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February 9, 2017

Book Notes - James Rhodes "Instrumental"


In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

James Rhodes' memoir Instrumentaloffers testament to the lingering effects of sexual abuse as well as the healing powers of music.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"In this triumphant and arresting memoir, Rhodes charts his ongoing recovery and journey to his place as today's most exciting classical pianist . . . Rhodes writes with an arresting charm, at times cold and clinical, shockingly self-effacing, then painfully personal and poetic--sure to register powerfully with readers with similar experiences (he gives 'trigger warnings' before the more gruesome scenes). A gripping testament to the immense tragedy of sexual abuse, the magic of music, and the power of hope."

In his own words, here is James Rhodes's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir Instrumental:

Although it deals with some pretty challenging and heavy topics (suicide, child rape, mental illness - kudos to Bloomsbury for taking this on) Instrumental is a book primarily about music. Each chapter title is a specific piece and along with an opening page or two about that piece there is an accompanying Spotify playlist where readers can listen. I've included some pieces here which are also in the book and also chosen a few that are stupendously good and only didn't end up on that playlist because I ran out of chapters or I discovered them after the book went to print.

Bruckner Symphony no 7 Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic
A few years ago I told my piano teacher that I hated Buckner. I'd never heard any of his symphonies but rather like dismissing an X Factor contestant because he 'looks funny', I'd written him off. My teacher hit me (well, slapped) and forced me to sit and listen to this recording. All 70 minutes of it. It changed my life.

Ravel Gaspard de la Nuit/Chopin 2nd piano concerto Ivo Pogorelich
For my money this is the greatest piano recording of all time. Pogorelich has tilted slightly to the left mentally over the last few years, but I challenge anyone not to be totally knocked sideways by playing of this calibre. Visceral, jaw-dropping interpretations of both the 20th Century's greatest keyboard composition and Chopin's teenage masterpiece.

Bach Keyboard Concertos (both volumes) Glenn Gould
No description needed here. Glenn Gould and Bach. It's like bread and butter or Meryl Streep and awesome. They just go together without question. There's a reason a Gould album was out on the Voyager space probe as an example to alien life of what humanity is capable of.

Ben Folds Rockin' the Suburbs
The only rock star I'd sell a kidney to meet and work with. Since Ben Folds Five emerged I've listened dozens of times to every one of his albums. He's irritatingly precocious, writing, playing, producing, singing every track himself and gets bonus points for not being an egocentric dick. I confess to a slight man-crush.

Piano Transcriptions, Arcadi Volodos
Volodos does things to the piano that should be illegal. He carries on the rapidly dying-out tradition of pianist/transcriber in these electrifying performances of both his and others' transcriptions. Listen to the coda of Tchaikovsky/Feinberg's 6th Symphony Scherzo and see if you can remember to breathe at the same time...

Chopin/Godowsky etudes Marc-Andre Hamelin
Along with Volodos, Hamelin carries the title of 'greatest living virtuoso'. As if Chopin's studies weren't hard enough, Godowsky came along and made them almost unfathomably more difficult. And Hamelin makes them sound like child's play. These are incredible reinventions of bona fide masterpieces played shockingly well.

Liszt Sonata in B minor Mikhail Pletnev
Pletnev recorded this piece twice. And it's the first recording which will, in my mind, never be bettered. He takes 35 minutes to get through it, as opposed to the average 28-29 minutes and turns it into the epic, symphonic, giant monstrosity of a piece that Liszt surely intended it to be. Add to that the other works on the disc which include a Mephisto Waltz that makes me want to vomit with excitement and you have the perfect Liszt recital.

Rufus Wainwright Want One
I love Rufus' music. From his lazy 'fuck you' drawl to his immense lyrics ('Is there anyone else who has slightly mysterious bruises') and his willingness to use classical orchestration and themes. This is my go to album, filled with warm personal memories and always inspiring. 14th Street and I Don't Know What It Is are the stand out tracks for me but they're all superb.

Mozart piano concertos 21/22 Annie Fischer
Fischer is something of a hero of mine - a chain-smoking, can't really be bothered to practice, rock star of the keyboard. These are so immaculately played and made even more special by her choice of cadenzas in both concertos - Busoni and Hummel. Mozart has been called 'too easy for amateurs and too difficult for professionals'. She nails it.

Rachmaninov piano concertos 1 and 2 - Krystian Zimerman 
Yawn. Yet another recording of Rach 2. A piece as overplayed and ubiquitous as Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King. But in Zimerman's hands it is like hearing it for the first time. No mean feat. Both concertos here are bordering on sociopathic in their intensity.

Mozart Don Giovanni
Teodor Currentzis/Musica Aeterna

I've saved the best for last. Currentzis is the greatest living conductor. He has record all three Da Ponte operas and they are almost exclusively the only albums I now listen to. They contain within them everything there is to know about the world, God, humanity, humility and passion. I have never, ever heard recordings where one can say without question 'this is what the composer heard in his head as he was scribbling the notes down on paper'. Currentzis manages to get his orchestra and singers to do things with their instruments that I'd never thought possible. Buy Giovanni or Cosi fan Tutte or Figaro and listen in absolute wonder at the miracle of what we, as a species, are capable of.

When Instrumental went through the court system in the U.K. in its fight for publication (thankfully culminating in a Supreme Court victory), it was Currentzis who saved my life during those 18 months of litigation, monstrous legal bills and blind panic. If I were allowed ten desert island discs I'd only take these three. Life changing.

James Rhodes and Instrumental links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Guardian review
Kirkus Reviews review
Spectator review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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