Music on a Summer’s Afternoon

It’s my mother’s seventieth birthday and I have organised a little party in my courtyard garden for her, her family, and her ‘London friends’, people she met when she still lived in north London, before she escaped to the country.

Some of the friends go back a long way: two colleagues from her History of Art MA at Chelsea College of Art in the 1980s, a fellow artist whom she met while doing her Fine Art BA (the friend’s daughter is a good friend of mine; in fact, we were at university together), a couple who have been family friends for 40 years. In the hot July sunshine, the friends gather in my little garden, drink rosé wine, and eat the selection of salads and dips I have prepared. The atmosphere is cheerful, relaxed and friendly.

“I hope you’re going to play,” my mother said the day before the party. I assured her that I would, but that I would not be playing Farewell To Stromness, a favourite of my mother’s and the piece she has chosen for her funeral ceremony, because I had not practised it. “Oh, I don’t want you to play that anyway,” she declared, leaving me to think of up a suitable mini-programme for an afternoon birthday party in July.

Michael, a long-time friend of both my mother’s and mine, arrives with a sheaf of scores but won’t reveal what he is planning to play. He played La Cathedrale Engloutie at my students’ concert the previous weekend, and I have a suspicion he might play it again as it’s another of my mother’s favourites. I realise, as I rifle through the scores which live on the lid of my piano and which represent my current learning, that my repertoire is varied and disparate: Poulenc, Chopin, Haydn, Debussy, Schubert and Gershwin. And nothing really ‘concert-ready’. The Opus 25 No. 7 Etude, which I played at my teacher’s concert in March, is very beautiful, but too melancholic for a sunny afternoon. The late Haydn Sonata in D is rather too grandiose, and the Poulenc is still a little rough round the edges. Schubert’s fourth Impromptu from the D899 set is also a favourite, but the trio seems too passionate, too pleading. In the end, I settle for the Gershwin Prelude No 2, which I played at my students’ concert, segueing straight into Debussy’s Le Petit Negre. The Gershwin, with its nod to Summertime and its lazy, languid tone, seems just about perfect. Afterwards, I decide Schubert’s second Klavierstück, from the D946, will round off my recital nicely. True, this piece has its storms and passions, like the Impromptu, but the opening melody – an aria from a forgotten opera – which returns twice, is charming and elegant, and pretty enough for the occasion. I’m not sure if Schubert should be played on two glasses of wine, but it does give me the necessary chutzpah to play for the assembled guests!

The room in which my piano lives is very hot at the moment (something my tuner continually bemoans when he comes to visit), and by the time I’m on the last page of the Schubert, I’m inelegantly pouring with perspiration and desperate for another chilled glass of something. I retire to the summer house to “talk piano” with Michael. We discuss ‘rubato‘, that subtle slackening of tempo. “It’s ‘stolen time’, so you have to give it back eventually!” I say bossily. Michael insists that there should never be rubato in Bach, nor in Beethoven, who, he says (quite rightly) is very firm about the tempos of his music, but I argue that even the music of Bach and Scarlatti demands some slackening in tempo here and there, to emphasise shape, mood, colour or cadence. “It’s a different kind of rubato,” I explain, remembering that Michael’s repertoire is more Romantically-oriented than mine: he favours Schumann (the score of the ‘Kreisleriana’ is often left on the rack of his Steinway when I go to play it, just to torment me), Brahms, Rachmaninov, Debussy and Granados. The discussion about rubato leads us onto the subject of Chopin’s Etude Op 10 No 3, which I am learning at the moment. “How on earth do you play the sixths?” he asks, referring to the fiendish Con Bravura passage which marks the climax of the piece. “They have no pattern or coherence to me.”

“There is a pattern to them,” I say. “And the fingering scheme helps too. I spent a week practising it on the kitchen table in the chalet in France at Easter. The other guests thought I was bonkers, but it worked a treat!”

Michael persuades me to play it, and I tell him that only he, and possibly one other person in the garden, will know where I get it wrong! Unsurprisingly, I go to pieces with the sixths. I am just aware of Michael standing behind me while I’m playing, and afterwards I say, “You shouldn’t have mentioned the sixths! I was worrying about them too much and that’s why I went wrong!” Of course, I know I can play them – painfully slowly at the moment, but accurately.

Michael then sits down to play, beginning with some really charming Elgar, Dream Children, a little winsome, very pretty. Then a transcription of the Fauré ‘Sicilienne’ from Peleas et Melisande, and finishing off with Debussy: Clair de Lune and La Cathedrale Engloutie (aahh!). I sit in the cool of the sitting room with his wife, enjoying the great pleasure of hearing my piano being played so very well (usually, I only hear my students banging away at it, with the odd moment of vaguely cantabile playing – and I don’t always enjoy my own playing either!). I had been worrying that the piano was slipping badly out of tune in the heat, but it sounds wonderful in Michael’s hands. And what a treat for the little audience gathered in my garden, and beyond – my immediate neighbours and the friend who lives across the road – to hear such beautiful music on a summer’s afternoon.