My mistake

Sunday morning. 3. iii. 13

I must have been avoiding the Archers Omnibus because I was listening to Radio 3. It was a programme devoted to Opus 1s and when I tuned in Anton Webern’s Passacaglia for Orchestra was about to begin. I half-listened. Then the presenter, Rob Cowan, introduced Beethoven’s Piano Trio, Opus 1 saying that this recording was particularly interesting because it featured a single mistake by the violinist Jascha Heifitz…a note out of place towards the end of the piece. He said this was worthy of note because Heifitz was known for his ‘perfect’ playing and he cited a letter sent by George Bernard Shaw to the violinist as evidence of this. Maybe because I had only half-listened to the Webern piece or because the subject of close-listening has come up a lot recently, I decided I would listen carefully and try to spot the error. And I thought that, as I am not much interested in Beethoven (!) it would be good to pay attention to this music that has dropped off my radar in recent years. Now I realised that knowing that the mistake occurred near the end of the piece was not going to help me as I did not know the music and had no idea when the end might be. In fact, when the piece started I discovered that one of its characteristics is a series of false endings…a structure building towards a climax that is often delayed…the structure constantly reassembling itself into another form.

This idea of the ‘mistake’ intrigued me too and maybe thinking about it stopped me concentrating on the music. I have listened to so much live, improvised music in the last few years that this kind of ‘mistake’ is not really part of my listening experience. The musicians in the gigs I go to can, individually or collectively, miss the point or loose the plot but being able to identify a single note error is unlikely, if not impossible…especially as so much emphasis is placed on ‘taking apart’, open-ness and the upsetting of expectations in this kind if performnance.

So the piece ended and there was much studio banter about how even Heifitz was fallible…mortal even. The presenter read out a tweet from Howard Skempton about a backhanded compliment he had received when someone said his mistakes were always ‘so interesting’. But, of course, I missed the mistake. Maybe the note was not ‘off’ enough or maybe it was the kind of time slip that I no longer identify as being wrong. Or possibly my attention strayed. So now I have to decide whether I will go back to the ‘listen again’ facility online before the week is up. I’m not sure that my (probably partial) ‘close-listening’ did much good in terms of my appreciation of the piece. All the way through I was thinking: ‘was that it?’ The notes followed one another (and there were lots of notes) considered not for their felicity but for their correctness. Somewhere down the line the thought that listening to music ‘like this’ might be pleasurable slipped away all over again.


The recording used on the Radio 3 programme was RCA LSC-2770, tracks 1-4. Jascha Heifitz (violin), Gregor Piatigorsky (cello), Jacob Lateiner (piano).

Also available on Jascha Heifetz (violin): The Complete Album Collection

Sony 88697700502 (103 CDs + DVD).

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