I’m practising Schumann’s wonderful set of piano pieces, Davidsbündlertänze, for a concert later this year. As usual, progress is unpredictable. Sometimes things move on, sometimes not. Feeling short of inspiration one day this week, I sat down to listen to a historic 1937 recording by Alfred Cortot, renowned for his interpretations of Schumann and Chopin.
It had a curious effect. Cortot’s impulsiveness and spontaneity is often inspiring, but he was clearly living at a time when accuracy was not as highly prized as it is now. It’s astonishing to hear how many wrong notes he plays, sometimes whole fistfuls of them when the going gets tough. I found it strangely liberating. Nobody today would willingly leave the recording studio with so many errors faithfully captured on disc, but after I’d got over my surprise, Cortot’s performance reminded me what was important. It conveyed such focus on the line and spirit of the music that his wrong notes seemed (almost) irrelevant. Next time I sat down at the piano, I felt quite light-hearted, and found it easier to think of the big picture.
I’ve been watching the Winter Olympics on TV and enjoying the interviews with leading athletes. Two American gold medallists, skier Lindsey Vonn and snowboarder Shaun White, have really stuck in my mind. They looked supremely relaxed and confident, and you could see they weren’t just pretending. They spoke of their joy in racing, their hunger for speed, the thrill of competition. Even injuries and crashes have not dented their desire to get back to the track as soon as possible.
When I watch people like them I feel that nature has set up their nervous systems in a different way to mine. Obviously their physical skill is immense, but it’s not just their skill that makes them different. To be able to stay playfully in control at very high speeds must require a co-operative nervous system and a high tolerance of adrenalin. No amount of training on the ski slopes would ever turn me into an ecstatic downhill racer (all right, stop smiling), because travelling at high speed just makes me feel afraid. Big dippers at the funfair are my idea of hell. When I tried learning to ski I was held back by my fear of falling and injuring my hands. I can marvel at Shaun or Lindsey as they hurtle down the track, but I know I’m seeing someone with a different nervous set-up.
Today’s Independent has my review of Eric Siblin’s book, ‘The Cello Suites’. Siblin, a former pop critic, describes how he fell in love unexpectedly with Bach’s cello music and set himself to find out all he could about the composer, and about cellist Pablo Casals, the first person to bring the Bach cello suites to a wider public in the 20th century. Click here to read the review.
A nice surprise today: Bob came back from a meeting with a magazine page brought along by a colleague. It was from the February issue of the leading French record magazine Diapason, one of whose editors had taken the new Cambridge Companion to Recorded Music as the subject of his editorial. The Cambridge Companion, an expert anthology of chapters by historians and musicologists, also contains a number of short ‘personal takes’ by people with practical experience of the recording industry, and there’s one by me about my own experience of making records. To my surprise, this article was the focus of Diapason’s editorial. There was a photo of me and several paragraphs of my article translated into French. ‘Her text is an open door onto a work which gives us all the material for proper reflection on what nourishes our passion for recordings.’
not too cold for some
The winter sun was striking low over the lake as I raised my tiny idiot-proof camera to take a picture of a terrier plunging into the icy water. (I mean that my camera is tiny and idiot-proof, not that it’s proof against tiny idiots, though of course that would be a useful specialist feature.)
A deep voice at my side said smugly, ‘I don’t think you’ll be able to point into the sun like that with the camera you have there.’ I turned to see a man carrying a camera about the size of a microwave oven. He proceeded to show me that with his superior camera he could do this, that and the other which would enable him – unlike me – to take a photograph facing straight into the winter sun. He was wearing a big show-off hat, so I ignored his advice. Always distrust a photographer in a big hat, I say.