Ear of the beholder

Posted by Susan Tomes on 24 November 2010 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

To a viol masterclass given by the eiminent Catalan viol player Jordi Savall at the Royal College of Music. As always happens when I listen to ‘early music’, it took me a little while to tune in to the quiet sound level favoured by the players. It’s so different from the strong, projected sound used by most of the people I work with, and to begin with it seems almost like whispering. Even a consort of five viols sounded like delicate tracery. I found myself leaning forward in my seat to catch it.

But clearly the sound level was assessed differently by those steeped in the early music world. To my amazement, after hearing the quintet of viols play their piece, Jordi Savall smiled and commented that they were like a group of people all talking too loudly, trying to outdo one another.

Frost on the roses

Posted by Susan Tomes on 23 November 2010 under Musings  •  2 Comments

November frostDespite the cold weather, there are still red roses blooming in the garden. But today when I looked out, there was frost on their petals. Somehow the sight of frost on the roses was poignant.

A morning with Goritzki

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 November 2010 under Concerts, Inspirations  •  2 Comments

Went to a marvellous cello masterclass given by Johannes Goritzki at the Royal College of Music. He spent hours persuading the students that playing the cello was easier than they thought, just a matter of applying weight in the right place, not working against the natural functions of muscles, understanding that the cello bow can do a lot of the work if you don’t interfere, and taking every opportunity to be relaxed. He quoted the great cellist Emmanuel Feuermann as having said that playing the cello should be as comfortable as sitting in an armchair.

Obviously all this is poetic licence, because playing the cello is clearly a complicated matter, but it was wonderful to see the effect of Goritzki’s suggestions. Best of all was that when the students used weight instead of force, or stopped gripping the cello tightly, or even just relaxed their jaws, their sound was bigger and freer, as well as easier to produce. To see this kind of transformation within each person’s lesson was like being at the theatre.

It reminded me of Bach’s remark that playing the organ is ‘nothing remarkable: all you have to do is play the right notes in the right order.’ Easier said than done, of course. But stating things very simply, as Goritzki did, can help someone to see a way past their usual preoccupations. A mental switch suddenly enables them to see the problem in a different way. And the results can come so fast!

Asymmetrical viola

Posted by Susan Tomes on 17 November 2010 under Concerts, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Robert Philip and Rivka GolaniHere’s something I hadn’t seen before: an asymmetrical viola. Its owner, Rivka Golani, showed it to us when Bob interviewed her for Putney Music society this week.

Rivka explained that the maker of the viola, Otto Erdesz, believed that the unusual cut-out on the treble side of the viola (that’s the left-hand side as we look at the back) creates a shape which benefits its upper register acoustically. Rivka feels that she has a whole octave in the upper register of this particular viola which resonates better than the equivalent octave on a traditionally-shaped instrument. The cutaway also helps the player’s left hand to reach up to the high notes more easily, though Rivka said this was a subsidiary point. I have several friends, small in stature, who love the viola but find its large size a challenge, so it was interesting to see this unusual solution.

The meaning of sparseness

Posted by Susan Tomes on 15 November 2010 under Concerts, Musings  •  1 Comment

At ChamberStudio yesterday we were working on a piece by Prokofiev. We were discussing the kind of piano writing that’s often found in works by Russian composers of the Soviet era. As the writing is typically rather spare and empty-looking on the page, with a deliberate avoidance of opulence, it’s very difficult to intuit the right atmosphere if you don’t know something of its historical background.

The bleakness, the sarcasm, the coldness, the mechanical repetition, the anger are all qualities you can understand in the music as soon as you’re aware of the circumstances in which its composers lived. But if you don’t know?

In recent years I’ve once or twice heard works of Shostakovich performed by young musicians who clearly didn’t know anything about life in Soviet Russia. They took the sparse writing at face value and made nothing of it. Listening to them, I suddenly realised how vital it is to know the historical context of this kind of music so that you can read between the lines.