Talking Heads: Beethoven through the eyes of Susan Tomes

interview by Ben Hogwood

As part of our celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020, Arcana is talking to leading classical performers to get their perspective on the composer’s music. Pianist and writer Susan Tomes has a rich, four-decade history of Beethoven performance and recording, culminating in a complete set of the Beethoven piano trios made with the Florestan Trio for Hyperion. In this interview she talks of the challenges and rewards in playing the composer’s music – and why he remains the most original of all.

We begin, however, at the start. “I don’t remember the first time I ever played Beethoven’s music,” she says, “but there must have been a number of pieces I learned when I was a child, in Associated Board exams. My music teacher gradually introduced me to the easier sonatas and pieces, so I don’t have a moment where I remember first encountering Beethoven. It has always been an important thread, as it is for all pianists.”

Was there a specific line in the sand with the piano trios? “Not as such, but Britain has always been a great nation of sight readers, and that has always made it possible to read through things when you get to playing chamber music with colleagues. As a teenager, when I attended a Saturday school at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, I started playing chamber music, and we would sight read some of the easier Beethoven piano trios – not that any of them are very easy! Then I was in a number of different chamber music settings such as Prussia Cove, and over the years I think I’ve played all of them there with all kinds of different people. I must have played all these pieces not just with my professional, long standing groups but with different combinations of people. I really have played them a lot, and it’s amazing how every time you work on them with somebody there is a load of stuff to discuss.”

She tells of the many layers in Beethoven’s writing. “It’s difficult to know where to start, because they are very multifaceted pieces of music, and an awful lot of thought went into them on Beethoven’s part. There is always a lot you have to discuss and work through with whoever you’re playing them with. That’s something that is amazing about his music; you never get to the point where you think, “Well, I’ve cracked that, I know how that needs to be performed!” Sometimes you get that with other composers, where you feel like you’ve ‘got the measure’ of it, and you know how it needs to be put across so the audience can understand it. With Beethoven it’s not like that, it’s like a very deep well you are always having to look into, and every group of three people who play it will have slightly different ingredients to bring to it. It’s always a big task, even if you know them, a huge mountain that you have to climb all over again. I do know how to play the notes, and I know how I feel about lots of things with the pieces, but if you’ve got three very good musicians, each with their own kind of hinterland of musical experience, a lot of ingredients get mixed in and you start having to look at things from other points of view.”

Tomes is passionate about the effect the composer’s music has had on her own life. “It’s always a very enriching experience playing Beethoven trios. Before we had the Florestan Trio we had the quartet, Domus, and we all found that if the group was going to break in a division of opinion it was either two against two or three against one, or four different views. With a trio it is mysteriously different and feels like a more balanced set, as you have one of each type of instrument, so it feels like a tripod with a more stable structure. Everyone has their responsibility within the piece, which is theirs alone and not shared with anybody else.”

It is a natural presumption that a string quartet might be more balanced, but she is not so sure. “There is something interesting about the dynamic of a trio, where you tend to get three different personalities that work well together, perhaps more so than in a string quartet – if they’re all very different then they have perhaps got problems! A string quartet has to sound so blended to be really convincing; somehow with a piano trio you can even get three soloists that will work well as a piano trio, and that’s sometimes how you hear them. However I did come to feel that three well-known soloists working together briefly on a trio is never going to be as satisfying a result as three people who had really put the work in with one another over a long period of time on this music. I believe you can still get further if you’re really committed to doing it with the same group. It’s a difficult thing to explain but there is something about the mental landscape that you get to share, and the experience of playing it together. It’s a satisfying thing to work at a body of pieces like the Beethoven trios.”

Beethoven’s musical autograph for the Piano Trio in D Major Op.70/1, the ‘Ghost’ – an exhibit in the Morgan Library & Museum, New York

Talk turns to each of the trios individually. “My experience of them is that they are all very different in character”, she says. “There are seven of the major trios – the three of Op.1, Op.11, the two of Op.70, then the Archduke and a few miscellaneous pieces. There are seven big ones, and six that are strictly for violin, cello and piano as the Op.11 piece is for clarinet. It’s very sweet and works better with the clarinet I think.”

Each work has its own identity. “I feel these pieces have very distinct personalities of their own, which is a thing I think Beethoven was particularly good at. If you compare them with the piano trios of Mozart, which are perhaps more similar to one another, I always feel that he posed himself different questions with each of the trios, and set out to answer those questions. Because of that the trios have a different artistic personality, which I think is quite an achievement of Beethoven’s.”

Is Beethoven picking up the baton from Mozart rather than Haydn in his writing for the piano trio? “When Beethoven was in his early twenties and studying with Haydn I think Haydn had not yet been to England, and he hadn’t published what we think of as his great piano trios, so probably it was Mozart if anyone that Beethoven was picking up from. It is as though he made a conscious choice to start with trios because it was a format that was perhaps not Mozart’s greatest success. Mozart had mastered the string quartet and the opera, the symphony and the piano concerto, but the piano trios are possibly not one of his really top genres. Perhaps it was a smart idea of Beethoven’s to set out with a type of music where there was room to show that he had something new to offer. He probably intended them for amateur musicians of a rather posh kind or in aristocratic circles, and was probably writing for experienced musicians more than the public concert hall at that point.”

The Florestan Trio made their Hyperion recordings in the Henry Wood Hall in London, and Tomes gives an honest appraisal of them. “Recording sessions I have always found very arduous”, she says. “At no other point do you have to play pieces of music over and over and over, with absolute maximum attention to detail and energy, so I have always found it a very stressful experience. It became obvious very early on that you really didn’t want to leave mistakes on the finished product. I started off saying to our producer that I felt as long as the atmosphere was right and the spirit was right then I didn’t mind about mistakes. Our producer said, ‘Trust me, you will mind if you hear wrong notes and mistakes on the finished product, you will wish that you had taken the time to correct them!’ So we took that attitude the whole way through, and we did make sure that everything was absolutely right at some point during the day. Hopefully we tried to get as many things right as we could on the first take, but that is never possible and the more people you have involved the less possible it is. Even you yourself might hit a lucky streak, but as sure as eggs is eggs somebody else will not play ball, and then you can’t use it. With three people playing exposed parts it multiplies the things that could go wrong simultaneously.”

The demands are clear. “I can’t say I’m a fan of recording, because I’m concentrating so hard on accuracy and at the same time trying to maintain the right kind of mood and spirit, which is really hard. As it goes through the day you find the accuracy rate tends to go down, and sometimes the atmosphere or spirit of the thing can go up. If that happens at a time when you’re making mistakes and getting tired, then that’s not good either. I think most of our recordings ended up being a patchwork of takes from different parts of the day, put together in such a way that they were accurate and had the right feeling behind them. I would not personally have been involved in the editing process, because I just thought I would get so confused by trying to put things together, and would be listening for those takes where I was good or played everything right! I might be tempted to select those rather than one where one of my colleagues was absolutely brilliant. I would happily leave that mainly to Andrew Keener, who as a producer is a brilliant editor. He knew us well enough to know we wouldn’t be happy with just the accurate takes; that he had to find something which had the right feeling about it as well.”

Are there any particular technical challenges about playing Beethoven? “One thing I would like to make clear about the piano trios is that I think the piano parts are as demanding as any of his piano parts, be they solo sonatas, even the concertos. I have played that repertoire as well and honestly think the piano parts in the trios contain as many technical challenges. There is the additional challenge of collaborating with others. Technically they are very challenging, and even from the start. Op.1/2 is extremely difficult for the piano particularly, and it has to sound so effervescent, like a Mozart opera in piano trio form. It’s actually very difficult. At the other end of the spectrum is the Archduke trio, where you need a lot of stamina and a lot of physical strength and energy to play. It keeps going at such a pitch for 40 minutes that you really do need to work up to that.”

As for Beethoven’s originality and invention, Tomes is in no doubt. “Whenever I was working at the trios I always had the feeling that Beethoven could really out-think any composer who came after. Today’s composers know so much about compositional techniques, and modern techniques that he never thought of, but in a way Beethoven has more inventiveness than anyone. Although he was writing in conventional keys, rhythms and notation, the way he constructs from little cells of musical material, and the way he can build enormous structures from small things, and the range of moods and emotions that he can somehow convey; he has such an extraordinary brain and imagination. I always came out feeling that one has to respect Beethoven more than anyone. The power of his thinking is quite amazing really.”

Initially this could be intimidating. “When I was a child I found a lot of Beethoven’s music off-putting almost, I found it over dramatic. You know his typical sudden changes of mood and pace – when I was young I couldn’t understand what he was driving at, I thought it was showing off. It gradually dawned on me, the kind of enormous terrain of feeling and imagination that he was trying to get down on paper. The more I got to know it the more I could see what a giant composer he was, and in a way I think more than anybody else – and I say that as someone whose favourite composer is Mozart – but I think Beethoven is so varied. One can say that even in the six or seven trios, just the number of styles he can write in and the number of things he can suggest to the listener puts him practically in a category of his own.”

You can listen to clips from the Florestan Trio’s recordings of the complete Beethoven Piano Trios at the Hyperion website here For more on Susan Tomes’ writings, head to her own website. Her book Beyond The Notes – which is strongly recommended – includes a chapter on rehearsing Beethoven’s first published trio, which Arcana will be appraising soon.

1 thought on “Talking Heads: Beethoven through the eyes of Susan Tomes

  1. Pingback: Listening to Beethoven #51 – Piano Trio in G major Op.1/2 |

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