Round stones

Posted by Susan Tomes on 13 May 2022 under Musings  •  Leave a comment

The other week I was visiting relatives in the south of England, and we went to the coast for an outing. The beach was covered in stones of attractive pink, white and russet colours, and as usual I found myself searching among the stones for examples of rounded ones.

It’s always seemed unlikely to me that the forces of wind and waves could act so evenly on a piece of stone that it would end up beautifully rounded. Jaggedness seems a much more likely outcome.

There were plenty of jagged stones on the beach as well, but I ignored them. I like to contemplate the round ones, to imagine that they were once part of a rock or boulder, and wonder what it took to produce their smooth and gentle outlines. Their simplicity doesn’t fool me. I see them as irregular objects that have been through a grinding process and emerged with grace.

There are analogies with my attitude to playing and performance, but I’m sure I don’t need to draw them out laboriously.

Round stones! They have been my friends since I first started looking for interesting stones at the water’s edge.

More about Radu Lupu

Posted by Susan Tomes on 25 April 2022 under Inspirations, Musings, Teaching  •  2 Comments

A couple of readers said they’d like to hear more about Radu Lupu. I only met him a few times and didn’t know him well, but I vividly remember the impression he made.

When I went for my lessons, I was probably focusing on trying to play each phrase as beautifully as I could. It sounds silly to put it into words, but you could imagine my concentration as a little light travelling along the notes as I played them, lighting up each note in a caring way. Radu Lupu had a different approach. He seemed to treat each phrase as a building-block in a larger design. Naturally he played each phrase well, but it was evident that he was ‘sitting back’ in his mind, operating a larger plan. He actually did sit back in reality as well, using an ordinary chair with a back, against which he leaned. He didn’t hunch over the keys possessively as so many pianists do. His body language seemed to signal his distance from minutiae.

Pianist Kirill Gerstein said of Lupu last week, “His was the most magical music-making I’ve ever heard live. He once told me: ‘I’m not really a pianist… but I know how to play phrases”.’

Of course he was really a pianist. But he possessed to an unusual degree the ability to rise above the physical challenges of piano-playing and be a an architect, or perhaps a kind of theatre director, sending phrases to the back or front of the stage as required by the unfolding drama.

Having won several big piano competitions in his youth, he abandoned flashy ‘competition repertoire’ and concentrated on Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann. Not many pianists have the privilege of playing only their favourite works, but he was not prepared to compromise. Alas, it probably meant he played fewer concerts and made fewer recordings than we would have liked.

Meeting Lupu was probably my first close-up experience of a celebrated musician who clearly had a love-hate relationship with his profession. I could see that he loved music but had very mixed feelings about being a performer. When he spoke about his upcoming concerts it was clear from his dark expression that the prospect did not fill him with joy. That made a vivid impression on me too. At that point, I think I assumed that successful musicians were made happy by their success. But it was evidently not that simple. Having realised that, I found it even more touching that he played so warmly and lucidly.

Remembering a lesson with the great Radu Lupu

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 April 2022 under Concerts, Inspirations, Teaching  •  2 Comments

Very sad news today that the great pianist Radu Lupu has died. He was probably the first ‘favourite pianist’ I chose for myself rather than taking my teachers’ choices on trust.

I tweeted something about having once had a couple of lessons with Radu Lupu when he was living in London. In response, American pianist Julio Elizalde suggested I could write something about that experience. In 2016 I wrote a bit about it in my book Speaking the Piano , so here for a start is that section of the chapter again. If it is of interest, I could write a bit more.

‘When I was a a young professional I once had a couple of lessons with the wonderful Romanian pianist Radu Lupu. During the lessons, he demonstrated how he felt certain passages should go. It was delightful to be so near him while he played and I observed him closely. After one of those lessons, my flatmates asked me what he had told me. To amuse them, I sat down at the piano and imitated Radu’s style of playing those passages, imitating (as best I could) his sense of timing, his way of driving through a passage, his dramatic shifts of dynamic, his way of leaning back against the back of the chair, even his stern expression. My friends were entranced – disturbingly entranced. ‘Go on!’ they implored. ‘That’s great!’

‘I felt a bit chagrined. Was my imitation of Radu Lupu so much better than my own playing? If so, should I carry on playing ‘like him’? I didn’t know what to think. Obviously my piano playing did not magically improve at the moment I decided to imitate Radu. I still had my own sound, which my flatmates heard every day when I practised, and seemed to take in their stride. Why were they suddenly so impressed? It had to be to do with body language and projection of some kind of aura. I realised that perhaps when I tried to ‘be Radu Lupu’ I was copying the outward signs of absolute self-belief and confidence in my right to hold an audience’s attention, and my friends were subconsciously responding to that.

‘Displaying the outward signs was not, however, the same as feeling them inwardly. At that stage of my development I was still trying to find my voice and build my confidence. When I was on the concert platform I probably looked as if I was pleading with the audience to like me. Radu Lupu didn’t look like that at all: his aura was magisterial. It seemed that I could imitate it, at least for the purposes of a demonstration. But I knew that to continue imitating Radu Lupu would be sterile, doomed to be nothing more than a tribute act. Perhaps I could try to incorporate his body language into my own platform manner? But I felt that would be a purely cosmetic change and easily identifiable as such. Instead, I tried to divine what the underlying principles of Radu’s playing were. That was a better decision which made it possible to digest what I had learned from him and to apply the principles elsewhere in my own way.

‘Of course one could say that playing like your hero might be possible for a few seconds, but would be impossible to sustain for a few minutes or hours. In reality your hero has unusual reserves of stamina and nerve, accumulated over thousands of hours of practice, which guarantee a high level of playing at all times and not only when adrenalin buoys them up for the length of an amusing demonstration. A brief and vivid effort of imagination by a student, however, can work wonders, especially in a playful context which prevents them from being too cerebral about what they’re accomplishing.’

from Speaking the Piano: Reflections on Learning and Teaching (Boydell Press, 2016), p.19-20

Mozart Piano Concerto in B flat, K595, with Meadows Orchestra

Posted by Susan Tomes on 15 March 2022 under Concerts  •  2 Comments

A fortnight ago I performed Mozart’s wonderful Piano Concerto in B flat K595 with the Meadows Chamber Orchestra, a long-standing amateur orchestra which has become an institution in Edinburgh’s musical life. The orchestra celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

The concert was brilliantly conducted by Gordon Bragg and took place in Stockbridge Church, Edinburgh (see photo taken at rehearsal – minus me as I’d stepped away from the piano to take the picture).

The orchestra made a video of the concerto, available on YouTube:

By the way, the cadenza at the end of the first movement is my own – in Mozartian style (I hope).

Playing along with someone else’s recording

Posted by Susan Tomes on 23 February 2022 under Concerts, Musings  •  Leave a comment

On Saturday, I shall be playing Mozart’s last piano concerto  – the B flat major, K595 – with the Meadows Chamber Orchestra in Edinburgh. Since I don’t have an in-house orchestra, I have been preparing by playing along with a recording. We have three CDs in the house – two played by Clifford Curzon (different years, different orchestras and conductors) and one played by Arthur Schnabel.

It’s very interesting to play along with someone else’s recording. You might think that as we are playing the same notes, it would be easy to synchronise, but in fact it is a slippery matter. First of all, the other person’s choice of basic tempo may be slightly different from mine, and it’s surprisingly difficult to settle to a tempo which doesn’t feel quite right under the hands. Mozart did not supply metronome marks (he never knew the metronome), so his ‘Allegro’ and ‘Larghetto’ are all we have to help us.

Even when we agree on the tempo, I find that the other pianist and I ‘come apart’ in almost every bar – whether just for half a beat, a beat, or more. There must be thousands of tiny differences in the way our fingers move from one note to the next, or in the minuscule ‘breaths’ between phrases – and these discrepancies mount up. I seem to start in harness with my unseen pianist companion, but by the time we get to the end of the section, I’m ahead.

At least, that’s how it is in the case of Clifford Curzon, who had a thoughtful, measured approach to this concerto. I know he liked to practise with a metronome, to ensure reliability.  When I play along to his records, I keep getting ahead of him (I suppose I must be rushing).

By contrast, Arthur Schnabel is mercurial. He often gets ahead of me, especially in the last movement. Yet in the slow movement he takes a tempo so slow that I can hardly bear to play along with him. I puzzle over how the same person can feel at home with a slow-as-treacle Larghetto and then suddenly sprint ahead of me in the finale with devilish virtuosity.

On the whole, I feel Brahms had the last word about the metronome: ‘I myself have never felt that my blood and a mechanical instrument go well together’.