Almuth

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Background

Almuth taught me piano for five years. Whenever I play a bum note, notice my dreadful finger position, or play a whispered pianissimo note as loud as a shout, I can feel her wincing beside me. To play badly and to play music she doesn’t approve of, like jazz and folk, still feels like I’m getting away with something naughty and I must admit, I enjoy it. On the other hand, all amateur musicians get the odd magic moment – when you play something unexpectedly well or come across a combination of notes that works far better than you anticipated, and whenever that happens to me, I think of Almuth.

We also went to many a concert together and for a number of golden years, I was regularly given free tickets to see Welsh National Opera performing in the Millenium Centre in Cardiff. It was always the final dress rehearsal before the opera opened which meant that the full orchestra and cast were there, the costumes, sets and staging were complete but the audience could sit wherever they liked and there was a wonderful degree of informality and fellowship. Opening night might be full of corporate entertainers and posing posh people, but the dress rehearsal was for music lovers.

Almuth is a very, very good pianist. She studied performance at the Royal College of Music and if she had been braver, luckier and richer, she might have made her living as a concert pianist. She was taught in her native Germany by a teacher called Dorothea Von Sauer, who was the daughter of a famous teacher, performer and composer called Emil Von Sauer. Here’s where it starts to get incredible – Von Sauer was taught by Franz Liszt, and Liszt was taught by Beethoven. See what I mean? Knowing all that about my teacher and then having her sit down next to me at the piano, glance at the score and say “So, begin” was utterly terrifying.

As a teacher she was never free with her praise but on a couple of occasions when she was teaching me, she heard me play, paused and said “Yes. Perfect”. I’ve never felt so good about my music. She also provided me with the most musical experience I’ve ever had. She had been practising a Shubert Impromptu for several weeks and one day decided she was ready to play it to me. She turned up at my house with a big wad of music under her arm, made herself comfortable at my piano and said “So. You will turn the pages for me”. I was horrified. Turning the pages means reading the score as it is played and the score was more complex than anything I had ever seen. I had to sit really close to her, with one knee pressed against the body of the piano and the other close enough to feel her operating the soft pedal. She began and I quickly worked out that if I tried to read the full score, I would be lost. Often with piano music, one hand is doing something clever but the other doing something much more simple. By following the easier hand I could keep my place in the score. Then I started to notice long progressions, crescendos and passages where both hands were playing so many fast notes that the stave was barely visible under all the semi-quavers. As the piece progressed I got so involved in the music that I almost forgot to be scared I was going to mess up the page turning. Almuth was completely absorbed in the music and was playing like a demon. By the time it was finished, we both had tears in our eyes. I’ve never been physically closer to a great performance and never so involved. I’m not good enough to play that clever, musical fireworks kind of stuff so it was a real gift to get that close.

The Venue

It was obvious that our lunch would involve music and as far as Almuth is concerned, music began in around 1685 with the birth of JS Bach and ended when Stravisnsky started to allow atonalism in. It’s not that she doesn’t like modern music, she just doesn’t take any notice of it, I don’t think she can hear any difference between The Beatles and the buzzing of a fly. I found an organ recital in Brecon Cathedral and tempted with the promise of Bach, Almuth agreed to be driven there.

The road to Brecon from Swansea is spectacularly beautiful and it was a gorgeous day, so we both enjoyed the journey. Almuth always has to get to her destination super early, so we were there with plenty of time to look around the cathedral. It’s a lovely old church, although it’s much smaller than the average cathedral and I suspect only gained that status because it was a bit bigger, fancier and smarter than the other churches. It’s still a nice old building though and has some beautiful stained glass, so I was happy to wander around it while Almuth fretted about where we were going to sit.

The cafe we repaired to after the concert is not, as it would have us believe, built in the cloisters of the cathedral because they were destroyed during the Reformation. These cloisters were built by the Victorians and the cafe was put in quite recently. It’s nice though: friendly staff, comfortable chairs and a decent choice of home cooked food.

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28 August 2015

Brecon Cathedral Cloisters Cafe

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Big parish church/small cathedral – churches are always wonky in Wales, I blame the preponderance of chapels.

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The Pilgrim Cafe in the cloisters – Victorian pastiche and so much more comfortable than the real thing.

The Lunch

The concert was very interesting. Almuth always likes to sit at the front. She is a very polite, self-effacing woman normally, but when it comes to music, she takes no prisoners. The organ in Brecon Cathedral is not visible from the main body of the church, so Almuth wondered if we could sit in the choir stalls. At least one of these had ‘reserved’ on it which I pointed out. She wasn’t happy, but Almuth doesn’t break rules, so we settled into some quite comfortable seats at the front of the church. Just before the performance began, a few members of the public wandered in and sat in the choir stalls, exactly where Almuth had wanted to. “Right. Come on, we’re moving” she said and walked off without another word.

Our new seats were ‘much better’ in that we could now see the organ and even the hands of the organist. The seats were hard and, having been designed for child choristers, were very uncomfortable, but when I pointed this out, I was told that I would get over it and to look at the organ. The music was very good, some of it was beautiful, especially an Interlude from The Hovingham Sketches by Harold Darke, the organist who wrote the music to In the Bleak Midwinter.

As usual when listening to music, Almuth was completely inanimate. When I first started going to concerts with her, I found this quite alarming and during a particularly quiet passage of the St Matthew Passion when I couldn’t see her breathing, I wondered if she might not have quietly died. She doesn’t tap her foot, nod her head or conduct microscopically. She doesn’t cross her legs, shift her weight or wriggle. More alarmingly, she doesn’t cough, sneeze, sigh or appear to breathe. She doesn’t move at all unless someone nearby is rude enough to open a bag of sweets or, God forbid, whisper to their neighbour. If that happens, there is a violent intake of breath, she sits up as straight as she can and glares directly at them. You might think a glare isn’t too scary, but think King Cobra about to attack.

After the recital we went to the cafe and ordered some very nice brie and cranberry sandwiches with smoked, streaky bacon. They arrived and Almuth demonstrated that despite her still evident German accent, 50 years in the UK have acclimatised her well – she said “Oooh good, a posh bacon butty”.

We chatted about music, of course. She’s been playing the piano for 74 years and is still playing despite only recently recovering from a broken wrist. She has a husband who she is devoted to and two lovely children, one of whom is my dear friend Anglea (lunch #21) but I’m sure they would agree that music really is the most important thing in Almuth’s life. I reminded her of the time when we were watching a performance of Beethoven’s ninth, when just as the choir and orchestra are all going hell for leather on the final variation of ‘Ode to Joy’, a man a few rows in front of us collapsed. The concert was literally seconds away from finishing so the ushers attended to him where he was and judging from his grey, lifeless face, it didn’t look good. As the music finished and the poor man was carried out, I pointed out to Almuth that it looked like the man had died. She didn’t even stop clapping as she said “Yes, but what a great way to go”.