When Crystal Cruises invited me to join their flagship as the guest classical pianist for a springtime voyage around the Aegean, I had my doubts. Inspecting their website, I anticipated jazz-age glamour, Art Deco-inflected design and gourmet cuisine. But playing Beethoven on a boat? What about the noise, and the movement — not to mention the psychological effect of the environment on my interpretation? How, for instance, would my inner Richter fare in a face-off with my inner Liberace in a venue called the Galaxy Lounge?
I have a genetic piano-seeking compulsion, however. I play them wherever I can find them. Could a luxury passenger vessel, I asked myself, really be much worse than a rowdy London pub? A Brazilian jungle lodge? Besides, perhaps great music strikes one more powerfully when heard in unusual circumstances.
As I climb aboard in Athens, I muse that the cruise-ship ivory-tickler in his crisply pressed tailcoat is an elegant remnant from a vanished age, when travel was always sociable and slow. I half expect Bertie Wooster to bustle past me, whistling a jaunty tune, or Hercule Poirot to appear at the top of the gangplank. I will be treated as a guest on the ship, I’ve been told. And as I have only three concerts to give in a fortnight, vast vistas of leisure open up before me.
My recitals are designed to complement our itinerary — a lovely tour of the Greek islands during Holy Week. One recital is about the sea, with plenty of shimmering Ravel; the next about myths and legends, with my own piano reductions of Liszt and Beethoven; and the third about Easter, with works by Haydn and Bach.
There are also enjoyable workshops from Californian film-school professors, and lectures by retired US army generals. I catch a dance performance in which a lithe young couple high-kick their way through a number of soft-rock tracks with exemplary skill ,and wearing little besides a few carefully placed viridian streamers. The audience is large and demonstrative. I become lugubrious. No way will my own shows measure up to this. Should I find colourful lighting? A nubile dancer to gyrate around the Steinway?
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. It’s no joke trying to execute the dazzling passagework in Debussy’s ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ when one is actually sur l’eau, and said l’eau is vigorously animated by squalls from the Sahara. But the music comes across fine for the most part, and my audience, though relatively small, is knowledgeable — including a few accomplished amateur pianists and a professional piano tuner.
Indeed, it is my warm relationship with fellow guests that proves the unexpected boon of cruising. I can scarcely leave my ‘stateroom’ without bumping into people keen to talk about music. And bound up with music is emotion: I hear of childhood, business, marriage, despair, revenge. There are invitations to dinner and tea-time confabs about the creative careers of children and grandchildren. It’s like performing at a summer camp, but with better food and ever-changing views.
Gazing out at the titanic black sea cliffs as we sail into the flooded caldera of Santorini at dawn, or digesting my daily dose of profiteroles as I wander along the sparkling shore of carefree, car-free little Hydra, life feels grand. I begin to wonder if I need face the awful solitude of a landlubbers’ concert hall again.