Il meglio è nemico del bene
The best is the enemy of good – or along came Furtwangler.
The year is 1977 – or thereabouts and I was living in the top flat overlooking The Racecourse – an area of open park that was formerly, yes you guessed it, a racecourse. I had little in the way of furniture – most of it had been donated by friends and family or obtained secondhand. The carpet smelled a bit and the leg on the settee was wonky, there was no furniture in the kitchen but a cooker, a sink and a table, but it was all mine, as long as I kept up the rent of £6.06 per week. (This was the 70s). The only downside was I couldn’t have any pets which meant I had to keep the Runcible Cat away from the landlord until I could get Debbie to reclaim him – it was her cat after all, I was only looking after him while she re-discovered herself in an Ashram in India. Oh, I did mention that this was the 70s?
Beside the kitchen there was one other room which was ok for living, eating, sleeping and throwing parties. Hidden beneath an alcove was my bed. There was a built in cupboard which was used for storing what few clothes I had, a cabinet, a settee that could double as a bed if need be and a cardboard box covered with a table cloth (which I still have, the cloth, not the box) on which stood my pride and joy – my Music Centre. I did have a TV for a while. An old discarded black and white set, which saw me through one Christmas when friends descended on boxing day and we fell about laughing at a production of Sleeping Beauty.
But back to the Music Centre. A combination of record player, cassette recorder and radio. What more could you ask for?
With this little beauty you could record direct from the radio, or from LP, on to a cassette tape so you could play and play again. It was on this machine that I got to know the English Ring Cycle (more of that later). One thing I didn’t tape was a radio programme devoted to Great recordings. This was a series of afternoon slots on Radio Three that filled up the empty schedule by playing each week a critically acclaimed Gramophone Record. The first one of the series was to be that old war horse Beethoven’s Choral Symphony – the 9th. Yes, that old thing. I remember banging out the Ode to Joy theme on the piano during music lessons and playing an old rusty classics for pleasure recording I had. So I was not shall we say inspired by the prospect, but there was nothing else on and I had nothing else to do, so I sat and listened to the radio announcer talk about what made this a Great Recording.
It was the reopening of Bayreuth (ok, so that got my interest) after the War. The Wagner festival was to begin, not with Wagner but with the symphony of Universal Brotherhood – Beethoven’s 9th. The conductor was Wilhelm Furtwängler – not someone I had heard of then. The performance began and there was something about it that made me stop and concentrate and really listen. There was a tension in the playing that I couldn’t shake off, all the way through the first movement. This was something different and it was like no other version of Beethoven I had heard before.
And then came the devastating thud of the drum in the second movement.
People talk about performances that move them.
I remember a production of Mozart’s Magic Flute that moved me so much I left the theatre at the end of the first act. Yes it was that bad.
But here I was physically moved. Somehow, during that second mocement, I found myself on the floor. As that powerful and disturbing second movement came to a close with the recapitulation of that drum beat approaching, I began to cry. And I never stopped crying all the way through the 3rd movement, which I cannot remember hearing at all that time. I had never experienced such emotion triggered by music, and by recorded music at that. I recovered enough to begin to take in the 4th movement but by the time we reached Furtwängler’s cataclysmic ending to the symphony I was reduced once more to a gibbering wreck, no longer in possession of my emotions.
In some senses, I have never recovered from that experience.