I’m always alone playing piano


I’ve been remiss. I decided, therefore, that I shouldn’t let another weekend pass without posting something new here. Blogging has proved a great pleasure, and I certainly have no reluctance to sit at my keyboard and prose on about topics that are important to me. And the comments that I’ve been receiving, and the exchanges of views that I’ve been having with other bloggers have given me great pleasure. My work, however, has drained me of alacrity. I am a nine-to-fiver (though I’m often required to put in many extra hours) and currently I feel undervalued – or, perhaps un-valued – dispirited, in fact downright depressed. Well, who doesn’t? I mention this not only to excuse my delinquency, but also to provide a leaping-off point for this post.

I blog about music because music is one of life’s great joys and consolations. Clearly then, I should refrain from further expressions of self-pity and offer a little tribute to the art-form that does so much to help us get through our days. For the very existence of joyful music in our lives, we probably ought to get down on our knees and thank St Cecilia, or whatever other deity, demi-deity, canonised entity or peculiar combination of energy and atoms to which or to whom we might feel fealty is due.  For my part I shall refrain from kneeling for the moment, not because I feel I should be excused the gesture of reverence that I’m encouraging in others, but because I have a painful right knee at the moment. Thus, does self-pity begin to encroach again. But enough.

As I get older I find that joyful music often elicits a stronger response in me than music that is grave or melancholy. I’m more likely to have a tear in my eye listening to a jokey movement by Haydn than to, say, one of Beethoven’s slow movements. That’s not to say that I value the one more than the other. Indeed, I am a little puzzled by my emotional responses at these times. But there is something moving about the notion of a composer taking the time and trouble to communicate something life-affirming and sprightly, gleefully placing his or her utmost technical abilities at the service of sheer, simple joy. For this we should give thanks.

There is a good deal of jolly music that I turn to when I’m feeling sorry for myself: Fats Waller, Louis Prima, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, Bellowhead, Johann Strauss, Sidney Bechet. Sometimes, though, it is not the upbeat and vigorous that one needs, but the consolatory.

Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte has warmth and poise and a quiet, uplifting beauty. This recording by Vlado Perelemuter is the best rendition that I’ve ever heard.


Perlemuter died in 2002 at the age of 98. In his early twenties he became fascinated by Ravel’s piano music and set about learning it all. A friend encouraged him to write to Ravel. The composer, then at the height of his fame, was so intrigued by this young man who had learned every note of his music for solo piano, that he agreed to meet him. They met regularly over several months and worked together on Perlemuter’s interpretations. Perlemuter wrote a book about this experience but it was, alas, never translated into English, though, it seems, the Japanese translation was very popular.

In 1984, Vlado Perlemuter, at the age of 80, appeared on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs. If you enjoyed his playing of the Pavane, this might well be the best way to learn more about a fascinating musician and a charming man. When asked how he would cope with the solitude on the notional desert island, Perlemuter said “I’m always alone playing piano”. Those who know the programme will know that desert island castaways are asked to choose a luxury item to help them through their ordeal. Perlemuter chose Ghirlandaio’s portrait of an old man with his grandson which seemed, somehow, to be an appropriate image with which to illustrate this post.

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Posted in Classical music
9 comments on “I’m always alone playing piano
  1. T E Stazyk says:

    Very interesting! I hadn’t hear of Perlemutter before (and really don’t know Ravel that well either).

    I don’t know how to embed pictures in comments otherwise I’d share a poster I have which reads: “The function of music is to release us from the tyranny of conscious thought.”

    Now don’t get me started on desert island castaway questions such as which Brandenburg or Beethoven symphony I would want to have access to!

    • G.H.Bone says:

      Thanks TES. I only came across Perlemuter a couple of years ago. I had one of those “where has this musician been all my life” moments. His complete Ravel discs are so good that they ought to be considered “legendary” recordings (especially since his playing comes with the composer’s imprimatur) but somehow he doesn’t seem to have much of a reputation these days. When I stumbled across the Desert Island Discs edition a few weeks ago, I discovered that he was not only an outstanding musician, but also a very interesting and charming man.

      As for Desert Island Discs … yes, you’re right: that way madness lies. Incidentally, Perlemuter himself does include a Brandenburg – no 3 conducted by Furtwangler.

  2. JDB says:

    What a beautiful recording. One of the YouTube commentators notes that s/he’s never heard someone play a rendition of the Pavane that’s as transparent as Perlemuter plays it. I also agree with you: it has a quiet, uplifting beauty. I’ve downloaded an mp3 of his performance from iTunes. I may end up working on it myself (a new season of piano lessons has just started!) I also agree with Perlemuter’s comment–and your blog post title.

    And thank you for introducing me to Desert Island Discs: what a treasure trove….there just aren’t enough hours in the day. Maybe that’s a good thing, though…it means there’s always something more to fit in, and to strive for.

    I hope today finds you feeling less undervalued. You’re certainly valued by this member of the blogosphere!

  3. G.H.Bone says:

    Hi JDB, I’d hoped that you’d find this post and comment on it. Back in May you posted about the Pavane and included a lovely rendition by the Labeque sisters (one assumes that they didn’t feel alone when playing piano). I commented on that back then, but we got sidestracked somehow into talking about “What’s Up Doc”. That’s what the Internet is for, I suppose. Do give the piece a try, and is it too much to hope that you might share your interpretation with us?

    The notion of always being alone playing piano is incomparably romantic. Speaking as a failed musician I have to say that I would relish isolation if only I could play well (or at all).

    Thank you for your kind words. Life has been tiresome for a while, but outside of the wage-slavery I have friends aplenty and a partner who loves me and pretty good health (my bad knee and an aching back notwithstanding) and kind encouragement from you, so I’ve decided to put up another post this evening to acknowledge those things.

    • JDB says:

      Hi GHB,

      Well, I’ve bought the sheet music for the “Pavane” and will begin working on it. (The other piece I’ve been trying to master is Chopin’s Ballade #1). On first pass, I’d say the Ravel is deceptively difficult. One looks at the notes on the page and thinks, “Well that doesn’t look too bad”, but bringing out the top voice and keeping everything legato, along with some tricky pedaling, will be a challenge. Something to strive for, and now, thanks to you, I have the Perlemuter performance as my model. If I can get it to a place where I feel good about it, I’d be delighted to share my rendition with you.

      FYI, after our exchange back in May re: “What’s Up Doc”, I rented the DVD and watched it, with delight, for the first time in years and years (including some stretches of laughing like an idiot a la Vitameatavegamin). In fact, I enjoyed it so much I watched it a second time while listening to the director’s commentary track.

      Friends aplenty, the love of a partner, and good health are important sustenance indeed. I’m glad you have them all!

      • G.H.Bone says:

        Well, I hope the project to learn the Pavane goes well. Perhaps you could share your thoughts as you go along? Already you’ve touched on the aspects of the piece that are deceptively difficult. I’m always fascinated to hear musicians’ thoughts on how they approach particular compositions. There’s the technical stuff (some of which you touched on above) and then there’s the problem, once you’re able to play all the right notes in the right order, of deciding on interpretive niceties. With the Pavane, I assume (as a non-practitioner) that balancing the expression of sadness and yearning in the piece with the necessary poise and restraint is the crucial thing. Using Perlemuter as a model is obviously a good start, but then you can’t follow this slavishly without sacrificing what YOU want to bring to it. Fascinating stuff.

        I still haven’t got around to tracking down a dvd of “What’s Up Doc?” I really should give that project some priority.

        Thank you, as always, for your kind words. And good luck with the Pavane!

  4. […] life just gets you down. In my last post I grumbled a bit about life, and offered some music to provide […]

    • JDB says:

      Hi GHB, I’ve been meaning to circle back to this exchange of comments for some time and am finally now just getting around to it. I wanted to share two coincidences with you. First, I recently started reading a book you might find interesting. It’s called “Play It Again: An Amateur Against The Impossible”, by Alan Rusbridger (editor of The Guardian). It’s about his attempt, over the course of a year, to learn Chopin’s Ballade No. 1. In the Introduction, he describes his musical upbringing and influences: “My father–retired, no musical training–was also, improbably to me, falling in love with Chopin….He had been to hear the veteran French pianist Vlado Perlemuter play and something had gone pop in his brain. For the next twenty years he would buy his recordings and….would try to make it to hear him whenever he played in the UK.” Second, my mother recently moved to a smaller place and had to trim down her colossal music collection. She passed several stacks of CDs on to me and lo and behold, one of them is Vlado Perlemuter playing Debussy (Pour le piano and Images) and Ravel (Le tombeau de Couperin). Tucked inside the CD case was Perelmuter’s obituary, which my mother had clipped from Gramophone Magazine in 2002. So, before you posted about him, I’d never heard of Vlado Perlemuter; now he’s all around me!

      • G.H.Bone says:

        Lovely. I’m glad that you have Perlemuter all around you. I found a copy of complete Mozart solo piano music which is very good, but other than that and the Ravel, I don’t know his work at all. I must try to track down a copy of his Debussy recording. But as far as I’m concerned, his Complete Ravel recordings marks him out as indispensable.

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