Posts for the Tunnell Trust blog that Savitri and I were asked to write during our tour in Scotland:
Day 1: Dundee Chamber Music
The sensible thing to do might have been to play the same programme five nights in a row, but for our Tunnell Trust tour this week we decided to play all ten Beethoven sonatas for piano and violin and one crazy brilliant piece by Enescu. The basic format is two sonatas per concert, with Enescu’s Scenes from Childhood between them (except in Glasgow tomorrow, which is a lunchtime so no Enescu). The complete Beethoven set is over 4 hours of music, and the Enescu is 25 minutes long – so it’s been a massive undertaking to prepare for this, and one we’ve been planning and rehearsing for for over a year.
Last summer we toured together in China, where we played the same pieces each night. Our programme there included Enescu’s Scenes and the Beethoven ‘Spring’ sonata, both of which feature in our concert tonight – so we’re setting off on familiar ground. In China we were able to enjoy honing our interpretation through repetition. That kind of familiarity is liberating, too, but we wanted to challenge ourselves this time with something different.
One of the motivating factors behind wanting to play all ten Beethoven sonatas was the idea that in order to play any single one of them better it’s worth knowing all of the others too. Over the past month or so we’ve been intensively rehearsing and performing the sonatas we hadn’t already played, and this concept has really rung true. There were points earlier on in the process at which I felt sceptical about it – was the time we spent practising one sonata really having a positive impact on another, or would we have been better focussing on only a handful? Gradually, though, subtle connections and differences became more apparent and meaningful to us, and I feel a much deeper connection to each of the pieces now, knowing them in the context of their family, so to speak. We also had some terrific sessions working on the sonatas with Anthony Marwood and Richard Ireland, through ChamberStudio at King’s Place in London, which I might write more about later on in the tour.
We’ll be writing something each day for this blog, sharing some of the highs and lows of our experiences here. The highlight of the journey so far (we’re currently approaching Markinch) has been the coining of a hashtag – #BeethovEnescu – to promote the tour. It’s been a crushing disappointment (a low, already!), however, that – inspired as #BeethovEnescu clearly is – it’s gained little to no traction on social media. It’s currently languishing at 1 – yes, ONE – ‘like’ on Twitter. If you’re reading this in Pollok, though, which marks the end of our tour, you’d be well advised to order your #BEETHOVENESCU t-shirt now, as the hashtag will almost certainly have gone viral by then and the associated merchandise might become difficult to get hold of.
Day 2: Dundee to Glasgow
On arrival at the Steeple Church in Dundee, both Richard and myself did a double-take: there was no piano in sight! This was obviously slightly problematic for #BeethovEnescu, and we didn’t think the ‘supernatural piano’ (see photos) would quite be an adequate substitute. It was very dramatic, would the concert take place or not?! At last contact was made with the piano company and we discovered that (through no fault of Dundee Chamber Music) the piano was still over two hours away! We were extremely grateful to David Robb for offering us the use of the piano and front room so spontaneously, enabling us to rehearse – very necessarily after travelling for 7 hours!
After these adventures, (ticking off the ‘Spring’ Sonata and op 30/1 from our list), and a delicious post-concert fish pie with our hosts, we had an early start this morning to get to Glasgow for our lunchtime recital at the University. On entering the Concert Hall, we were met with a slightly different sight to yesterday – not one but six keyboard instruments! A Steinway concert grand was laid out for our concert, and behind it stood a whole family of instruments, including a historic ‘Erard’ piano (famous as being Chopin’s favourite piano), a fortepiano, and a harpsichord. What a wonderful collection Glasgow University has!
It was very enjoyable to play the Beethoven sonatas in E flat op 12/3 and G major op 30/3 – our first performance of op 30/3 together. And quite something to have already played four different Beethoven sonatas and the Enescu ‘Scenes’ in less than 24 hours! Our time in Glasgow was short and sweet, and we’ve now arrived in Falkirk ahead of tomorrow’s concert in the Town Hall. Slightly brain-dead after the intense day, full of yet more delicious home cooking, I’m going to get an early night. Tomorrow’s instalment of #BeethovEnescu features the first Beethoven sonata, Enescu ‘Scenes’ and the demonic ‘Kreutzer’ sonata.
Day 3: Falkirk
I write to you from Dressing Room 2 of Falkirk Town Hall, whilst I await the curtain call for tonight’s recital. Unfortunately I won’t be able to post this until after the concert, as I have no internet access here. I noticed on the way into the hall that Psychic Sally will appear soon at this very venue (our poster is the much smaller one on the left): it’s a pity she isn’t here tonight as perhaps she could have provided me with the WiFi code, which would have meant I could have reached you sooner.
Yesterday we had a lovely time in Glasgow, as Savitri detailed. In fact the Erard she mentioned was allegedly played by Chopin himself when he visited Glasgow! I treated myself to playing the opening of the Polonaise-Fantasy on it during our rehearsal. On the concert organiser’s recommendation we went to the Ubiquitous Chip afterwards, where we had a fabulous lunch (I had the vegetarian haggis), before travelling to Falkirk. Today we’re feeling very relaxed, having had a perfect morning eating, drinking coffee and practising at our hosts’ house before a driving tour of Falkirk that took in The Kelpies (below) on the way to the venue.
Tonight we play Beethoven op 12/1 and op 47 (the “Kreutzer”) alongside the Enescu. Both of the Beethovens happen to be sonatas we worked on with Anthony Marwood. I made notes after our sessions with him, so I could tell you bar by bar what he said in some places, but I’ll save that for some other time. One focus of our work that I will share now, and that will certainly remain front of my mind during this performance, is the old idea of making aspects of the music sound spontaneous. There are unique challenges to this in Beethoven because of how logically worked out his music can appear. There’s a huge difference, however, between a performance that seems as if it’s evolving in real time (where Beethoven’s ‘logic’ comes across as continuous organic development), rather than one where everything sounds inevitable (and therefore, perhaps, predictable). It’s the former we’ll be aiming for tonight. Even Psychic Sally won’t be able to predict what’s coming next.
Day 4: Edinburgh
The final day of our tour has arrived, and it’s 8 down, 2 to go, on the Beethoven countdown. I’m sorry I couldn’t write about our ‘Day 4: Edinburgh’ experience yesterday, but there wasn’t a minute to spare during the day, and by the time we got back to our guesthouse after the concert, the only thought I had in my head was sleep!
The programme for the fourth instalment of #BeethovEnescu was the sonatas no. 2 (A major) and no. 7 (C minor) by Beethoven, and of course, ‘Scenes’. It was great to contrast these two vastly different sonatas – the A major has to be one of the funniest and silliest pieces Beethoven wrote, whilst in the C minor you feel that Beethoven is really taking on the world, and is (especially in the first and last movements) in a seriously bad mood. We were very chuffed that the audience actually laughed at the end of the A major, a reaction that, as the performer, you often want, but rarely get!
The venue of Edinburgh Society of Musicians is a charming 1st floor recital room, equipped with not one, but two excellent Steinway grand pianos, and an intimate atmosphere. We actually had about an hour to contemplate the warmth and cosiness of the venue from when we arrived at 6pm, as, due to a miscommunication, we were locked out of the building! The house is situated on a beautiful, and very quiet side street, and as we didn’t meet a soul as we waited, (gently freezing in the Edinburgh chill), we did wonder whether we’d actually be playing to anyone at all, if we ever got in… This must have been our comeuppance for complaining only the other day about the lack of dramatic concert experiences we’ve had. Anyway, thankfully we did eventually manage to make it inside the building, we had a lovely audience, and we managed to thaw our fingers in time for the scales at the beginning of Beethoven op 12/2.
It was also great to have Tom Chadwick of the Tunnell Trust at the concert last night; as we progress through our tour we continue to be extremely grateful to the Tunnell Trust for all their support and in enabling us to make our crazy #BeethovEnescu a reality.
Day 5: Pollok House Arts Society
I write to you from the Costa Coffee at Southampton Airport, where Savitri and I are on our way to Guernsey for masterclasses this afternoon and a recital tomorrow. Did you think you’d heard the last of #BEETHOVENESCU? You haven’t!
Tomorrow’s concert is a repeat of our programme from a few days ago, and somehow this feels remarkably easy in prospect after the intensity of five different programmes over five consecutive days.
We had a wonderful time finishing off our Beethoven sonatas cycle with Pollok House Arts Society last night. We didn’t play in Pollok House as we’d thought we would, but, rather, in the so-called ‘House for an Art Lover’ nearby. This turned out to be an unexpected treat. The house was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh for a competition run by a German magazine in 1901. Their entry was disqualified for being late and unfinished, but much later – in 1989 – work began on realising the plans, and the house was completed by 1996. It’s full of the detail and style that are hallmarks of the Mackintoshs’ work, making each room exciting to discover. It would be hard to top the recital room, which had an ornately decorated piano built into one of the walls (see below, at the back), but the room we were given as a green room had a bathroom hidden behind the wall-panelling, and as such was also seriously cool.
There was a big dinner afterwards which, so far as I could tell, all of the audience stayed for, and I really enjoyed being able to chat at length to some of the people who’d listened to us.
So what next for #BEETHOVENESCU? Well, we have a number of concerts coming up soon, including Guernsey tomorrow, Weston Music Society later this month and Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge in May. In 2020 we’re presenting two ‘immersive’ days at Stapleford Granary (in February and October), with talks, demonstrations and workshops, focussing on five of the Beethoven sonatas each time. We have various other plans for 2020 and beyond too, so watch this space.
Huge thanks to the Tunnell Trust for arranging the tour for us, which has worked so well and given us a fantastic opportunity to realise a project we’ve loved doing. Thanks too to the promoters connected to each venue, who’ve each helped us out in kind ways and given us a really entertaining and memorable time in Scotland.