Although I take no interest in tennis the rest of the year, when this time of year rolls around I suddenly get very involved in watching tennis from the Wimbledon Championships. I become so interested that I wonder why I don’t continue to follow the fortunes of these players as they move off to other tournaments in other parts of the world. Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that the players have to wear white at Wimbledon. When I happen to catch a televised match from, say, Australia or the US, where players might appear on a clay court in black knee-length shorts, a sleeveless blue t-shirt and red trainers, I feel curiously disappointed, even though the tennis is just as good. The lush green grass of Wimbledon is a factor in its favour. Crisp whites moving against fresh green … it’s soothing.
At this point in the tournament, commentators start to talk about who is ‘seeing the ball’ better than others. This is one of those observations that clearly has a lot behind it. All the players must see the ball extremely well, or they wouldn’t be there, but it’s true that some appear to react in a way that suggests enhanced ‘vision’, if that is the right word. I’ve heard sports people of different kinds talk about ‘seeing the ball very big’. I’ve heard them suggest that when they’re playing really well, they see the ball so big that they felt they couldn’t miss it. When things are going badly, the ball can appear to be smaller than it really is. The size of the ball is clearly a matter of perception rather than ‘seeing’ as we know it.
All this fascinates me because of the correlations with playing music with other people. No sportsman myself, I nevertheless feel I know exactly what they mean by ‘seeing the ball big’. It’s that feeling you get when you’re performing, when you’re ‘in the zone’, when you feel you have all the time in the world to react appropriately to any signal or action lobbed your way by one of the other players. You can sense when something’s going wrong and adjust. You can sense when something’s going to go differently all of a sudden. You can rise to the occasion when things go better than they ever have before. You become hyper-sensitive to other people’s modes of expression, to the point where you feel nothing can surprise you. Whatever happens, you have plenty of time to react. This is a very enjoyable feeling, but (in my experience at least) not one that you can consciously bring into being, except by being very prepared, and open to new information. I suppose that is one of the points of doing the preparation: so that you have a better chance of seeing the notes big.
Now back from the Gaudier Ensemble’s festival, I’m preparing an all-Schumann recital programme for the Aspect Foundation at Leighton House in London on June 25. The Aspect Foundation aims to expand listeners’ experience of concerts by inviting historians and musicologists to put the music in context after it’s been played – telling us things about its historical, literary or artistic background.
On this occasion it’s a double-act for me and Bob – me playing the piano, and Bob exploring Schumann’s literary influences. Schumann, the son of a bookseller, was an avid reader from an early age. His favourite novelist was the now-virtually-forgotten Jean Paul Richter, known simply as ‘Jean Paul’, and hugely popular in Schumann’s day. All Schumann’s friends were familiar with Jean Paul’s novels, and in fact Mendelssohn’s wife Cecilie was so caught up with them that Mendelssohn had to ask her to stop reading them at the dinner table.
Schumann himself said that he had learned more about counterpoint from Jean Paul than from any composition teacher. This has generally been taken to refer to Jean Paul’s obsession with dual characters who represent different aspects of the same person. Immersing himself in this world of extroverts vying with introverts, men of action set against poets and dreamers, people followed by their ‘shadow’, seems to have given Schumann the freedom to express the wild volatility in his own character, rather than reining it in. The contradictions in his own nature were given fantastical outward form by two invented characters ‘Florestan’ and ‘Eusebius’ (one impulsive, the other thoughtful) and in fact his first piano sonata was published as being ‘by’ them. It was a bold step for a young composer to withhold his own name and publish a major work in the name of two imaginary friends.
Next Wednesday I’ll be playing Schumann’s ‘Papillons’, and his ‘Davidsbuendlertanze’ – two different piano cycles linked by various themes and ideas. In both, Schumann seems to struggle with contrasting ‘voices’, each gaining the upper hand at different times. It all turns out to be linked to an important scene in his favourite novel. Are we meant to know that? Unsurprisingly, it’s not clear. He told his friends, and some editions of the piano music have indications of his extra-musical inspirations, but others do not. Clearly Schumann wanted the music to stand on its own, but I find that it adds something special to know about the literary origins of his turbulent mood changes.
We’re now at Concert 2 in the annual Cerne Abbas Music Festival in Dorset, a feast of known and unknown chamber music, and a showcase for the Gaudier Ensemble, whose 24th festival it is. As time has gone by, and the players have moved further and further afield and acquired jobs, professorships, concert careers and families, it seems more and more of a miracle that we manage to get together each summer in this picturesque Dorset village for another joyful, not to say headlong, plunge into the fire of chamber masterpieces.
For the last six days the players have followed an intense rehearsal schedule, often tackling very complex pieces of music on just a few hours of work. Of course this can only succeed with players of great skill and experience, as they all are.
When I’m not rehearsing, I sometimes listen to other people’s rehearsals. Although this may seem a blindingly obvious thing to say, it often strikes me that the performance of any of these pieces depends on having musicians with advanced instrumental skill. That didn’t used to strike me as anything so remarkable, but now it does. We’re all aware that the opportunity to learn an instrument to this level isn’t available to everyone, and sometimes isn’t taken up even when it’s offered, or isn’t taken up for long. But if the instrumental skill isn’t there, these wonderful pieces won’t be able to be performed. Instrumental mastery is the means by which the music is able to live. If the skill dies out, the music will be silent, except on record, and that’s a whole different thing, a sterile thing compared with the magic of live performance.
So I often find myself watching players of extraordinary skill, and being more aware than I used to be of how precious this skill is.
In a lot of the teaching I’ve been doing recently, one theme has been running through the lessons.
I find myself pointing out to one person after another that they are not actually doing what the composer asked. I don’t mean in terms of notes – those are usually fine – but in terms of louds and softs, choice of tempo, phrasing marks, crescendos and diminuenods, speeding and slowing down, freedom to alter rhythm, legato and staccato, and so on.
Composers don’t mark their scores very heavily with instructions, but I regard their markings as precious messages from one or two hundred years ago about how they imagined the music, and what they hoped to hear. Many of them were experienced performers themselves and would have known how best to bring their music to life. As players, it seems to me that our first task is to notice what the composer has suggested we do with the notes, and see if we can figure out why. Most of the time there are very good reasons for their requests – admittedly more so with some composers than others. For example, Mozart writes very little on his scores apart from the notes, but every single request is meaningful and illuminating. When I’ve become lazy and ceased to notice his markings, I’m always amazed – when I notice them again – to discover how much better they are than what I’ve been doing instead. The same is true with Chopin, whose markings (and pedal markings) are often surprising and brilliantly counter-intuitive. Not every composer hits the nail on the head with such accuracy, but I still think our starting-point should be to respect their advice.
But these days I often find myself telling people that they shouldn’t feel so free to ignore the markings and play whatever comes into their head on the spur of the moment – loud instead of soft, fast instead of slow, lots of pedal instead of no pedal, slowing down or speeding up randomly, pausing wherever they feel like it, and so on. It seems to me that inventing your own alternatives should only come when you’ve digested the composer’s requests and decided they don’t work. Many students don’t wait for this stage before going off-piste with their own ideas. Is it because we are now too far away from the composers for young musicians to identify easily with them? Is it because they live in a society which glorifies the individual’s feelings and wishes?
I don’t want to interfere with anyone’s musicality or love of performance, yet on the other hand I often suspect that students haven’t even tried to put into practice what the composer has asked. Yes, I agree that the most important thing is that students are playing the music at all – that’s why I find it difficult to lay down the law. Of course I’d far rather hear a young musician having a go at Chopin or Mozart than not having a go at it, but I’m puzzled as to why they so often feel they can play the notes and ignore the composer’s other words and signs.
I was fortunate to be in the audience at the Finals of BBC Young Musician in the Usher Hall yesterday. What a treat! All three finalists showed a remarkable degree of poise, as well as a superb level of musicianship and skill. I was amazed by their calmness on the platform and their composure in the presence of TV cameras. How do these teenagers do it? They seem to feel so comfortable with microphones, cameras and interviews.
The pianist Martin James Bartlett – charmingly dressed in ‘tails’ – was a deserving winner of the trophy with his beautifully nuanced and precise performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. He played with intelligence, aplomb and impressive maturity – I had to pinch myself to remember that he is still only 17. Before he played, we saw a video interview in which he made the delightful comment that he often ‘prefers playing concertos and chamber music to playing solo pieces’, a remark I shall treasure.
At these occasions, however, I often have the uncomfortable feeling that we are not comparing like with like. How on earth can one compare a delicate, pastel recorder concerto by Gordon Jacobs with the thundering power of Rachmaninov? How can one set a soulful Romantic piano concerto against the rock-style drumming of a brilliant fifteen-year-old with a metal wheelbarrow in his arsenal of instruments? I loved the playing of Elliott Gaston-Ross (percussion) and Sophie Westbrooke (recorder) all through the rounds of the competition. In fact, in my house we’d identified each of them as a potential winner of the whole thing. I started the Final with the feeling that any of the three finalists was worthy of being Young Musician of the Year. I was glad I didn’t have to choose between them.
I’ve already said that the pianist was brilliant, but the recorder player and the percussionist could hardly have played better. Yet their repertoire seemed, perhaps invevitably, limited or one-sided next to the gorgeous lyrical sweep of Rachmaninov in full voice. I sometimes think that the audience confuses the merits of the piece with the merits of the performer, thinking that whoever played the best piece must be the best player, and conversely that whoever played a slight and gentle piece was capable of less. But limitations in the piece are not the fault of the player. And how could a recorder ever conquer the symphony hall acoustics to the same extent that a brand new concert grand piano can?
I don’t know what the answer is, except to stop making further judgements when we get to this level, and just offer all the finalists a lot of concert opportunities, so that we can hear them in their own choice of repertoire and in venues suited to their instruments. It’s not showbiz, but it might be fairer. In the meantime I hope that Elliott Gaston-Ross and Sophie Westbrooke may take a leaf out of Martin James Bartlett’s book and consider going in for the competition again when they are two years older and that much more experienced.