Expect a nuanced and intimate celebration of Haydn and Mozart when pianist Susan Tomes teams up with acclaimed Austrian string quartet Quatuor Mosaïques
During a significant career that has spanned three decades, the Edinburgh-born pianist Susan Tomes has become best known for her prominent involvement in the intimate world of chamber music, either as collaborator or solo recitalist.
It’s not that she’s averse to the solo limelight sought by the concerto artist, pitting herself against the might of the big orchestra. She’s enjoyed many such moments over the years. But for Tomes, it’s the true sense of sharing, of reacting on equal terms, of jointly discovering the inner secrets and delights of a duo or quartet that has steered her in the direction she has chosen.
And in case anyone should doubt her credentials, she was right there at the start of several leading chamber ensembles, such as Domus, the Gaudier Ensemble and the Florestan Trio, experiences she has written about extensively in the several books on musical life she has published to date. But what is it that attracts her to the small-scale music-making?
“When I’m working with interesting colleagues, it’s just fascinating discovering what they’re going to do, and what special ingredients they’ll bring to the performance,” she says. “In chamber music there’s room for flexibility and spontaneity; if you have a spur of the moment inspiration, others will run with it.”
Next weekend’s “interesting colleagues” for Tomes are the members of the brilliant Quatuor Mosaïques, the Austrian string quartet who specialise in performances of mainly 18th century repertoire on period instruments. In a series of three concerts over the weekend of 12-14 February, the sole emphasis will be their favoured repertoire of Haydn and Mozart.
It’s in the first and last of these recitals that Tomes will play an integral part: performing in Haydn’s Piano Trio in E minor in Friday’s opening concert, and as the main protagonist in Mozart’s own arrangement for piano and string quartet of his Piano Concerto in F, K413, which is the finale to Sunday afternoon’s closing programme.
The F major piano concerto is one of three Mozart specifically said could be performed with a quartet rather than full orchestra. “They are easy to spot,” Tomes explains. “Because there just happen to be three in which the wind parts are not woven through the texture as they tend to be in his later concertos. With the meat in the string parts, the wind can easily be left out.”
More importantly, she says, it introduces that special, magical intimacy you just don’t get when having to contend with a full orchestra and conductor. “From the pianist’s point of view it’s a very pleasant, lighter texture. You feel the strings can move more quickly with you. Altogether it makes for a much more responsive group, and you don’t have to work so hard at projecting the piano above the strings. It’s just like playing in a piano quintet.”
The whole concept of the weekend – contrasting two doyens of the Classical age, Haydn and Mozart – is a fascination in itself. Tomes’ solo recital on Saturday is effectively persuasive theorising on her part: her belief that Haydn’s Variations in F minor “un piccolo divertimento” is based on a theme from Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, and is therefore his homage to the younger Mozart, whom Haydn outlived.
She explains the rueful twist that led to Haydn doing this. “Both composers were good friends, so when Haydn set off on his 1790 trip to London, they had a farewell dinner. They said farewell, thinking they may not meet again, though assuming that if anyone was to pop his clogs first it would be the older man.
“Of course, it was Mozart who died, and when Haydn returned to Vienna he wrote his Variations, which he didn’t say was a homage to Mozart, but knowing both works, I feel there must have been an inspiration. There is a strong connection between the themes.” We can make up our own minds in Tomes’ recital, where she plays both works alongside Haydn’s E flat Piano Sonata.
There’s more from Tomes after Perth. At Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall on 15 February, she is continuing her long-term collaboration with leader of the Quatuor Mosaïques, violinist Erich Höbarth, in a duo recital focusing on Schubert. Their association goes back to student days in the 1980s, when Tomes was accompanying the pupils of the great Sandor Vegh at the annual Prussia Cove International Musicians Seminar in Cornwall. Höbarth just happened to be one of Vegh’s pupils.
“We clicked immediately,” says Tomes. “We’re very different as people, yet musically we’re on the same wavelength. I can feel what he’s thinking, and vice-versa. I might just do something in a slightly different way in performance, and he always notices, always responds to it instinctively.”
They’re playing the wonderful Grand Duo in A major, and the less well-known A minor Sonata for violin and piano, and Tomes will go solo in three of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux. Reviews of this well-established duo partnership refer to its “buoyancy and playfulness”.
Indeed, there’s a lighter side to Tomes that she’s keeping back for a solo recital, also at the Queen’s Hall, in April. For besides some heavy duty Schumann, Debussy and Ligeti, she will introduce many of us then to the music of Savoy Hotel pianist Billy Mayerl.
“He was resident pianist there in the 1920s, particularly with the Savoy Havana Band” she explains. “His music was unbelievably popular at the time; when a new piece of his came out, folk would rush to buy it. He started a correspondence school he called Syncopated Piano Playing, which 47,000 signed up for – including members of the Royal Family.”
For Tomes, it’s just another intimate style of music that gets her closer to her audiences.
• Susan Tomes appears as part of Quatuor Mosaïques’ residency at Perth Concert Hall, 12-14 February, 01738 621031/www.horsecross.co.uk; in partnership with violinist Erich Höbarth at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 15 February; and solo at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 25 April,