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.
LSO St Luke's Centre
London is blanketed in snow at the moment. Dragging my little suitcase gingerly over the icy pavements, I managed to get in to the LSO St Luke’s Centre this morning to rehearse for my first concert of the year, the first of four concerts by the Florestan Trio in the LSO St Luke’s on consecutive Thursdays this January.
Today, unusually, we played two arrangements: Janacek’s string quartet nicknamed ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ in a version for piano trio, and then a trio version of Beethoven’s Second Symphony. In theory the latter arrangement was made by Beethoven himself, though the historical proof is not watertight. Some think that the arrangement was made by a pupil or friend of the composer. However, the piano trio version was published in Vienna, with Beethoven’s name on it as composer and arranger, while Beethoven was living there, and knowing his character it seems inconceivable that he would not have protested if the publisher had taken his name in vain.
When we first played the 2nd Symphony as a piano trio, the audience seemed divided as to whether it was a worthwhile exercise or not. Some were very enthusiastic, others disdainful. Some thought that it was really just a way for 19th-century music lovers to get to know the work at home in the days before recordings were available. So I was not sure if I was looking forward to playing it in concert again, and having it recorded by the BBC for radio broadcast on Tuesday 2 February. But today the audience seemed thoroughly gripped, and after the concert we had a very enjoyable hour in the downstairs café with lots of people coming up to our table to say nice things about the performance. Perhaps we played it with more conviction than formerly.
I spent most of yesterday correcting the page-proofs of my new book and twitching with frustration. My electronic copy of the page-proofs is ‘read only’. I cannot type on it or make any alterations. Any mistakes have to be listed separately and sent to the publisher. It’s a process akin to listening to the ‘first edit’ of a CD once the producer has had his wicked way with all the different takes we recorded in the studio. As I listen to the assembled version, I often have new ideas about how to turn this or that phrase, but there’s nothing I can do about it. The recording session is finished and in the past.
Similarly, as I read my page-proofs yesterday I kept thinking of words I’d like to tweak, adjectives I could improve, things I’d like to say differently or not say at all. But those options were not available: my role at this stage was simply to notice typographical mistakes. When I work on a word document I’m an inveterate tweaker, constantly meddling with the choice of words, so it was a character-building exercise to have to go through a couple of hundred pages in fine detail without once being able to indulge my passion for tweaking.
Perhaps it was good for me. I had to take a deep breath and accept that it was no longer a work in progress: this was what I wrote. It may still be simmering in my mind, but the actual words may no longer dance about on the page. If I want to write something more, or other, I’ll have to do it somewhere else.