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What makes one amateur musician’s endeavours more deserving of a book than another’s? Perhaps because his position gives him access to the top pianists (and I mean the top: Barenboim, Hough, Ax, Perahia), to teachers, scientists, even the head of Fazioli pianos.

If that sounds like it’s going to be a gripe, it’s not. Play It Again is the chronicle of the attempt by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger to learn and perform Chopin’s first Ballade. He gives himself a year, but it turns out to be a year in which his newspaper becomes deeply entangled with big news stories (WIKILEAKS, phone hacking, Leveson) that eat heavily into his free time.

It is illuminating to read how different musicians envisage a piece of music, how their approaches to performing it – and their attempts to communicate all that to the author – vary. They also provoke reflections on what it is to be an amateur musician, what it is to be professional and what distinguishes the two; the roles music-making can play in people’s lives; the effect of modern life on musical practice, and so on.

In contrast, the passages devoted to the busy everyday life that goes with his job seem off the point and tedious (they also include his search for and acquisition of an expensive piano to go in the music room he is having built at his Gloucestershire second home). Perhaps it is just that the events described are just too fresh (not really the right word) in the memory, but the temptation is just to skip them. You can’t do that in Chopin, of course.

There are one or two minor errors of the kind that are easy enough to overlook: the Bond characters Rusbridger admits to confusing are M and Q (not C); the venue for his moment of glory is the 1901 Arts Club (not Arts Club 1901). More carelessly, was it really the opening of ‘While Shepherds Watched’ that the cathedral choirboy Rusbridger used to remember how a perfect fourth sounds? Can’t imagine it would have been the ‘Ilkley Moor’ version at Guildford.

TOBY DELLER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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