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I could be dead soon. What should I listen to?

Damian Thompson wonders whether he has time to appreciate Suk's Asrael Symphony or Hindemith's Mathis der Maler

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

If I live as long as my father, I’ll be checking out on 9 December 2017. Since every man in my family drops dead of a heart attack at a ridiculously young age, it’s not inconceivable. I mean, obviously the chances of me dying on precisely that day are tiny, but it’s my ballpark figure.

This faces me with big questions. Given that I’m probably croaking soon anyway, should I try smack? (I mean, try it properly: the only time I was handed a heroin pipe, by a professor, I was far too scared to inhale.) Do I need to worry about my miserably empty pension pot? Is there a God? And if there is, should I stop being so monstrously selfish? Big questions, as I say, but I still shunt them to the back of my mind.

What I can’t ignore is the memento mori of my 3,000 classical CDs. Music obsesses me: you should hear the chorus of ‘Goodness me! Is that the time?’ if I raise the subject at a dinner party. But, as the shadows lengthen, I’ve been feeling guilty about the laziness of my listening. There must be so many fine works — Josef Suk’s Asrael symphony, for example — that I may have already heard for the last time without realising it, and without having absorbed them properly in the first place. Bad musical hygiene, you might call it.

Clifford Curzon
Clifford Curzon Photo: Getty

Because classical music is my one unfeigned enthusiasm, I feel this weird moral obligation creeping over me: to prioritise my listening so I can go to my death…well, screaming for a priest, probably, but also satisfied that I didn’t overlook music that could have enriched my life. (‘Enriched’ is a ghastly word but it’s the best I can do. To quote the old epigram, ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’.)

I’m playing with listening strategies in my mind. Number one: revisit the lesser-known treasures of the western canon. The aforementioned Asrael (1906), written in shock at the deaths of Suk’s father-in-law Dvorak and his wife Otilie, is so mournful that, when I first encountered it at a Prom, I lost the will to live. The second time I heard it, the rustling delicacy of Suk’s orchestration made the desolation more poignant, less dreary. I bought Libor Pesek’s recording with the Liverpool Philharmonic and thought, ‘This deserves my full attention.’ Which it never got. The same goes for the symphonies of Vaughan Williams and most of the cantatas of J.S. Bach — splendid music whose only drawback is that deep appreciation requires hard work.

So I could remedy that situation, or try a second approach: one final grand immersion in masterpieces that have been companions for my entire adult life. We’re talking about ‘music better than it can be played’, as Schnabel put it. Bach’s Art of Fugue; Haydn’s greatest string quartets; Mozart’s later piano concertos; all of late Beethoven; Schubert’s String Quintet; Chopin’s Polonaise-fantaisie; Wagner’s Parsifal; the Ninth Symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler. I cannot listen to these works too often, or own enough interpretations of them. But how often do I follow the scores? I can read music so there’s no excuse. We’re back to laziness again.

Then there’s a third strategy: leave my comfort zone and explore works I’ve never heard even once. Strauss’s Elektra. Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Hindemith’s symphony Mathis der Maler. The hymns of Hildegard of Bingen. Sorabji’s four-hour piano piece Opus Clavicembalisticum (though I did once manage the first hour). Anything by Harry Partch, an American hobo-turned-composer who made his own instruments. Who knows what I might discover? Then again, I wouldn’t have time to listen to new recordings of familiar repertoire by young artists such as Francesco Piemontesi and Yevgeny Sudbin who, I’m convinced, are leading us into a new golden age of piano playing.

It’s time to make my mind up. ‘Music is consolation for living,’ said Sir Clifford Curzon, and last week I acquired a CD of him playing Schubert’s Impromptus — music I’ve known since childhood — with a simplicity that nearly made me cry. (Critics referred to it as his ‘second simplicity’, the sort that requires miraculous control of dynamics and a modesty of spirit granted to very few performers.) So, on balance, I think I’ll continue searching for performances that refresh and illuminate the supreme achievements of the Austro–German tradition. There’s no sense of duty, of going through the motions, when I play a recording of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B flat, D960 or Wotan’s farewell from Die Walküre. This is music that offers consolation not just for living but also for dying — with the odd exception. All things considered, I’d rather not listen to the unsteady throbbing of the cellos and horns at the beginning of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, which depicts the arrhythmia of the heart condition that was to kill him at the age of 50.


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