It’s getting close now to my concert on Monday 16 Feb at my favourite hall (London’s Wigmore Hall, in case anyone didn’t know) with the marvellous Austrian violinist Erich Höbarth, leader of Quatuor Mosaiques, Concentus Musicus Wien, and an old friend of the Wigmore audience.
Our programme is all-Schubert and includes the magnificent three-movement Fantasie, which is rarely played. Why? Probably because of the level of technical difficulty, which with the advent of the heavier modern piano has acquired an extra layer of challenge. The Fantasy is unusual in that both instruments are treated to equal shares of the virtuosity.
Torrents of notes were all the rage when the work was first performed in Vienna, but nonetheless the 1828 premiere fell a little flat. A critic charmingly admitted, ‘The Fantasy occupied rather too much of the time a Viennese is prepared to devote to pleasures of the mind. The hall emptied gradually, and the writer confesses that he too is unable to say anything about the conclusion of this piece of music…’
Fast forward to my own lifetime, when I had a very different impression on first hearing the Fantasy in the wonderful 1931 recording by Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin. I found the introduction memorably, spine-chillingly beautiful. The way the violin line emerges from the haze of piano tremolos! The delicacy of both players’ touch! The main allegro passed by in a daze of admiration for the two of them zooming up and down their respective instruments with precision engineering, and suddenly we were into the ‘slow movement’, the set of variations on Schubert’s song ‘Sei mir gegruesst’, combining astonishing filigree work with melodic loveliness.
Then the hushed opening bars of the Fantasy returned, with subtle changes of harmony to mark the passage of time …. and so on. It stuck in my mind as one of Schubert’s finest works, enthralling on several levels simultaneously. I’ve since heard several excellent recordings, (my current favourite is the one by Szymon Goldberg and Radu Lupu) though I don’t think I’ve ever heard it played live, except in performances where I played the piano.
Polishing it for our London performance has taken time. Erich (in Vienna) and I have sent one another enquiries from time to time: ‘How’s it going with the Fantasy?’ ‘What metronome mark are you up to for the last movement?’ It’s exciting to think the concert is now at hand(s).
I’m pleased to say that my audience for the Beethoven lecture-recital yesterday was much bigger than I or the organisers had anticipated. Extra chairs needed to be put out, and there was a lovely buzz in the room when I came in. It seemed that people were pleased by the prospect of hearing a player’s thoughts on the matter at hand(s).
I said to one of the hall staff afterwards that I was surprised there was such a good crowd for a lecture-recital. With a straight face he replied, ‘Maybe if it had been just a recital there would have been twice as many of them!’
I had thought for a long time about how to speak about a late Beethoven piano sonata to an audience of non-specialists. That is to say, I knew there were a few specialists in the audience (fellow musicians, teachers) but I had to assume that the majority of people might not have been familiar with the piece at all. I also decided to assume that they were not familiar with the academic language of musical analysis: subjects, second subjects, expositions, key-structure, transitions, recapitulations, stretto, coda, and all the rest. I’ve seen too many eyes glaze over when being told about modulation to the subdominant minor.
So, what to talk about instead? Well, luckily with Beethoven there is plenty of human interest to start from – and in the case of his late work, the effect of his deafness on his music. Then there’s the evidence of his late-flowering interest in formal religion and prayer, which seems relevant for the A flat major sonata. There’s his earthy humour, breaking through in the form of folk-songs with texts not stated but imparting a certain flavour to the music. And then there’s the way the work unfolds as if in a theatre piece, with larger acts and smaller scenes within them. There’s the way that it feels to play the piece, its physical demands and what those might mean. And there are all the metaphors that come to mind as one plays or listens to such a piece – striving upwards, exploring the dark depths, trying to be intact, failing to be intact, looking for stability, and so on. Using language of poetry or drama, it turned out to be possible to say all that I wanted to say without falling back on talk of cadences or metric modulation.
I’m preparing for a lunchtime lecture-recital on Tuesday in which I’ve been asked to speak about, and then play, a late Beethoven sonata, the A flat major opus 110. It’s an experiment for all concerned; I’ve performed the sonata before, but have never tried to speak about it publicly, and certainly not during the same hour. There’s a lot to say, some of which is often available to the audience in the form of programme notes, but quite apart from historical and structural information there’s also much one could say about how it feels to play the music.
Speaking about music before performing it is a tricky balancing-act. When you perform, you try to let go of surface thoughts, dropping them down into a lower level of consciousness so that you can ‘go with the flow’ and focus on the music. You hope to be ‘at one’ with the music, and that means doing rather than thinking.
If you have to speak about the piece in detail, however, you obviously have to plan what to say, and remember what you want to illustrate and explain. Performing the piece immediately after giving a mini-lecture requires some swift internal re-calibration. As Gyorgy Sebok once said in a lesson, ‘you don’t want the music to sound like the illustration to a lecture being silently given alongside it’. The lecture must remain the commentary, not the main event.
So, how to make the transition from speaking to playing? My plan is to leave the room for a minute, to take a few deep breaths, wait until my heart rate has returned to something like normal, and then return to the platform.
There’s an article by music critic Ken Walton about me and my book in today’s Scotsman newspaper – click here to read it. For now, an excerpt:
‘Just read her recent fourth book, Sleeping in Temples, in which she muses, in 16 essays, on issues that challenge and intrigue her in relation to her 30-year career as a leading chamber musician and solo pianist … a book that exudes the same warmth and passion for her subject, and life in general, that shines through her much-admired work as a solo and ensemble pianist.’
The article mentions my upcoming lunchtime concert at the Brunton Theatre on Tuesday 3 February at 1pm. I’ll be talking about and playing Beethoven’s A flat major piano sonata, opus 110. There’s so much to say about this wonderful piece that it’s really more of a challenge to know what to leave out than what to include. Yet, although I have lots of ideas about what I could say, that doesn’t make it any easier to put my thoughts about late Beethoven into words, as many others have found! I’m gradually working out some pointers that could be useful, especially for listeners who aren’t very familiar with the piece. Ticket information for the lunchtime concert is here.
I’ve been reading the wonderful ‘Memoirs of a Highland Lady’, written by Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus. What a series of unforgettable pictures she paints of her life in the Highlands of Scotland in the early years of the 19th century!
As a teenager, I used to get up early to practise the piano, feeling sorry for myself on winter mornings, but I now realise my discomfort was nothing compared with Elizabeth Grant’s. In 1812 she and her sister Jane used to practise in the dark, as she describes in the following passage:
‘In winter we rose [at 6.30am] without candle, or fire, or warm water. Our clothes were all laid on a chair overnight in readiness for being taken up in proper order. My Mother would not give us candles, and Miss Elphick [our governess] insisted we should get up. We were not allowed hot water, and really in the highland winters, when the breath froze on the sheets, and the water in the jugs became cakes of ice, washing was a cruel necessity, the fingers were pinched enough.
As we could play our scales well in the dark, the two pianofortes and the harp began the day’s work. How very near crying was the one whose turn set her at the harp I will not speak of; the strings cut the poor cold fingers so that the blisters often bled. Martyr the first decidedly sat in the dining room at the harp. Martyr the second put her poor blue hands on the keys of the grand pianoforte in the drawing room, for in those two rooms the fires were never lighted til near nine o’clock … Our alfresco playing was not of much use to us; we had better have been warm in our beds for all the good it did.’ (Memoirs of a Highland Lady, I, p221, Canongate Classics).
Why would their Mother not give them candles? Was such a scene really normal at the time, and was it repeated by young musicians all over Europe? I can’t help feeling slightly traumatised by the thought of these two young Scotswomen practising scales in the dark.