Where words fail, music speaks.
HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN
She’s playing Vocalise by Rachmaninoff arranged for cello and piano, though the piano to the right is standing silent and she’s playing alone. There are dozens of pieces for those two instruments together but this one was ours. The last year she lived with me we played it often, on our quiet Monday nights or tired Sunday afternoons, after the work was done, the practice finished and the rehearsals over. The steady and questing piano phrases. The insistent, plaintive cello, asking and leading before drawing back again. Not for an audience or applause. Something just for the two of us.
And she’s playing it by herself.
The sound of the cello makes me stop dead in the street. A single, bright note strung out on the air with a purity that belies the smoggy London day. I recognize the piece. Reverie by Sibelius, played with simplicity and skill. But where is the musician? I turn on the spot, trying to find them. And then I do, outside a coffee shop. Or rather I find the sound and my eyes have to drop three feet to find the cellist because she’s a child. Her small fingers ply the strings, carving the bow across an instrument that’s so tall she has to play it standing up like a double bass. I’m mesmerized by the sound she’s making and I want to grab passers-by and make them listen until they understand what they’re witnessing.
“This piece is called Dream 13,” he says finally, and sketches his finger back and forth in the air like a bow. “That’s the cello. Do you hear it?”
I do hear it, and put my head down on the cushion and close my eyes, letting the music cocoon me. There’s a cello, and a piano too. The piano sounds like watching rain fall on leaves through shiny clean glass. The cello is a sigh first thing in the morning after a long sleep. “It’s so pretty,” I whisper.
“If you want, I can start to teach you how to play some of this piece tomorrow.”
Just like that, as if it’s nothing to take a piece of music and make it your own for a while. To have a thousand such pieces sitting waiting in CD cases and written out on sheet music that you carry can around. A whole room for making music in. I never knew that people like Laszlo existed.
He sits on my bed with the cello between his knees and I watch as he twists the tuning pegs at the top of the neck and plays scales until the notes are just right. I’ve seen him do this with dozens of different instruments over the years though he only ever plays music on the piano. He hands the cello back to me and I take his place. What to play first?
I know. The Swan. “My mother used to play this. She was going to teach me this but then…” And I broke off before I could say it, but Laszlo knew. She was going to teach me this but then she died.
I put the bow to the strings and begin, the notes plaintive and slow like the composer asks for on the sheet music. Normally when I play this piece I imagine a beautiful white swan gliding on a lake, but this time I see someone with a cello. Halfway through a huge well of emotion opens up inside me and I burst into tears, my bow arm dropping to my side.
Laszlo kneels down before me. “Isabeau, what’s wrong?
“I can see my mother,” I manage in a thick whisper, tears dropping into my lap.
It was difficult telling Hayley what I’ve asked Laszlo to do for me, with his words, with his manner, but it didn’t seem to surprise her. Grinning over the top of her wine glass she said, “You always did enjoy being the conductor’s pet. He loved it, too. None of the other girls could get him to smile at them. He never smiled at me and I played that bloody first violin Scheherazade part for him.”
When Isabeau and I arrive it’s the same as any other day at the Mayhew. The ensemble is making excellent progress with Holst’s The Planets which they’ll be performing at the Winter Concert. Isabeau is happy because she’s just received top marks in her Grade Eight cello exams and I’m always in a good humor when Isabeau is smiling.
As my hands ply the keys I watch her between glances at the sheet music. I vastly prefer conducting to performing but this is one of my favorite things to do, playing with Isabeau. When she was younger it was The Swan, of course, but when she was feeling lively we’d play The Royal March of the Lion, our instruments doing battle with each other to sound the most prideful, the most regal, but getting less and less stately toward to the end, louder and faster, my hands crashing through the chords and her bow whipping across her cello until we finished the piece in a mess of notes, tempos and laughter.
(Author’s note: this song is never mentioned in the book but I listened to it on repeat as I was writing. It’s performed by a piano and a cello, and the music is filled with all the longing and sadness that Laszlo and Isabeau felt when she was seventeen and then while they were apart.)
A piece of music has never been too much for me no matter how emotional or stormy, but I feel like Vocalise is killing me every time we play it. It should be losing its power over time but it only gets stronger. We learn the parts by heart and she plays with her eyes closed, pouring her every emotion into the notes. I can’t tear my eyes away from her. Who is this young woman playing so beautifully beside me? There’s no coltish uncertainty about her now and in a few months’ time she’ll be eighteen. When did she get so grown up? When did she become so beautiful, inside and out? And loudest and most confusing of all: why does it cause me such pain to look at her when she’s everything I hoped she would be?
I recognize the piece he’s humming. “Dvořák’s Ninth. Are we going to perform it on tour?” It’s one of Laszlo’s favorites. It’s one of everyone’s favorites really, sweet and pastoral at times, then piping and happy, then dramatic and strained, all winding up to the most joyful climax in the fourth movement. I don’t need to ask Laszlo to know that he finds it a lot of fun to conduct. I can tell from his energy, the light in his hazel eyes. I love seeing him like that.
“What about Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim?” I ask. “They were always together. Why can’t we be like them?” Du Pré was a famous cello soloist in the sixties and Barenboim was a conductor and her husband. Everyone wanted to see them perform together with his orchestra until her career was cut savagely, painfully short by multiple sclerosis. Her biography was one of the books that Laszlo gave me to read when I first came to live with him and I’ve never forgotten her. I’ve reopened that book many times over the years and run my fingers over the many glossy pictures of them smiling at each other, working alongside each other. They’re perfect together. Cellists and conductors were meant to be.
Laszlo has his back to the audience and they can’t see what he’s doing, but we can. We all struggle to keep straight faces as he puts something around his neck and over his face. Behind him, the audience are shifting curiously, trying to see what’s going on. Laszlo raises his hands, as he would before the introduction to any piece, and they settle again. He gives a downbeat, and the first famous eight notes of Symphony No. 5 by Beethoven sound from the string section.
Laszlo ends the last beat with a flourish, his index finger pointing into the air. There’s a pause, the orchestra silent, and he pivots slowly toward the audience so they can see that he’s wearing a pair of dark glasses with mirror-ball rims. He’s undone two more buttons on his shirt and a gaudy gold medallion is glinting on his chest. He tries not to smile but as the titters break out in the audience he grins, pointed canines showing. Still looking at them, he gives another downbeat and we start to play, but instead of the tense, insistent notes of the famous symphony a disco beat breaks out.
Just twenty-one, the soloist exudes the confidence of a young woman used to the spotlight. Sitting down at her cello she treats me to an unaccompanied performance of her signature piece, Saint-Saëns’ The Swan. Her playing is filled with the honesty and pathos which has earned her critical acclaim and the hearts of audiences during a recent three-night performance of the Brahms Double Concerto with violinist Hayley Chiswell in Birmingham.