It was a cold night for a concert. There was frost on the windscreen as we got into the car for the short drive to this city church. We drove because we were going to be late, and it was cold, and would be likely to be colder still when the concert was over. I had wondered if part one would be enough. Could Bach and Rameau be enough? Might the musical appetite cope with Mozart and Beethoven too? Were we about to sit down to a large meal, possibly in the wrong order. Can the cheese course be a transcendental experience I wondered? Bach to begin certainly, a substantial starter with one of the mid period keyboard toccatas and two ‘distant’ preludes and fugues, but then a keyboard suite by Rameau?
When I listen to Beethoven though I want to hear a work on its own, unencumbered round about with other musics. A recent experience of several hours driving to hear a single Beethoven symphony has remained close and vivid, and an experience that brought me close to tears. So I imagine that I might only hear Op.110 to make that opening sequence of chords so ominously special. The introduction seems to come from nowhere and does not connect with musical past, except perhaps the composer’s own past. It is as though the pianist puts on a pair of gloves imbued with the spirit of the composer, and these chords appear . . . and what is there that might possibly prepare the listener for the journey that pianist and listener embark upon? Certainly not the soufflé of Mozart’s K.332.
The audience is hardly a smattering of coats, hats and grey hair. There is another piano recital in town tonight and this is but the artist’s preview of a forthcoming concert at a major venue. Our pianist is equipping herself for a prestigious engagement and sensibly recognizes the need to test out the way the programme flows in front of an audience, and in a provincial church where she is not entirely unknown. I admire this resolve and wonder a little at the long-term planning which makes this possible and viable.
Now a figure in black walks out from the shadows to stand by her piano. Coming from stage right she places left her hand firmly on the mirror-black case above the keyboard. She looks at her audience briefly, and makes a bow, almost a curtsey, an obeisance to her audience and possibly to those distant spirits who guard the music she is to play. We will not see her face again until the next time she will stand at the piano to acknowledge our applause after the Bach she is about to play. Her slightly more than shoulder-length hair is cut to flow forward as she holds herself to play; her face is often hidden from us, her expression curiously blank. Perhaps she has prepared herself to enter a deep state of concentration that admits no recognition of those sitting just in front of her. Her dress is long and black with a few sparking threads to catch the careful lighting. Without these occasional glimmers her ****** movement would be unnoticeable. As it is the way the light is caught is subtle and quietly playful, though not enough to distract, only remind us that though in black she is wearing the kind of starry sky such as you might perceive in crepuscular time.
Thus, we already sense so much before she has played a note there is a firm slightly dogged confidence and reverence here in her approach to instrument and audience. And in the opening bars of the Bach toccata that is manifest; and not just a confidence born out of some strategy against nervousness, but a ritual of welcoming to this music that now spills out into the partially darkened church. The sonorousness and balance of the piano’s tone surprises. It is not a fine piano, but it has qualities that she seems to understand. There is a degree of attentive listening to herself that enables her to control dynamics and act resolutely on the structure of the music. When the slow section of this four-part toccata appears there is a studied gentleness and restraint that belies any ****** led gesture or manner. Her stance and deliberation at the keyboard remain determined and in control, unaltered by the music’s message. She does not pull her body backwards as seems the custom with so many who feel they have to show us they are stroking and coaxing such gentleness and restraint out of the keyboard.
As the final fugato of the toccata flows at almost twice the speed I’ve ever heard it, my concentration begins to disengage. It is too fast for me to follow the voices, I miss the entries, and the smudged resonance of the texture hides those details I have grown over so many years to know and love. This is Glen Gould on speed, not the toccata that resides in my musical memory. I am aware of missing so much and my attention floats away into the sound of it all. It seems to be all sound and not the play of music.
In this stage of disengagement I sense the tense quality of her right leg pedalling with the tip of a reddish shoe just visible, deft, tiny flicks of movement. She turns her face away from the keyboard frequently, looking away from the keyboard through the choir to the high altar; and for a moment we see her upturned face, a blank face, possibly with little or no make up, no jewellery. A plain young woman, mid to late thirties perhaps, and not a face marked by children or a busy teaching life, but a face focused on knowing this music to a point at which there is almost a detachment, where it becomes independent of her control, flowing momentarily beyond herself.
Then she reins the toccata in, reoccupies it; she is seeking closure for herself and for her audience whose attention for a short while has been, as the Quakers say, gathered. Gathered into a degree of silence, when breathing and the body’s sense and presence of itself disappear, momentarily, and musical listening moves from a clock time to a virtual time. There is a slowing down, an opening out, even though in reality’s metronomic time-field there is none.
There is a hesitation. With more Bach to follow, should we applaud? With relief after holding the flight of time’s arrow in our consciousness, just for those concluding minutes and seconds we acknowledge and applaud - the beginning of the concert.