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!
We went to the First Night of the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall on Friday. Thanks to kind friends who invited us, we had wonderful seats and good company. The Albert Hall was packed full of enthusiastic listeners plus the 500 performers needed for Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. It was a colourful, vivacious scene and we revelled in the First Night atmosphere. But the famously muffled acoustics of the Albert Hall made it hard to hear the performers in any detail. They seemed small and far away, even when we could see them straining to produce a big sound.
The following night we stayed home and watched the second Prom, this time on television. The marvellous Bryn Terfel was singing the role of Hans Sachs in Wagner’s ‘Meistersinger’. It was far easier to hear and see properly, and because of the BBC’s recording skills we almost forgot that the performance was being relayed from the very same hall whose acoustics we had deprecated the day before. Without television, we would have missed the play of emotions on Terfel’s expressive face and the fascinating detail of his singing. How ironic that a televised performance should be more satisfying than a live one!
Today’s Independent newspaper has a review of new books on music, with several paragraphs devoted to mine. Click here if you’d like to read the article by the Independent’s literary editor Boyd Tonkin.
BBC Music Magazine is giving away eight copies of my book ‘Out of Silence’. To enter the draw, all you have to do is answer the question: of which trio is Susan Tomes the pianist? The answer’s easy to find on this website.
The draw closes on the 9th August, so if you’re interested, click the link above and have a go.