GOODBYE DENMARK ROAD
Most Mancunians think Old Trafford is the theatre of dreams, but there was another candidate for pointy headed music lovers – a converted cinema in Denmark Road where the University Faculty of Music put on its concerts up to 2003. It was here I watched the Lindsays for ten years. Odd verb I agree but that’s what one says, and, in Denmark road there was always as much to see as to hear, and dream of too since nothing provokes reverie like the public performance of music.
The last Lindsay concert at Denmark road was April 4 2003. At the same time the Lindsays announced their retirement in 2005. Perhaps they are getting a bit past it. They will be around sixty in 2005. Pete Cropper does look at bit shagged out these days and a few years earlier he had a heart attack after much to-ing and fro-ing down to Michael Tippet’s place to practice his last quartet which they premiered. But he always did throw himself about – writhing and reeling, face contorted, mouth agape. Christ! one thought occasionally, if he’s like this playing the K464 what the hell’s he like on the nest! Perhaps Pete should remember he’s a violinist and not a violin. CD reviewers used to say his snorting and stamping were a distraction (but they put up with Glenn Gould singing along to Bach’s Goldberg Variations). Recently the racket has quietened down but maybe so has the passion. The same reviewers agreed the late 80s Beethoven cycle was among the best available but criticised Pete for his wiry tone. He does play a Strad but he can make it whine. The Lindsays were taught by Sandor Vegh – the leader of the legendary Vegh Quartet who probably did produce the finest Beethoven ever. My friend Malcolm never rated the Lindsays and only turned up a few times, once with Beryl, his married girlfriend. But then he also thinks Brendel is a self-propagandising charlatan who has somehow managed to bamboozle the critics, and that all French music is shite. Pete now has a much creased face but also a thick thatch. There are contradictory signs of age and youth. When he opens his mouth a surprisingly mellow sonority comes forth; it could be Paul Schofield playing Lear. Normally they don’t say anything but one night when their usual gesture to formality, colour co-ordinated shirts, came awry with Pete’s appearance in off-white, he announced “Who forgot to pack his shirt?” How we larfed!
Ronnie Birks, the second violin, had a brain tumour. But the band played on doing trios and duets. Ron, who resembles Solzhenitsyn with his black beard and baldness, reappeared after several anxious bulletins with a visible dinge in his head. Ghouls had their curiosity assuaged by Ronnie’s deferential bows to their applause. I expected some excitable clappers to shout, as Ron bowed once more, “Hold it Ronnie! Keep your head up! Watch your brains don’t fall out!” One is reminded of another member of University staff Ted Dawson who claimed to have seen his own brain. They took the top of his head off with a local anaesthetic to monitor his responses to probing. He asked for a mirror. A few years later he shot himself after his young girlfriend gave him up. Malcolm thinks he too has brain problems but these fears are blurred by the difficulty of diagnosis. Assuming a brain tumour can mimic any mental or physical disability could there be a specific tumour which prevents one having the idea “I have a brain tumour”? And therefore wouldn’t the anxious speculation that I might have just that tumour be proof positive that I haven’t? Yes, the self-referential paradox can be fun; ask Russell and Frege.
It was the crabby kraut critic Hans Keller, the man who said Mendelssohn died too late, who claimed there was no such thing as a viola player. Up to the twentieth century they were simply violinists who happened to play the viola. Robin Ireland does nothing to support the notion that the violist is a specialist. The Lindsays started out with another viola player and then Robin was imported. Up to then he’d played with a group called Domus who produced some very fine recordings of Faure’s piano quartets. Robin looks younger than the others, his complexion is rubicund and his hair is long blond and thick. Wrinkles have not yet got a significant hold on his chubby face with its jutting round chin and cheekbones. But towards the end his hair became thinner, slightly greyer, and, most ageingly, tied in a pony tail. Pete, Ron and Bernard (cello) could be normal geezers, plumbers or electricians, but Robin? He’d have to be a fiddle player. What a time he’d have in some strange barber’s chair. “You’re next Paganini. Want a bow on it? And what do you do for a livin?”
Bernard Gregor-Smith is portly. His hair is a thin scrape-back with lots of head showing through. He wears steel-framed specs. His chair is propped up at the back on two blocks so he can engage his instrument more effectively. Naturally one never mistakes the cello but one of the advantages of seeing a live performance is to note how a theme might be distributed. Mozart and Haydn used to play viola when they played their own quartets and this is generally considered the best place to sit. Bernard sweats more than the others and this produces a visible blotch on his chest. Also when they troop on and off he has to lug his heavy instrument. Couldn’t some beefy student save him the bother? They usually take two bows at the end of each piece and four at the end of the performance.
Once or twice each season the quartet is joined by the pianist David Fanning. Dave works at the faculty too and is Dr David Fanning with his name on a board in the foyer indicating whether he’s in or out. He’s a Russian expert, especially Shostakovich, and has a picture of Arnold Schoenberg in his office. He is a very neat geezer with short curly hair and finely chiselled features. His lips are thin and usually compressed in a tight smile. One might think him a bender but then again he always chooses young nymphets to turn over his scores. They have to lean across and brush their tits against his nose. He has broadcast on the BBC and reviews piano records for the Gramophone magazine. His funniest crack concerned a recording of Hindemith which he said even Richter couldn’t make sound like music.
In pole position, not ten feet from Peter Cropper the first violin, sat professor Kemp and his wife in seats AA 5 & 6. He was a tall, rangy bloke with thick hair and horn-rims who usually wore something tweedy and brown perhaps even leather patched. We were in seats CC 5 & 6 about five feet further back. I learned he lived at Lymm. One night during a somnolent slow movement by Bax he turned round and said “Ken, could you do me a favour? I note from the subscribers list you live near me. Any chance of a lift back? Some bastard has nicked all the wheels off my car. I tell you it’s the Heart of Darkness out there”. On the way home he reminisced fascinatingly about the contemporary music scene. “Ben advertised in the Snape Chronicle for a catamite and as I was living in the area at the time and had just come across the word in my adolescent exploration of the novels of Ronald Firbank I applied. He was collaborating with E.M. Forster and, since Peter Pears was temporarily indisposed on account of an anal fissure, I was recruited immediately in the office of bum boy. I shuttled from one to another as they worked on Billy Budd. Morgan said I was much nicer than that old slag Virginia Woolf but the strangest thing was Ben’s todger! Well, in complete confidence, entre nous, I can tell you…” As we drew up the drive of his enormous dam-side gaff he said “Do come in for a snifter Ken. I’ve got a bottle of Cheval Blanc 1947 I’ve been meaning to crack open.” In the music room there was a Steinway grand. He pulled out an old manuscript from the stool and plonked it on the piano. “Found this in a dingy bookshop in Vienna last year. It’s Schubert’s last sonata in F minor. It’ll be published soon as D961. I think it’s much better than the other three late works in A, C and B flat. You’ll be the second person to hear it since 1828. I’d like your opinion before I invite Brendel over tomorrow to have a go at it.”
The arrangement at Denmark road places 20 members of the audience, mostly long standing fans, on a raised section of the stage behind the quartet itself. Hence, as if the Lindsays weren’t spectacle enough, we have an array of time-warped freaks, a typical sample of departmental drones (one imagines) to distract us as well. One in particular always caught my eye. Indeed our eyes often met on a diagonal over the bizarrely tonsured head of viola player Robin Ireland. She was always well got up but in 1950s style in a pleated A line dress. She couldn’t have remembered this period since I guessed she was probably in her thirties. She looked like a compound of my mum, Rita Hayworth and Wonder Woman. Her chestnut hair was shoulder length and wavy, she wore pale rimmed specs with huge lenses which magnified her brown eyes; these seemed to stare ecstatically in my direction but, not pausing rather passing through to some more ethereal realm. Her mouth was a luscious red and permanently curved in a happy grin. What a vision! Then one night I realise she is looking at me! Yes! We’ve both vegged out during the dreary adagio of the Brahms Op 51 No 1 and are, instead, imagining our tryst later that night! I take her back to her flat in Mauldeth Road. It is very neat and girlie. A large teddy bear the size of a young teenager occupies one of the armchairs. The room is crowded with figurines. She asks if I like Ladro. I say “Oh yes! Surely a better second violin than his predecessor Boscovich” After some passionate grappling on the settee during which I manage to get my hand on the outside of her corset we find ourselves heading for the bedroom. In an access of passion she sweeps a life sized panda off one side of the double bed and watches me take my keks off. “My God Ken!” she says “It’s enormous! But I must have you, so here’s what you must do. I’m tying this string round your todger just two inches from the end. Under no circs must you push it in further than that. Now promise me” “Yis Brenda” I say. She lies back and stares at the ceiling. I whip the string off and chuck it under the bed. Then I plunge in right up to the maker’s name. After a bit of grunting and groaning she opens her eyes and says, rather critically, “I think we can dispense with the string now Ken”
Geoffrey Wainwright, northern poet, friend of Tony Harrison, theatre critic for the Independent and lately leader of a creative writing course at the Metro, turns up occasionally with his wife. I remember one night at Roy’s when Geoff announced his forthcoming Collected Poems. How Roy hooted! “What’s to collect?” he sneered. Well poets are precious creatures hoarding over years a few scraps you could read in an hour while novelists, like Roy, produced huge wodges of prose you could never get to the end of if you lived to be a hundred. That was twenty years ago so Geoff must have enough now for a more substantial volume. But I’m not inclined to find out. He doesn’t recognise me as he strolls past my aisle seat during his interval constitutional. His face is flat like a cat’s and is fringed with tight ginger curls which seem to be scratched on his bony skull. He wears thick, wire rimmed glasses, of a type made popular by Himmler and the concentric white reflections on these ferocious lenses make his pale button eyes reduce to dots. They could be globes of frog spawn. He is preternaturally erect, as if he had a drain rod up his arse.
I assume he doesn’t recognise me, but one night, during the interminable slow movement of Shostakovich’s 10th he crouches down and says: “Bugger me Ken! I thought it was you! I’ve been re-reading the reviews you used to write in the Morning Star and the Free Press. Yes, I cut them out as they appeared. What fun! French Lit mostly wasn’t it? That one where you said Proust was a boring old tosser who could never get out of first gear, and another where you said you’d have to be a lifer in solitary to contemplate reading Zola’s Rougon Macquart cycle and even then you’d probably top yourself after L’Assomoir, and that one where you called Flaubert a sad provincial branleur who’s idea of a good time was to dip his todger in his inkwell! Har bleedin har! I’m glad you’re interested in music though coz I’ve got a proposition. The Arts editor on the Independent wants a string quartet critic and I reckon you’d be just the bloke. You’d have a box in the Wigmore Hall and a flat off Park Lane which you could use when there’s anything good coming up. What we want is something like them old reviews. Nowt stuck up or poncified, none of that “the main theme returns at bar 658 in the sub-dominant with chromatic elaborations” none of that intellectual shite. No. What we are trying to do on the Independent is attract former Sun readers to the entertaining aspects of the string quartet. You know the sort of thing – if it’s Bartok’s Sixth say it sounds like somebody trod on the cat, or if it’s a bit of Schoenberg say it sounds like somebody backstage kept opening a bog door and the hinges needed oiling and what kind of a mad bastard was he for thinking postmen would be whistling his tunes in 1950. Remark on the looks of the players. Ask if the violin ever shoots out from under the chin when they get sweaty. If the bow starts getting ragged like an old tart’s blonde wig dwell on this and ask why they don’t use lycra instead of horsehair. Speculate on why, if concert pianists can memorise hundreds of pieces, they’re still fannying about grabbing at turned up page ends. If there’s a lady cellist use that old Beecham line about her having between her legs an instrument which can give pleasure to thousands and all she can do is scratch it. What d’you say? Give it some thought. Here’s my card. I’ll be meeting Tony in the pub next Friday. You should hear him going on about his missus singing in the bath. He’d be up for the job but she wouldn’t let him. See you later. Hey! Just cop old Pete! Wot a boat race! He looks like he’s playing for the guards in Gulag after an eighteen hour day chopping trees down at minus forty!”
Another strange female sits alongside Wonder Woman. She has the head of an old trout of seventy but the body of a super model of twenty five. The body is displayed to maximum effect in a woolly sheath dress. It sticks out in all the right places and there isn’t an unsightly bulge anywhere. She springs athletically on and off the stage. She’s a mystery. She could be a ballet teacher who has kept in shape with punishing exercise. Or maybe she is a product of an experiment in the faculty of medicine. If so there is surely someone out there with the body of a seventy year old and the face of a young girl. In fact, now I come to think about it, I believe Malc has mentioned such a creature.
Another more conventional denizen of the upstage worked in Blackwell’s and now in Waterstone’s and previously in Wilshaw’s in John Dalton street. She has straight blonde hair and a chunky, high cheek-boned face with a slightly hooked nose which has an echo of Diane Cilento, a star of Tom Jones. She must have worked in Manchester bookshops for the last 30 years. I don’t think actually ever spoke to her in those early days at Wilshaw’s but I do remember asking her colleague about a recently reviewed edition of Kafka’s Wedding Preparations. I was directed confidently to the marriage department. I say ‘department’ but the whole shop was tiny – about half the size of any one room in the present Deansgate Waterstone’s. At the same time I tried to order Canetti’s Auto da Fe. This met with the same incomprehension even though Elias was almost a local who used to live in Burton Road, Didsbury. At least I wasn’t asked to try Halfords. Later, in 1976, I ordered Foundations of a Planned Economy 1926-1929 Volume 3 by E.H. Carr. Today this desiccated and entirely unreadable work could be characterised as the feet of Ozymandias, but in the 70s EH Carr was the dog’s bollocks among Soviet Historians and I was making a gesture of almost religious significance in actually ordering this latest instalment of what turned out to be a 14 volumed set. When it turned up about a month later even the manager was confused. It was in two parts. Yes, two parts of volume three with a third part to come later comprising the third volume of the three volumes of Foundations of a Planned Economy of which volume one was also in two parts. Got that? Keep up at the back there! Anyway the price per volume was £15 making my order worth £30. Yes, I was a rich left wing fanatic. But the manager, a likeable old codger, perhaps Mr Wilshaw himself, thought this price preposterous (I calculate this would be equivalent to £130 today) and although the sticker saying £15 was clearly on each flyleaf he charged me £15 for the two. I knew he’d got it wrong but considered it churlish to cavil at his noble generosity. Obviously he was a fellow comrade who was trying to do me a favour without arousing the suspicions of his staff. I did finish up with 13 volumes of EH Carr’s vast opus but conked out around half way at the end of Socialism in One Country. I think of all this when I see her on the stage.
George Steiner finds it hard to believe that the guards at Auschwitz could listen to the Opus 131 in C minor and go out the next day and gas Jews. I was reminded of this when I came out of just such a Lindsay concert in the early 1990s. They had indeed just played the Opus 131 as part of their Beethoven cycle. I found my car door bust open and my stereo cassette radio gone. Two wires dangled out of the wounded fascia. The bastard had also helped himself to the four or five ten P pieces I kept in a slotted holder for parking meters, but, mysteriously, neglected to steal the magnificent two cassette recording of Handel’s Messiah by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. I deduced therefore that the thief was an uncultivated lout. How much more desirable, in the pubs of Hulme, would be a car cassette radio with a recording of Handel’s Messiah than the same item on its own (or even with Motown’s Greatest Hits). Idiot! Neanderthal! But, apropos of professor Steiner’s characteristically melodramatic crux, how I raged against that evil git! Gassing? Too bleeding good for him! I want meathooks! Get me electric cables! Let’s make him swallow fishhooks and drag his intestines out through his mouth!! After that I never parked in Denmark Road again but left it on Oxford Road instead. Nothing ever happened in Oxford Road. Well, yes, there was the time American Studies lecturer Bob Bellflower was knifed for no apparent reason, and yes, you could get mugged if you used the cash dispensers, but Bob must have antagonised his drug crazed attacker and you’d be mad to get money out of a hole in the wall in that area – much better have it delivered by Securicor to your student digs and have the day off to receive it. Poor Bob must have been slightly off his head even then. It got worse and he eventually immolated himself with a can of petrol and a match in an alleyway next to his house.
The male occupants of the stage area are less odd than the women. The oddest is a very scruffy little geezer with a scrubby beard which looks like it has been stabbed on with a felt tipped pen. He has the regulation thick glasses, a snub nose and wild, thick black hair. He always dresses in a lumberjack shirt, jeans and dirty off-white trainers. Indeed his dress is so uniformly terrible that I guessed he was either the amenities attendant or the professor of Sociology. His familiarity with the building inclines me to the former. Usually he’s with some nondescript slut dressed like a student. The slut changes with the year. Near him on a row next to the players is an Irish-looking middle-aged cove. He too has a scrubby beard, a grizzled, white growth, but he’s more considered in his appearance and usually wears a waistcoat and an odd hat shaped somewhere between trilby and pork pie. His outer garment is a long black overcoat which comes off after a long silk scarf. He wears high sided black boots, sometimes a black shirt. Braces have been seen. It’s all a bit theatrical. His characteristic expression is a wicked grin revealing small, sharp teeth. He reminds me of Mr James Duffy, the protagonist of James Joyce’s story A Painful Case. His self confidence is monumental; he sometimes seems to nod off (but closed eyes can signify concentration) and I have seen him yawn enormously and felt glad, at the time, that Mendelssohn wasn’t there to see it. In seat AA4, front row across the aisle from professor Kemp, is a man who wears sandals without socks even when there’s snow on the ground. He usually has a rucksack from which he produces a score. I always thought it a bit rude to scrutinise scores as the quartet perform but I understand this is common among the cognoscenti and is generally not considered, by the players, as a critical stock take from uppity punters who suspect a movement might be missed out.
After professor Kemp retired his prime seats were taken by an ugly old lesbian with a figure like a string bag full of turnips. This defect in no way inhibited a restless exhibitionism which had her stretching, standing, waving her arms about, even turning, before the performance, to face aggressively up into the hall. Sometimes she was accompanied by a less awful dyke who kept her coat on and had a more feminine hairstyle. What influence does this fat slag have I wonder? Why wasn’t I offered these seats? What effect does this spectacle have on poor old Pete? Most of the front row was oddly empty in that last season. The occupants of the end seats AA 10 & 11, two sprightly oldsters, man and wife, very nicely dressed who were often engaged in chat by Ronnie Birks during the interval and who usually had to dash at the end making a sudden lunge for the exit while the rest of us gave the regulation four ovations (a bus to catch?) stopped coming. Dead? Bored? The middle of the front row, AA 8, another prized seat was also without its usual cargo. This was an young ex student, dark-skinned, perhaps eastern-European with a hooked nose and a massive flare of black hair. He looked, in profile, remarkably like Gaudier Bzreska’s bust of Alfred Wolmark in the Walker Art Gallery. He always clapped enthusiastically, and even turned to glare on one occasion when a senile old codger a few rows behind began to burble inappropriately. Where did he go? Back to Albania?
In the latter years we sat immediately in front of two enthusiasts whose conversation never failed to intrigue. They didn’t come together but, being season ticket holders, always occupied seats DD 5 & 6. I never turned round to look at them but occasionally caught a glimpse as I got up to leave. The one right behind me on the aisle is married to a teacher who can’t get out. He no doubt thinks he’s being selfish but she probably never came again after the first visit and now watches East Enders with a stiff gin. He seems very knowledgeable about the repertoire and has a drawling, laid-back, diffident air, yet seems to know everything. The other was equally erudite and also had a vast record collection on both vinyl and CD. His voice has the weary, ironic, effeminate inflection of the invert. I see him at almost every musical event I attend in Manchester – he haunts the Bridgewater, the RNCM and even this esoteric backwater. A big bloke, over six feet, and well-fleshed. He is always smartly dressed in a pale suit, tie, and polished shoes. In this ambience he seems like a racehorse in a pigsty. His thick black hair is going a bit grey and is combed back in a wave. His large lensed specs make his eyes look owlish.
He could well be someone’s favourite uncle. But he’s always alone. Is his live-in companion some brutish oik who seizes this opportunity to have a rave-up with his mates down the pub? Could he resemble, in this regard, my old acquaintance Neville Rawlinson, art-collector and translator of Jules Romains (those interminable Hommes de Bonne Volonte – 27 volumes) who lived in a large house overlooking the park in Whalley Range (yes, I know, sic transit etc…) and chose as his soulmate the evil Dickie, a clerk at AEI at Trafford Park, who knew everyone in the Rembrandt and the Union, in fact seemed almost to control the scene like a latter day Baron de Charlus, and who complained about all the books lying about and as for the paintings…well?! ‘still it’s surprising how some of them grow on you’.. Or perhaps he’s a rarer type, the aesthete neuter, a Des Esseintes, a Gerard Manley Hopkins, living a solitary but not lonely life sustained by great works. Is this possible, one wonders, outside the asylum? I recall briefly embracing such a weltanshauung and going to a performance of Bruckner’s Te Deum in a church in Oxford Road. Tedium indeed! What a disaster! Incompetent execution, an atrocious acoustic – I suspect this lifestyle can only come off in London or Paris. Amateur music is especially excruciating in that, unlike a bad film, book or painting you have to endure the agony and you know exactly how long it will go on. Think of sitting down to a production of Parsifal, without breaks, by the Cheadle scout troop. My last brave venture into this swamp was a performance at my local church by a pianist who planned to play Chopin’s B flat sonata. After about fifteen minutes he stopped abruptly and announced, somewhat insolently I thought, that he’d forgotten the rest. The paying audience applauded this brave effort. How English; the Lande Ohne Musik indeed.
When the topic of sponsoring a seat in the new auditorium came up the fleshy aesthete was properly enraged. The seat could be sponsored for £300. This gave you no rights over it but did allow you to have your name on a small brass plaque on its back (one sees the results of such meaningless privileges on park benches memorialising dead old farts. Strictly it should be restricted to those who were conceived, born or died on that spot. Soon we’ll see - Become Immortal for only £99.99!! Buy the B&Q park bench with free brass plaque already engraved: ‘(Your Name) was bleeding genius! A real diamond geezer!! The best bloke I ever knew!!”). He found the department’s blatant appeal to vanity insulting. “I probably shall sponsor a seat” he said huffily “but I certainly do not want my name on it”. A solution occurred to me and I had trouble preventing myself turning round. One could name the seat after anyone, Beethoven or Wagner, or even Adolf Hitler or Myra Hindley…or Tosspot, Shithead….Wanker. Yes. Let’s see how far the greedy bastards will go to get your £300. ‘Dear Sir I enclose a cheque to sponsor a seat. Please inscribe my plaque MUSIC-MAD BUM-FUCKER’
Imagine that reading is an arcane skill possessed by a tiny elite, but that we can all understand the spoken word and that our access to the great works of literature is necessarily mediated by this performing minority. Almost no-one makes contact with the written text of King Lear or Middlemarch but gets his experience of these masterpieces via readers like Geilgud or Olivier or even the author orating on the wireless or record. This is the condition of the average music lover. Even those who read scores rarely rise to the proficiency of, say, Pierre Boulez who, when asked if he had a record player seemed puzzled – of course he didn’t – and if he wanted to experience a late Beethoven quartet? Why he simply got out the score. I guess if he felt hungry he read Escoffier recipes. But whereas the text is the exact and complete expression of the writer’s intention the score is a vaguely coded representation replete with gaps and uncertainties, even something as specific as metronome markings are dubious. Unlike writing and painting whose marks are a definitive creation, written music is a hint, a starting point. What, for instance, do we musical illiterates make of the following circumstance: a few years back a letter in the Gramophone magazine opined that now we have CD players with programmable track selection why do we need repeats played and recorded twice on a disc? Why not just play and record it once and then have the CD player repeat the music as required. Sounds logical. But no! You idiot, replies some professor of music, obviously a repeat is never played the same way twice even though the notes on the page are exactly the same. So we need interpreters. So we have the Lindsays. But we also have the Vegh and the Emerson and the Italian quartets. All making a valid stab at re-creating the original impulse.
And how does a proletarian oik get into this esoteric world? Both sets of grandparents had a piano but I guess this was just furniture. My mother’s father Alf used his to paper the ceiling. If he were alive now I could give him advice. “Alf! For chrissakes don’t perch on that wobbly upright with hank of soggy anaglypta. Take a tip from the top jockeys of the joanna – Murray Perahia and Daniel Barenboim. They have concert grands in their parlours coz they know you can stand on them and still have room to park your paste bucket.” Only one of my mother’s nine siblings played (by ear) and none of my dad’s family played at all. My dad said Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was his favourite piece and this example characterises your oik’s proclivities towards heroic tenors and the solo piano as far as the classics are concerned. The former for their sheer straining power (imagine being able to bellow an order in the pub at such volume) and the astonishing prestidigitation of the pianist, making one hand do one thing and the other do something else while at the same time working the feet. But give him his due, when I finally acquired Brendel’s early Vox recording of this piece it was the simple first movement which got him going; when it speeded up he lost interest and suggested it was too loud. Brass bands were his true love. He did recall one incident from before I was born. The Polish maestro Paderewski played in the Parr Hall. The crowd became restive and one lout hollered “Play something we all know” whereupon the master stopped, got up, said “Varrington I spit on you” and left the stage. Probably apocryphal – my dad was never one to let a little thing like the truth get in the way of a good story.
My own career as a performer peaked at 11. I broadcast to the nation from the BBC studios in Manchester as one member of the school’s recorder band. I still have that recorder in its original cardboard box but still detest it and its sound. This may be the origin of my lingering suspicion about musicians. I couldn’t read music (I think most of us just memorised it) and couldn’t play more than a few notes without going wrong. Was I the only schmuck in the band or were we all lousy, except for a gifted few who carried the rest? This suspicion was encouraged years later by many poor performance from the Halle in the 80s and 90s. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Obviously they could play the right notes. Then I read a critical review which described the Halle as the “most cynical” orchestra in Britain. They just turned up, played the notes and took the money. There’s much more to music than playing the right notes.
We didn’t get a record player until I bought one when I was about 15. Before that it was the wireless. You’d get the odd snatch. I’d begun to listen to the Third programme but this was more for the arcane gabble of Isaiah Berlin than anything by Debussy. Up till then I thought nobody could speak faster than Mr Flaherty the clubman who called every Saturday morning. But Isaiah was much faster, and chucked in bits of German and French – and it was such a dazzling stream of sound you were hard pressed at any one time to say exactly what language was currently being used.
We had music at the grammar school for the first two years but I learned nothing from Mr Sydney Dell FRCO. We’d be marooned in a corner of the assembly hall where the piano was kept listening to him going on – about just what I’d be hard pressed to say. But it was years later at the same school when I really woke up. Our Spanish teacher Mr Wearne brought in his own record player around the end of term and played us the Brahms Variations on a theme of Haydn. Soon after I got my own record player and to the horror of my street mates started to become obsessed with Beethoven while they played Bill Haley and Elvis. I think there was an extra-musical dimension to Beethoven. He was heroic and a radical. I read a biography and realised that he too was a tortured isolated genius. Leonard Bast in Howards End is similarly smitten. Beethoven is undoubtedly an oik icon. It also helps, if you’re an adolescent, that he was a noisy fuck who did great endings. And yet that’s not entirely the whole of it since one of my earliest acquisitions was a record of Casals, Thibaudet and Cortot playing the Archduke Trio. It was years later when I came across the late quartets that I recognised another dimension – metaphysics, the mystical. If I’d come to these works from the quartets of Haydn and Mozart I might have found them incomprehensible, as did Beethoven’s contemporaries. Some of this institutional difficulty is revealed in the story that Stravinsky, on meeting Proust, decided he was a poseur because he claimed to like the late quartets. Even to Stravinsky these were a remote peak – but to the receptive ignoramus with no musicological baggage? Well..they just work. Then I got bewitched by the Razoumovskys. Later still, an odd progression, I got to admire the early Beethoven quartets. I must have had recordings but I remember my friend Bob playing me one of the Opus 18s in his house in Rushford Avenue and it was as if I’d heard it for the first time.
So after all these years some truth begins to dawn. Scientists and engineers might think – well, here’s the score, we feed all that data into a gadget which will reproduces it exactly – perfection surely? There was a time when I thought the pianola was such a device – an enlarged music box. It isn’t of course. Those pianola rolls were cut by human players such as Mahler or Gershwin and were as idiosyncratically personal as a recording on vinyl or CD. So, our technical perfectionist might persist, let’s just get one flawless interpretation on disc. Do we need anything else? But this won’t do either. New instruments, new styles of playing; these things re-energise the vaguely coded simulacrum. Authentic music is a just another fad, one more way of playing it. Beethoven would have embraced the modern concert grand just as Bach would have relished the piano (indeed he helped to develop it). We can even believe that the original mental event in the brains of these geniuses was not the ultimate, exclusive expression. I imagine music as being up there like static and that the work doesn’t exist until it discharges like lightning. Practitioners like to describe the music flowing through them; Peter Cropper often looks as though he’s wired up to the mains. This may appear affected nonsense to anyone accustomed to the record player, but you’ve only got to go to Denmark road and look. Maybe next year, in the new place, I’ll close my eyes more often, like Mr James Duffy from Dubliners, and listen to the Lindsays for the last time before they disappear into musical history.