Play It Again

Alan Rusbridger at the mediaGuardian meeting o...

Alan Rusbridger at the mediaGuardian meeting on Changing Media 2007, session title: The future of media? See related blog post (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alan Rusbridger, the Editor-in-Chief of the Guardian, recently published a book with this title. It is a diary he kept of his efforts over an 18 month period to learn to play Chopin’s 1st Ballade well enough to play it in public. This period coincided with

Alan Rusbridger plays the piano

Alan Rusbridger plays the piano (Photo credit: Simon Willison)

the Assange Wikileaks story, where the Guardian was the UK outlet, and the phone hacking scandal where the Guardian had led the way, against the indifference of the police and the power of the Murdoch empire. Rusbridger was working 12-16 hour days at times, yet still managed to get in the practice necessary to eventually be able to perform the piece to his satisfaction in public.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I found elements in the first 100 pages somewhat irritating. By the end of the book I was reluctantly won over. As a self admitted pianophile/holic , even I found some of the detail about the problems he had with fingering and the technical problems too much. However it does give, to use Mr Micawber’s expression, a corroborative verisimilitude, to his efforts. Rusbridger is clearly a very good amateur musician (choral scholar, excellent sight reader, clarinetist able to play the Mozart concerto and quintet, and no mean pianist) and one lauds the time he takes to play chamber music with friends whenever he gets the chance.

He abuses his position as the Editor of a high profile newspaper to corner some of the great pianists of today for their advice and views on how to play the Ballade, as well as a the head of the Functional Imaging Lab at the Institute of Neurology in Queen Square as to how memory works and why he struggles to memorise music at the age of 57. The views of people such as Brendel, Barenboim, Uchida, and Hough are interesting, but it’s all a bit self congratulatory. What are more interesting and sometimes genuinely moving are the stories of some of the amateurs – like Rusbridger – for whom playing the piano is an important part of their life

What I found myself gripped by was his perspective on the phone hacking scandal. As a Times reader, lover of Sky Sport, and an alumnus of the same Oxford College as Rupert Murdoch, I somewhat naively thought it couldn’t be as bad as people were making it. It wasn’t as bad as I suspected, it was many times worse. Rusbridger, Nick Davies (the reporter who did much of the work), and the Guardian deserve every plaudit they get for exposing two very malignant cancers at the heart of British life – the criminal activities of parts of the press, and the corruption affecting the police and parts of the political class. From this perspective alone the book is worth reading, even more so if you are interested in the mechanics of learning a difficult piece of music.

He is talking about this at King’s Place on Monday April 22nd. See you there !

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Khatia – Live Concerts

Kammermusikfest Lockenhaus

Kammermusikfest Lockenhaus (Photo credit: Guus Krol)

I managed to get a ticket at the last moment to hear the Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvilli  in her recital at the Wigmore Hall, on a cold, snowy Monday lunchtime. She is a pretty 25 year old, wore a striking cream, diaphonous dress that was a site for sore eyes on such a miserable day, and has a mass of black hair that kept falling in front of her eyes, but didn’t seem to affect her playing. It did mean however that she couldn’t bow comfortably – if footballers can wear hairbands, why not female pianists ? Her programme was the Chopin Funeral March Sonata, his 2nd and 3rd Scherzi, and Ravel‘s La Valse.

As she started the Sonata I felt a warm glow inside me. The pleasure of hearing live music is indescribable. Given my disc jockeying activities I listen to a lot of CDs. Nothing compares with live music and the sense that an artist is ‘creating’ music in front of you. Khatia (not as a source of familiarity, but to avoid having to re-type Buniatishvilli many times) is one of a number of pianists whose inspiration seems to be the young Martha Argerich. A fantastic technique, and a tendency to play quick bits very quickly, and slow bits very slowly. I thought she pulled the Sonata around too much – but that didn’t matter. Here was an artist giving a performance of music she loved and had clearly thought about. Whether it would be the ultimate performance didn’t matter. It was valid and one likes to think Chopin would have been happy with it. Her La Valse was full of the colour and energy Ravel demands, and to show that she was still full of energy she gave a barnstorming performance of the last movement of Prokofiev‘s 7th Sonata as an encore.
I continue my love/hate relationship with the Wigmore Hall. Hate because the leg room is totally inadequate for anyone of above average height, and I believe using a full sized concert Steinway is too big for the Hall. Love because they have good programmes, and a knowledgeable audience, who are generally well behaved. However the concert was somewhat spoiled by an aged, over weight, individual sitting behind me, who went through the full repertoire of adenoidal harmonics as he nodded off to sleep and then woke with a start, on a number of occasions.
I have started reading Alan Rusbridger‘s Play it Again. There are two elements which have started to irritate me. The first is the view that Steinways are the finest pianos in the world. The one played by Khatia was not one of their most beguiling instruments with a metallic upper register, and whilst many Steinways are very good, I’ve heard many poor ones. A lot depends on the individual tuning and voicing, as well as the underlying condition of the piano. The other is his banging on about how technically difficult the 1st Ballade is. The Coda is reasonably, but compared with the two Scherzi Khatia played, it is not. I shall return to this book when I have finished it.