THE PIANO: A LOVE AFFAIR
Unseasonably early summer weather has led to an unseasonably early TV news silly season. Thus a grand piano falling out of a lorry makes prime time news bulletins. It’s a sad state of affairs when this admittedly comic diversion is the only time an instrument that’s shaped western art music, and dramatic art, and therefore of all the lively arts as we know them, makes it onto the box. But we’re the British. We hate music, and Classic FM is the proof. Except for occasions like this beautiful documentary when anyone with anything better than a tin ear thinks there might be hope.
Tousled amateur ivory-tickler Alexander Waugh, blowsy and blustery but never overbearing is as untidy as an unmade bed, as someone once said of the late Northamptonshire cricketer Colin Milburn. He also plays piano very well. This documentary shone like a diamond because among other things it revealed, slowly and lovingly, that there is a duple meaning to the phrase ‘playing the piano”. There is playing the piano. And Playing The Piano. The dichotomy between the two equates roughly to the duties of a Sunday League park stopper and Johann Cruyff.
Without wishing to overdo the Romantic Genius angle here, one requires talent, the other a gift. Waugh, who took his pianistic beginnerliness on the chin with a modesty whose naturalness is alien to TV, was made to look like a pygmy. And not just once, but severally, most of all by the super-virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin. No Simon Cowell, he.
The programme’s theme was not classical’s formal technique versus the rest; just the wealth of musical depth in the piano itself. There are 88 notes on a standard concert grand; there are innumerable directions for dynamic interpretation in any given piece (Scriabin and Busoni are particularly demanding). The physical and intellectual demands thereupon can, for most people, only be guessed at. Playing the piano is a Serious Business. A child prodigy whose technical facility is so great that if it doesn’t contravene a law it bloody well should do said to Waugh that it was all about practise.
Waugh knows this. The programme knew it too. That the BBC will even consider the concept of giftedness or cleverness or hard work is unusual in itself. This is Difficult. It is not Accessible, and therefore programmes about it are to be avoided.
That this little gem of a programme conveyed these complicated and esoteric concepts so economically, with such visual appeal and such intelligence meant we saw documentary TV near the top of its form; one could even forgive the inclusion of the liberal press’s excuse for a pop intellectual, Damon Albarn. The Piano’s Bronowskian presumption of a cultural literacy among its audience was refreshing. The camera caressed the instruments Waugh encountered, from a stand-up joanna in a Sheffield street to the priciest Fazioli – but it never fetishised them.
It adopted a pleasing tone in which Waugh describing himself as ‘a bit of an arse’, and spitting out expletives while trying to master a Godowsky transcription of Chopin, sounded entirely unaffected. Yes, people do say ‘oh fuck’ if they split notes in cascades of double octaves. People do make tits of themselves playing dummy keyboards in public in the manner of Joseph Cooper c.1977 in Face The Music. In 2007, this reviewer calls making such a great programme out this material a major achievement. Even Jools Holland comes across well. How major is that?
There were unnecessary occlusions of the middle-classness of it all; Waugh is posh, openly disdains rock’n roll (although he doesn’t go so far as to punch Albarn in the face, despite what seems to have been great provocation) and is seen playing tennis on a sunbaked lawn, chopping costly celery in an agreeable kitchen, which suggests that the whole exercise of pianos and culture is that of the leisured classes which those who knew Britain’s greatest joanna man, John Ogdon, will strenuously deny.
Any producer with a decent budget would have pushed to make a series out of this fabulously lavish subject, taking a Panglossian hobbyist through the keyboard from fortepiani through the technical transformations of the era of the great virtuosi like Liszt, the idea of rubato, taking in Scott Joplin’s ragtime tunes, Fats Waller, stride style, Art Tatum (‘the black Horowitz’ as he was known in the US), 20th century teaching methods, archive footage of Rachmaninov and Schnabel, the jazz digressions of Cecil Taylor and Keith Jarrett, the art of transcription, how piano technique can so rarely be transferred to electronic keyboards, why so few classical musicians can swing…
Waugh is eloquent on the monumental richness of the piano (most of the operatic and symphonic masterpieces of the last 200 years from Beethoven onwards were conceived at the keyboard – Wagner and Liszt’s use of dynamics influenced late 19th-century drama and early cinema). The very fact that this jolly, colourful little show manages to cram even one-sixteenth of all this in is a credit to all involved in what is without question the best programme on serious music to be shown since Howard Goodall’s 2001 Channel 4 exposition of the history of the organ. Devotees of art music of any kind will have sighed with relief – “Good God, they’re still making programmes like this.” Hurrah for them.
They said of the US-born virtuoso Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) that he made the ladies faint with his playing. Agents for Liszt and Anton Rubinstein, two other 19th century piano men, made similar nudge-wink claims. I didn’t need the smelling salts, but I maybe saw the best TV documentary made so far this year.