Notes on a Grade Five musical mind

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The Independent Online
WHEN IT comes to the art of music, I know my limitations very well - I'm a Grade Five sort of person. Not that I could actually sit down and play you something Grade Five now, at the drop of a hat, just like that. What I'm saying is that given, say, a couple of years' notice, if I really went at it, that's where I'd get.

Beyond Grade Five, where things begin to pick up, is a world of pure frustrated aspiration. This is a world I would watch other children entering, and I would be forced to conclude: they have it and I have not and that's that.

You suffer these disappointments at an early age. You turn away from music. You give it up. It reminds you of your limitations. And then, because of course, you do like music, you go back to it in some roundabout way. You try another instrument. You start listening more. You start buying recordings.

And then, if you're like me, you begin to notice that even as a consumer of music, you are irredeemably Grade Five. The record collection does not progress. You do not seek out the most interesting concerts. Your musical education does not advance in the way it should, given the opportunities all around you.

And when you are at a concert in a serious venue with a serious performer, you know that a large part of the audience is comprised of people who really do appreciate the finer points of artistry. Nor are their minds wandering irreverently the way your mind wanders. Suppose the audience is ecstatic, you will no doubt pick up on the ecstasy, and partake of it, but it won't necessarily be your own original ecstasy.

I know the limits of my musical perceptions because, very often, I will invite people to lunch on a Saturday, which means a pleasant morning pottering around the kitchen listening to Radio 3; to long discussions about the merits of certain performances. One is invited to think of oneself as a person who is 'building a library' of CDs and doing so with discrimination.

I can go along with this enthusiastically for as long as I am chopping vegetables; indeed, it is really one of the most pleasant parts of the week: the smell of the roast, the familiar, simple tasks performed in their logical order, and the sense that, drip by drip, certain discriminations are being imparted, perhaps, or an admiration for recordings made long ago and never, in their particular way, surpassed, reverence for certain conductors.

But there comes a point when the meal is prepared, or as good as, and all the vegetables chopped, and maybe somebody has arrived, and at this point all the discriminations vanish from my head. I never know what the recommended recordings turn out to be, and I have never bought a recording as a result of listening to 'Building a Library'.

What I have acquired, on the other hand, is a sense of what a discriminating mind might be like and what it wouldn't be like. It wouldn't be such a prey to craze and impulse. It wouldn't have bought four CDs of Alkan before stocking up, on, say Schumann. It wouldn't have bought church music merely for its curious titles, such as the Earthquake Mass or the Mappa Mundi Mass, lovely though these turned out to be.

There is discriminating collecting, and there is another thing - a sort of neurotic lunging in the direction of some class of object. Suddenly I've decided to commit myself to buying all the Hanover Band's Haydn symphonies. And I know in great part this is because I like the idea of an orchestra that calls itself the Hanover Band. Also, I seem to like recordings on the Hyperion label. Such are the considerations that weigh with me.

A great musical experience, if I am to describe it honestly, is a compound of all kinds of musical and non-musical elements. One of them might be, for instance, luck. The other day, by chance, I arrived in Geneva. 'It's madness here,' they said in the hotels. 'If you want a room, you'd be better off in Lausanne.' But by luck, I found a baddish, cheap room in a baddish hotel. I was delighted with it. Then I saw a poster for the opera. They were performing Boris Godunov that night, and, as it turned out, there were three tickets left, perhaps the worst seats in the house. I bought one. I was delighted with my cheap ticket. I thought: 'If the production is dreadful, I shall walk out in the interval without any compunction.'

Then I noticed that, opposite the opera house, there was a park, the Promenade des Bastions. Again, I was delighted. The trees of Switzerland seemed, on that day, extraordinarily fine. Perhaps, they always are. It must be the rainfall. Now a meal was needed, and it struck me that the restaurant beside the opera would obviously be full. But still . . . The head waiter gave me a look that said: 'You have a Grade Five musical mind.' But there was one table left, the worst in the restaurant, and I was thrilled with it. It was in a bustling corridor at the back.

The bad room, the bad ticket, the beautiful trees and now the bad table seemed to be part of a chain of extraordinary luck. A modest opera at the end of it would have been quite enough to round things off.

But as soon as I bought the programme I realised that it was going to be quite something. I knew the names of two of the singers] And not only that. I had one of them on record and one in my collection of CDs. The chain of luck did not end there. This was not Boris Godunov as normally performed in the Rimsky-Korsakov arrangement, nor even the 1872 version (as I was informed). But this was the opera as originally written in 1869, and turned down for performance. It was a collector's piece]

The further I read in the programme notes, in the interval and afterwards in a deserted cafe, the more pleasure I got. For there was not only my pleasure at the music I had heard. There was also the theoretical, the hypothetical pleasure that might have been had by all those voices on Radio 3, the 'Building a Library' buffs, the ones who would dearly have liked to have been in Geneva that night but who couldn't because they were due in Broadcasting House at dawn the next day to record their Saturday piece.

Top-Grade Musical Mind: 'With me, to discuss the celebrated Geneva performance of the 1869 version, is a Fellow Top-Grade Mind. Fellow Top-Grade Mind, would you say that this was a complete revelation?'

F T-G M: 'Yes indeed I would say it was a revelation. Indeed I'd go further and say . . .'

Their voices come back to me, voices of happy Saturday mornings; enlightening, discriminating. And now the carrots are done and the potatoes are scrubbed. My musical education has moved forward about four paces. Then it moves back again, about three.

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