One of my students, a few days ago, sent me an e-mail link to a wonderful film of great pianists of the past, “The Art of Piano.” It is an absolute treasure trove of astonishing and sublime playing, and it still seems amazing to me that all these wonderful performances should be now so readily available at the touch of my iPad screen.
It will seem unimaginable to young people today, but when I was a child, in the far-off fifties, the only access to recorded music was the occasional concert on the radio, (or wireless, as it was then called). I listened to these broadcasts avidly, thrilled by the performances I heard, and even cutting out photos and programme details, from the indispensable Radio Times, of my favourite artists, which I pasted into a treasured scrapbook. I never dreamt that, one day, I would meet some of these revered artists, and even perform works such as the Beethoven and Brahms sonatas with the legendary violinist, Nathan Milstein, who featured prominently in my scrapbook.
When my parents bought a gramophone, when I was about twelve years old, my excitement was immense. Records were expensive then, and most had to be specially ordered from the local record shop, after hours of careful scrutiny of the leaflets, regularly available at the shop, detailing the latest releases from recording companies such as HMV and Deutsche Grammophon. I was allowed one LP on my birthday and one at Christmas, supplemented with additional purchases made possible by a combination of pocket money and winnings from piano competitions. There was also the occasional foray into pop music with a 78 disc of the latest hit. To choose was agonisingly difficult, but made easier by the limited choice on offer.
It may seem to many of you reading this that mine was indeed a sadly deprived childhood. I know that it was the exact opposite, for I loved my few LPs with a passion I can still remember, and I can vividly recall the overwhelming experience of listening to my precious discs. It was magic.
My first LP was of the famous Tchaikovsky concerto played by Solomon, followed by Moiseiwitsch’s recording of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Rachmaninov, magisterial performances both. I never tired of listening to them over and over again. Having few recordings meant that one indeed heard them over and over again, absorbing fresh nuances and insights each time, so that the performances became almost a part of oneself. And my listening experience was expanded by the joy of being introduced to jazz by a group of older boys from my school, one of whom was the brother of one of my classmates. These boys had formed a jazz band, and, to my delight, I, being the only pianist around, was invited to join them. We gave some rather strange concerts. I remember starting one with a Bach Prelude and Fugue, followed by a jazzed up version of Bach by Alec Templeton called Bach Goes to Town, in which I was joined by clarinet and bass. Then the rest of the band joined in, and we swang into “Stompin’ at the Savoy”. Heady days! Of course, the boys had their own precious collections of jazz discs, and we spent many wonderful evenings in which I heard for the first time, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong. I think my favourites at the time were the legendary Carnegie Hall concerts of the Benny Goodman orchestra, and the phenomenal pianist, Erroll Garner, in that wonderful live recording, “Concert by the Sea”, with his amazing left hand driving the music along in a totally unique fashion.
I, in my turn, had the joy of introducing my friends to classical music, which they took to with the same passion as jazz, a particular favourite being Holst’s Planets Suite.
This was my musical education, apart from my piano lessons, for music was not on the curriculum at my school. But we were given encouragement by the headmaster and staff, who seemed to take pleasure in our amateurish but enthusiastic performances! And I remain grateful to this day for my unorthodox ‘musical education’.