Chopin’s extraordinary Ballade No.1 seems to inspire serious students of the piano, whether dedicated hobbyists or aspirant professionals, like no other single piano work. Its role at a pivotal moment in Roman Polanski’s 2002 film The Pianist has doubtless contributed to its celebrated status. More recently the sense of Zeitgeist around this masterpiece has been further enhanced by former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s book in which he outlines his endeavours to learn the piece against all the odds (Play It again: An Amateur Against the Impossible).
This article assesses the main recordings of the work available on YouTube, with the aim of helping you locate the most compelling performances. Given the range of richly rewarding interpretations on offer, from widely divergent artistic personalities, it’s clear that this piece of music truly inspires many of the world’s greatest pianists too. They are in good company: Chopin apparently told Schumann that this Ballade was his favourite among his own works.
Having long occupied an exalted place amongst interpreters of this work, Pollini is well represented on YouTube, mainly in recordings taken from ‘live’ performances. If Pollini is at his best when he combines his commanding brilliance with a sense of space and a willingness to yield to the more lyrical impulses of the music, one of these recordings is pre-eminent. This is indeed a magisterial account: granitic, turbulent when the music demands, but also with an enchanting sense of reverie in the second subject, truly faithful to Chopin’s sotto voce marking. Throughout the work Pollini’s phrasing comes in long, organic paragraphs, contributing to an inexorable sense of the work’s overall architecture.
Richter is also well-served on YouTube, mostly via recordings of various concerts from the 1960’s. Richter’s interpretation remains fairly consistent across these performances. His introduction is restrained rather than consciously arresting, and leads to a subdued main theme, cowed with sorrow. In the midst of such a weighty reading, his rather insouciant way with the second limb of the second subject in the recapitulation (from bar 180) is rather quirky – hardly the con forza stipulated by the composer. But in general Richter is fully responsive to the unfolding drama, and the denouement is suitably demonic.
Much less consistent are the various YouTube versions of Vladimir Horowitz, again from ‘live’ performances. The most impressive of these is a video of a Carnegie Hall concert. As might be expected from Horowitz, this is a big-boned rendition, but there are also many charming individual moments of lyricism and a delightfully teasing quasi-waltz (from bar 140). Even in this performance, though, there is sometimes an unwarranted heavy-handedness, a certain lumpiness in the phrasing and rhythmic relationships:
These less appealing characteristics are more pronounced on the various other Horowitz performances on YouTube. Indeed one version (posted by ‘boomzxz’) is nothing short of a travesty.
The countless admirers of Arthur Rubinstein would cite the sheer individuality of his poetic sensibility as one of the crowning glories of his playing. His recording of the 1st Ballade, dating from 1959, certainly has those moments of insight, but some will feel that at times his rubato and tonal shading step across the border from revelatory to wilful. For example, the way he curtails the very first note of the piece or flattens out the triplet in bar 4 seem difficult to justify. Chopin was a perpetual revisor, and was on occasion even capable of sending substantially varied versions of the same work to his different publishers, so it would be ill-advised to argue for a frigid fidelity to the text in the performance of his music. However, he notated the rhythm of this Ballade’s introduction so precisely that it seems appropriate to adhere to his written intentions.
Whatever are Rubinstein’s eccentricities, they pale into insignificance when set alongside Cortot’s performance. There is certainly something of the tortured artist here, and Cortot’s rhythmic liberties are at times so spasmodic that he could scarcely be seen as a prime contender. However, if one can disregard his distortions of Chopin’s text in, for example, the second subject, one can be drawn into a quasi-improvisatory dreamscape that is oddly intoxicating.
Yet pianists from a bygone era such as Cortot don’t have a monopoly on extreme expressive freedom. The ‘live’ video of Lang Lang reminds us that not all today’s pianists are sanitized in comparison with their predecessors. Lang Lang allows himself more poetic (and sometimes textual) licence than most of his colleagues, past and present. There is fervour and panache in abundance; indeed the overall effect might be mesmerising to someone who had never heard the piece before. For those more familiar with the composer’s score and the general stylistic history of Chopin playing, some aspects of his interpretation are likely to be puzzling at best.
For more convincing examples of rhythmic flexibility one might turn to Claudio Arrau. Of the many versions available on YouTube, recorded at various stages of his career, perhaps the most consistently fulfilling is one dating from 1953. Here, his way with the third phrase of the main theme (bars 12-14) or the apogee of the second subject (bars 79-80), to give just two examples, is very rubato indeed, but seems to fit perfectly in the context. Indeed, Arrau’s second theme in general is one of the most exquisitely contoured to be found anywhere. It is true that Arrau is less scintillating than many in the more bravura passages of the work, but this is a performance to treasure for the beauty and gravitas of its musical soul.
In many ways Martha Agerich’s interpretation is the polar opposite of Arrau’s, in her characteristic emphasis on the volatile, tempestuous aspects of the work. Yet Agerich also finds room for a winningly tender second subject. Another strength of this performance is the dazzling clarity of her fingerwork in the central section, giving a wonderful sense of caprice.
This Russian artist strikes a fine balance between respect for the score and apparent spontaneity. Individual phrases are lovingly sculpted and intelligently related to each other; this thoughtful approach shines, for example, in his very organic transition between the first and second subjects (from bar 36). There is much profundity in both main themes (although the slightly halting quality in the first theme is somewhat curious), and the central section pulsates with verve and playfulness.
Unlike many others, Kissin observes Chopin’s con forza (bar 180) in the recapitulation of the second subject, giving this section a great sense of élan. The main body of the coda is not utterly relentless; instead he withdraws at the beginning of certain phrases, both tonally and rhythmically. Rather than detracting from the drama, this seems to magnify the ultimate annihilation.
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli
In a studio version captured on video, Michelangeli offers an aristocratic reading, understated and seemingly effortless. There’s not much red-blooded passion here, and the performance isn’t free of his ‘left hand before right’ mannerism, but there are substantial compensations, notably an irresistibly languid second subject.
There are also various ‘live’ performances by Michelangeli (posted by ‘RabidCh’ and ‘incontrario motu’ among others) which are by no means carbon copies of each other, but in general he seems more emotionally involved and allows himself more expressive freedom (not always to the music’s advantage) than in the video recording.
The main recording by Ashkenazy, taken from his Decca box set, has that emotionally searching quality that is one of the hallmarks of this artist. The main theme is mournfully ruminative, setting the tone for a performance full of pathos, perhaps sometimes at the expense of propulsion. Yet there is plenty of the requisite majesty and drama too, and Ashkenazy’s peerless tonal refinement makes for a deeply satisfying listening experience.
There is an earlier ‘live’ performance by Ashkenazy, recorded in Moscow in 1963. This has much more of the impetuosity of youth (it’s over a minute shorter), the expression is in general more overt and the ferocity of the coda even more seismic. The recording quality is admirably clear but shows its age in an occasional hard edge to the piano sound.
Perahia gives a powerful and insightful account. Some of the underlying chords in the first theme (especially in the recapitulation) are a little dry and obtrusive, but this is a minor quibble. This is a highly convincing performance, poised and intelligent, titanic when necessary but devoid of hyperbole. Other versions might be more captivating in individual aspects of the work, but few achieve Perahia’s cohesion, both in the relationships between individual phrases and the logic of the overarching structural framework. This masterful grasp of the musical narrative is perfectly illustrated, for example, in the transition (bars 188-194) leading to the final stricken intoning of the first theme.
Gilels has an imposingly strident manner in this work, sometimes to good effect, especially in an exciting ‘live’ performance from Leningrad in 1963. There are moments of melting beauty, but in general the emotions are conveyed quite forcefully, and sometimes the sound is a little too stark for the context, for example towards the end of the first theme.
There is a remarkable ‘live’ recording by the 14-year-old Umi Garrett. This is not just a question of gaping at a Wunderkind, and musing sagely if the child prodigy will be able to mature into a genuine artist. On the contrary, this is already a fully-fledged performance, full of artistic sensibility as well as marvellous dexterity, one with which to try a ‘blind test’ on your musical friends.
Bolet is represented by a video recording, made late in his career, and indeed this performance has a distinct sense of a master looking back. Although many other pianists engulf us more remorselessly in the work’s turmoil, this performance is suffused with a haunting sadness that perhaps compels more deeply than some other more extrovert readings.
Another performance of impeccable artistry comes from Andrei Gavrilov. From his suitably portentous introduction Gavrilov takes us on an absorbing journey through the work’s ever-changing landscapes. This is music-making of the utmost sincerity, and Gavrilov always directs his stupendous physical prowess to the service of the music. Towards the end of a titanic coda, his pronounced rubato and the sheer slowness of the final octave descent (perhaps too melodramatic for some listeners) crown the work with an epic fatalism. Unfortunately the rather muffled sound quality of the recording is not commensurate with the quality of the playing.
The opening bars in Zimerman’s hands immediately set the tone for a performance of great grandeur and finesse. Every musical gesture is delivered with great conviction. His rubato is highly idiomatic and his phrasing wonderfully nuanced, although he is less ethereal than some in the more introspective episodes, especially the initial statement of the second subject. The central A major statement of the second theme is toweringly imperious. Overall, Zimerman’s interpretation has a severity that seems entirely appropriate, no more so than in the main body of the coda which is relentlessly pulverising rather than frenetic, leading with gripping inevitability to a bone-crushing final catastrophe.
So who are the best interpreters of Chopin’s First Ballade?
With such a range of outstanding performances to choose from it is genuinely difficult to select one definitive version. The most poignantly lyrical performances are not necessarily the most riveting in the more magmatic or mercurial aspects of the work. Ashkenazy, Gavrilov, Kissin, Pollini, Perahia and Zimerman are amongst the most enthralling communicators of Chopin’s kaleidoscope of emotions. But if forced to take just one performance to the proverbial desert island, it would be Krystian Zimerman.
Tagged on: chopin reviews
Ian FlintMarch 8, 2016Reviews
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This all began with Gary. We were a group of strangers, who had come to the Lot valley in central France to play the piano for a week; keen amateurs all. Gary seemed the outsider – a little awkward, unfinished around the edges; at times distant, melancholy; troubled even. There had been hints about Gary's life – time spent as a Manchester cab driver; anecdotes about a pub he'd once run. And now, he'd produced business cards for his latest venture: a website for leather and PVC clothes. ("There's leather," he would say knowingly over dinner one night, "and then there's … leather.")
A couple of days into the course, he'd broken off his masterclass – an overambitious attempt at some Liszt – saying he felt unwell. He was more than unusually withdrawn in the run-up to his final recital, when the nine of us played to each other. But then, on the last evening, he sat down and played Chopin's Ballade No 1 in G minor, Op 23.
In that bare stone-floored room above the village vineyards, we were all transfixed. Gary's fingers seemed possessed. His customary sense of distraction had been replaced by complete absorption. He was playing an extraordinarily complex and technically demanding piece, and he was playing without the score, as if carrying the music inside him.
The final presto was both demonic and dramatic. The last converging octaves crashed out defiantly. He'd done it! An amateur pianist – no better than any of us – had just knocked off one of the most daunting pieces in the in the canon. There was a moment of stunned silence. Gary turned round and looked a little sheepishly at us. And then the audience of eight burst into amazed applause.
A week or so later, I was packing for our August holiday when at the last minute I found myself slipping a score of the Ballade into my suitcase. In our rented farmhouse there was a cheap upright piano, and one day I tentatively tried to pick my way through this formidable piece. I'd known the Chopin ballades since university, but it had never before occurred to me to try and play any of them. In mountaineering terms, it would be akin to a middle-aged man deciding to climb the Matterhorn – something a few obsessive and foolhardy amateurs do, indeed, attempt, but fraught with peril.
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Not in my dreams could I get near playing it. The thought niggled away. It wasn't (I think, I hope) a competitive thought – if Gary can, I must – so much as simple curiosity. How was it possible? If I could begin to comprehend that, I would have a much better understanding of how to play this instrument that had really eluded me for the whole of my life.
I resolved to learn the piece and perform it. I would give myself a year. I'd carve out 20 minutes a day to practise. I was three months short of my 57th birthday – quite late for a Damascene conversion to a musical rigour that I had so far shunned. Were my brain and fingers still capable of learning new tricks? I would have to acquire lashings of technique I knew about, but had spent a lifetime avoiding. In short, I would have to learn to play the piano properly.
And I would be tackling the composition that the great Murray Perahia was soon to warn me is "one of the hardest pieces in the repertoire".
Saturday 30 October
I went to see Claus Moser today. He is a few weeks short of his 88th birthday. In his time in Britain he seems to have had a hand in running everything, from music academies to banks to Oxford colleges, museums and the Royal Opera House. But it is being an amateur pianist that is perhaps the central obsession of his long life. I found him sitting in an armchair in his upstairs sitting room just off Regent's Park – an L-shaped room with the family Bechstein that escaped Hitler in one wing of the L. "It's not fantastic," he says, "but I can't get rid of it; it's too emotional."
Outside the trees are golden brown in the late October sun, which adds to the autumnal air as we talk about some his of earliest memories. He speaks in a still-firm and resonant voice, with an impeccable English upper-middle-class modulation:
"Hausmusik, as we call it, was absolutely the centre of life in the sort of home in which I grew up. What I can describe as Hausmusik, I think even Hitler couldn't disturb. In any middle-class family, not to mention upper-class family, which I suppose we were, the chances are nine out of 10 that somebody in the family plays something. I mean, it's just more natural than not.
"It would be absolutely normal and expected that, certainly once a month, but probably more, there would be a chamber-music evening in the house. I think that goes back to Bach and Handel and so on; I mean, Hausmusik was just part of life, much more common than going out to supper or having dinner parties.
"If the family was well off enough then amateurs would be joined by professionals. It wasn't just amateurs, it wasn't just the family making music. It was quite common that we'd have first-rate professionals making music with us and we'd practise like mad. So amateurs like me grew up trying to be as good as the professionals. Not that we were, but we were never a separate clique. So high standards were aimed at, were there from the beginning, and it was all enriched in those years until Hitler came to power."
Friday 3 December
The week begins with a Tube strike paralysing London, which complicates a journey across town to White City to do the Today programme on BBC radio. By dawn the WikiLeaks story has gone global. Monday and Tuesday are a blur as we're besieged with media requests and inquiries from newspapers all over the world, but we have to keep our heads down and focus on producing the following day's revelations according to the schedules the international newspaper partners have spent so long agreeing.
It is going to be like this right up to Christmas, I suspect. I can't remember any story quite like it: each day – actually twice a day, since we're launching stories in the morning and late at night – the partner papers are setting something off that ends up being discussed simultaneously in the White House, the Pentagon, the Kremlin, the Élysée Palace; in Delhi, Caracas and Canberra. It's the first prolonged, rolling, real-time global scoop – a vast spillage of information seeping out across the world.
Somehow I'm managing to keep playing my 20 minutes a day most days, and on Wednesday – in the middle of all this – I have precisely 59 minutes with my teacher, Michael Shak.
We pick up at the precise spot we left off last Wednesday – looking at the problem of how to tackle the octaves at bar 119. If I'd thought this was going to be 59 minutes of respite or retreat, I was wrong. Michael says the scale we're looking at is in "B minor – apart from the E sharp", which might be a help if I'd ever learned my B minor scales. And to complicate things, he doesn't agree with either of my suggested fingerings. Again, he wants me to use my third finger for an octave reach – which I've never done before – on the basis that using the third finger on the first F sharp will help make sense of the beginning of the scale.
The next scale in the octaves is "C-sharp minor, apart from the F double sharp", which is of equally limited use to my brain at this time in the morning (or, if I'm honest, ever). This time he wants two third fingers in the mix. The final scale is – mainly – G-sharp minor, and again I am going to have to learn it note by note, never having previously considered playing G-sharp minor scales to be an essential life skill.
It's 9.29 when we stop. For a few seconds – as I come blinking out into the Kentish Town daylight – my mind remains lost in Michael's convoluted technical challenges. But it is only seconds. I'm immediately checking emails and within 15 minutes I'm back at my desk, with the morning conference about to start. There's a brief post-mortem on Tuesday's WikiLeaks releases – encompassing Pakistani, British and French politics – and then a look ahead to Wednesday's, with their myriad legal rapids.
The problem of how to finger an octave C-sharp minor scale is fast receding. But the 59 minutes of non-WikiLeaks has, as ever, helped clear the head and reset the mental clock.
Monday 6 December
What can I do about my terrible memory? What goes on between the eyes reading the notes on the page and the fingers moving across the keys? Who can explain it all to me?
A friend points me in the direction of Ray Dolan FRS, professor of neuropsychiatry at UCL and one of the pioneers of modern neurobehavioural research – he's also a hiking partner and scientific muse to the novelist Ian McEwan. And so today I nipped out for a lunchtime coffee in his office overlooking Queen Square in central London.
I find a fiftysomething, warm, loquacious Irishman with endless patience when explaining the intricacies of the brain to an arts graduate whose last exposure to the biological sciences was in O-level classes 40-odd years previously. I begin by outlining the nature of my problem: that I can sight-read music perfectly well, but the moment the sheet of music is taken away from me, I really struggle – in fact, until recently I couldn't play a note without sheet music in front of me.
Dolan immediately reassures me. "You have a memory," he says firmly, "and the fact is that, at the end of that first month on the foothills, you were better at playing the Ballade. So something has gone in, something has happened. What the sheet is, essentially, is a cue and a lot of us need a cue to remember things – just something that will elicit the memory. So the music for you, as it's written and in front of you, is clearly a guide, it's a script, but it's a cue as well. It's eliciting memories that have been laid down."
He proceeds to give me a lesson in memory. Broadly speaking, he says, there are two types. "The first is what's called explicit memory, and then there's implicit memory. Explicit memory would be a memory that I can bring to mind and declare in some way. So the fact that yesterday morning I was in Potsdam. I can remember what I had for breakfast. I can remember waiting for the taxi to pick me up, going to the airport. So that's declarative memory."
I'm already struggling. This sounds like three types of memory – implicit, explicit, declarative. Not two.
"Well, there are two types of explicit memory, so let me unpack it a little bit better. The memory I'm describing is what's called an episodic declarative memory. In other words, I can retrieve the actual 'me' embedded in the memory. There's another type of memory which doesn't require the 'me' but which I can make explicit, which is, 'I know that Angela Merkel is the German chancellor; I know that Joe Biden is the vice president of the US.' So I don't have to think of 'me' in that memory but I can bring it to consciousness.
"So that's two types of explicit: one is episodic, the other is semantic. You can bring them to your mind. I would say that is a small component of the brain's memory ability. The vast majority of your memory is implicit. It cannot be brought to consciousness, but it is there and we know it's there for the following reasons. Based upon prior experience, your behavioural fluency is enhanced, and that goes from everything from walking to riding a bicycle to writing."
Or playing the piano.
Sunday 2 February
I drive across town in the afternoon to interview Murray Perahia, who has asked me over to his new house in north London. We start with tea and chocolate cake, sitting in his light, airy kitchen/dining room.
"I always loved the Ballade," he says as he pours the tea. "It's a piece I went back to many times. I left it, went back to it. I was there when [Vladimir] Horowitz made his comeback and he played that Ballade and it was staggering. I've heard it since on YouTube, that performance; it's an amazing performance."
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"And how hard is it for you?"
"It's very hard. I think it's one of the hardest pieces in the repertoire. It's, what, about 10 minutes of music, and in those 10 minutes you have to express a world, and a continuous world. That's a difficulty because it can get segmented, it can get 'this little bit is like this' and 'that little bit is like that'."
"Well, now I have to play it."
"How much time do you get to practise it? You probably don't get any time."
"I practise 20 minutes in the morning and then at the weekends if I can … I'm aiming for July. It will have taken me a year."
That won't do for Perahia. "You need two hours a day for anything to stick. Twenty minutes is not enough."
"For anything to stick in the mind?"
"Yeah, because you'll get many ideas and they have to crystallise and focus on something. I'm not excessive over practice, but you do need two hours."
I quickly change the subject.
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Thursday 7 April
Today I interview Daniel Barenboim, who's in town for a "cameo concert" at Tate Modern. His view of the Ballade? "Slippery."
Meaning? "The G minor Ballade," he replies, "uses so many difficult techniques – the leaps, the continuous movements, the soft playing, the loud playing, the chords [he mimics playing these different passages in the air, a cigar still in the grip of his right hand] – so that you are constantly bombarded with new difficulties and have no time to prepare for them because they are suddenly there and you're not ready for it."
Sunday 17 April
Lessons with Michael remain difficult. I'm now fairly sure that he's not trying to give me the brush-off, but his mood is not encouraging. Michael has always insisted that by "baking in" bad habits you set yourself up for trouble for the future, and so lessons can – if I don't work hard enough – be very narrowly focused and critical.
"No left hand; that's a 5 you're playing, not a 3."
His eyes were glued to the keys. I began to feel flustered. "No, Alan. You slipped in a 3 instead of a 4." He paused at one point and addressed me quite severely. "Alan. You're just not precise enough. You don't work hard enough at getting everything right. You're just not learning it thoroughly enough, putting the work in."
I was suddenly 11 years old again, being told off by Barry Rose, the fearsome choirmaster at Guildford Cathedral. I felt flickers of resentment, and even a little shame, at Michael's diagnosis and insistent tone. But the point of being an adult learner ought to be that you can accept fair and constructive criticism. I go to him to learn, not to be flattered or charmed or coaxed into playing this piece. But I can taste the bitterness I felt as a teenager. And how, at the age of 16, I just wanted to give up.
Wednesday 13 July
Up at 7 am, with a TV crew doing a live broadcast to Australia from my sitting room. I then walk around to Michael's house for a piano lesson. It wouldn't be true to say that Michael knows nothing about what has been going on in the outside world – he did say that he'd seen me on Newsnight, or the news – but it's plain that the phone-hacking story holds limited interest for him. So we don't waste much time discussing Rupert Murdoch. It's not so much a cold start today as a cryogenic one.
I play the entire Ballade through for him, only the second time I've done so. As usual, Michael sits right by the side of the piano as I play so I'm hyper-conscious of his relentless eyes flitting between the keyboard and the score on his knee. Early on, I fluff some arpeggios and I hear him gasp in a completely involuntary way. Given that I've had, by now, nine days of working 16 hours a day at least, I'm not utterly dismayed or surprised by the mediocre result. Despite the onslaught of new information at present, it seems the procedural memory is holding fairly firm. Michael seems – how would one rank it? – not entirely displeased. At the end, he says something mild – not "you've got a lot of work to do" or "that was good" or "that was terrible", just something understated like "you can do much of it".
Tuesday 13 December
It's taken much more than a year. But now I have to play the Ballade in front of a small audience – just to prove to myself (with witnesses) that I did it. It's just as well they're all mates. No one in their right mind wants to come out on a dark December night to hear a 10-minute amateur performance of one Chopin piece.
Before actually sitting down at the piano, I play the audience two audio clips from my interviews over the past year. First, there's Emanuel Ax wishing me well, warning that I'm not going to play it like Pollini – before cheerfully adding that nor is he ever going to manage that standard. And then it's Murray Perahia's Bronx tones chastising all those who claim to hear errors in Horowitz's YouTube performance of the Ballade. "There are all these idiots writing in, 'Oh there are so many mistakes.' I really don't hear them … As far as I'm concerned it's a perfect performance. I don't hear those wrong notes that everybody hears … All these nuts, you know, they write in to YouTube, they say, 'I can play better than that.' So I say, 'Well, post it then, let's hear it.'"
I take a deep breath and bring the thumbs and first fingers of each hand down on the first octave C. Suddenly I'm blind to the audience. My conscious world has shrunk to a very intimate space bounded by the span of the keyboard. And within that tiny dot of concentration there's an inner circle of unconscious from which the notes are beginning to well.
The first few pages are not too bad. I'm conscious of taking my time. If this is the Matterhorn, I'm walking confidently along a ridge with a sheer drop on either side. The slow second subject sings its way to the back of the room. The big chords are mostly where they should be, the octaves more or less as written; the waltz could be a lot worse.
Then, about halfway through, I'm conscious of burn in my forearms. So I'm not as relaxed as I feel – and the very thought of the burn makes me tense a little more, conscious of all the tumbling, rushing passages to come.
I'm two bars away from the coda and the big beast of a Steinway has just unleashed a deep organ-like D to mark the two bars marked il più forte possibile – as loud as possible. My hands, though still tense, wrench everything they can out of the instrument. The first bar is marked appassionato – rushing forward. The second poco ritenuto – slowing down. The effect is like the winding of a spring which will explode with the next note – the first chord of the coda. I've played this link maybe 200 times in the last 16 months. But tonight it's precisely here that my mind goes blank. I just can't remember how the coda begins. Totally ridiculous. I know it so well. I do. It's there in my brain even now, just at the front above my eyebrows – but I can't retrieve it. And somewhere else in my brain – creeping down the back of my neck now – there's a fleeting instinct of panic. Which is going to win? Should I stop, regain composure and restart? Or linger for a fraction of a second and see if the fingers ignore the momentarily frozen brain and find the notes for themselves?
In the end, the hesitation lasts maybe three-quarters of a second – none of the non-musicians later said they noticed a thing – but it feels like several heartbeats have passed. And then, just as suddenly, something unblocks. Not with a snap, but a sort of surge, like a sluice gate opening.
By the last two pages, the niggling fear of complete capsizing has receded. I'm into the final torrents – snaking chromatically to the top of the keyboard, then cascading all the way down. Then up again in octaves. Up even further in more or less coordinated tenths. Finally – the most dramatic ending to any piano piece I know – the jagged octaves that begin in dissonance from opposite ends of the piano, slowing down as each is hammered out, before they converge and crash chromatically and ever more furiously back down to earth.
Suddenly it's over. My hands have ended as they began – with thumbs and fingers joined in intoning a unison note of despair. There's a moment of silence and then everyone's on their feet. I can't remember ever feeling such an instant, immediately physical surge of release.
So I managed it, even if it's taken much longer than I'd anticipated. But I have, over 16 months of snatched private moments and lessons, learned a great and very difficult masterpiece of the piano repertoire and can – in the professional view of at least three proper pianists I've learned with – play it. Sort of.
When I embarked on the project, I had no way of knowing that these 16 months would be the most intensive of my working life. There were two major stories – WikiLeaks and phone hacking – which not only made global headlines for weeks on end, but also were deeply controversial in some quarters and involved immensely powerful and aggressive adversaries. All this piled in on top of trying to negotiate the digital revolution, the most profound challenge – technical, economic and journalistic – that the press has seen in generations, if not ever. A job that was routinely 12 to 14 hours a day Monday to Friday regularly expanded beyond that and ate deeply into the sixth and seventh days.
And now, at the end, I know the answer to two questions. Is there time? And, is it too late?
Yes, there's time – no matter how frantically busy one's life. There's always enough time in a week to nibble out a regular 20 minutes here and there if one wants to make it a priority. And more than that, by making time, life improves: under the great pressures and stresses of the year, I've discovered the value of having a small escape valve – something so absorbing, so different, so rebalancing.
And the answer to the second question seems to be equally encouraging. Back in the summer of 2010 I had no idea of just how capable a 56-year-old brain was of learning new tricks. In the course of the past 16 months I have asked mine to develop capabilities beyond my imagination. Could I really train that sponge of grey matter – already full to overflowing, it often seemed – to learn not only 264 bars of immensely complicated musical notation, but also to memorise great swaths of the piece?
It's heartening to know that, quite well into middle age, the brain is perfectly plastic enough to blast open hitherto unused neural pathways and adapt to new and complicated tasks. So, no, it's not too late.
And I've learned my mother was right – right to make me play; right in the pleasure music would give me; right that musical ability is both a social ice-breaker and the forger of deep and lasting friendships.
Play it again.
• Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible by Alan Rusbridger is published by Jonathan Cape on 17 January for £18.99. To order a copy for £15.19 with free UK p&p go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846.