This, according to Albert Einstein, himself a competent amateur violinist, was the best approach to Bach’s music. Little did he know that the same approach would do wonders for today’s classical radio stations.
Broadening the scope of Einstein’s advice and following it would make our own BBC 3 infinitely better, though it would still fall far short of being good.
Yes, we’d be spared the gasping, inane, often illiterate comments the station’s announcers typically deliver with shit-eating mirth, as if it were all a knee-slapping joke. It would be a huge improvement if these utterly objectionable persons simply introduced a piece by saying, ‘Here is such-and-such performed by so and so,’ and then just played the damn thing.
Yet this couldn’t be more than a good start. For they’d still be in a position to decide what is played and by whom – so ultimately their ability to inflict harm, though diminished, wouldn’t be neutralised.
It would be almost bearable if those announcers simply suffered from a deficit of mind and taste. After all, these commodities, especially the second, are now so rare that expecting them from radio presenters would be bucking statistical odds, a bit like selling all one’s worldly possessions to buy a pile of lottery tickets.
The real problem is that their mindless, tasteless comments are proffered in the service of an ideology or, to be more precise, a subversive bias.
Much has been written and said, correctly, about the BBC’s political bias, but few have commented that the same bias, mutatis mutandis, pervades its cultural programming as well. In both areas the objective seems to be subverting anything that is traditionally associated with Western civilisation, be it in its political, religious or cultural manifestation.
Music is the prime target, for nothing else this side of Scripture expresses the transcendent nature of our civilisation with the same poignancy. Great composers, from Bach down, translate the metaphysical essence into physical notes, but these are merely a vessel. The contents are the drama, subtlety, noble spirit, grandeur, creative energy of the Western soul.
The greater the composer, the more powerfully are these attributes conveyed in his music. The greater the performer, the more precisely he interprets them for his listeners. Music is thus consummated in a threesome of composer, performer and listener – it isn’t just a literary document written down on a score sheet. If it were, we’d have not recitals but recitations.
How can a radio station ostensibly dedicated to promoting the West’s greatest artistic treasure, its music, undermine it? By 1) playing much inferior music 2) performed by grossly incompetent musicians and 3) indoctrinating the audience into believing that this is what music is all about.
I can’t vouch that this is indeed BBC 3’s aim, but one is hard-pressed to see what they’d do differently if it were. For example, every morning (and I only use them in lieu of an alarm clock) they have to play some demotic stuff, like the Khachaturian or Gershwin today.
I have nothing against mindless entertainment if done well, and works like The Sabre Dance or An American in Paris satisfy this requirement. They are still mindless entertainment and, as such, belong in some mindless-entertainment station, not the flagship of the BBC’s expedition into ‘culture’.
Gershwin in particular falls between two stools, that of jazz and that of real music. Hence his buttocks are securely planted on the floor of popular taste, and more power to him. Better Gershwin than rap. But playing his music in a slot that could otherwise be taken up by, say, a Schubert sonata contributes to the general diminution of aesthetic, and therefore spiritual, standards. That must be the intent, if only an unwitting one.
Speaking of Schubert sonatas, I’d have to qualify my previous statement. Such music can only be good for the soul if it’s played by a performer who has one. Such musicians are almost extinct these days, and some of BBC 3’s darlings are cases in point.
One of them is Paul Lewis who this morning regaled us with an anodyne, mechanical rendition of the scherzo movement from the Schubert B Flat sonata. The presenter’s subsequent gasps were emetically effusive, the smug self-satisfaction unmistakeable: job done. Another work of genius has been pulled down to the level where the masses weaned on easy listening can feel comfortable.
Lewis is on the wrong side of 40, so he can no longer plead youth as an extenuating circumstance. Another BBC pet, Benjamin Grosvenor, has this excuse, but nothing in his playing suggests that it’ll get better with age. In all likelihood it’ll get worse.
Young Ben treated us to his version of Chopin’s Scherzo in E Major, today evidently being the Scamp-the-Scherzo day on BBC 3. Like his older accomplice Paul, Ben is blessed with the kind of fleet fingers that’ll do any pickpocket proud. The mirthful woman presenter shared an insight that this gave his playing a ‘champagne-like effervescence’. Stale urine would be a more accurate simile.
All these youngsters slide over the surface of music, which means they don’t convey it all. For the pay dirt of real music lies underneath the surface, and digital dexterity alone, though a sine qua non, won’t carry a performer to that kind of depth.
Chopin, for example, can be played in any number of ways, but one thing that’s absolutely indispensable is to convey his noble, aristocratic spirit. To do so, the performer must have some of it himself – along with the other attributes I earlier listed as essential to our civilisation.
Grosvenor’s unmistakeable facility is just as unmistakeably facile – he isn’t, nor can be, at one with the music he plays. If he were, he’d know where, for instance, to play rubatos and where they sound vulgar. As it is, he reminds us that ‘rubato’ is a cognate of ‘rob’ – he robs Chopin of his beauty, vicariously committing the same larceny against our whole civilisation.
BBC 3 occasionally plays records of great musicians of the past, but inevitably adding snide comments, along the lines of Schnabel being ‘dated’ or Gould ‘eccentric’. They could do a great public service by explaining why all those Bens, Pauls, Imogens, Mitsukos and other cultural aliens wouldn’t be fit to turn the pages for those giants. After all, not every listener knows the difference between really good and digitally competent.
Alas, they themselves don’t know the difference. Or, which is more ominous, are deliberately trying to destroy what’s left of our civilisation. If so, they’re doing a good job.