I only had one single meeting with the renowned pianist, teacher and writer Susan Bradshaw (1931-2005); and if you’ll allow me, I’ll tell you the story…
It was at a Prom concert — to be specific, the one on the evening of 16 Aug 1990 — and the way it happened was, very simply, that I went to my seat and saw that she was sitting in the seat next to it. Me being me, I immediately launched into a grossly insensitive “Ooh! Aren’t you Susan Bradshaw? There’s something I’ve always wanted to ask you…”
The question I’d long wanted to put to her was something related to the weird little book Boulez on Music Today that she and Richard Rodney Bennett had translated from the original French. Since I’d spent quite a bit of time going through those pages very carefully — and had ultimately concluded that entire stretches of it really are as senseless as they appear — I wanted to know if the volume was any more comprehensible to someone who not only knew Boulez personally, but had also tried to make sense of it in two languages.
And at the interval, after the first half’s Haydn and Goehr, I was finally able to ask her. We went to the bar and I bought her a tomato juice with (I think) Worcester sauce; and then we had our chat while she smoked some dark-coloured and evil-smelling cigarillo-type thing which — I seem to remember — was fitted into a mouthpiece or holder of some kind. (Note to younger readers: In those benighted days, people really were permitted to smoke in pubs and bars. Weird, eh?)
What she told me was that she and Rodney Bennett had had a great deal of difficulty with that translation — and that they had in fact struggled with some of the same things I had, thanks to the various junctures where the argument presented in the text simply could not be squared with what the accompanying music examples actually showed.
And to this information she added another little detail for which I’ve always been grateful. After a period of time had elapsed (the English translation appeared as long ago as 1971), she and Rodney Bennett were with Boulez somewhere — and one of them mentioned a passage in the book which they’d translated without ever having understood it: just how did that example relate to the verbal explanation? Boulez, I was told, went off with a piece of paper to work out how it all fitted together — and, after some little time, came back and said that he couldn’t do it: he couldn’t tell what he had previously done, and couldn’t work it out again from what he could see in the book…
‘I rest my case’, as they say.
All in all, it was a valuable and enjoyable conversation — well, for me, anyhow! — and when the interval came to an end, I mentioned that I was very much looking forward to the work in the concert’s second half. To my surprise, Bradshaw responded by saying that she didn’t want to hear it, and wouldn’t be staying for it. So we said a quick goodbye and went our separate ways, never to meet again.
Now, looking back with all the cynicism and suspicion I have developed since 1990, I suppose there’s a finite probability that she was simply pretending that she wasn’t going to hear the second half — in order that she could nip off and find a nice empty seat a long way from the pestering nuisance who’d just ruined her cig-break with an endless succession of irritating questions. But on balance I believe she probably was leaving. In fact, I have two different reasons for thinking that she didn’t stay.
The first is that, given Bradshaw’s specialist interest in contemporary music, the newish Alexander Goehr piece in the first half — a ‘London premiere’, prefaced by a pre-concert discussion involving the composer himself (I went to that, too) — was probably what she had really come to hear. The second is that the piece which I myself was so eager to experience ‘live’ for the first time is one that actually seems to provoke a negative or at least oddly lukewarm reaction in a lot of people. I have some very close friends who aren’t interested in it; don’t enjoy it; won’t listen to it; can’t see the value of it, etc — and I remember very well that, back when I was doing my M.Mus, just a couple of years after that Prom, I mentioned the work to one of my tutors … and heard him describe it as ‘risible’.
Naturally, you’ll want to know what work it is that inspires such a wide spectrum of reactions — and if you clicked the link in my second paragraph and saw the Proms Archive page, you may think you know already…
Which just goes to show what happens when the BBC tells you something and you make the mistake of trusting that the information will be correct and complete. For it so happens that the work that I heard, and Susan Bradshaw didn’t, wasn’t actually ‘Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor’. Or, rather, it was … and it wasn’t…
And if you want me to explain what I mean by that, you’ll have to read tomorrow’s posting — in which everything will be made clear, and in more ways than one…
Meanwhile, if you have 40 minutes to spare, it won’t do you any harm at all to hear what I and the rest of the audience didn’t listen to on that occasion (though, in a manner of speaking, we did…). It’s a rather magnificent piece of ‘early Brahms’ (he finished it in 1861, when he was still in his late twenties) — and anyone who doesn’t know it has been missing out, all these years. Here’s a very vivid performance of the whole piece… Enjoy…!
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