dancing on ice
The cygnets on the lake in our local park have almost grown up. We’ve been watching them for a whole year now, and have realised that the ‘Ugly Duckling’ legend is deeply inappropriate. These young swans never looked anything other than handsome and confident, even when they were the swan equivalent of teenagers, barging into one another and quarrelling. Their feathers were never really ‘all stubby and brown’ as the song claimed, and no ducks ever looked as though they were even considering telling the cygnets to ‘get out of town’. Last spring, we were fascinated to discover the whole family at the side of the lake, gorging on blackberries from bushes that overhang the water. It had never occurred to me that swans would be partial to fruit.
Yesterday the ice on the pond was starting to melt, and the swans were hovering at the place where the water met the ice in the middle of the lake (see photo). The cygnets are gradually losing their mottled feathers, and will soon be as tall and as snowy-white as their parents. For some reason they all kept getting out of the water and waddling clumsily about on the ice, slightly spoiling their image as serene masters of the lake.
seen round the corner from Henry Wood Hall
A very busy week ended with a concert and party for the Friends of the Florestan Trio. What a nice thing a Friends’ Organisation is! So much of a musician’s time, especially a pianist’s time, is spent working alone or with just a few other people. It’s easy to lose the sense that anyone out there is following your progress, or is even aware of your activities. Concerts, of course, bring you suddenly face to face with large numbers of people, but they are, in effect, strangers, perhaps all hearing and seeing you for the first time.
A Friends’ Organisation is different; its members have signed up precisely because they don’t want to lose touch with you. Last night we had about a hundred Friends gathered together for our annual party. It’s really quite touching to see all these people, many of them experts in fields completely unrelated to music, who have come together for the specific purpose of giving us moral support. The atmosphere in the concert is subtly different; there’s a warmth there right away. And it does really help to feel that there are people out there wondering how you’re getting on as you move about the world.
outside Henry Wood Hall
Just finished three days of recording in Henry Wood Hall, a converted church in south London. I feel stiff and aching all over, as if a horse has been jumping up and down on me. Recording is such an arduous process!
Every time I do it, I wonder why on earth it is that, even though the microphones are inches away from the piano, I have to play extra-loudly to give the effect of strength and grandeur on the recording. Common sense seems to say that having a microphone close to you would make it far easier to give the impression of power. Yet for some weird reason it does not work like that at all. I listen to what we’ve done and often feel that what sounded gigantic as we played it sounds underwhelming on the playback.
I feel I end up bashing the piano harder than I do in concerts, where the listening ears are a lot further away than the microphones of the recording studio. I’ve asked sound engineers to explain this to me, but they say it’s a complex phenomenon with all kinds of factors, both physical and psychological. I should be used to it by now, but it still surprises and perplexes me.
the view from the window
Sometimes the old saying, ‘every cloud has a silver lining’, seems true. Today my trio was due to start making a record, at a studio in a rural location near the Welsh border. It’s a good four hours’ drive from my house at the best of times. We only agreed to go so far afield because Henry Wood Hall, our favourite London recording venue, was not available. But Britain is in the grip of unusually harsh winter weather; travellers’ tales filtered through, and the journey began to look foolhardy.
We agonised about whether to attempt it anyway. Making a record feels like an important occasion, to which we have been building up for some time, and it goes against the grain to postpone. But would we be risking life and limb? Fortunately, the director of the record company looked at the weather forecast for this weekend and sensibly took the decision out of our hands. The sessions in the West of England were cancelled.
By now we had heard of so many travel problems that we realised there must also be people who had been unable to reach London in the snowy conditions. So we began to wonder if we might have a chance of finding a studio in London at short notice.
Lo and behold, it transpired that Henry Wood Hall had just received notice of a cancellation for the exact three days that we needed. And even better, it turned out that one of my favourite Steinway pianos was suddenly available for those three days as well. So a week of staring out of the window at the snow and worrying has ended with our whole project being rescheduled in London. We can all go home at the end of each day’s work. No long drives in the snow, and even better, no long drive back at night after the final session.
A most unexpected and heartwarming New Year gift arrived today in the form of a comment made in a Times book review by the distinguished cellist Natalie Clein. Reviewing a new book on Bach’s cello suites, she muses on the difficulty of writing about music, and says, ‘The most successful writers are often musicians themselves – Robert Schumann in the 19th century, for example, and Susan Tomes in the 21st.’
She could not have known that my new book was inspired by Robert Schumann’s habit of keeping diaries, so this pairing of Schumann’s name with mine, though utterly surprising, also felt like a wonderful omen.