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Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Is music for nerds? Yes or No?

Last week, staying a couple of nights with friends in London, we heard a recital by Jonathan Biss, an unsmiling American pianist who acknowledged applause with his hand over his heart – as if pledging allegiance to the flag. He played two Beethoven sonatas, opus 10 no. 1 and opus 81a (Les Adieux), plus a Janacek sonata (From the Street).

I sort of know most Beethoven piano sonatas but beforehand I let Alfred Brendel refresh opus 10 for me. Les Adieux is famous and I tasted several versions on YouTube. The sonata’s opening bars consist of well separated notes and chords which must be made to hang together as a slow melody. Guiomar Novaes and Solomon managed this, Wilhelm Backhaus did not.

In further preparation I listened to Elias-Axel Pettersson play the Janacek in his final doctoral recital last year at Montreal University. I didn’t know the piece but he played with authority, especially the slow stuff. I emailed to see whether he got his doctorate. He said yes and I was glad.

Forward to Biss. Technically no problems but the opus 10 sounded too loud given its comparative simplicity. I’d have preferred a fortepiano. Facing those initial fragments in Les Adieux Biss avoided the problems by playing faster; legitimate but not as breathtaking. Biss’s Janacek was harsher than Pettersson’s but did it proud. Our friends also hearing the J for the first time liked it and that was good news.

But I was left feeling nerdish. Isn’t such preparation overdoing it? Like boning up on the dictionary before tackling Aldous Huxley. It’s only music. Elsewhere in the world people are really suffering – being denied sub-titled French movies.


  1. Prepping seems to me both respectful to the musicians for the work they've done preparing for the concert, and a good way to maximize the price you've paid and the time you've put in to going to a really good concert. I don't prep for every musical event we go to, but when I'm heading to a concert I suspect I'll put on my life list, I definitely do.

  2. It is definitely nerdy though!

  3. Julia: I think that's called having your cake and eating it, or, as in the West Riding, having the ha'penny and the toffee.

  4. The few times I go to concerts/operas I definitely listen to the music 'en boucle' before. Less selectively than you do, I suspect. I prefer getting to know a piece first rather than meeting it and trying to get to know it all in one go. (Hence my repeated listening to the Brahms - it's going well.)

    Likewise, if I'm going to see a play by Shakespeare, I read it first.

  5. EB: My big Collins-Robert, Fifth Edition, published 2000, doesn't have en boucle and I was reduced to Googling it. Seems there's some dispute over the meaning: "over and over" being the best shot. Whatever, it's time to replace C-R and you've jogged my elbow.

    In fact, we're marching in step. With the exception of operas I don't usually prep (Thanks, Julia) music, or I didn't until I launched Tone Deaf and started exposing my ignorance to a wider audience. However, with any new Shakespeare play I always buy the Oxford UP paperback because of its wealth of footnotes. When I have more time to play with I do have a second line of defence - the BBC set of 37 DVDs covering the whole oeuvre. The price has come down drastically since I bought them (then £130, now £69) and I was going to recommend them if you haven't got them, but you'd probably pay much more in p&p costs than buying them in the first place. I have to say that the three-part Henry VI - which is rarely produced and must be even more difficult to organise one's life round - proved a revelation and alone was worth the investment.

    But there I go, more recommendations, as if I thought you were still carrying literary L-plates. For shame. In fact I tell everyone you caught the worm decades ago.

  6. I'm not sure it's the moment in my life for such an investment...

    My C-R (fifth edition) doesn't feature 'en boucle' either. BTW it might be worth looking for a second hand one. I bought mine on http://www.priceminister.com/ but I guess you'd have a smiliar postage problem as I'd face with the DVDs.

    Maybe not L plates but not far off.