I’ve been rehearsing tangos by Astor Piazzolla for a late-night concert tonight. As I don’t play this kind of music very often (more’s the pity), I got in the mood by listening to a number of recordings by Piazzolla himself.
Without the sound of a genuine Argentinian tango ensemble in my ear, I couldn’t make much sense of the piano part. I was very aware of the amount of information not contained in the printed notes. No instructions are given about the style of ‘attack’ or the type of sound required to conjure up the tango clubs of Buenos Aires. When you’ve heard this music played by experts, you know what’s needed, but what if you haven’t? Just playing what’s on the page, using Western classical technique, keeps you at arm’s length from the right sound. In particular, the amount of ‘oomph’ required, the degree of emphasis in the articulation, is something that you have to hear to believe. The composer doesn’t say a word about it in the score. No doubt he can hardly imagine that anyone wanting to play his tangos will be ignorant of how they’re supposed to go.
The experience has made me wonder about all the music I play from different centuries and different composers who no doubt thought that ‘the right way to do it’ was totally obvious – not realising that there would be times and places when people didn’t know, and wouldn’t be able to retrieve the information from the score alone.
I’ve always been fascinated by Ravel’s remark, when a friend asked how he was getting on with composing his Piano Trio, that he had finished it, and all he needed to do was to invent the themes. This seems to indicate that the structure and the inner shapes must have been crystal clear in his head before he found the notes.
Right now I’m re-reading Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’. The translator, Alan Russell, comments in his preface that Flaubert was an inveterate polisher of his prose, working for ages to create the right rhythm for his sentences. As Flaubert neared the end of ‘Madame Bovary’, he commented that he could hear ‘the fall of the phrases’ for pages ahead, before he actually had the words. As a musician, I find this quite haunting to imagine.
Chatting with a friend about how long a certain car journey would take, I guessed that it would take x hours, and my friend replied, ‘Well, it only takes me y hours, but then I know the roads, so I whiz along.’
People often say that kind of thing, and I never really understand the link between ‘I know the roads’ and ‘I whiz along.’ There are plenty of roads that I know well, too, but it doesn’t make any difference to how fast I drive, which is determined by other things, like traffic conditions.
It strikes me as a bit like saying, ‘I know the music well, so I play it faster.’
This morning I was coaching a very nice piano trio. We were talking about those ‘abstract’ works of Beethoven where the composer builds his material out of little musical ‘cells’ rather than obvious melodies and counter-melodies. Such works are sometimes more difficult for audiences to make sense of, yet often very satisfying for musicians to work on and immerse themselves in.
In the afternoon I felt suddenly very tired and lay down to listen to Radio 4’s Open Book programme. Tim Parks (author of ‘Teach Us to Sit Still’) was talking about his recovery from a strange illness a few years ago. He spoke about the healing role of meditation, and said that the experience of ‘letting go of words’ in meditation had profoundly changed his approach to writing. As he signed off, he quietly said something like, ‘It made me wonder whether narrative is actually a bit perverse, and somehow sick.’ This fascinating thought chimed mysteriously with what we were talking about in the morning.
We enjoyed listening on television to Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto played at the Proms by the excellent pianist Simon Trpceski. It’s strange how those famous themes, which once sounded slightly hackneyed to me, no longer seem that way and instead sound full of warmth and charm.
After the performance, Bob was talking about ‘the Russian crescendo’, a concept I hadn’t come across before. Stephen Hough, a supreme Rachmaninov interpreter, writes about it on his blog. Apparently the ‘Russian crescendo’ refers to Rachmaninov’s own piano playing style, in which he often eases off as a long crescendo reaches its climax. Bob said that this type of crescendo struck him as psychologically truer than a simple, inflexible ‘getting louder’. He compared it to climbing a mountain where, when you realize that you’re about to reach the top and see a wonderful view, you instinctively slow down, notice your surroundings and step gently onto the summit rather than pressing on relentlessly with no alteration in your pace. An inspiring image!