The Piano Recital

July 1, 2020

 

To reach Central Hall is to negotiate a series of labyrinthine passageways, followed by a number of doors and two flights of stairs. User friendly it isn’t.

  The auditorium is furnished with some heavy-duty chandeliers, and the walls are replete with paintings of various deceased dignitaries including Edmund Backhouse, Edward Pease and Winston Churchill. The first two are Darlington-born Quakers, the former a colourful character, who was not only a homosexual, but also a secret agent, a forger and a confidence trickster. With those attributes, he wouldn’t be out of place in contemporary Tory politics. The third is, of course, that familiar cigar-smoking racist, an advocate for eugenics, starving Indians in the Bengal famine and using poison gas in warfare. I recall my dad telling me that the silly old duffer had to be shown how to make the V for Victory sign because at first he was performing it with the palm of his hand facing inwards. What a chump. 

   The audience is a sedentary collection of coffin-dodgers, who, when it comes to wrinkles, would give Peter Weyland from Christopher Nolan’s film Prometheus a run for his money, and for whom the sands of time are inexorably ebbing away. In the local argot, they are “farting dust”. As the French expression puts it, in characteristically macabre fashion, they’ll soon be eating dandelions by the root, just like the composers they’re about to listen to. 

  Simon Callaghan is our pianist. He’s a wiry, diminutive individual, no different in that respect to last month’s ivory tinkler. I begin to speculate whether such a constitution is a prerequisite for this particular vocation, though one can hardly formulate a comprehensive theory based on only two isolated examples. Today’s programme includes Franz Schubert’s Fantasy in C Major D760 (otherwise known as The Wanderer), Francis Poulenc’s Les Soirées de Nazelles, Robert Schumann’s Arabesque Opus 18, and, to round it off, his Carnaval Opus 9.

    That great three-legged beast – the glossy black Steinway – is like some fabulous sarcophagus on wheels, hewn from slabs of carboniferous jet. The lid of the instrument is a veritable oversize clamshell, propped open to allow the sound to circulate throughout the hall. 

   What strikes me about Schubert’s Wanderer is the effortless way in which it manages to transport the listener back to the Vienna of 1822, as if the Steinway were a time machine, except in this case there’s no danger of us coming face to face with any Eloi or Morlocks. Already evocative in terms of its title, this piece conjures up visions of the Caspar David Friedrich painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog of 1818, that archetypal image of Romanticism, with its presentation of the visionary artist as a lone individual with his back to the viewer – what’s known in the trade as a Rückenfigur – standing on a rocky precipice overlooking the Elbe Sandstone Mountains in Saxony. The wanderer – the word can also mean hiker in German – is wearing an overcoat and boots, and carrying a walking stick in his right hand. 

      Given his stance, he’s in effect a surrogate for the viewer, though in terms of interpretation, there are two dichotomous ways of looking at this masterpiece – on the one hand it could represent man’s dominance over the natural world, or, on the other hand, it could portray his insignificance and express a form of existential angst. One wonders if Schubert ever saw this painting and whether it inspired the music.

   Those propulsive opening bars of the first movement – Allegro con fuoco ma non troppo – are in common time, and immediately give rise to the following nagging question: is the prevalence of common time in Western music the result of innate or culturally determined factors? In other words, is it because we are inherently bipedal that this time signature of four beats per bar – left, right, left, right – is so satisfying and so…common? Added to that, four-four time does seem to appeal to our mania for symmetry, which is predicated upon the shape of our own bodies and the objects that we construct. 

  The Poulenc suite is a jaunty, melancholic work, its Préambule in triple time. This opening piece and the variations that follow without a break smack of Paris and are quintessentially French. In fact, you can almost smell the Gauloises and the garlic rising from the belly of the Steinway during the performance. And yet, despite its charming and effervescent nature, after the hearty beef goulash of the Schubert, it’s ultimately ephemeral and insubstantial fare. To continue with the culinary analogy, it’s a sort of musical meringue.

   During the recital I sit next to a work colleague called David Langley. He’s a somewhat eccentric character, which is a trait that appeals to me. I’ve borrowed one of his books, Be As You Are, and must remember to return it. It’s all about another self-reflexive individual – Sri Ramana Maharshi – who was fixated with a holy mountain called Arunachala – Red Mountain – in Tamil Nadu. There must be something about mountains that resonates with the spiritual side in man.

    David’s here with his wife and nine-year-old daughter, Faye, who’s taking piano lessons at the moment. As arguably the youngest member of the audience, the powers that be let her in gratis. She represents the future, after all. Maybe one day she might even give a recital here herself.

    With the Schumann Arabesque we’re back in the Romantic era, and on familiar territory in the key of C Major, though this time the meter is duple time. And given the composer’s nationality I feel even more at home because of my Kraut heritage. It’s one of those dreamy, feminine pieces that releases pent up emotion from the silence between the notes as much as from the notes themselves. 

   Like the Poulenc, Carnaval begins with a Préambule in triple time. There are twenty-one pieces in total, connected by a four-note motif, and they are musical cryptograms representing the composer, his friends and colleagues, and figures from commedia dell’arte. It’s a fitting piece with which to end the recital, although the extra-musical elements bring to mind yet another aspect of the Romantic era. For as Goya said, ‘the sleep of reason breeds monsters’, and in the case of Schumann a rejection of rationalism brought with it frequent bouts of depression and included his failed suicide attempt when he threw himself from a bridge into the river Rhine, which led to his confinement in an asylum for the insane. It’s the old nexus of art and madness.

    Once the applause has died down, our thoughts turn to the recital at the end of March, which will bring the season to a close. But even a month earlier it’s obvious to the most casual observer that the novel coronavirus is here to stay and that it is set to fundamentally disrupt all our lives. And that’s exactly what happens. 

  Next month the piano tuner’s services are no longer required, and Steven Osborne is forced to cancel his performance of the last three Beethoven sonatas, which I was so looking forward to. 

   Will normality ever return? Perhaps not. As for me I’m not complaining. 

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