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Space rubble

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Anthony Sayer Anthony Sayer | 18:39 UK time, Monday, 19 April 2010

I've been wondering: Deep down, what do I want to say - apart from jumping up and down on the touch line shouting for the music team? Well, I've had some holiday - time to reflect a little - time to tidy up thoughts. If ideas jig around in the front of your mind, bells ring when something similar flits by your attention. Your radar picks up oblique references to your pet subjects. Pet subjects always feel ever so important. You keep banging your shins on them.

I hear voices.....often - those of Barenboim, Rattle, Runnicles, Manze, Kovacevich, and many many more of that ilk - voices cheer leading for the same issues - the voices of stars of our firmament, not wee fragments of space rubble like me. What are these pet subjects? Spontaneity, freedom, engaged listening, music education - that sort of stuff. For example: I was listening to the Music Matters edition where Tom Service was talking to Stephen Kovacevich. In his charmingly acerbic manner Stephen was quite rude about colleagues: pianists who "type" music, and string players who want to imitate those typing pianists - all very accomplished and musical, but not music making that's going to grab you where you need grabbing. Nor was he much kinder to the audience: too many "only want entertainment" - he doesn't sense much "hunger" to listen, to discover additional riches in the great masters. Of course, he was quick to add that he didn't want to generalise.......so he isn't including you personally! Is he concerned that classical music has lost its edge? (He certainly hasn't lost his edge - catch his stunning live Schubert A major sonata on iPlayer). They played a bit of a Rachmaninov recording, the middle section of Schubert's famous A flat impromptu, as an example of what it's all about. I'll come back to that - those few seconds of vintage recording seem to corral all the pet subjects.

Stephen's gravitational force has pulled at my little piece of space rubble several times. As a teenager I saw him play Bartok 2 at the Proms (hearing it twice in quick succession, half a second apart, because that was before they installed the flying saucers to cure the infamous echo). That fired me up - I was obsessed by Bartok, and sought out the anger and violence in pieces like the first two piano concertos, Allegro Barbaro, and 4th quartet - music that probably fed the same teenage needs that punk or heavy metal feeds in normal kids. Then Stephen formed his partnership with Jacqueline du Pré, the dazzling comet in the eyes of every cellist of my generation. Later, he was the soloist in Brahms' second concerto the first time I had to play its big cello solo - that's a significant impact point for any cellist. I messed up in the final bars, miscounting, and he accommodated me perfectly, adjusting his arpeggio and trill just as if Brahms had intended my little variation. A live concert - no retakes. In the Music Matters interview, he mentioned Brahms' improvisational attitude to his own texts, as I had in my previous blog.......so why did I bother agonising about my mistake?

Barenboim embarked me on a train of thought in his Reith lectures a few years ago: he was asking if we have lost the art of listening. (Barenboim and du Pré created a dual orbit that exerted a massive gravitational pull on the whole musical world.) He was worried about the future of classical music. That's been an alarum ringing around for a few years. Personally, I don't think classical music is sinking any further into oblivion than the works of Rembrandt or Shakespeare. But. There may be something awry. Perhaps, not so much a destructive force, but a lack of force: entropy. That's a posh word, and you might not be familiar with it, but I don't apologise for using it. I like its broader philosophical meaning: how creative energy weakens, levels down, dissipates, and becomes impotent. (Its specific meaning in physics is important, particularly if you feel the need to debate the 'purpose' of creation: 'entropy increases as matter and energy in the universe degrade to an ultimate state of inert uniformity'.) Is creative energy dissipating - is entropy increasing? Stephen also fired a few shots at the recording business. He quoted Arthur Rubinstein: "You can't play as well as you play on your CDs." "People think that is how music should sound." So, my main question is: Has there been a price to pay for CD saturation? Is typing 'better' than hand writing? Recorded music floods around us, and we don't give it any more thought than the air we breathe. I have music on when I'm cooking or ironing - at which point I lose touch with the 'event' of that music - that's the performer, the human being struggling and achieving - and this is hardly helped if I also know that this 'performance' is an edited jigsaw of hundreds of retakes. Are our powers of attention and creative listening being degraded by this sort of process? If I'm having a conversation with you, or anyone, what happens if one (or both!) of us is not listening - if one of us is not 'present' with the other? Would that damage one or other of us?

The Schubert impromptu played by Rachmaninov (did you click on the link to listen to it?) erupts with volcanic creative energy. In the middle section the 'boring' quaver accompaniment surges back and forward - emotions straining like a huge dog on a lead. No-one is suggesting Schubert would have played like that. Nor like Horowitz or Richter - two legendary pianists you can hear doing it from the same YouTube page (Richter playing live, with mistakes). My interest is not in whether this is a 'nice' interpretation, it's about what is happening at this event. These few minutes of Schubert open a window into Rachmaninov's soul. Not for the faint hearted. If Schubert had to choose between two versions, Rachmaninov's or a brilliant pianist 'typing' what he thought Schubert intended, which would he choose? Rachmaninov's soul is in Schubert's blood line. Talking about blood, we've been working at Rachmaninov's first symphony. The first performance of this was a disaster - neither he nor his music was given any credibility. A fiasco - and it led to his total breakdown. What music this is! What's it all about? He seems to be striving out beyond Tchaikovsky, his idol - excavating depths of emotion, and soaring to heights of exaltation. How are we, mere mortals, going to perform this? How can we do it justice? At that first performance, could the conductor Glazunov - a well established composer, urbane, talented - humble himself to this upstart music? Perhaps some players were able to 'get' this music, but what could they do - in a programme of first performances, difficult notes, under rehearsed, and a conductor who was neither bothered nor sober (allegedly)? Maybe the problem was that in his soul Glazunov did actually 'get it' - that here was a young composer who was going to become one of the most popular composers ever - everything that Glazunov dreamt of (....have a few more vodkas). Here was a star pulling everything into a different orbit. Anyway, nobody was listening to anyone. Rachmaninov dared to speak his soul - and he was sneered at. No wonder he collapsed.

How are we expected to listen to this music, or give voice to its visceral, searing melancholy? Maybe we have to stand back from the heat? We've been given a glimpse into his soul, how should we react? Pretend we didn't see? Excoriate him for his excess? We can always level the music down to something 'more acceptable' - play or listen without noticing the real meaning - allowing it to blend into a comfortable and inert uniformity along with the other musical wall paper in our lives. Enjoy the nice tunes? Play it as muzak in the lift.......that's Barenboim's nightmare! A piano trio by Rachmaninov, the second Trio Elégiaque, is a massive, expansive, grief laden work in response to the death of his mentor, Tchaikovsky - a work which, along with the first symphony, the first suite for two pianos, and several others written before his breakdown, leads me to feel that he was reaching the end of a road. Could he have pushed musical emotion any further......I wonder? Anyway, at that fiasco he got the message, he was listening (he was found crying on the back stairs): when he'd picked himself up (which took three years) he moderated himself, toned things down.......and then went on to produce winners like the second piano concerto and cello sonata. In some of his early music the wounds seem to gape open - some healing must have been needed before life could go on.

An afterthought tenuously linked to the stuff above: Tchaikovsky also wrote a piano trio - a massive, expansive virtuosic work, in response to the death of his mentor Nicolai Rubinstein. Barenboim, du Pré, and Zukerman performed it in Israel during a final period of remission before Jacky's MS diagnosis, and the end of her playing career. There is a recording of this performance - the live event, with plenty of mistakes. It's stunning and unrepeatable. Plug your ears deep into headphones, and you can feel the electricity sparking - adventure, freedom, elation. Hindsight adds an unbearable poignancy to this event. How much poorer would we be without recordings like this and the Rachmaninov? They can't be imitated, or emulated. No amount of jigsaw editing could achieve such an effect. You can't type a copy of these. Their power can't be faked - this power can only erupt from its own magma chamber.

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