I first learned about Play It Again, Alan Rusbridger’s account of his quest to learn Chopin’s great Ballade No.1, from Robert Winter’s recent review in the New York Review of Books. It’s a convincingly positive review, which is why it sent me out to get the book, but as I worked through Play It Again I found myself thinking that Winter had oversold it. The book does contain lots to interest, entertain, and inspire anyone who has ever puttered away at a keyboard. (As I’ve written about here before, that includes me.) But it’s also formally slapdash, with related information — such as the rich analyses of the Ballade gleaned from conversations with a slew of great pianists, including Murray Perahia, Alfred Brendel, Daniel Barenboim, and Emanuel Ax, or meditations on the value and beauty of amateurism, or on the effects of the recording era on classical music, or about the neuroscience of music and memory — scattered across a relentlessly chronological and surprisingly dull (considering Rusbridger’s job) account of his day-to-day activities. (Rusbridger is the Editor in Chief of The Guardian. To be fair, the non-musical bits might be of greater interest to someone keen to get an insider’s view of things like the phone-hacking scandal.) Winter describes it as “a limp diary format” and rightly notes that “the parts themselves provide little structural mooring.” But later he seems to excuse it, calling it “a conceit, a stream-of-consciousness platform for exploring the challenges of remaining human in a world that moves at the speed of Twitter.” I think that’s putting it kindly, if not grandiosely: to me, the “conceit” felt more like laziness, as if Rusbridger was not willing or able to put in more than 15 minutes a day on his book any more than on the Ballade — though there’s no doubt that the book reflects his genuine passion for music and his remarkable dedication to the Quixotic project of learning a piece Perahia warns him is “one of the hardest pieces in the repertoire.”
Winter also notes that “it is the author’s journey rather than his destination that we remember”: I didn’t think the journey was very compellingly told (again, a real narrative rather than a bit-by-bit accounting would, for me, have been more satisfying), but I also think Winter’s assessment may reflect a marketing trend as much as anything, that is, the apparently widespread preference for the personal angle (see recent related discussions at Wuthering Expectations). I didn’t really mind following Rusbridger’s journey, but one reason the destination is not very memorable is that he doesn’t in fact triumph (his final performance is OK, but not by any means flawless or inspired, by his own report), and a lot of what we hear along the way is kind of dull reiteration of his difficulties with one passage or another (“The section that still falls apart a bit is the big A major / E major section” etc.). The real substance is everything he learns around the project, and I ended Play It Again thinking that there must be other books that do a better job synthesizing and narrating this kind of information and offering more insight. In fact, Rusbridger’s own list of “Further Reading” gives me a few ideas, including Charles Cooke’s Piano for Pleasure. I’m also reminded that I’d meant to look up Charles Rosen’s Music and Sentiment, brilliantly reviewed by Greg Waldmann in Open Letters Monthly a couple of years ago. And Tom at Wuthering Expectations reminds me that Wayne Booth also wrote about his own efforts as an amateur cellist: I’ve put his book, For the Love of It: Amateuring and Its Rivals, on request at the library.
One effect Play It Again had on me (besides making me wonder if I shouldn’t do a little practising this summer) was to make me pay much more attention to the Ballade: I’ve been listening to it a lot, including while I tried to follow along the annotated score that is my favorite part of Rusbridger’s book (he includes many of the specific comments made about the piece by the pianists he interviews). I’ve always thought it was a spectacular piece, but it’s not until you imagine trying to play it, or watch someone else physically engaged in it, that you appreciate just what a daunting thing it is. There are a lot of recordings of the Ballade on YouTube but not a lot of them are videos, and I love to be able to watch the pianist’s fingers. (After a childhood of always being reminded about this, it is an ingrained habit for me to sit on the left side of any theater, even when no piano is on the program!) Here’s Vladimir Horowitz in a bravura performance.