Listen: Elgar’s Piano Quintet in A minor

Thoroughly Good Listens are first time-listens. They’re the thoughts that emerge when I hear a work for the first time. Active engagement with works of art. Special treats.

Can an unfamiliar work act as a mirror to your own emotions and a smooth ride to some other state?

I think it might. Elgar’s Piano Quintet is my gateway.

Some background might be useful.

Just last week I wrote about something I love. I explained I’d turned my back on it.

This wasn’t, as some thought it might be, a brutal act of betrayal on my former employer, but a desperate bid to draw a veil on a thing I love which has commanded a lot of my emotional energies. I wasn’t having a pop at the BBC, I explained repeatedly to a former colleague. I was shining a light on how my connection with the television programme (such as it is) needed to come to an end.

I felt terribly hurt. All weekend. Stupid I know. I assumed I’d made myself clear. But the exchange suggested my copywriting skills had been woefully misleading. Had I been responsible for someone else’s hurt? Fuck.

Elsewhere on the internet, Fiona Harvey retweets a video published by Youth Music. It documents the various different ways music impacts us psychologically. It’s a fascinating watch. It gets me thinking. Is it possible to identify an emotional need – in this case, the need for healing – and find that through a serendipitously discovered and unfamiliar work? Spoiler: yes it is.

Elgar’s Piano Quintet written in 1918 is both a cathartic listen and a spirited call to arms for change. Not only in that it resists the saccharin sentimentality or nauseating jingoism most assume as Elgar’s trademark. The Quintet on a first listen is transformative fuelled by a infectious sense of determination.

The first movement is all Brahms. Ravishing. Lush. It might even be more Brahms than Brahms. Part way through there’s a hint of something Spanish. But, served up throughout is a lean kind of courage followed by a pallet cleansing dish of hope. The thick chords in the piano accompaniment nourish while the accompanying string texture is a much-needed visceral addition. The movement ends with me thinking Elgar has something up his sleeve. I like the idea of having something up your sleeve.

Solitude follows in the second movement. I had assumed that something in the minor key would soothe me because it would reflect how I felt. But it was gratifyingly uplifting.

This was the point in time when I started moving the office furniture around, pushing the unused rolls of wrapping paper in behind the bookshelf and in the process, knocking down the pen pot. 15 years worth of lanyards fell to the floor as well.

I haven’t looked at those lanyards in years. God only knows why I’ve hung onto them. They’re nothing more than moments in time when I felt validated by some other mysterious force. I loved every single experience and opportunity those lanyards won me, but it’s time for them to be stored away.

Come the third movement, I’m awash with this idea of change and memories from my past confirm I have a proven track record in, from time to time, acting on instinct and shifting things around.

I end up of thinking of Emma. A fresher’s week ‘get-together’. She was wearing pyjamas, I wasn’t. Things got a bit intense. I left in the middle of the night. She follows me to the bus stop in her pyjamas. ‘Why did you have to leave? Couldn’t you have waited until the morning?’ I may have asked her to ‘back off’ at the campus bus stop. It was all very strange.

I only recall this odd memory now because of what happened next, twenty-six years ago. After things had died down a bit between us, Emma drops by my room.

She passes comment on the fact that in the intervening period since she and I last spent any time in each other’s company alone, I’d reorganised my room.

“Well, that says everything doesn’t it? You told me you liked to move things around in your room when things got a bit stale.” I rememeber wanting to ask her not to judge me quite so much. After all, the layout was more efficient this way around.

There’s a pile of lanyards on the floor. I’m going to go through them, decide what I want to ditch and then store them away in a box so I don’t have to see them again. That way I’ll have a little more space for other ideas. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think it’s a healthy thing.

The speaker is closer to the desk too. I don’t have to get up to switch it on or change the CD. The podcasting stuff is stored away neatly underneath the clarinets on the bookshelf. And there are three less Eurovision box files to have to look at too.

Elgar’s Piano Quintet is an agent of change. Exactly what I need right now.

Listen to the Elgar Piano Quintet in A Minor on Idagio or Spotify

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