14 March 2007


To Hatchlands as the guest of RCV to enjoy a recital of Elgar songs and piano music on the composer's own instrument, played by David Owen Norris and sung by Amanda Pitt. The main purpose of this visit is to talk about providing funding from what I have started calling The Nameless Music Charity, and Elgar's sesquicentenary is surely a perfect excuse for doling some out.

There is something extra-special about an afternoon spent at a large country house, picnicking in the grounds before taking a seat in the music room for a recital, rather than being caged in the Goldfish Bowl where no sunlight penetrates and the air conditioning often produces a tropical micro-climate. The music is superb, and superbly performed, at least to my increasingly unpractised ear. Elgar's old square Broadwood piano, dating from 1844, doesn't exactly fill the room with sound - a slightly newer Steinway grand, also used, does better at that - but it's great to hear Sea Pictures in the key in which he originally wrote it (it was transcribed to accommodate Clara Butt, for whom it was written), on the instrument on which they were composed, and in an environment in which no nuance is lost. I heard the orchestral arrangement at the Proms a few years ago, and that was enjoyable enough, but this is a different experience altogether - Amanda Pitt has a fantastic range and a lovely tone, and the quiet passages in some of the songs come across in a way that would not be possible in a bigger auditorium.

Two thoughts: first, though I don't like to admit it, I enjoyed this much more than the Stanford songs on Saturday, which somehow lacked the depth and melodic inventiveness of the Elgar - so much vocal writing seems to declaim a poem, or worse still some banal set of words specially dreamt up to make a song, often (the worst case) by the composer; and second, there is so much music in the world. David played five improvisations by Elgar, which had been recorded (he suggested that the composer had turned up at the Queen's Hall with a bucket of hot wax), then presumably transcribed. Nice pieces they were too, but do we need them? Do we need but a small fraction of the music that's available? Do we need an original version of Sea Pictures? The answer is probably not, in each case, but the world is a better place for having them. I am just regretting that I will never become familiar with even a tiny part of all the music on offer.

Elgar's career spanned the switch from sheet music to recordings, of course, and much of what he wrote would have been aimed at amateur pianists at home and in urban salons and the music rooms of great country houses. Perhaps instead of bemoaning the impossible wealth of music I cannot experience I should concentrate on learning to play some of it. In other words, time for a third start at learning the piano!

Afterwards, I have a brief conversation with David (who I confirm is indeed wearing a stud in the top of one ear) and then am privileged to have a conducted tour of the Cobbe Collection, where RCV worked for several years doing guided tours. There's enough keyboard instrument history to overwhelm anyone: this instrument was found, during restoration, to bear the signature CPE Bach, and was almost certainly played by Mozart; on this one Chopin gave his last performance; that one belonged to Mahler (who like Elgar worked on an old and therefore presumably cheap instrument - our own upright therefore forms part of a distinguished pattern), and it has added lead weights on the lower hammers.

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