Miguel Campinho presents Eurico Tomás de Lima and the Portuguese Piano Tradition
One of the advantages of being on the
interview team is that you’re asked to talk to musicians about composers you’ve never heard of before and, until a Numérica double album (NUM 1249) of the piano music of the Portuguese composer Eurico Tomás de Lima (1908–1989) arrived by way of preparation, Tomás de Lima was indeed one such. A Skype conversation with the pianist on these two discs, Miguel Campinho, who also wrote the booklet essay, helped dispel my ignorance.
Q: The obvious initial question is: Who was Eurico Tomás de Lima?
A: He was the son of a violinist and a conductor named António Tomás de Lima. His father was a professor at the Lisbon Conservatory, so he had a musical upbringing. His main piano teacher was one Alexandre Rey Colaço (1854–1928), who was born in Tangier, had originally Spanish citizenship, and studied in Berlin, at the Hochschule, under Karl Heinrich Barth (a Tausig student, who later in life became the teacher of Arthur Rubinstein). Rey Colaço then taught at Berlin for a while and came to Lisbon, to be a sort of court pianist as well as to be a teacher at the Conservatory—he was also the piano teacher of the princes. Following his death, Tomás de Lima completed his studies with José Vianna da Motta (1868–1948), a major figure, a student of Liszt and Hans von Bülow. After that he started concertizing and in about 1932, at the time of the First Sonata, he performed his first recital, playing only his own works. He was very well received and made his career as a pianist in the Portuguese-speaking world, which traditionally, in terms of musicians, has meant a lot of back-and-forth between Portugal and Brazil. He went to Brazil two times and played in various cities there. Since it was a very isolationist time for Portugal, he circumscribed himself to the country. Being such a small country, we tend to limit our cultural flags, so to speak—we don’t have that much space for that many geniuses, so we tend to hold up one genius per generation and the other ones we tend to keep under wraps.
Q: You say he stuck to the Lusophone world; did he not perform in other European capitals or elsewhere in the Americas?
A: No. He had friends who played his music in France and Spain, people who played other instruments—violinists, flutists—but he was a home-grown success. And even “success” is in quotes, because whenever he performed, the situation outside of Lisbon wasn’t in any way conducive to earning a living just by playing. So he taught, privately—he was rarely part of an institution until the very last years of his life when, in the 1970s, he got a position in the Conservatory of my home town, Braga. He retired here, and—this is probably my only connection with him, since he retired the year I was born and I never met him—he gave his last recital in the hall where I played in public for the first time.
Q: Didn’t he even cross over the border now and then to concertize in Spain?
A: No, the reason being that Portugal, throughout most of his adult life, from 1926 to 1974, was under this very tight and very isolationist dictatorship.
Q: But Salazar’s Portugal and Franco’s Spain were similarly oriented—one might have expected some kind of cultural exchange.
A: There wasn’t much cultural back-and-forth between Spain and Portugal. In fact, the official cultural policy of the regime was to build up cultural identity by national manifestations, for the nationals. At one point, Tomás de Lima was part of this government-sponsored band of musicians that toured the country playing anywhere and everywhere—actually with a piano in the back of a bus!
Q: What kind of concerts did he give—Beethoven for the masses, or simpler fare?
A: He played a little bit of the standard repertoire. I recall seeing programs where he played the “Appassionata,” Chopin’s Third
, those sorts of things. But when he played solo, he tended to play his own works more and more. After a certain time he would only play his own works and contemporary composers. He was very fond of another forgotten pianist-composer of the time of Vianna da Motta, called Óscar da Silva (1870–1958), who studied in Leipzig and then had some lessons with Clara Schumann in Frankfurt before coming back to Portugal. He is another one from a previous generation who was all but forgotten. Tomás de Lima was known in musical circles. He played several times a concertante work that he wrote, a Fantasia for piano and orchestra; there’s a recording in the national radio archives of him playing it with the orchestra of the Porto Conservatory. There are, I believe, some 14 recordings of his recitals for the national radio.
Q: Your booklet essay talks about Tomás de Lima playing Chopin, Liszt, and Beethoven, but what one hears in the music is a Russian influence—Medtner in the First Sonata, Prokofiev in the Third….
A: Yes. In fact, I purposely abstained from making that kind of comparison exactly to see what kind of feedback I would get from people, because I didn’t want to influence them in any way. I think that the material on the two CDs is so diverse and has so many faces that you can really hear different influences. There’s a newspaper interview in 1947, where he says that one of the big references for him is “the current Slavic school.”
Q: That suggests that, although his concert-giving may have been confined to Portugal and his performing repertoire to the classics and his own music, he did keep up to date, at least to some extent, with what was happening in the world of music further afield. He must have been listening to recordings or reading scores and that kind of thing.
A: For sure. I would say that he was totally up-to-date with his world but that he was, by choice, fully immersed in the tonal tradition, the late romantic tradition. He was the exact contemporary of the man we consider to be our greatest 20th-century composer, Fernando Lopes Graça (1906–1994), who was a professed Modernist. Lopes Graça loved Stravinsky, Bartók, and Schoenberg, and wrote a lot of music for piano that was purposefully anti-romantic in style. Tomás de Lima seems to have dug his heels in and said to himself: “This”–romantic music—“is the kind of music that I like, and I’m going to write it like this, not because I couldn’t write in other ways, or because I don’t know that other ways are happening.”
Q: The textures, too, are very much those of a late-romantic composer, with a warmth and fullness that more explicitly modernist composers eschewed.
A: That was the strong impression that drew me to the manuscripts in the first place.
Q: So the recordings were made from Tomás de Lima’s manuscripts? Is none of this music published?
A: None of it is published. Indeed, I came to them almost by accident. In 2005 I was spending a year in Portugal, working here in Braga, and the lady who was in charge of the music department of the university here, the Universidade do Minho, said: “You should come by. We have these piano scores of this unknown composer. Would you like to take a look at it? Maybe you might like to play something.” I went in without any great hopes of finding anything interesting, and I found myself reading through one piece after another. I was counting on spending half-an-hour, and I spent the whole morning there!
Q: Had you at least heard the name of Eurico Tomás de Lima before?
A: No, I had no inkling. When I was growing up, he was already retired, and on his way to being forgotten. Until the last decade of the last century we seem to have had this idea of music always moving forward, like societies, and whatever is not new and moving forward is pulling us backward, and that would be a bad thing. It is only when we look at the more conservative things on an equal footing to the more forward-facing things that we can appreciate them for what they are, and not for what they are not.
Q: These two CDs contain the complete sonatas and sonatinas—is there much more?
A: A friend of mine released a CD two years ago [João Lima, playing on Numérica NUM 1210]. There he recorded two
, and four of what Tomás de Lima called
Black Dances [Danças Negras
], which basically are meant to portray African folk.
Q: Had his travels in Lusophone countries taken him to Angola or Mozambique, then?
A: I don’t think so. Through most of his adult life, in the 1950s and 60s, the situation in the African colonies was close to a boiling point, and the explosion came in the 60s, so it wasn’t as appealing as it had been at the beginning of the century.
There’s a piece he wrote in 1945,
, as a reaction to the news of the death-camps. It was probably the most political thing that he ever wrote (the sub-title is “Pain, Machine-Guns, Death”). He performed it a couple of times and created a political stir; there were fears that he would be forbidden to play, because that piece had a political connotation, and the death-camps showed fascism in the worst possible light. As the regime here was also fascist, he had the secret police attending his recitals and preparing for some kind of political demonstrations.
Q: Each of these CDs ends with a suite, where he seems much more relaxed than in the Sonatas and Sonatinas.
A: That is my sentiment also. I only tell this to people who ask, but the
is my favorite piece of all the music on these two CDs. There, for once, he is not thinking of how to successfully convey a structure—a three-movement structure, a sonata structure, or a rondo-type thing; he’s just painting musical portraits. It really feels more improvised, more evocative, and more imaginative.
Q: It’s as if he is no longer looking over his shoulder to check that posterity approves of what he is doing.
A: Exactly. It’s funny that both of the suites come out of years of travel.
is the direct result of those two years in the early 1940s when he toured the country, playing some 70 concerts in one year, traveling by bus, so he got to see a lot of colorful places. And the last suite,
Ilha do Paraíso
(Paradise Island), was written in the year he spent teaching in Madeira as the head of the conservatory there, on a one-year contract. It’s a take on Luís de Camões (c. 1524–1580) and his epic poem
(The Lusiads). As part of the narrative, the gods give Vasco da Gama and his sailors the prize of stopping on an island called The Island of Love on their way back to Portugal. Tomás de Lima makes that poetic connection, saying that Madeira would be that type of earthly paradise.
Q: That makes two of the movements in the Suite—“Penha d’Águia” and “Cabo Girão”—all the more surprising, since they seem to be mere texture, recurrent phrases that simply modulate step-wise, to no apparent purpose.
A: Those two are depictions, the first one of a mountain with a flat top in Madeira, and the other one of a very impressive cape. Each of them works better as a live piece than as a recording object, because when you are listening to a recording, you tend hear the nuts and bolts, and these are the kind of paintings you have to see from afar.
Q: Is there a “Tomás de Lima” school of playing in Portugal or some other influence left in his wake?
A: His teaching was sporadic. He gave mainly private lessons, and taught in this school and that school. From what I read in testimonies and from conversations with his son, my picture is that as a person he was probably a man with very strict ideas and a very short temper. Probably he wasn’t very kind, professionally, to people around him (that’s just my hunch). Hearing recordings of him playing, my sentiment is of someone very proper, a gentleman type, but very studious, fastidious, and correct in his playing. I remember thinking to myself when I first listened to those recordings that probably, if I played these pieces for him, he would tell me: “No, it’s all wrong! You have to unlearn everything you did and do it the way I tell you to do it.”
Q: So were his own recordings not much help in preparing these new ones?
A: They were very helpful in providing boundaries, because what I heard was very much what I like to call old-school pianism, stemming from Vianna da Motta. A quote from Charles Rosen comes to mind: “They played like gentlemen!” So he created boundaries—nothing too fast, nothing too rubato, pedaling very clean at all times. That put me in place.
Q: A bit of impropriety can bring a performance alive, though.
A: Of course! Most of his recordings were made at the radio studios, but the recording of his Fantasia for piano and orchestra, for example, is a live broadcast, and he lets go, he’s a bit feisty, especially in the bravura passages—so he could come alive himself.
Q: What explains the title of the set,
(Know How to Listen)?
A: That’s the generic title of the series, an umbrella title for several projects developed by the artistic producer of the CDs, Miguel Leite, who’s a very good friend of mine. He was already the producer of the other CD dedicated to Tomás de Lima. He organizes concerts and conferences, here in Braga and in the north of Portugal under this umbrella name, and also has a syndicated radio program under the same name. So it’s part of his realm of projects, so to speak.
To wrap up the presentation of Tomás de Lima, this is music that was written from the piano and for the piano, first and foremost. It derives from the grand romantic tradition, and here and there it reveals real gems.
The Portuguese piano tradition is a very big and continuous one, and most of the names are not as well known and as “placed” in general music history as they should be, because we tend to see and write about music in big waves, as either operatic composers or symphonists, and if you’re not one or the other, you’re going to get little more than a footnote. For a peripheral country like Portugal in general European music history, we already only get a footnote, so our piano music gets much less emphasis. Even starting with Portuguese performers and Portuguese researchers, only in these past 20 years has the tide started to turn. But Óscar da Silva, for example, who has tons of material published that no one knows about (even Portuguese researchers), was a major piano composer. He wrote in a late romantic vein and never became a full-out Modernist. He attempted in some pieces to be more aggressive and less romantic, but at the end of his life he kind of reverted to the good old ways. And there are others. We revere a contemporary of Beethoven, João Domingos Bomtempo (1775–1842), the first director of the Lisbon Conservatory, and the first European-level pianist here. He was very successful in Paris; he lived for a while in London and Clementi published his works. He has, for instance, four piano concertos to his credit that no one ever gets to hear. I could add the name of Arthur Napoleão (1843–1925) who also toured Europe and eventually settled in Brazil. He decided to have what he called a serious life and gave up playing to set up a music publishing house. He wrote for piano in a relaxed, not-too-demanding way, but it certainly deserves to be known and referenced.
Q: Time we found out a little more about you. Your accent and command of English suggests that you have lived in the U.S.A. for a long period.
A: I’ve been living and working in or around Hartford, Connecticut, for the past 13 years. I went there to study and ended up enjoying the place, successively getting one degree after another: I’m currently in the final stages of my Doctor of Musical Arts degree in piano performance, also at the University of Hartford, studying with the Brazilian pianist Luiz de Moura Castro. I try to spend my vacation time in Portugal, and during these years, paradoxically, being away drove me to be more interested in all things Portuguese. In the seven or eight years since I began reading these manuscripts here, I’ve become very interested in and very focused on Portuguese piano music.
Q: How much have American audiences been exposed to Tomás de Lima by now?
A: I’ve performed most of the music on the CDs in America, mostly in Connecticut, with two small excursions, to Southern California and the LA area, where I did a couple of concerts with a soprano friend of mine and I included on the programs some pieces by Tomás de Lima. But I can say for sure that I’ve been the only one to perform them in North America, ever!
TOMÁS DE LIMA
Sonatas: No. 1 in c♯; No. 2 in e; No. 3 in a; No. 4 in F. Sonatinas: No. 1 in A; No. 2 in C.
Suite for Piano.
Ilha do Paraíso:
Suite in Six Pictures
Miguel Campinho (pn)
NUMÉRICA 1249 (2 CDs: 140:25)
Miguel Campinho states in his interview that “this is music that was written from the piano and for the piano, first and foremost, and music that derives from the grand romantic tradition”—which is a pretty fair summary. It’s big-hearted stuff, the heart in question worn not quite on the sleeve but certainly in full visibility. Its weakness is that it too often relies on patterns and phrases that are repeated without enough change to maintain interest. Thus the opening First Sonata of 1933, circa 20 minutes in length, has a first movement of Medtnerian sweep and fullness, but a slow movement which loses interest through that over-reliance on formulae, and a toccata-like
Allegro con fuoco
Finale which engages the ear with its robotic energy—the first time around, that is, since it keeps returning and ends up overstaying its welcome. The Second Sonata, written two years later and also around the 20-minute mark, is only slightly less in-your-face. The central section of the first movement has a popular-song simplicity, but it leads into more of Tomás de Lima’s repeated figurations, from which the return of the song offers welcome relief. The Scherzo brings echoes of the middle-period sonatas of Eckhardt-Gramatté, dating from around a decade earlier; a desultory slow movement then leads in a brittle Finale. The First Sonatina (1938), at just over seven minutes, is easier going, with some of the textures in the first movement owing much to Chopin and, again, a hint of popular song in some of the melodic material; the central
has a distantly jazzy flavor; and the third, an angular
, elbows its way aggressively forward. The eight miniatures of the suite
(1941), with less to prove, are more relaxed in manner than the two sonatas and the Sonatina which precede it on this CD, finding room for some delicate humor (though most of it is fairly broad-shouldered) and more explicit folk-dance references, though the writing still exploits the full range of the keyboard.
The second disc opens with the explicitly Prokofievan Third Sonata (1948), which piles into immediate action with a biting chordal first subject, offset with a chant-like second subject, before the first subject returns with primitivist zeal, and it’s over in less than three minutes. An edgy
finds a way through unsettled harmonies but finds no resolution, and the finale is a vigorous folk-dance, punched out without sentimentality. The Second Sonatina (1950) opens in like manner,
, with a folk dance harmonized into brittle chords and a languid second subject; the central
has a childlike simplicity, with an innocent little song bookending a more forceful decorated chorale; and another folk tune forms the finale, the harmony undermined almost to the point of bitonality as Tomás de Lima batters it with foreign elements. The Fourth Sonata (1954) has audible points of contact with the piano music of Ginastera and other South American folklorist composers; indeed, if you had told me that this was music by an Argentinian, I’d have probably gone along with you. The
opening movement offers the now familiar blend of romantic textures, chorale and folk dance held together in a sonata form where the composer makes little developmental effort to hide the joins—he just moves between ideas as he feels. The middle movement is another of Tomás de Lima’s uncertain
s, edging its way forward in search of a tonality—and he trusts rather too much in this harmonic tension to bring interest to the music, when it’s not enough to overcome the baldness of the thematic material. The good-natured folk-rondo Finale, at least, benefits from the contrast, bursting through with the energy of a group leader waking up dozing campers. The final music item on the second CD, as with the first, is an illustrative “Suite in Six Pictures,”
Ilha do Paraíso
, inspired, as Campinho told me, by Tomás de Lima’s year as head of the Conservatory in Funchal, on the island of Madeira, in 1966. Unlike the movements of
, though, which mostly hover around the two-minute mark, some of those in
Ilha do Paraíso
are of some length, the first over seven minutes, second nearly four, and sixth three-and-a-half. They don’t all justify this kind of expanse, and the repeated figurations of the two (of which I complained to Miguel Campinho) have no more interest than your standard technical exercise. The best music here, though, has a delicate, evocative quality that might usefully have brought some variety to the more formal pieces they accompany in this set.
The piano tone is hard and brittle, a shortcoming underlined by Campinho’s forceful keyboard manner: His enthusiasm for the music is such that he sometimes hectors it; letting it breathe a little more might have softened the impression of unfocussed garrulity—but not by much! An odd feature with this release is the inclusion of the booklet text at the end of each CD, read out in Portuguese on the first CD and in English on the second, by Maria Amélia Carvalho of the University of Minho (perhaps she is the person he mentioned as telling him about this music in the first place). I daresay visually handicapped listeners will appreciate the gesture, as also those wishing to improve their Portuguese; even so, I can’t see the point of it.
Tomás de Lima, then, is not a discovery of the first importance, a verdict with which Miguel Campinho himself might agree: The music has limitations which would take a Horowitz to overcome. But much of the music has a rough-hewn vigor which, in limited doses, is refreshingly honest, and honesty, indeed, is the hallmark of the music as a whole: Tomás de Lima wrote it as it came to him. The effect is rather that of the person who, unconscious of etiquette, says things that embarrass more worldly-wise people—who know, nonetheless, that he’s telling the truth.