Magic and Musical Memories

Last night I was listening to an audio book, a novel by a favourite author, when I was struck by a felicitous turn of phrase.

Two acquaintances had met after a piano recital, and were walking home together:

"What did you think of the performance?" asked one.
After a pause came the reply.
"Perhaps it was...a little...functional?..."

The very sound of the word itself perfectly expresses its meaning. And perhaps, sadly, the word perfectly describes many of the performances we hear today.

Indeed, how can it be otherwise, when we live in a society which is obsessed with "ticking boxes" and values consistency, predictability, and accuracy above creativity, mystery and imagination. We are overwhelmed by endless streams of data, and dominated by a bureaucracy seemingly out of control, where everything has to be measured, fragmented, quantified, and objectified, when even student performances are judged according to rigid criteria, and marked by ticking boxes? We seek more and more information, while not allowing time and experience for connections to be made between the "pieces" of information. It is the connecting that leads to knowledge, or beyond knowledge to wisdom, and to authentic performing.

Writing this started me thinking of magical performances I had been fortunate enough to hear in the past, and which are etched in my memory for all time. I made a list, and here are just a few.

Claudio Arrau playing Brahms 2nd piano concerto at the Royal Albert Hall in the early 1960s. It was one of those occasions when time seems to stand still. I was right at the top of the auditorium, sitting on a newspaper on the floor, (no seats up in the gods!) but the sound seemed to resonate through the entire space, rising up from the ground through the piano, the pianist , the orchestra and the entire audience, so that we were all bound together in overwhelming, surging waves of sound.

Sviatoslav Richter at the Royal Festival Hall , giving a towering performance of Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata, an experience which left the audience in a state of shock. One felt one had been staring into the abyss!

I had the privilege of hearing Yehudi Menuhin at his best, in the early sixties, when he gave a special concert of unaccompanied Bach, in aid of a charity. (I forget which one.) The concert, at the Royal Festival Hall, began at midnight, and all the lights in the Hall were dimmed. It was an amazing and magical atmosphere, and the playing was inspired.

The legendary jazz pianist, Bill Evans, playing at Ronnie Scott's Club in the mid- 60s. I heard this great artist play on a number of occasions at the club, but one evening stands out in my memory, when Evans played with the most exquisite sounds and colours imaginable, especially in his beautiful pianissimo range. He was a strange and introverted man, and on this occasion rushed off the stage almost before the last notes had died away, never to return. He just vanished into the night!

At the same venue I can visualise, as clearly as if it were yesterday, the distinctive figure of another jazz great, Thelonius Monk, in the familiar hat and sunglasses which he always wore, playing,in a truly unique style, his classic number, "Round Midnight". Magic, indeed!

Another great occasion was nearly a disaster for me. Artur Rubinstein came to play at the Royal Academy of Music, when I was a student there. My mother had come up to London for this special occasion, and we were sitting on the stage, behind the piano, just a few feet away from the great pianist. The playing was enthralling, so much so that I stopped breathing! My mother, sensing that I was about to faint, showed great presence of mind, whipped her smelling salts out of her bag, and thrust them under my nose. This had the desired effect, disaster was averted, and I continued to enjoy the recital, but remembering to breathe!

(Rubinstein playing Chopin's Mazurka in A minor, Op.59, No.1)

I wonder what happened to smelling salts? My mother never travelled without hers, and I remember them being used on a number of occasions.

I am amazed to discover how many memorable performances I heard, and, talking to others of a certain age, I find that they too can recall many wondrous musical experiences. Are there fewer possibilities today of magic in the concert hall? I believe it may be so.