Don’t shoot the piano player

Play It Again: an Amateur Against the Impossible - review.

A mysterious piano that washed up in Biscayne Bay, Miami
A mysterious piano that washed up in Biscayne Bay, Miami. Photograph: Getty Images

Play It Again: an Amateur Against the Impossible
Alan Rusbridger
Jonathan Cape, 416pp, £18.99

The Guardian editor and amateur pianist Alan Rusbridger is a man in search of a challenge. The opening pages of this memoircum- how-to-manual throb with wistful metaphors about climbing mountains and triumphing over hostile nature. But with the Matterhorn a tricky commute from the Guardian’s King’s Cross offices, Rusbridger must content himself with a rather more domestic enterprise: learning and performing Chopin’s Ballade No 1, a piece even the greatest professionals struggle to master. With just 20 minutes a day to spare for practice, and the small matter of WikiLeaks, phonehacking and a Libyan revolution to contend with, he sets off on an adventure into the musical unknown.

A self-confessed “archetypal amateur” who “returned to the piano in middle-age”, Rusbridger follows the well-trodden path back to the instrument of his youth. For this one-time chorister and clarinettist, musicality isn’t the issue so much as dogged, pedantic technique – the grunt-work that never quite happened way back when. Although dressed up in the trappings of Chopin’s Romantic excess, in many ways this is a quest for stillness and slowness. The juxtaposition of an hour spent adjusting the fingering of a single bar with the convulsions of “the first prolonged, rolling, real-time global scoop” is as absurd as it is telling.

What could be a navel-gazing study of self-growth emerges as a much more intriguing story about the value of amateurism. Rusbridger takes us through the social and political implications of 19th-century Hausmusik, where amateurs and professionals would regularly come together in a dialogue of equals, and explores the “cult of precision and perfectionism” that dominates our own age, in which the recording industry has largely replaced music-making with musicalready- made.

Chopin’s Ballade (which is, incidentally, the piece that saves Adrien Brody’s life in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist) takes many forms throughout the book – nemesis, stress-reliever, friendship-former – but, most interestingly, it’s also a mirror into which a cast of extraordinary and unlikely characters peer. Amateur musicians are seemingly everywhere in public life. Simon Russell Beale confesses to coming into rehearsals two hours early in order to practise on theatre pianos. Condoleezza Rice remembers time spent at music college and the therapy of playing Brahms in her hotel room while US secretary of state. And then there’s the New York Times’s architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman, whose amateur efforts were so serious as to get him to the final of the prestigious Van Cliburn piano competition.

There are professional musicians here, too. Faced with tackling this piece, Rusbridger enlists the advice of the finest practitioners. Emanuel Ax is endearingly humble and encouraging, Murray Perahia gets to the emotional core of the matter, while Barenboim is just Barenboim. An impromptu breakfast with the late musicologist Charles Rosen yields all manner of technical gems that even specialist publications would baulk at.

Rusbridger is a geek – unabashedly and exhaustingly fascinated by this music. He cares about fingering, arm-pressure and complex rhythmic divisions, and rarely takes pity on the casual reader. The book opens in a squall of narrative black notes. Surely no other writer would have been allowed to get away with ten pages of dense musical analysis upfront – as forbidding in sheer bulk as its technical language. Rather like the discourses on agricultural philosophy in War and Peace, however, such passages (and they are legion) can be skipped over without loss, and what remains is strangely gripping.

For all the breadth of his context on the Ballade, Rusbridger has no problem putting himself front and centre. We see him dashing to Libya at the height of the conflict to rescue a correspondent, and duelling with the increasingly eccentric Julian Assange. While the diary format can make for a fragmented narrative, it also allows the tensions of WikiLeaks, the phone-hacking scandal and subsequent investigation – “Six months of gradual crescendo then three weeks of total mayhem” – to build as if in real time.

In a nice closing touch, Rusbridger includes a scan of his own score at the end of the book, lively with the scrawled pencil scars and neuroses of 16 months of practice, tuition and performance. What is unacountably lacking, though, from one who never misses an opportunity to trumpet the multiplatform, digital future of media, is a document of his final performance. After months spent on the internet watching pianists in China, Australia and the US, creating a virtual global seminar-group of Chopin obsessives, it seems strange that Rusbridger should be content with just a verbal, rather than a musical, contribution to the conversation he himself started.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman’s classical music critic