In April 2010, in the elegant sitting room of a large Victorian family home in north London, a young man, painfully shy and awkward, sat quietly composed at an antique Blüthner grand piano before proceeding to pull off a convincing, profound and highly polished performance of Chopin’s fourth Ballade. The day before I had played, somewhat tentatively due to anxiety, the C-sharp minor Étude from Chopin’s Opus 25. It was the first Chopin Étude I ever learnt, and the first time I had performed in “public” since my school days. Compared to the flamboyant Ballade, my effort seemed insignificant.
When the young man, whose name was Stephen, finished there was an appreciative silence from the tiny audience before the applause, the greatest accolade one can give a performer. I went home after the second day of what Alan Rusbridger in his book Play It Again calls “piano camp” – my piano teacher’s weekend course – inspired and terrified. Everyone else on the course was better than me, and Stephen, at just 17, was way, way ahead of the rest of us (I later learnt that he had only started playing the piano seriously at 14). On the last day of the course there was a concert for the participants, at which I played the Chopin Étude. When my teacher told me how well it had sounded, how much I had improved in the eighteen months since she first took me on, and turned to my husband to announce “Fran played really well today”, I burst into pathetically grateful tears, but when I got home, shattered after three days of intensive masterclasses and trying to remember what a Neapolitan Sixth was, I remembered Stephen’s Ballade. I Googled “piano diploma” and within two days I had downloaded the syllabus from Trinity College of Music: eighteen months later, I passed my Performance Diploma with Distinction, and felt I could claim to be “a Liszt player”.
Alan Rusbridger’s “piano epiphany” was similar to mine. At piano camp in the Lot Valley in France, he heard one of the other students play Chopin’s first Ballade in g minor, a performance notable for both its profound musicality and technical assuredness. Back home in London, Rusbridger decided he too would learn the first Ballade, in the space of just one year, but his hectic life as editor of The Guardian precluded lengthy practice sessions, so he set about learning it on only 20 minutes practising a day (if possible).
His new book, Play It Again, written in the form of diary extracts, charts not only his adventures with the Ballade, a project he likens to George Mallory attempting to climb Everest “in tweed jacket and puttees”, but also an extraordinarily busy year for his newspaper and the world in general: the year of the Arab Spring and the Japanese Tsunami, Wikileaks and the UK summer riots, and the phone hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Enquiry.
Chopin’s first Ballade is not some piffling little drawing room piece any old pianist can pick up and play. It is complex in its structure and meaning, physically and emotionally demanding, requiring advanced technique and musical understanding. It is a proper virtuoso work (as are the other Ballades), perenially popular with performers and audiences around the world. It is considered one of the high Himalayan peaks of the piano repertoire and is most definitely not for the faint-hearted. No right-minded pianist, whether student in conservatoire, professional, or advanced amateur, would set themselves the task of getting to grips with such a monster on anything less than two hours practice every day.
In the course of his study of the piece, Rusbridger meets other pianists, amateur and professional, who discuss their attraction to the piece and why it continues to hook them in. All the professional pianists he interviews (including Noriko Ogawa, Stephen Hough, Murray Perahia, Emmanuel Ax, the late Charles Rosen, and William Fong – Rusbridger’s tutor at piano camp) admit to learning the work as teenagers: its vertiginous virtuosity is a huge attraction for the young piano student, and the work often finds its way into end of year recitals in conservatoire, and diploma programmes. But the work continues to fascinate mature pianists as well.
Much of the book is a glimpse into Alan Rusbridger’s “practice diary”, his day-to-day responses to learning the piece. For the serious amateur pianist and teacher, Rusbridger’s analysis, virtually bar-by-bar, is very informative, but you would want to have a copy of the score beside you as you read. There is also plenty of useful material on how to practice “properly” – something Rusbridger has to learn almost from scratch – and how to make the most of limited practice time. Alongside this, we also meet piano restorers and technicians (Jeffrey Shackell, Terry Lewis) to peer into the rarefied world of high class grand pianos (Steinway, Fazioli), as well as neurologists (with whom Rusbridger discusses the phenomenon of memory), piano teachers, pianists all over the world who have played or are studying the piece (with whom Rusbridger connects thanks to the wonders of social media), other journalists, celebrities, politicians, dissenters, and Rusbridger’s friends and family. Rusbridger interweaves his journey into the heart of the Ballade with his daily travails at The Guardian, offering fascinating insights into his working life, at a time when the very future of British journalism was being called into question as a consequence of the News of the World phone hacking scandal.
Another aspect which comes across very clearly throughout is the pleasure of music making and its therapeutic benefits, for performer and listener, and the book is very much a hymn to this. Like the Ballade itself, the book hurtles towards its finale: will Alan learn the piece, memorise, and finesse it in time for the concert?
The final section of the book contains extracts from the score and insightful commentaries from top class international pianists, essential reading for anyone who wishes to study the work seriously.
This is an inspiring read for the competent amateur who aspires to play some of the “greats” of piano literature. The book is a celebration of the dogged persistence of the determined ‘amateur’ (in the French sense of the word – “a lover of….”), which will give hope and support to pianists seeking a challenge from new or more complex repertoire. The fact that Rusbridger pulled it off will doubtless inspire others to follow his example: I certainly hope so.