I was back home from a grueling five-week tour of America. The post had been dealt with, the bills (mostly) paid, and I was looking forward to four weeks in London, when the phone rang, early on Tuesday morning: “Stephen, there has been a cancellation this week in Rotterdam – Brahms 2nd piano concerto with the Philharmonic – can you leave for the airport straightaway to catch the 10.40 flight and the 1 PM rehearsal?” I took a deep breath and asked for ten minutes to think it over. The rang exactly 600 seconds later: “Well?” “Yes, I’ll do it, but I can’t catch that flight. The only way would be to leave later this afternoon and just do the dress-rehearsal tomorrow morning”. Amazingly they agreed. I gulped down some coffee, showered, re-packed my weary suitcase, and made my way to the piano to see if the piece was still in my fingers.
The Brahms 2nd is really the most challenging of all the piano concertos. A few are its equal in musical profundity, others outdo it in technical demands, but none has the combination of so many difficulties in discovering and achieving the perfect balance of head, heart and hands. You need to ride the orchestra like as if on a stallion in one section but then elsewhere to negotiate the most intimate chamber-music moments as if guiding a gentle pony along a winding track; the piece’s vast architectural structure (over 45 minutes) needs holding together with a sober, firm hand, yet there are moments (in the 3rd movement especially) where you have to caress the music as if drifting in a dream.
We had four performances in four and a half days, but mornings and afternoons were free after day one, so on Thursday the conductor, his girlfriend, and I went to Delft, a fifteen minute train ride away. As well as having lunch, we visited the two, grand, central churches, the Oude Kerk and the Nieuwe Kerk – the latter new in 1383, and where Vermeer had been baptized. I saw in stone, wood and paint what I had realized clearly the previous day when I asked the girls at the front desk of the Hilton hotel about the whereabouts of the nearest Catholic Church. “I’m not religious” piped one, as if being a vegetarian would prevent her from knowing the address of the nearest steakhouse. After a search in various drawers and much tapping on the hotel’s computer she couldn’t find any Mass times or church locations. It was obviously not a regular request. Eventually someone else behind the desk remembered a church (“I think it’s Catholic”), but it turned out not to be close, and the Mass time (singular on a Sunday) I was given was incorrect. But back to Delft, standing in the beautiful Nieuwe Kerk, I was standing in a beautiful shell. An elegantly proportioned, clean, well cared-for shell – scooped-out by 16th century Reformation then emptied-out by 20th century alienation. There is one service a week, and the large, majestic space seems totally inappropriate for its present-day purpose – as if one were to keep one’s slippers in a bejeweled gold trunk. Similarly in its neighbour, the Oude Kerk (where Vermeer is buried), function and form have fragmented – in history with violence, but now with a smile and a centrally-heated handshake. The dust had settled long ago and has now been vacuumed away. ‘It’ just wasn’t anymore. It’s possible that more people attended our concerts this week than attended church services in Rotterdam on Sunday. Even skeptical Brahms would have been shocked.
The orchestral manager, during a wonderful meal after one of the concerts, said thoughtfully, “The Dutch distrust pleasure. It’s the Calvinism …” though thankfully not in the music-making, proved by the orchestra’s strings soaring radiantly through the concerto’s singing lines. Perhaps the pleasure of great music, which celebrates yet rises above the joys of the flesh, might help all of us to begin to fill the empty shells in our lives.
A version of this essay appeared in the Catholic Herald