Monday 16th January 2017
Monday evening’s concert, the fourth in the current series presented by Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts was something of an exciting new musical exploit for both promoters and audience. Concert pianist and seasoned musicologist Susan Tomes had chosen works by Debussy and Beethoven all receiving their first ACMC performances. Before performing the works in full, she gave wide ranging introductions illustrated by well chosen musical examples touching on many different aspects of the works.
For the first half of the concert she had chosen the three pieces that make up Debussy’s Images I: première série pour piano à deux mains. These are Reflets dans l’eau, Hommage à Rameau and Mouvement.
Susan Tomes began by talking about her studies of these pieces in France with the Lithuanian born French pianist Vladislas (Vlado) Perlemutter. She recalled a certain degree of annoyance she felt when Perlemutter had marked the fingerings for these pieces all over her score in red ink. Debussy himself is reported as having said that every pianist needs to work at discovering which fingerings are best for their own particular hands. However she remembered Perlemutter’s requirements for perfect accuracy in playing which had to be allied to the kind of touch which belied the fact that the piano is a percussion instrument that plays using hammers. When Susan Tomes came to give her performances, her fluency and fluidity in playing certainly lived up to every requirement that Perlemutter had demanded of her.
Susan explained the ways in which Debussy’s discovery of the Javanese Gamelan orchestras which he had heard at the Paris Exhibition between 1889 and 1900 were imported into this music. I was familiar with this idea but what was new to me was the way in which the various sections of the Gamelan worked regarding pitch and speed and how Debussy had incorporated these layered effects into his music. She explained how the ideas of “the golden mean” had been incorporated into the music and then she continued by demonstrating how aspects of Rameau’s operatic music had been incorporated into the second piece and how the keyboard music of Couperin was startlingly close to what Debussy had created in the third piece, Mouvement.
When she came to play the three pieces together, Susan Tomes captured the affinity that the pieces have with one another as well as the contrasts between them. This was a splendidly well balanced performance in this respect. In her talk, Susan had stressed the visual influences that Debussy invests in his music. This was brilliantly revealed in her performance of Reflets dans l’eau. The thematic reversals that Debussy uses to give the effect of reflections in the water became beautifully clear in Susan’s meltingly liquid performance. The lively fingerwork in the third piece fulfilled Debussy’s requirements perfectly: Animated (with a whimsical yet precise lightness). These words suggest that Debussy would like this music to be played with a delicate seasoning of humour. Susan Tomes captured that idea to perfection in her delightfully spicy performance.
The work which Susan Tomes had chosen for the second half of the concert could not have been more different. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E Major op.109 is an unusual work. Its structure is not like any of his other sonatas. Susan began by playing two of the Six Bagatelles, Op. 126. The spirit of these pieces matched something of that which emerges from the Sonata.
Susan explained some of the background to the Sonata. There was the fact that the composer was profoundly deaf when he composed the work. At this time Beethoven was working on the Missa Solemnis. The previous Sonata Op. 106 was the famous Hammerklavier and the next two opus numbers were Op. 107 – Ten National Airs with Variations and Op. 108 – Twenty-five Scottish Songs. At this time too, Beethoven was studying J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. With well chosen examples, Susan Tomes demonstrated how these musical sources had influenced this Sonata especially the six variations that make up the third and final movement. She also explained the way in which the second movement is closely linked to the first in such a way that some performers have treated the Sonata as being a work in just two movements.
The opening movement has been described as “ a free and original approach to the traditional sonata movement”. The structure relies on contrasts of fast/slow, loud/soft, major/minor. Susan Tomes drew our attention to this by saying that Beethoven shifts from one idea to another without any preparation or explanation.
Her performance of the Sonata captured all of these astonishing contrasts. The variations were particularly delightful bringing out Beethoven’s imaginative handling of melody.
The audience reaction after the performance was enthusiastically positive. Not only had we enjoyed Susan’s superbly colourful and nuanced playing, especially in the three Debussy pieces, but we had learned a lot about the music and achieved a much closer understanding of what its two composers were trying to say to us.