Looking at stubby fingers

Via the wonders of the internet it is possible to get at sheet music online rather than waiting to go through the pile of it 1000km away in Ireland and remember to pack it the next time I am travelling. And so it is that the 2 piano arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto is safely stashed in pdf form on my Onedrive and I can access it from my iPad. Joy to the world and all that.

Rach 2, as you’ll see it named on Youtube, has been my very favourite piece of music for nearly 30 years. In that, at least, it has outshone Eagle by Abba. I bought the score as arranged for 2 pianos in a shop off Tottenham Court Road when I was 14 because I wanted to learn it. This was highly ambitious since only two years previously I had been ruining my mother’s life with a rather chaotic arrangement of the Rose of Tralee which for some reason I had elected to learn when I started learning piano “properly”. IE, by learning to read both the treble AND bass clefs. My teacher could not get me onto the grades half fast enough. I have no idea where the sheet music to the Rose of Tralee is now. I might check the piano stool when I get home. It had a sky blue cover and it was so old that it is not to be found on a Google image search now. All sorts of things are hidden in the piano stool, and there it may be hiding. But I digress. Back with Rachmaninoff.

The shop off Tottenham Court Road only sold sheet music. I’m pretty sure it is long gone because when I was living in London in 1997, studying to be an interpreter, about 10 years after I bought this particular piece of music, I could not find it again. I always thought it was called Oxford University Press for some reason – maybe it said it on the plastic bag it came in – but that could be fiction on the part of my memory. I do remember the shop though. It was magical then and I have never seen anything like it since. It was floor to very high ceiling wooden drawers. There were probably discrete labels here and there to ensure that the right sonatas and fugues could be extracted.

I wanted two piano concertos, the aforementioned Rachmaninoff, and additionally, a Grieg piano concerto. When push came to shove, however, a choice had to be made on financial grounds because two together were just a bit much for 14 year old me. In the end, Rachmaninoff, despite being marginally more expensive, won, and Grieg was left aside for another 3 or 4 years.

I guarded it with my life back to the small town in Cork where I grew up and it took up residence on the top of the piano, sharing space with the various exam pieces I had to do for the RIAM grade system and the music exam for the Intermediate Certificate at school, an exam I passed almost completely on the strength of playing because it was not on the back of my prolific knowledge of required musical theory as laid out in the syllabus.

I worked at the Rachmaninoff on and off over the years. I have very clear memories of sitting in the car, reading along with the sheet music while listening to a tape of the piece ad ensuring I could track which bits were were on the tape. There are still annotations in the book aligning certain sections with times on my favoured/only available recording at the time. And I have very clear memories of using the week before my Leaving Certificate to spend 5 or 6 hours a day working on the second movement. In the days running up to a life defining school exam, I could be found crouched over the piano; a pint glass of Ribena resting on top of the piano, carefully hauling my fingers into the shape of the opening notes of the second movement.

I am never without a recording of the piece of music. For years, the recording I had was Julius Katchen’s recording which had been released as part of the Great Composers part work series sometime in the 1980s – a wonderful resource which introduced me to an awful lot of classical music, and many key performers of the time. When my chips are down, the world tends to feel better with a sound track of that and his glorious Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (which, to be honest, I might see if that’s available too). Lately I have been listening mainly to Yuja Wang and Leif Ove Andsnes playing it.

To some extent, when I pick up the music with a view to playing this piece, it is less to play it, and more to spend time with an old friend. I know there will never be an orchestra behind me ready to enter after those titanic opening notes. Last night when I did so, it was to the news that my fingers no longer fitted the opening chords of the first movement, if indeed they ever did. I can still manage some of the second movement almost even by heart despite it being 27 years since I prepared for seven honours subjects in the Leaving Certificate by drinking Ribena and repeating the opening eight bars of the second movement ad infinitum…There are places I can still go with Rachmaninoff; and there are places he will not take me.

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