Monday 19 September 2016

Roger Chesterfield: Dreaming of Schubert

Veteran record producer and music critic Roger Chesterfield encounters one of history’s greatest, and apparently crankiest, musicians.

I think what began as a late-evening snifter must have turned into two or more likely three, and before I knew it – bound volume of the 1957 Gramophone on my lap and snoozing dog at my feet – I drifted into that special slumber only the older bottlings of Highland Park seem to induce. Perhaps it was the fascinating article on exposition repeats in Schubert’s later works (The Gramophone, April 1957, p.44), but the glow of the fire beside me seemed to transform into a somewhat murky scene of an enticing gathering of people, cut through with a particularly splendid turn at the piano (Schubert’s Deutsch 960, if I’m not mistaken), somewhat beyond the range of my vision. And as I approached the congregation, I happened upon a smallish plump figure standing apart, looking on with an air of depression.

I must say, I spoke before really realising just who I was addressing, but as I uttered the words, I identified my interlocutor with nervous delight.

“I say, odd place for a party”, I blurted.

“Some party when one’s music is trashed with chat and giggles!” said the man with something approaching irritation, and as he turned, so appeared the face of Franz Peter Schubert himself! Somewhat dumbfounded, I stammered and stuttered a little and received a look shot through with ire for my efforts.

“Do you presume to add further to the barrage of nonsense currently destroying my greatest work for the keyboard?!”

I replied that I did not, and then, understanding that I might not have caught Vienna’s most unfairly unloved musical son at the best of moments, remembered that on meeting one’s heroes, it was wise to pose some pressing question while the opportunity remained.

“I say”, I began, “I suppose you might not be aware, but your music is rather more appreciated in my day than it ever was in yours” – a softer look and a nod now for the great man, which I took as progress – “but I wonder if I might ask just one thing. It’s always bothered me, you see, and Alfred Brendel says it’s acceptable, but is it really alright to forgo the exposition repeat in the B flat Sonata? I imagine Brendel is as qualified to say as anybody, but it just isn’t cricket…”

I trailed off, sensing from Schubert’s tightening features that the tricky matter of exposition repeats was not the fruitful topic of conversation it seemed at so many meetings of the editorial board of Historical Record Quarterly. The next words seemed to explode from his pursed lips with all the pent up bile of one subjected to an entire Lang Lang concert:

“One question. ONE QUESTION!” – shouting now – “and that’s your question?! Don’t you people have ANY sense of priority? Not “Oh, dear Franz Peter, why was your life so tragically cut short?” Or even “Oh, how ever did you plan to end the Unfinished”? No, just more of this inane obsession with repeats and dynamics, as if I didn’t already have to spend an eternity fielding endless such irrelevances from Johannes Brahms.”

There was, needless to say, a fairly grim atmosphere developing that even the fairly blunt Chesterfield social radar had no trouble detecting. I uttered some faltering apologies before he cut in, this time in a more conciliatory manner:

“No, no, the apologies should be mine. It isn’t unreasonable to ask, but, my friend,” – I liked that, liked that a lot – “does it really matter? Play the repeats, don’t play the repeats, it’s all still there in the score. And after all, it isn’t as though anyone can’t read the score, is it!” This didn’t seem the time to inform him of the twenty-first century’s lamentable levels of musical literacy. “It’s more important that you feel and think and listen than worry about whether everyone heard the exposition the first time around. This is exactly what I’ve been telling Brahms, but his brain seems to be diminishing in inverse proportion to the size of his beard. Oh dear, here comes the cloth-eared buffoon now."

This seemed a bit harsh, especially given my recent acquaintance with some of Brahms’s splendid but neglected choral works, but as the elderly figure shuffled in our direction, the vision of the gathering and of my young Viennese companion faded, robbing me of the chance to enquire about Brahms’s recent fortunes with Clara Schumann. With a start, I snapped out of sleep as the ’57 Gramophone struck the floor, waking both me and the dog. I wondered blearily if I should raise these thoughts on the always-controversial issue of repeats at the next Historical Record Quarterly editorial meeting. Given, though, that William Fitz-Tuckwell’s recent contention that applause might be appropriate between the first and second movements of the Emperor Concerto had very nearly ended in bloodshed, I reasoned that perhaps my own fireside encounter with Schubert might not be accepted as the last word on the matter.

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