London: Memories from the Eighties

Back in the Eighties, I visited London a few times each year on business. We’d meet with clients in an upscale hotel and, at day’s end, have a drink together in our host’s parlor room. The BBC played soft background music over his FM radio. Two memories stand out.  Both are fine examples of English (dry) wit and wisdom:

1. One evening, the BBC played classical music. They always ended  their broadcast with a “Thought for the Day.” That day’s thought went like this: “Before you drive away the love you have, consider that it may be the greatest love to which you are entitled.”

2. Another evening, they played a live piano concert by the maestro himself, Arturo Rubenstein. At the conclusion of the first half, the BBC commentator called Rubenstein “the greatest pianist that ever lived.” After the break, he came back and said he had received several telephone calls pointing out that “…I  could not call Rubenstein the greatest pianist that ever lived, because I have not heard every pianist that ever lived.”

He paused and said, “The callers are quite correct. Allow me to amend my earlier statement: Rubenstein is not only the greatest pianist that ever lived, he is the greatest pianist who will ever live.”

He then announced the program for the second half of the concert.

This bonus anecdote has nothing to do with the BBC. It has to do with the Fifties, Ferruchio Tagliavini, my brother Leo, and a little man in a duck suit at Harrod’s in London. I use this story to describe people who know their business:

Back in the Forties, we would sit around the big Crosley parlor radio with my father and listen to his favorite musical programs. I remember “The Bell Telephone Hour,” “The Voice of Firestone,” and “City Services Band of America.” I think it shaped all of our musical tastes.

In the Fifties, big brother Leo bought an RCA Golden Seal classical record album entitled: “Ten Tenors, Ten Arias.” He played it endlessly and explained classical music in general to me, and the skill and range of tenors in particular. His favorite tenor was the Italian tenor, Ferruchio Tagliavini. He was a “sweet tenor,” and could go from an almost whispered and perfect low note to a crashing crescendo in fewer seconds than a Ferrari going from 0 to 60. Tagliavini had one aria on the album: “Una Furtiva Lagrima.” It was memorable.

I remembered all that for the next 30 years, and would occasionally stop in large record stores around the country, and ask “Do you have any recordings by Ferruchio Tagliavini?” I would sometimes get a polite no, a blind, incomprehensible stare, or the inevitable lazy clerk reply: “If we have it, it’s over there against the wall.”

Sometime in the Eighties, I visited Harrod’s Department Store in London. Harrod’s is the world’s largest department store, upscale, and very British. I went into the music department. There were recording racks stretching in every direction, as far as the eye could see. They had recordings of every kind.

I was approached by a very proper British “Music Department Counselor”. He was an older man, wearing pince nez glasses, and a morning suit, complete with tails and hand done bow tie. “May I help you, sir?” he asked.

“I’m interested in recordings by Ferruchio Taglianvini,” I said.

He paused for a moment and then asked: “Would you prefer his operatic performances or his concert appearances?”

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