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Despite its appearance, this is no self- help book nor an endeavour by a busy journalist to conquer the classical piano repertory, in the manner of Alan Rusbridger’s struggle with Chopin in Play It Again (Jonathan Cape, 2013).

In his first book, Kennicott, an American reporter and amateur pianist born in the mid-1960s, attempts to master Bach’s Goldberg Variations as a way of addressing his relationship with his late mother. However, it turns out (spoiler alert!) that Kennicott loathed his mother, who assaulted him when his boyhood piano practice sessions were less than fully committed. He eventually decides his performing skills are not up to the challenge of the Goldbergs, and the project is abandoned.

Does any positive message remain for piano lovers? There is a glint of hope in Kennicott’s account of finding a piano teacher he approves of, after a series of disappointing wannabe mentors. Joseph Fennimore (born 1940) who studied at the Conservatory of Music in Schenectady, New York (Kennicott’s hometown) and the New England Conservatory of Music, traces his musical lineage back to the Polish pianist and composer Theodor Leschetizky, through his American assistant Ethel Newcomb. While strict, Fennimore tolerantly accepts Kennicott as a ‘nervous boy’ – perhaps not surprising in light of the teacher’s distinguished musical pedigree.

Also praised is Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations, which inspires the copycat scheme, though unnamed naysayers are mentioned who supposedly find Gould’s rendition ‘sometimes dry, or even tendentious in its almost aggressive flaying of the music’s sinews’. (This is elaborately bad writing, insofar as the notion of flaying, or removing the skin from, sinews – by definition tissues without skin – is absurd.)

A seething cauldron of contempt is dumped upon a wide range of targets, including Vladimir Horowitz, whose interpretive ‘choices usually ran to the indulgent end of the ethical scale, not absolutely wrong or indefensible, but more demonstrative and megalomaniacal than inward and poetic. Today, I find his playing exhausting, like suffering an extrovert at a party who has an opinion on every subject.’

When Kennicott stops trying to play the Goldbergs with any proficiency (just as he renounces the effort to understand his mother), he terms Bach’s work ‘wonderfully exhausting’ because it conveys a ‘sense of our pitiful smallness’. Piano practice is described as a ‘complex and mentally exhausting skill’, while learning to play an entire solo part of a concerto without consciously fretting over each detail is likewise ‘exhausting work’.

Other notables who fatigue the author include Fritz Kreisler, whose charming Liebesleid is slated as ‘musical kitsch’; and Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, here dismissed as ‘popular but crudely reductionist’. Even the 19th-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins does not escape censure for having written Spring and Fall, ‘something of a chestnut’.

On the positive side, Kennicott has published a series of acutely perceptive articles coolly dissecting terrorist propaganda videos and genocidal documents from Nazi Germany. The subject of horrible things that people do to one another appears better suited to his temperament than piano music per se.

He implies as much early on in Counterpoint, declaring unabashedly: ‘I bristle at the idea that music is consoling or has healing power. It is a cliché of lazy music talk, the sort of thing said by people who give money to the Symphony and have their names chiselled on the wall of the opera house. It is the drivel of disembodied voices narrating bad documentaries about Beethoven and Mozart. I don’t find music consoling. I’m not sure I even love music. Sometimes I wonder if in fact I hate it, the way one hates a drug, or resents a weakness. It unsettles more than it satisfies, and increases the very appetites it is supposed to sate. At best, it is a distraction from things that are more painful in life.’

In America, where the arts as a journalistic specialty are disrespected by editors unless accompanied by writing about war crimes and the like, Kennicott has been repeatedly employed as a salaried music writer who is entrusted to express opinions about pianists who exemplify music as consolation and healing. How exhausting it must be for him!

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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