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Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Unmusic and music

He was a very special kind of cougher, and clearly very ill. His outbursts traversed a frequency range which took perfect advantage of Birmingham Town Hall's acoustic - clear, loud and separate - and they came in three parts. First a staccato Hah, Hah, Hah as if to a joke. Then a liquid gurgle that even now I'm trying to forget. Ending with a clipped, shouted Brow! He's a Brummie. He was present at the last Birmingham concert we attended, this time at Symphony Hall.

VR said "You have to feel sorry for him." but, damn it, it was so hard to do just that.

Last night was all-Brendel even though the great man himself - pianist Alfred - was not there, having retired. Instead we had his son, Adrian (cello) with Alf's best known protégé, Imogen Cooper (piano).

Things kicked off with the Bach cello suite no. 3. All seemed right with the world (ie, I know the cello suites) and only later did I realise the snapshot was incomplete. Lively, sometimes austere, always profound the suites hold back somewhat on what the cello does best: sing. Liszt had no problems in two short accompanied pieces (Elegies ll; Romance oubliée) pared down to the simplest of melodies and "sung" in such an eloquent way you wonder why Liszt ever bothered with the piano.

But it was Rachmaninov's second cello/piano sonata that was the star of the show. No surprises given Sergei’s singing for Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. There are echoes of the second piano concerto but this is a major work in its own right (which I was hearing for the first time) and it will break your heart just as subversively as it did mine. Not schmaltzy, firm and intelligent.


  1. Although it can be maddening when someone starts coughing at a concert, I can't help sympathising. (Can one cough with an accent?) I once had a fit of coughing in the compartment of a train. So I know. The tension builds and the coughing increases. Of course the cougher can leave.

  2. Serial coughers who remain in the hall should be subject to mandatory psychiatric evaluation.

  3. Probably good that Liszt bothered with the piano.

  4. So awful to be the cougher, knowing it's coming on...but one can leave, as Joe says. Still, they seldom do.

  5. Joe: Normally coughers are an irritation. But this was was a far more visceral sound, quite sickening. A couple of years ago I was visited by one of those prolonged coughing bouts that can follow a head cold and I gave up our tickets to Britten's War Requiem because I knew I couldn't guarantee to stay quiet. Felt quite smug about it. A month later I went to another concert and found to my horror I hadn't got rid of my coughing and couldn't control the bouts when they arrived. Veritably, the English disease. To have left from a seat dead centre in the stalls would have been arguably even more disruptive.

    MikeM: (1) See above. Where's the couch? (2) I used to have problems with Liszt. I hate deliberately showy music and I kept him at bay until I discovered Années de Pélérinage. My suggestion was of course a joke but the two cello pieces were so un-Lisztian, so sensuously melodic, that I felt I had to make some kind of point.

    Beth: At yet another concert, this time at Birmingham's marvellously acoustic Symphony Hall (Rattle's previous stamping ground) one poor chap did leave. In a permanent way. Feet first. The piece (something quite long I seem to remember) continued as people tried to render help. I can't decide whether this would be a good or bad way to go.

  6. I hadn't considered the disruption of tripping out over the feet of 20 odd other people. A psych eval. is probably too complicated due to custody requirements,vague and over-lapping diagnoses, treatment options. Why not just carry a flask of something medicinal, something shareable in a pinch? If every 5th person did so the world might be a better place. I practically imagine this was the case in "classical" times.

  7. Not sure how I would have taken the Rach live, where I tend to close my eyes and go with sound only. I did watch a very competent documentation of a dynamic and expert performance. Sol Gabetta w/ unidentified pianist. Little doubt about the virtuosity here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCTZNCF71W0

  8. MikeM: It's astonishing how inhibited one feels just taking out a cough sweetie and conveying it to one's mouth. I'd be worried what my neighbour would be thinking if I took out a bottle. Perhaps it would be a good idea to label it Not Hooch.

  9. Well for heaven's sake have a pop before the concert and again during intermission, if only to relieve anxiety about sneaking a cough sweetie. You've got me feeling self conscious about resting my head on the balcony rail.

  10. We singers always tote a bottle of water that stays under our seat or in the organ loft for the duration of the performance, and keep cough drops in our pockets. Hooch would be preferable, especially when long-winded bishops are visiting, but, well, you know...