Radio 3’s ‘Building a Library’ recommends recordings of the Ravel Piano Trio

Posted by Susan Tomes on 17 December 2022 under Florestan Trio, Reviews  •  9 Comments

BBC Radio 3’s ‘Record Review’ programme this morning contained a ‘Building a Library’ feature on the Ravel Trio. Reviewer Jeremy Sams, a well-known Francophile, compared the available recordings.

Mentioning the enormous technical difficulty of all three instrumental parts, he quoted Ravel as having said that he loved the fact that it was difficult because it meant that it ‘wouldn’t be murdered by amateurs’. True enough – now that I come to think of it, I have never heard it attempted by an amateur group. On the contrary, I have only heard good performances and recordings by very accomplished musicians.

Many fine recordings were discussed this morning, but I’m delighted to say that Jeremy’s eventual top choice was the Florestan Trio’s 1999 recording on the Hyperion label. ‘Emotion and precision – the essence of Ravel’, he said of our recording. ‘Expressive and emotional, but self-contained; wild and extravagant, but within the tempo’.

And allow me a moment of vanity: talking about the second movement, a whirling lightning-tempo waltz which ushers in a beautiful lyrical theme in the middle of the movement, Jeremy played an excerpt of the Florestan recording and commented, ‘The beauty is the way the piano tune is played by Susan Tomes … it couldn’t be done better.’

The Ravel Trio has long been one of my favourite pieces of chamber music, and our Hyperion CD is one of my favourites amongst the Florestan’s recordings, so Jeremy Sams’ choice was very gratifying.

The fieldfares are back

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 December 2022 under Daily Life  •  1 Comment

Every winter at around this time, we see a kind of bird we never see at any other time of the year. Fieldfares, which are large thrushes, arrive from Scandinavia and eat the last of the berries on the rowan tree outside our kitchen window. First we notice that the tallest trees in the area are suddenly full of birds, their pale tawny colours glowing in the winter sunlight and their outlines clear because there are no leaves on the trees.

The fieldfares have a special way of remaining motionless in the treetops as they wait in ‘sentinel mode’. Then they swoop off, arriving a moment later at the rowan tree to strip what berries remain. I have tried numerous times to take photos of them, but as soon as they see me move, they take off. Hence there is only one fieldfare in the photo, but often the rowan tree has half a dozen of them, bouncing around the branches.

The arrival of the fieldfares feels like something to celebrate, a cheering confirmation that nature’s winter calendar is turning as it should.

We went out into the garden the other morning and found a shiny new teaspoon lying in the middle of the lawn. It wasn’t one of ours. Now we are having fun speculating on how a teaspoon found its way to our garden during the night. Dropped by a magpie? We have plenty of those around. Brought by a fox? We have those too. An enigmatic message lobbed over the wall by a disgruntled neighbour? Left behind after a fairies’ midnight feast?

Signing paperbacks

Posted by Susan Tomes on 2 December 2022 under Books  •  Leave a comment

This week marks the official publication date of the paperback edition of my Yale University Press book The Piano – a History in 100 Pieces, but as usually seems to be the way, copies seem to have been circulating for a while already. At least, at my Cambridge recital last week, several people had brought copies of the paperback for me to sign.

Anyway, to mark the official publication date I was invited to Blackwell’s Bookshop in Edinburgh to sign some copies. The bookshop is in the process of being refurbished, to excellent effect. I enjoyed sitting at a table in the upper room with a fine view behind me of Old College, Edinburgh University.

The idea is that the paperback edition would make a good Christmas present …. fingers crossed!

Advent at King’s College Chapel

Posted by Susan Tomes on 28 November 2022 under Musings  •  1 Comment

Last night I attended the Advent Service in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. The service, which commemorates the events leading up to the birth of Christ, has a simple and irresistible narrative. At the beginning, the chapel is in darkness. Approaching from the west end, the choir pauses at various places in the great building to sing anthems and hymns.

As they progress towards the east end and the altar, the chapel is illuminated bit by bit. It’s a kind of son et lumière with a solemn purpose. It was glorious to see the intricate tracery of the fan vaulting come alive with a subtle golden glow (see photo). As ever, the voices of the choir rose powerfully into the air, filling the space.

Last year, when I was unable to attend the advent service, I understand that the whole congregation had to wear face masks. This year, there were only a few face masks visible in an audience of hundreds. I had a mask in my pocket but didn’t put it on. I reckon that many must have been wondering, as I was, whether it was wise to discard our masks in such a large gathering, but on the other hand it was impossible not to relish the sense of near-normality.

During lockdown, my husband and I had to have a stone chimney rebuilt. It was such a palaver that now when I look up at the 15th century stone vaulting of King’s College Chapel my brain just refuses to compute what it must have taken to build it. How on earth ….?

The original stonemasons would be proud to know that nearly 600 years later, people are still gazing up every day with awe at their handiwork. Would they have been surprised? Perhaps not. Their work was made to last.

Paper trail

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 November 2022 under Musings  •  7 Comments

Last week a friend was showing me how she can call up musical scores on various electronic devices, linking the devices so that she can use whichever best suits her needs at the time. She even had the option of writing in fingerings and expression marks with an electronic pencil; any changes she made would immediately show up across all her devices.

She also showed me the compact Bluetooth pedal she uses at the piano to turn the pages of an electronic score. The pedal had two ‘buttons’, one to turn the page forward and the other to turn it back.

She was enthusiastic about these possibilities. ‘Honestly, I would never want to go back to paper copies’, she said.

Later that day I stood looking at the shelves of (paper) music scores I’ve collected over many years, dating right back to the first little albums I had as a beginner at the age of seven. To me, this library sums up all my different learning phases and performing experiences. Many of the scores contain my pencilled remarks put in during rehearsals. As the years went by, and I found myself playing with different chamber music partners, I occasionally put in little notes of who it was who wanted more time here, or an acceleration there. So the music has sentimental value as well. Tucked inside the pages I sometimes find old concert programmes and other souvenirs. Sometimes I find faxes I received when on tour. Remember faxes?

It’s true that I have spent a ridiculous amount of time lugging around heavy volumes of music (sometimes hardback). When flying somewhere for a concert, I always make sure to have all my music with me on the plane, not in my suitcase in the hold. At least if my luggage goes astray, I can still play the concert. Thus I have dragged a separate bag of music, sometimes weighing several kilos, all over the place with me. A laptop and a Bluetooth pedal would certainly be an elegant upgrade.

But even if I were technologically confident, could I imagine abandoning my books of music? I don’t think so. A laptop would be lighter, but I would probably just be swapping one set of anxieties with another.