whether to help Schumann seem as sane as possible, and how. Whether it’s important to feel the emotions in a piece of music, or to remain slightly detached. How to know who is important at any given moment. Whether to allow variations of tempo within a movement, and why. How to give one another the freedom to play. Sharing these questions with other musicians is stimulating. Sometimes, when we’re all pondering the same thing, it feels as if we’re being gently heated inside a kind of benign pressure cooker.