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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

One Abbey Road for sale

By Norman Lebrecht / February 17, 2010

Is this the end of the Long and Winding Road? News that the hedge-fund managers who own EMI are putting the Abbey Road studios up for sale comes as no surprise. Living round the corner, as I do, I have seen a thinning trail of musicians making their Monday morning slog to work, and an absence of the great orchestral pantechnicons that used to crowd the courtyard.

It's not just due to a shrinking record industry. Many of the 64-track facilities provided by Abbey Road can now be emulated on a laptop in a musician's back-bedroom. The ceremony of going to studio is no longer a necessity of musical life.

Nevertheless the outer wall attracts hundreds of tourists every day, all year round, many of them leaving grafitti that declare their love for the Beatles, who enshrined the house in legend on the cover of an indelible album.

What will number 3 Abbey Road fetch on the property market? The way prices are heating up, I'd guess 30-40 million which is way short of the 120 million that Terra Firma need to service their debt to Citibank in June. Abbey Road, to its owners, is just another asset. To its users, it has sentimental value and Sir Paul McCartney has been trying to find 'a solution'. That, however, will not ensure its continuance as a recording venue. The Beatles had left Abbey Road before their own break-up, seeking sunnier, more private and tax-sheltered places where they could make their records.

So what is to become of Abbey Road? Ideally, it ought to be turned into what London lacks - a museum of music in all its forms, a place to house the visual archives of Decca and EMI, an occasional live concert and a rotating exhibition of all that was weird and wonderful in the mainstream annals of the recording century. With a modest admission charge, the museum should be able to pay its way.

Whatever its fate, the memories will remain - and mine are rich and varied. I can't forget the fat soprano who broke a toilet seat during an Abbey Road session (as it were) and blamed the offence on her weeping assistant. Or the famous early music conductor who kept coming into the control room to check that the producer and engineers were using the same 'authentic' score as he was - 'he can't hear the difference,' giggled the recording team.

Or Yehudi Menuhin, who often seemed to be there on some business or other when I was around. He had been there in 1931 with Edward Elgar, recording his violin concerto, and with his teacher Georges Enesco doing the Bach double concerto, during the studio's first year of operation. And he was there again on the 50th anniversary in 1981, recording the Bach double with a 12 year-old Chinese scholarship student at his school, a boy called Jin Li.

The record came out and vanished, never to be reissued on CD. Jin Li went on to make a good career as concertmaster in Singapore and soloist with many of the Asian orchestras. I asked him a while back what he remembered of that jubilee session. Here's what he wrote:

I was very young at that time and did not know how great the occasion was. Before that,I also did not know that Mr Menuhin and his teacher Enesco recorded the same concerto fifty years earlier in the same studio. It's only after I had done it I realized how meaningful that was.

I remember there were lots of people in the recording session (all London Symphony Orchestra players), that caused me to feel excited and quickly I became involved in the music. At that tender age,I neither felt nervous nor being pressured. At the end of the second movement,Mr Menuhin came up to me and said :"That was beautiful",I was so happy when I heard that,having the praise and approval of Mr Menuhin,for me it's a incomparable honour.

From a very young age, I was already not a talkative person,and only knew to practice the violin and express my feeling through music, did not think about things outside music. I remember Mr Menuhin changed some bowings in the third movement to bring out the clarity from the music.The recording is made in one go and form a coherent whole.

Now that I have grown, and read some of Mr Menuhin's books, I have discovered that the recording he did with me was an event of profound and lasting meaning,it came down in one continous culture line, can be traced to the same origin. I hope fifty years later,I can play the same piece again with my student.

I quote Jin Li's letter at length because it signifies what needs to be preserved - not the recording facilities, which have become obsolescent, but the performing space of Studio One and the continuity of transmission, the passing of a tradition from one generation to the next. That was Abbey Road's great achievement.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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