About 30 years ago, not long before he died, my father bought an LP of Sir Clifford Curzon playing Schubert’s last piano sonata, in B flat D960. He was slightly defensive about the purchase. You see, he already had a record of Alfred Brendel playing the same piece. ‘It’s a bit of an extravagance,’ he said, ‘but I think in this case it’s worth it.’
Of course it was worth it! First, the B flat sonata touches the sublime in almost every bar. I was so lucky that, thanks to my father’s impeccable taste, it was one of the first pieces of classical music I got to know after we bought our first stereo in the early 1970s. Second, Curzon’s reading is the perfect foil to Brendel: while the Austrian relishes the sonata’s architecture, the Englishman finds in it a reticent and delicate spirituality.
I wish I could say that my father and I listened to the two versions together, comparing the interpretations; alas, we didn’t have that kind of relationship. A few years ago, however, I organised a blind tasting of my recordings of D960 for a music buff friend. We sampled Schnabel, Kempff, Curzon, Richter, Brendel, Barenboim, Lupu, Schiff, Rangell, Hough and Kovacevich (though not Annie Fischer, Sofronitsky, Horowitz, Södergren, Uchida, Andsnes or Stadtfeld, because those I’ve acquired more recently). And he chose Curzon — not the familiar studio recording but an even more delicate and not entirely secure live performance from the Salzburg Festival.
I can hear my father snorting. What self-indulgence! No one needs that many recordings! Typical Damian, ‘using music like a drug’, as he once put it. But he died before compact discs came on to the market; he couldn’t have foreseen how fabulously cheap classical music would become during the long twilight of the CD. When he bought that Schubert LP, it cost him £40 in today’s money. For that price you can now buy 24 discs of Curzon’s complete Decca recordings.
‘Using music like a drug.’ That stung because it was true: I’d let it wash over me, anaesthetising my hangovers. Since then I’ve improved my musical hygiene. I try to give CDs my full attention. Schubert’s B flat sonata contains ideas so potent that owning 15 good performances allows you to view it from 15 different angles — a privilege no previous generation has enjoyed. Last week I picked up a recording by Valery Afanassiev, a little-known Russian who lingers perversely over passages, terracing the dynamics in a manner that suggests a transcription of Bruckner. It’s a Marmite performance and I love it.
So I’m not ashamed of owning multiple versions of great works. The problem is that I also collect CDs just for the sake of it. I have God knows how many dull symphonies by Haydn, for example — Michael Haydn, that is, who was Peter Hitchens to Joseph’s Christopher. When you’ve heard one, you’ve basically heard them all. Likewise, am I ever going to explore those angular and charmless Hindemith concertos?
When I was researching a book on addiction, an expert told me: ‘Men disguise their shopping problem as “collecting”. Foraging and organising purchases become more important than consuming them.’ How true. I was thrilled when, visiting the legendary Amoeba Records in Los Angeles last year, I found a boxed set of the symphonies of the fine Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen. But not thrilled enough, so far, to play them. They are, however, meticulously labelled in my iTunes library. (Many internet porn addicts are the same: it’s the collecting urge, as much as sexual compulsion, that leads them to download thousands of images, most of which they barely glance at.)
At the heart of addiction lies the replacement of people by things. I have twice as many CDs as I had a decade ago — maybe 3,000 — and half as many friends. This wouldn’t be so depressing if all my spare time was spent listening to music: I certainly don’t regret the evenings I devoted last week to my current obsession, Parsifal. But the OCD-style hunting and reshuffling of discs is another matter.
There’s a solution, of course: concerts — a human encounter even if you go on your own. Like all addicts I’m reluctant to take the first step, but fortunately I have a marvellously intuitive sister. Her Christmas present to me was a voucher for concerts at Cadogan Hall — ‘because you need to get out more’. So that’s my New Year’s resolution. Apart from anything else, I need reminding that, compared to CDs, live music-making is far more likely to leave you punching the air with excitement. Or, to put it another way, it’s a pure hit compared to digital Methadone. My first concert of 2014 is the day after tomorrow. And, in the meantime, some Michael Haydn CDs are looking for a good home.