Freedom to add, change and take away

Posted by Susan Tomes on 30 December 2014 under Concerts, Musings  •  5 Comments

I’ve been listening to recordings of pieces I’m currently working on. One is a Moment Musical by Schubert, represented by many different performances, including a YouTube clip of Horowitz playing it in front of a rapt audience in, I think, Carnegie Hall.

Horowitz’s touch is wonderful, and he clearly had the audience in the palm of his hand, but I can’t help feeling puzzled by how free he felt to add and change things for greater effect. He plays staccato where Schubert marks legato, and more loudly where Schubert marks ‘quieter’. He adds tiny ornaments to the melodic line, introduces new notes into the middle of certain chords for a more ‘sentimental’ harmony, holds certain bass notes for longer than prescribed, and plays a few ‘passing note’ harmonies on the beat rather than off the beat, to make them more noticeable. All tiny changes, beautifully played, but not what Schubert wrote.

Does it matter? From the roar of approval which greets the final chord, I can only conclude that most people in the audience were thrilled. Yes, there were probably half a dozen pianists who frowned pedantically at Horowitz’s twinkly amendments, but their disapproval would easily have been drowned out by the shouts and cheers.

Times have changed, though, and partly because of the influence of the period instrument movement we have become more attentive to exactly what the composer asked – and a good thing too, in my view. For if we assume the freedom to add or take away whatever we like, how do we know where to stop? In we find that adding a little trill to a well-known melody makes people smile, why not try a schmaltzy little harmony? Might it not be more effective to change the printed dynamics? Why not slow down, if that would seem more touching?

One might argue that such interaction between composer and pianist is a good thing, expressive of relaxation and spontaneity. It might be described as the currently fashionable ‘ownership of the material’, or as updating old music for a modern audience. But I feel uncomfortable if I sense it’s done to draw attention to the performer, rather than to illuminate the music. Is an original text just to be treated as source material, to be varied as the mood takes us? Some might say yes: after all, music is a practical art. But the danger is that by making innovations, we may actually be obscuring the beauty of the music rather than enhancing it. We’re saying we know better than the composer did, and that seems to me a cheap kind of victory.

Dame Fanny’s observations

Posted by Susan Tomes on 23 December 2014 under Concerts, Musings  •  7 Comments

Dame Fanny Waterman, who is standing down from the Leeds Piano Competition she co-founded in 1961, has caused quite a storm with her remarks about the decline of piano-playing in the UK. She attributes this partly to the growing popularity of electric pianos (‘a waste of time’) and partly to the late start of piano pupils in the UK, who miss the chance to emulate the achievements of children in the Far East, capable of ‘amazing’ performances when they are only four years old.

‘Asked if there has been a deterioration in the standard of British playing, Waterman replied: “Definitely.” When she was growing up, she said, there were “so many” great British pianists, including Myra Hess and Clifford Curzon. She was upset at how few Britons today even entered the Leeds competition, dwindling from 24 in 2000 to six in 2012.’

Obviously this whole topic is complex. However, there are some important points to be made in response. First of all, there are many wonderful British pianists today. I don’t want to name them for fear of leaving someone out, but I bet they are easily as good as the ones named by Dame Fanny.

Secondly, one might ask whether ‘the number of pianists who go in for competitions’ is an accurate gauge of a country’s musicianship. Speaking as someone who has to read a lot of CVs in the course of teaching, writing references and serving on competition juries, I know that practically everyone these days can boast a string of awards. Winning an international prize used to be special when competitions were few and far between, but there are so many now that the whole thing has turned into a kind of circuit round which all young professionals feel compelled to canter.

Many aspiring performers now set aside a few years to enter as many international competitions as they can cram into their diaries, reasoning that the same repertoire can be used again and again, and that sooner or later a jury is bound to take a shine to them, if not in Rome then perhaps in Helsinki or Brussels. This seems to be borne out by the sheer number of musicians who can cite umpteen first, second, third, ‘specially commissioned piece’ and ‘audience’ prizes on their CVs. These days my eyes almost glaze over when I read the list. I’d almost sit up with more interest if someone declared that they would never dream of going in for a competition and wished to be judged purely by their playing on the day.

Most would agree that it takes a certain kind of nerve and stamina to do well on the competition circuit. Those who’ve learned to jump through the hoops are not necessarily the most interesting artists. Indeed, many young musicians have told me they’re aware that ‘eccentric’ interpretations are likely to see them leaving the competition, because a highly individual approach is sure to irritate one or other member of the jury. One gets to know the type of player who can reliably turn out an uncontroversial performance of impeccable technical standard, but who makes very little appeal to the imagination. The sensitive artist, the poet, the nervous but erratically inspired performer doesn’t often thrive in the conditions of a competition. They may touch everyone with their imaginative performance of this or that, only to fall at the next hurdle when nerves get the better of them. In the history of competitions there are one or two exceptional artists who have bitten their way through the stressful rounds while remaining in touch with their visionary side, but there are far more prize winners whose visionary side has been hammered into invisibility.

So I’m not convinced that competitions really indicate where the talent is, nor am I sure that preparing for them is the best use of a talented musician’s time. Yes, prizes can catapult you into the public eye, but when you get there you need more than reliability and lack of controversy to sustain a career. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, a competition produces one winner, but ever so many losers. The experience of losing may be character-forming for some, but is profoundly discouraging for others. My feeling is that some of the best musicianship is probably to be found in the ‘discouraged’ group. So I don’t find it alarming if today’s pianists don’t see competitions as the pinnacle of their endeavours.


Posted by Susan Tomes on 20 December 2014 under Concerts, Musings  •  2 Comments

There’s been a lot in the press recently about coughing in classical concerts, and whether it’s acceptable or not. We classical musicians (and listeners) tend to get upset about performances being marred by loud coughing. However, compared with some musicians, I realise we are very lucky when it comes to the kind of background noise we’re expected to tolerate.

An excellent jazz pianist of my acquaintance – someone I’ve paid good money to hear in concert – was telling me he’d been booked to play for a corporate Christmas dinner at a big hotel. He was the special guest performer, hired to play for two hours. As soon as the dinner began, guests began blowing up and letting off balloons, which flew haphazardly around the room, belching noisily and obliterating the music. ‘At first I thought, this can’t last more than five minutes’, said my pianist friend. ‘But it did. It went on for the whole two hours. First it was one table, then it was another, and finally the whole lot of them seemed to be competing to make the most noise with as many balloons as possible and a lot of shrieking as they flew round overhead. It was unbelievable. I told myself to keep my head down and keep going until the time we’d agreed. I just played for myself really.’

When I hear this kind of thing I feel grateful that I belong to a corner of the music profession where most people do listen quietly – whether by choice or because they feel that the atmosphere requires it. No audience of mine would ever spend two hours using balloons competitively as noise weapons. Maybe they’d like to, but they feel they can’t, for which I confess I am grateful. I don’t think I would have the stamina of my jazz pianist friend, just to ‘keep my head down, keep going and play for myself’ against a background of buzzing projectiles.

‘Maurice Guest’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 December 2014 under Books, Musings  •  3 Comments

Readers who followed my enthusiastic recommendation of ‘The Real Charlotte’ may be interested in another recommendation from the same period. I’ve just finished reading ‘Maurice Guest’, published in 1908 by Henry Handel Richardson, the pseudonym of Ethel Richardson, an Australian novelist. It’s a book I’ve been trying to find for ages, because from time to time it’s mentioned as a forgotten classic about musicians, but I only managed to track it down recently.

‘Maurice Guest’ is a long study of a young English pianist who goes to study in Leipzig in the 1890s (as Ethel Richardson did herself when she was an aspiring pianist). Leipzig at the time was full of music students and their well-known professors, whose adherents gathered in coffee houses to compare their teaching methods and speculate about the future glory of their star pupils. As there were no ‘halls of residence’, each student lodges with a landlady somewhere in town, so the book is full of students hurrying from cobbled street to cobbled street to visit one another and persuade their landladies to warm them up a cup of coffee.  All the townspeople are aware of which professors are ‘in the ascendant’ and whose pupils are struggling for the limelight, and they gather at regular ‘house concerts’ to keep track of who’s playing what and how. Students burst in on another’s lodgings to say things like, ‘I’ve got to tell you! Schwarz is letting me play the C minor Beethoven next term.’ It made me feel rather nostalgic for an atmosphere I’ve never really experienced.

The hero of the novel is smitten by love for a fellow piano student, a fascinating ‘dark lady’ named Louise Dufrayer, who is Australian (like the author) and possessed of a haunting beauty. Maurice’s feelings for Louise gradually take centre stage, push music to the margins and bring out a dark side of his nature. Louise, naturally, loves Another, a red-haired violinist who is morally despicable and unfairly gifted. I started reading for a description of musical Leipzig, but became fascinated by the brilliant way Richardson charts Maurice Guest’s descent into obsessive, irrational love, for which he sacrifices everything. The detailed descriptions of many scenes between Maurice and Louise – especially when things start to go wrong – rang so true that I felt sure the author was drawing on her own experience of life in Leipzig.  It’s a tour de force of psychological insight, beautifully written and one of the most gripping novels I’ve read for a while.

Kyung Wha Chung’s response to coughing

Posted by Susan Tomes on 4 December 2014 under Books, Concerts, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Lots of people have written to me today about coughing. Why? Because of a BBC News report about violinist Kyung-Wha Chung’s comeback recital at the Festival Hall in London. She was disturbed by a child coughing in the audience, and remonstrated with the parents. Her response to the coughing divided the audience. Some were shocked or disapproving, others sympathetic, even grateful to her for raising an issue which bothers many music-lovers.

I was interviewed by the BBC last year about coughing in concerts, and for some reason I was quoted in today’s news report – that’s why people wrote to me to ask if musicians are really so sensitive that they are thrown by a bit of innocent coughing?

As a matter of fact, there’s a whole chapter on coughing in my new book. To sum up: it’s complicated. Musicians tend not to mind the genuine cough, particularly if they realise that someone is desperately trying to stifle it. What performers resent is the loud, self-indulgent bark which rings out around the hall. This kind of cough can give a performer a real start. If you study such coughs and their timing, you begin to realise that it’s not a straightforward matter. For example, there’s often a volley of coughing in the quietest passages, when the performers (and hopefully also the audience) are most immersed in the music. Could there be an element of … shall we call it unconscious sabotage? There’s more on the subject in my book.