Guest post by Adrian Ainsworth

I’m writing this piece on the birth date of my favourite composer, Schubert. Here’s to you, Franz. Has Schubert always been my favourite composer? No, not at all. I first got seriously into classical music through choral works, so from the outset Byrd and Pärt were vying for my affections. I found opera through Adams, Strauss and Wagner. When I realised that art song was the area of classical music that probably spoke to me the most, Schubert – perhaps inevitably – stole my heart. And once that led me onto his works for piano, that was it.

For now. He may no longer be with us, but that’s no excuse for getting complacent.

In a few weeks’ time, if the stars and technology allow, I’m due to take part in a podcast which usually focuses more on rock music. From listening to previous episodes, I know that the presenters – in the twin spirits of mischief and genuine enquiry – always ask guests to name the ‘greatest album ever made’. It’s a brilliantly, deliberately impossible question – the answer almost incidental, the interest lying in the reasons the guests give, the agony in making the choice and … crucially, their insistence on mentioning a few ‘runners-up’ as well. The other contenders, the ‘bubbling unders’… every bit as important a part of the story as the ‘winner’. I’m already having exquisite nightmares about it.

Lately I’ve been wondering why we choose to rank artistic endeavours in this way. There is clearly something innately competitive about we humans, presumably going back to our primitive hunting eras, but these days we have sport and business to take care of that impulse. You’d think we would keep the arts to one side as a refuge from all that. Especially since so many competitions in the industry – from Eurovision to the Oscars – are undertaken with the appropriate ironic self-awareness. The key word there is ‘industry’, I suppose: I can forgive a great deal of awards ceremonies and magazine polls if they provide the opportunity to raise the profile or – in other, less coy, words – generate more sales for musicians I admire.

This is something we try to do at ArtMuseLondon, of course. I chose my 20 ‘favourite discs’ from last year a few weeks ago, on this site. (And I’d done similar on my personal blog in previous years too.) It was difficult enough just choosing the 20 titles as a group, and I abandoned any idea of ranking them in a league table from top to bottom, more or less at the outset of the process. Instead, all 20 of them hold ‘first equal’, if you like, and I listed them alphabetically.

Why fall at the final hurdle? One answer is another question: well, what was I doing it for? I accept that the number of choices has to be finite, or the article would soon become a book. But after fixing that number – 20 – there is no sense to me that those titles are in competition. I wholeheartedly recommend them all, and want the artists who made them to reach more listeners, to do well. I hope people will identify from my descriptions what they might like, or better still, try out something that sounds completely new.

It also avoids the futile gesture of pitting different genres against each other. Even if you could say that the solo classical piano CD in your left hand is ‘better’ than the African jazz one in your right – what would be the point? Especially if you’re talking to someone who mostly listens to heavy metal.

But this preoccupation with whether A is ‘better’ than B is all-pervasive. It would be easy to make huge – and I mean huge – generalisations about where these attitudes really lie. Is it just ‘blokes’? There’s no point pretending that ‘mansplainers’, who make decrees about what it is and isn’t ok to like, don’t exist: of course they do. Is it just ‘geeks’? Most of us who are into any kind of current, creative endeavour will have encountered ‘fandom’, and seen how easily that can become gatekeeping, let alone something even more toxic.

But really, it’s in all of us. We’re a race of judges: you only have to look at the dominance of reality TV and the overwhelming number of shows that force an element of competition into anything. Singing. Dancing. Cakes. Pottery. Sewing. Grooming pets. For pity’s sake. Why do we do this to ourselves?

Some friends of mine offered some valuable thoughts on our rank impulses, if you will. One suggested that it is actually about our own parameters more than anything – it gives us a sense of order, helps us clarify our thinking and to some extent define ourselves: these are my likes and dislikes. Another speculated that it assists our search for validation, that we are looking for ways to reinforce our own opinions, whether in agreement or opposition to what we read.

I think these ideas are almost certainly both true: they may be coming from different angles but they highlight the fact that it’s all about us. Articles featuring lists or charts, or programmes with judging panels do so well, because we all want to see if we agree or disagree. It’s not about the people on stage, it’s about the argument we’re having in the bar. Those being listed or judged almost become bystanders in the process.

There is real harm lurking in this. Star ratings give me the chills, for a start. Why provide a review and then add an instant visual summary that, if anything, will save some the ‘bother’ of reading further? They are just bait, particularly for one-star ambulance-chasers. Ranking also links into that inescapable topic of ‘elitism’ that tends to haunt classical music. It isn’t just about numbers. Take, for example, that dreaded term ‘reference recording’ – that is, a version of a classical work that stands as a benchmark, on a pedestal until a better version knocks it off. It may have had its roots in practicality – people couldn’t go out and buy every recording of a work, so which should they choose? – but with streaming services there’s no longer any need for that. We can try before we buy.

It isn’t too much to suggest that this is also relevant to another hot topic: kindness. One thing that broadly sets classical music apart from most other genres is that, by and large, lots of different people record versions of many of the same pieces. This is an open invitation to compare and contrast: but is it necessary? Do we need to tell an enthusiastic performer that their version may be returned to occasionally but that it’s only around sixth in the pantheon? It might as well be Blur vs Oasis, for all that it helps. Many people who find classical music after following other genres are focused on artists, rather than composers, or musical forms. They need freedom to explore and settle on their own favourites, not follow someone else’s prescription. I’m encouraged by the increasing currency the term ‘album’ seems to be finding in classical music, rather than ‘recording’: to find musicians you admire who follow their own instincts, select a range of repertoire and take you on that journey with them is a great thing.

I’ve come to believe that to truly, successfully place the artists back in the spotlight, we need to take the ranking out of it and consign league tables and ‘best ever’ charts to the bin. My end-of-year round-up, I sincerely hope, is just that: 20 discs I think you should hear. No ‘number 1’, offering an excuse to disregard the other 19. No ‘number 20’ which, on some kind of mystically malicious scale, is measurably worse than the 19 above it. We, the writers, step back, and let the musicians find their own space.

Adrian Ainsworth is, by day, a copywriter specialising in plain language communications about finance and benefits. However, he spends the rest of the time consuming as much music, live or recorded, as possible – then writing about it, often on Specs, his slightly erratic ‘cultural diary’ containing thought pieces, performance and exhibition write-ups, playlists, and even a spot of light photography. He has a particular interest in art song and opera… and a general interest in everything else. Adrian is a reviewer for ArtMuseLondon and a regular guest writer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Twitter @Adrian_Specs

The first of a new series of occasional posts…..

I was given this album by a friend for my 40th birthday in autumn 2006. I thought turning 40 would be easy: I told myself it was “just a number” and that it had no real significance, that it was just another day in my life. In fact, my birthday coincided with a difficult period in my adult life, when I realised, with a shock, that the boundaries of one’s emotional life are not completely impermeable, and that being married does not make one immune to another person’s attention and admiration.

During the year of my birthday, I started playing the piano seriously again after an absence of over 15 years (in the preceding years I was busy getting married, setting up home, working in publishing and antiquarian bookselling, having a child, and I lost interest in the thing about which I cared very passionately when I was at school). Some of the first pieces I returned to were Schubert’s D899 Impromptus and the Moments Musicaux, pieces I had always liked, and attempted and played rather badly as a precocious teenager (my mother bought me the score after hearing Alfred Brendel play them – more about this here). Returning to the piano after such a long time away was very hard, yet it was gratifying to find pieces that had been carefully learnt in my teens had not been entirely forgotten and were still “in the fingers” (as a professional pianist colleague of mine said once “the body does not forget that easily” – and it’s true). At that time, I didn’t even have a piano: I was playing, and teaching, on a digital piano, which did the job, but had none of the subtlety nor refinement of an acoustic piano.

At the time of my birthday, I was doing a lot of reading about Schubert’s Impromptus, pretending this was “research” for my (still unpublished!) novel ‘Facing the Music’. (Looking back, I realise the writing and “research” was a kind of displacement activity, self-preservation against a tide of confusing emotions.) The Impromptus have a special significance for the hero of my book – a young concert pianist poised on the cusp of a brilliant career until the First World War cruelly intervenes – and each one connects him to particular people or events in his life. It is significant that in his first concert after the war is over he plays the Impromptus as a way of reaffirming these connections and celebrating life and love.

Of course, in reality these late piano pieces of Schubert, together with the D935 Impromptus and the final three sonatas, are the works of a man who almost certainly knew the end was near. Dying from (probably) syphilis, these works, composed during a remarkable outpouring of late masterpieces, display many emotions, from anger and defiance (the D958 Sonata in C minor) to resignation and valediction (the last Sonata in B-flat, D960). The Impromptus are in many ways miniature versions of these big works: full of variety, containing a broad sweep of emotions from the chillingly bare G which opens the first of the D899 set to serenity of the third in G-flat and the final, life-affirming cadence in A-flat major of the fourth Impromptu.

The Fantasie in F minor, D940, which opens «Resonance de l’Originaire», was composed in 1828, the last year of Schubert’s life, and is written for four hands (two pianists at one piano). It has a four-part structure, not unlike a sonata, but the “movements” run into one another with stylistic bridges between each. Schubert had already explored the Fantasy form in his Wanderer Fantasie D760, a bravura work full of heroism and energy. By contrast, the opening motif of the D940 is elegaic and wistful, a distant horn call accompanied by murmurings in the lower register. In the hands of the pianists on this recording, the mood is melancholy, almost desperately tragic, yet tinged with great tenderness. Typically of Schubert, the mood soon takes a volte face with a new, more hopeful motif in the lower register, and throughout the work there are contrasting shifts of mood from poignant and heart-rending to dramatic, longing, intimate, charming and dance-like, and characteristic shifts between minor and major. The textures, shared between the two pianists, give the work an inner richness, and the reprise of the first theme is a touching reminder of the work’s underlying sadness.

This piece has, on occasion, reduced me to tears, not least for its connection to my emotional crisis mentioned above. When I was fortunate enough to hear it performed live by the artists on this disc, during Maria Joao Pires’ memorable Wigmore Hall residency in 2007, I think I wept throughout the entire performance, moved not only by the music itself, but also the fact that I was in the presence of an artist whom I greatly admired and respected (and continue to).

The other work for four hands on this double cd recording is the Rondo in D951, which provides a delightful salve after the emotional impact of the D940. Maria Joao Pires also plays one of the earlier sonatas, the genial D664 in A, while Ricardo Castro opens the second disc with the D784 in A minor, which shares some of the same emotional territory as the D940 in its sombre opening statement and dramatic Beethovenian gestures throughout the first movement. The final work on the disc is the Allegro in A minor, D947 “Lebensstürme”, also for four hands.

Musically and emotionally Pires and Castro seemed conjoined in the works for four hands on this album, while Pires’ solo performance in the Sonata in A is tender and delicately shaded. (This was more than borne out in their live performances at the Wigmore in 2007.) I haven’t listened to this recording for a long time: for a while, I found it just too painful, but when I decided to launch my new series ‘Music Notes’, it was the one thing I knew I wanted to write about. Listening now, with the benefit of 8 years of hindsight, life experience, this blog, two music Diplomas under my belt, a thriving and popular piano teaching practice, my concert and exhibition reviewing, and many other exciting and stimulating musical and writing activities, I have enjoyed the album for what it is: a sensitive and passionate reading of some of Schubert’s finest music for piano.

Maria Joao Pires returns to the Wigmore Hall later this year for a series of ‘Artist Portrait’ concerts to mark her 70th birthday.