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Life’s too short for ‘well-crafted’ pieces by musical mediocrities – and Handel

Of the 7,000 CDs on his shelves, Damian Thompson is trying to work out what really matters to him – it’s certainly not the symphonies of Niels Gade

15 October 2016

9:00 AM

15 October 2016

9:00 AM

There’s a folder in my computer’s external hard drive in which you’ll find 24 complete recordings of the Bach Cello Suites, 100 recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, 97 of his Sixth, 107 of his Seventh, 65 of Bruckner’s Seventh, 26 of Debussy’s La Mer, 44 Fauré Requiems, 25 Mozart Requiems, 79 Mahler Sixths and 45 Rachmaninov Second Piano Concertos.

That sounds as if I’ve moved beyond anorak collecting to compulsive hoarding; or maybe I have delusions of presenting Building a Library on Radio 3 (‘… but only Tennstedt, with his impulsive diminuendo, grasps that the second subject is tragically compromised by the shift to C sharp minor’).

Actually, I didn’t really collect them. Someone else did. All I had to do was wait for them to download; Bruckner, bless him, took a fortnight. Please don’t ask me where to find the files — if you want them badly enough, start searching online.

There’s surprising stuff in those files. Beethoven’s Fifth played by Peter Eotvos and Ensemble Modern, for example. A microscopic flourish of the oboes pops out of the speakers in the middle of a raging orchestral tutti; you wonder how on earth Eotvos can illuminate every detail. The answer is that he’s resorted to microphone trickery — and fair enough, since the result is a mind-blowing Fifth to rival Carlos Kleiber’s.

This monster haul didn’t cost me a penny. How exciting that would have been 20 years ago, when Tower Records charged 50 quid for the slimmest box set. But that was before I had approximately 7,000 CDs on my shelves or stored digitally… and when I still had time.


If I played my music non-stop, taking time out to sleep, it would take just over a year. That’s inevitably a rough guess, but what I do know — and this is the reason I’ve been thinking along such peculiar lines — is that if I live as long as my father then that takes me to December 2017.

In other words, my grotesquely swollen CD library has become a symbol of mortality — a reminder that I’ve already heard most of the music I’m ever going to hear, and most of that in a lazy, haphazard way.

So, a bit self-consciously, I’ve positioned a small armchair opposite the stereo and forbidden myself from reading anything except sleeve notes. The aim is to work out what really matters to me: to dig deep into my collection and then decide what recordings to take to a desert island or have buried with me as grave goods.

It’s a nightmare. Picking stuff at random doesn’t work — not if, like me, you went through a ‘completist’ phase of acquiring (for example) all the symphonies of Niels Gade (1817–1890). He was a Dane who mastered the deadly sub-Mendelssohnian fluency of so many 19th-century composers I collected. Life is now too short for ‘well-crafted’ pieces by mediocrities. Telemann and Boccherini produced the odd gem but you have to sit through an eternity of note-spinning to find them.

On the other hand, there’s room for mavericks touched by genius — Bach’s Bohemian contemporary Jan Dismas Zelenka, for example, or Havergal Brian, both of whom I’ve enthused about in these pages; maybe another Dane, Rued Langgaard (1893–1952), who wrote grandiloquent and endearingly potty symphonies in 19th-century pastiche.

Then there’s ‘great’ music that doesn’t do it for me. There are very few pieces by Handel that don’t make me wish I were listening to Bach instead. I’m giving up on him, which is a bit shameful — but not as bad as neglecting the 20-odd string quartets by Haydn that I know, from one or two hearings, can be a source of boundless delight.

Haydn’s lightness of touch distracts us from his genius. Like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, albeit less consistently, he wrote music that is ‘better than it can be played’, to quote Schnabel. I’d say the same of Bruckner, though in his case it’s the heaviness of touch that gets in the way.

Anyway, that’s my rule of thumb for armchair listening: music that is better than it can be played — or, to put it another way, music that yields fresh insights every time you hear a fine performance of it.

On Saturday, for example, I was at the first London Piano Festival to hear Charles Owen play three Bach keyboard partitas on the piano (not the solo harpsichord, thank God — that’s another ordeal I’m sparing myself from now on). His touch was translucent, the balance of dance and counterpoint well-nigh perfect. And he’s just recorded all six partitas on two CDs that I bought on the spot. As I say, the clock is ticking — so I really can’t wait to hear them.


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