I have a new pair of glasses with varifocal lenses. How can glasses have become so expensive! Every few years, one seems to need new glasses, and economising on the choice of frame is neither here nor there when the lenses themselves cost hundreds of pounds.
Since my last pair of glasses, lens technology has improved, and there are now more things ‘factored in’. For example, there’s an area of the lens meant to make reading music more comfortable. The music desk of a piano is a bit further away than where you’d naturally hold a book or newspaper. The same would be true of an orchestral player’s music stand. Therefore musicians often need an intermediate reading distance as well as a ‘book-reading’ distance. Many musicians have a special pair of glasses for reading music. That’s in addition to their ordinary reading glasses, of course. I know lots of musicians whose lives are a merry-go-round of different glasses.
When I sit at the piano wearing my new varifocals, the keyboard appears to have a subtle curve to it. This is a weird feeling, because obviously I know that the keyboard is a straight line. My eyes are telling me one thing, while my brain tells me another.
Furthermore, if I sweep my gaze from left to right of the piano keyboard, or from right to left – as one constantly does when playing piano music – the whole keyboard seems to roll, like a gentle swell on the sea.
No doubt my brain and my hands will find a way to ‘ignore’ these effects, but in the meantime the sight of the gently rolling keyboard is a novel and slightly sickening distraction.
I have had a lovely week at the International Musicians’ Seminar in Prussia Cove. Last September, there were swirling mists and rain. I remember I spent a lot of time taking atmospheric photos of old gates and rocks looming out of the sea mist. This year, by contrast, the weather was fine all week. And there was a harvest moon, which became a talking point every evening. Just before dinner, a huge pink moon would hang just above the coast. After supper, it would have turned silver and risen to hang above the sea, throwing a brilliant swathe of light across the water (see photo). In other years, a torch has been essential for finding one’s way back along the stony paths to the cottages. This year, the moonlight provided plenty of illumination.
It is always very interesting to work with people from other countries and cultures, and from different generations. There are such different expectations about how much to say in rehearsals, and how to say it. There are different ideas about how to work at things, and what kind of work is most productive. Some people want to persevere in rehearsal for hour after hour, while others like to let things settle without saying much. There are different technical standards and artistic approaches, which somehow have to be melded together in the course of a week’s rehearsal. Sometimes the older players think they know best, and sometimes the younger players do. Each has to find a gentle way of putting their ideas across. Despite what may seem like incompatibilities at the start of the week, most groups do manage to find a blend and even an appreciation of one another’s qualities, which makes the performances at the end of a Prussia Cove week some of my favourite performances anywhere – whether I’m playing or listening.
I’m looking forward to another visit to the International Musicians’ Seminar ‘Open Chamber Music’ at Prussia Cove in Cornwall, where a large group of musicians (mostly string players, but also some pianists) gathers to play chamber music. At this time of year I always find myself imagining the journeys undertaken, at their own expense, by friends from different parts of the world to converge on one small, wild, inspiring spot by the Atlantic.
Imagining their journeys is a bit like looking at one of those ‘fractal’ images so popular a while ago, because the journeys start in, for example, California with enormous planes crossing oceans, continue with trains chugging across England (more and more slowly) to the south-western tip, and then gradually everyone is decanted into little vans which turn off the main Penzance-Helston road and wind expertly down the narrow lanes between stone walls and old trees bent and salted by the Atlantic breezes until we reach the sprinkling of houses and cottages along the cove. At that point everyone breathes out with relief (usually followed by a sharp intake of breath as they remember how cold, damp and windy it can be). They dump their luggage in their cottages and swap their cool urban outfits for thick jumpers, anoraks and stout shoes. And a moment later the candlelit dining room is full of musicians who have never met before, or haven’t seen one another for a year or longer.
There’s a big age range, from student to senior. The idea is that different ages will bring different qualities to the mix. Everyone works in two different chamber groups for a week, and at the end of each week there are three public concerts in the region. The seminar is three weeks long, but most people attend just one week. Each person is involved in two groups, so everyone has at least five hours of scheduled rehearsal each day, and they often work longer voluntarily. Sometimes players ask to play with one another, and sometimes they’re randomly allocated to work together – often a mixture of both in the same group. They may be playing pieces new to them, or old favourites they fancy playing with different colleagues than usual. It’s nice to have new light shed on old problems, or to find that old problems no longer exist.
Personalities may ‘click’ or not; this is usually apparent very quickly. Some people are brilliant with soothing diplomacy which enables the group to plough on constructively. Some groups love each other from Day One and are sorry to be parted at the end of the week. Other groups are detonated by a culture clash or a temper outburst, occasionally followed by the sight of an enraged figure waiting on the path with suitcase packed for a dramatic early exit. Mostly, though, the mixture of styles, personalities and backgrounds produces something very rich and special. It helps to be working within sight and sound of the sea, which gets into people’s dreams. Walking along the cliff paths in a high wind after a rehearsal can blow away many vexations. So many talented people in such a remote and unusual place – no wonder many feel the experience sets them up for another year in the real world.
This morning I went to hear Daniil Trifonov’s piano recital at the Edinburgh Festival. Normally wild horses wouldn’t drag me to hear all twelve of Liszt’s ‘Transcendental Studies’. With very few exceptions, I’ve always found them musically rather dull, and can never imagine why anyone would feel motivated enough to learn the torrents of arpeggios, double octaves, chromatic thirds, enormous leaps and every other kind of technical challenge with which Liszt spins out his rather slow melodies. It often seems to me that when you’ve heard one such piece, you’ve heard them all. The same tricks are used in piece after piece.
Nevertheless, it was tremendous fun and an unusual treat to hear the 23-year-old Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov conquering these pieces in a performance of unbelievable stamina combined with precision and delicacy. The whole second half of the concert was devoted to the twelve Transcendental Studies, played in a single span without more than a few seconds’ break in between the pieces. Trifonov has wonderful hands and superb control, but he also has terrific energy and power, a surprising combination in so slight a figure. It was easy to imagine that Liszt himself must have looked and sounded something like that at the period of his life when he was obsessed by Paganini’s violin playing and resolved to produce something of equivalent technical bravura and theatrical effect on the piano.
I can’t say I found Liszt’s music any deeper than I did before, but my goodness, if these pieces are to be performed live, Trifonov is the man to do it. Even if I could have managed a single one of them I feel sure I would have been red in the face with effort. Trifonov, on the contrary, seemed to look paler and more determined as the concert progressed, and at the end his pallor and composure made him seem quite otherworldly.
This morning I listened to a longish discussion on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme about the technique of singing with a microphone. Many singers today use headsets rather than microphones when they perform, because headsets allow them to have their hands free. To my astonishment, the technique of holding a microphone and singing into it was described as ‘a lost art’.
The discussion didn’t even mention the ‘art’ which seems to me much more in danger of being ‘lost': that of singing without a microphone at all. Everyone seemed to take it for granted that some kind of amplification has to be used. The question was merely whether the microphone should be held in the hand or located on a headset. It was as if the pre-amplification era had already been forgotten.
Of course the use of microphones is relatively recent, compared with the very long period over which singers have worked hard to learn how to project their voices across large auditoriums. There is a big difference between the sound of someone who has trained their voice to project, and the sound of someone who relies entirely on amplification. In fact, when microphones are used, there is often a mismatch between the style of singing and the decibel level of the amplification. To me there is something slightly ridiculous about a singer who is clearly making no effort to project their voice, and yet whose amplified voice is blasting off the walls of the venue. When you see a singer making an effort to produce a large sound, the effect is completely different and much more emotionally convincing. You understand the relationship between effort and result. A large sound with no effort is just a trick.
I understand that a microphone could be used to enhance a singer’s technique, but I must say I rarely see it used in that way. Usually it just seems to be used to supply an illusion of power which the singer themselves cannot supply. This worship of the microphone must be very frustrating for classically-trained singers who have actually spent years of their lives learning to project their voice with the power of their lungs alone.