The verticality of chamber music

Posted by Susan Tomes on 23 May 2009 under Musings  •  1 Comment

I’m still mulling over a remark made by the marvellous pianist Piotr Anderszewski in a Telegraph interview I read on the plane to Berlin. Asked why he doesn’t play much chamber music, Anderszewski replied, ‘Well…I’m a solitary person. But also I like to lie down, and you can’t do that if you’re rehearsing with another person. I really love to lie down, it’s the natural position. Standing up is horrible – look! It’s so insecure, and so high!.. I wish someone would invent a piano I could play lying down, I would be so happy!”

This is the most ingenious defence I’ve heard so far for not playing chamber music. But I don’t see why chamber music should be uniquely singled out for its verticality. He might as well say that he doesn’t accept concerto engagements because they require him to be in an upright position. It’s true that most piano concertos require no more than half an hour of public verticality, whereas performances of chamber music generally demand two hours of it. But then so do solo piano recitals. It is very puzzling. Of all the difficulties involved in chamber music, I’d say that the impossibility of lying down is one of the less maddening.

I’m baffled too by his reference to the ‘high, insecure’ pursuit of standing up. Surely he doesn’t stand up to play chamber piano parts? Perhaps, when he thinks of chamber music rehearsals, he imagines himself seated at the piano beside a tall violinist who might at any moment sway, totter and fall on top of him – crying ‘Timbre!’

Sunny above the clouds

Posted by Susan Tomes on 22 May 2009 under Florestan Trio, Musings, Travel  •  Leave a comment

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.

Beyond the Wall

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 May 2009 under Florestan Trio, Travel  •  1 Comment

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.

Handel’s opera stars

Posted by Susan Tomes on 20 May 2009 under Concerts, Travel  •  Leave a comment

picnic in the evening light

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!

A painful index finger

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 May 2009 under Concerts  •  Leave a comment

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.