Magazine article The Spectator

Scaling the Musical Matterhorn

Magazine article The Spectator

Scaling the Musical Matterhorn

Article excerpt

Play it Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible by Alan Rusbridger Cape, £18.99, pp. 387, ISBN 9781847921406 This book is an account by the music-loving editor of the Guardian of how he set himself the task of learning to play one of the most daunting virtuoso pieces in the piano repertoire, and to do so within the space of what turned out to be perhaps the most hectic year in the newspaper's history.

Alan Rusbridger didn't actually meet his self-imposed deadline. He had been overwhelmed by developments at his newspaper - the Wikileaks and phone-hacking exposures (both huge Guardian scoops), the Arab revolutions, the English urban riots, the nearcollapse of the European financial system, not to mention the huge financial problems created for the paper by the digital revolution - and so could not put in the hours of practice he needed. 'A job that was routinely 12 to 14 hours a day, Monday to Friday, regularly expanded beyond that and ate deeply into the sixth and seventh days, ' he writes. So it took him another six months of snatched practice periods to master Chopin's fiendishly difficult Ballade No. 1 in G minor or, in his words, to find that he could 'in the professional view of at least three proper pianists play it - sort of'.

Nice though it would be to have a CD of Rusbridger's public performance of the piece at a rented hall in London on 13 December 2011 (the book should have included one), we have no reason to doubt his words. And listening again to my recording of Arthur Rubinstein's performance of the Ballade, I am lost in wonder and admiration at the progress Rusbridger must have made since we used clumsily to play piano duets together when we were both foreign correspondents in Washington in the late 1980s. The question arises why? What has driven him on? And what has made him want to master a work that strikes fear into even the most accomplished professional pianist? These are questions to which he himself seeks the answers.

He was always musical. As a boy, he was a cathedral chorister at Guildford and started learning the piano at the age of eight. But he subsequently subordinated the piano to the clarinet, which became his instrument of preference. This may have been because it provided more opportunities for convivial music-making than the piano, the quintessential solo instrument, because he had been told by his mother that 'music would lead to friendship'.

But it left him in middle age with regret that he had never learnt to play a piano piece 'properly', meaning that he had never worked on and memorised a piece so that he could play it as a professional might. This, he says, was because he had a natural gift for sight-reading and a hopeless memory. So to learn something by heart and to play it well became his belated ambition in life.

He makes several convincing arguments in support of amateur music-making. For someone like him, with a stressful day job, practising the piano can be the equivalent of going for a run or working out in the gym - an essential preliminary to going to work, a means of clearing the mind and facing the day with calm. In his own case, it felt like a physical need. If I could spend 20 minutes at the piano before going to work, I had a powerful sense that the chemistry of my brain had been altered. On the days I played, my brain felt 'settled' and ready for whatever the next 12 hours would bring.

Rusbridger also discovered that pianoplaying could be a protection against Alzheimer's. …

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