Yesterday in Lyon, Grigori Sokolov.
When the hall fades away, I feel a bit sick to my stomach. He is about to appear and the Steinway which is enthroned in the middle of this great auditorium is going to start ringing. I am feverish because having the chance to be in the fourth row, I prepare myself for the privilege of entering the intimacy of this legend. I will taste the miracle of his piano in the heart of his music.
The stage is dimly lit, he enters. With a slow step, he goes to his piano, bows, sits down and starts the Kreisleriana without waiting. From the first note, we know that he begins the cycle with a global and perfectly accomplished vision of the work. Obviously, he does not simply begin the first piece, but rather the entirety of these expressions of love, thought of as a single phrase that will break on the rapid finale. I know the spirit in which Schumann composed these pieces, I know his mad love for Clara. For a second, I remember my teenage emotions when the beautiful Martha had made me discover the Kreislers (on disc :-().
Settled in my seat, he embarks me for 25 minutes of passion, despair, torment and ideal reverie. I am ready, I am ideally ready.
However, after a few seconds, a cough on the right breaks the religiousness of my listening. Shortly after, another one on my left. Even if I concentrate on the magic of Schumann and the purity of the lines that Sokolov spells out on his keyboard, it is impossible to touch the absolute perfection of the moment, so much so that the parasitic noises of the hall spoil the silence. Not one minute, I mean not one minute, without someone coughing in every corner of the Maurice Ravel auditorium.
I am petrified.
The Schumanian phrases transport me to an ideal world and a cough systematically brings me back to the baseness of my humanity. Sokolov's fingers make a note sound held to the limit of its original purity and this dream is shattered, polluted, soiled, destroyed, ruined by a fat and vulgar cough.
I am desperate.
At the end of the fourth Kreiseler (very slow) Sokolov has the misfortune to insert a magic silence that is a little longer than the three previous sequences. Neither one, nor two, the applause fuses! Help! I feel like murder. Of course he continues. But I know in my heart that my evening is already ruined.
I think of this man of 71 who dedicated his whole life to his art to offer us this model of perfection and I am ashamed. I am ashamed of my fellow men. I am ashamed of the public of which I am a part. I would like to apologize, to ask him for forgiveness, to tell him that we are not all uneducated and insensitive to his vision. I would like to tell him that many of us are full of gratitude, wonder and humility in front of the treasures of colors, balance and depth that he expresses. I would like to tell him that many of us are sensitive, trained to understand the path of perfection on which he wishes to guide us.
My ear is ready to capture the meanders of his polyphonies, my heart is ready to capsize following the curves of his phrasing. My mind can follow him in his incredible management of the passing time, I hear the Schumanian harmonies, I even wait for them with desire so much I know them by heart. I am there, I am there for him.
Yes but here is, the kid in my back starts to play with her metal collars and my Schumann is quietly tinged with an improbable "Lachenmann touch" which fogs my perception and makes me lose little by little the sharp and acute quality of my listening.
It is then, believe it or not, that a nauseating odor comes through my anti-covid mask. I hit rock bottom. Sokolov is still there, Schumann too, but I am definitely elsewhere. And not in an elsewhere which enchants me. I felt disgust, I now feel a form of aggression. The old lady next to me is visibly prepared, because she takes a perfume out of her bag without waiting and sprays it on the back of her hand as well as on her husband. At this very moment, I am listening to a masterpiece of German romantic music, played by a Russian piano master, floating in a sweet smell of fart tinged with a hint of vanilla. I feel like crying.
The ten preludes by Rachmaninoff that will constitute the second part of the concert will be just like that. Throats are coughing. An alarm clock rings in a pocket. A scratch rips. Clothes rustle because few people seem to be able to stay still for 40 minutes and then comes the highlight of my evening...
Andante, 6th prelude, 4 seats on my right, the purr of a cat is perceptible, it increases, I do not dream, this old man fell asleep, he snores!
At this precise moment, I have no more faith in humanity. I am devastated.
When Sokolov finishes opus 23, the auditorium resounds under thunderous applause and bravos. I am wedged in my seat, my backside hurts and all my muscles are aching because obviously I would have preferred to die on the spot rather than move a little toe and thus risk breaking Sokolov's miraculous enterprise. He did not move as well, did not crack his seat, did not cough once, he is 71 years old !
1st encore, he is incredible. The applause claps. 2nd encore, the people are standing. At each encore (6 or 7), Sokolov sits down and plays without waiting, it is systematic. But as all these assholes (yes, I'm annoyed) take time to sit down again, we miss each time the magic of his first notes, masked by the noise of the seats that welcome the asses of these idiots. The old man who had fallen asleep is up too. At the 5th bis, the kid behind is discussing with her friend "if he comes back again, I'm leaving".
When I go down the steps that guide me to the exit, I look at the crowd with skepticism and sadness. I am knocked out. I missed Sokolov, I missed Schumann and Rachmaninov. When I walk along the dressing rooms and the bar, I pass a young man eating a doughnut with such vulgarity that I have a furious desire that he chokes on it and dies! I may be exaggerating a little here...but still, witnessing such an expression of beauty and perfection touches you at the deepest level of your being and inevitably makes you a better person if you are able to receive it. Being better includes not eating a doughnut like a pig right after such a miracle.
So what to do?
As a teacher, train young people to listen. An active, greedy, attentive, sharpened listening. Educate them to patience, to self-sacrifice, to the pleasures of work and knowledge. To make them discover the pleasures of the "long term". To lead them beyond the sirens of immediate pleasures. To educate, for their own good and the good of humanity.
To train them also in respect, in attitude, in the collective codes which alone allow us to fully enjoy such a fragile jewel when there are so many of us wanting to take advantage of it. "Living together a classical concert" is yet another very specific configuration of "living together". We must teach it.
As a music lover? .... for chamber music in general and piano recitals in particular? buy a big screen TV, a quality sound system, become a hermit (a little more) and lock myself in to fully enjoy the best that humanity can create. The teacher that I am will continue to train the young for a better future. But for me, as I speak, isolation (without the straitjacket) is once again the only solution.