Ballade #1 in G minor – Frederick Chopin, played by Artur Rubinstein
1989 Paris. Hugh Grant and I are sitting in La Coupole on Montparnasse, yards from our hotel, eating oysters, drinking bubbly. And why not? We’ve been given great wads of ‘monopoly money’ (or French francs) as per diems, expected to feed ourselves with it since we’ve been cast in a film called Impromptu, written by Sarah Kernochan, directed by her husband James Lapine and filming in Angers and Paris for seven weeks. Hugh and I decide there and then to sample all the great brasseries of Paris over the ensuing weeks, with all their proudly preserved Art Nouveau splendour, piles of ice and shellfish, tart tatin and cheese to savour, a white-aproned garçon and maitre-d to patronise us, and quite frankly, the finest wines available to humanity to evaluate at our leisure.
Blimey, I thought, I’m on the gravy train. Who wouldn’t ? I wasn’t, as it turned out, but just for a few weeks there, I so was. The film – Impromptu – concerned the affair between Polish genius Frederick Chopin (Hugh) and French novelist Georges Sand (Judy Davis) in the 1830s (the Ballade #1 dates from 1831) and particularly an enjoyable weekend with their friends Franz Liszt (Julian Sands), Eugene Delacroix (me!) and Alfred de Musset (Mandy Patinkin) at a pretentious nouveau-riche chateau and their hosts (Emma Thompson and Anton Rodgers).
Bernadette Peters and Georges Corraface completed the cast as spurned lovers. It was a gas. Too much to relate in a pop music blog to be honest, but as Hugh and I weaved our wicked way through the highways and often the byways of Paree, he often had to take time off to learn how to play the piano like Chopin. Had a little keyboard in his hotel room to practice on. I’d never really been exposed to this music before and it was simply overwhelmingly beautiful stuff. Chopin wrote almost exclusively for the solo piano, (four piano concertos notwithstanding) : waltzes, nocturnes, etudes, scherzos, ballades. They are to my ears – and indeed to Georges Sands’ and even Liszt’s – the pinnacle of all music. I bought a CD of Artur Rubinstein playing the Greatest Hits – and trust me there’s not a duffer on that LP. I’m only partly joking. I used to play it over and over. I still do – although since then I’ve bought the giant box set of Rubinstein playing everything Chopin wrote. I’ve heard many many other people playing these pieces – Pollini, Kissin, Horowitz, Ashkenazy are all great, but I always come back to Rubinstein. Maybe it’s because he’s Polish as well, who knows, maybe it’s because he doesn’t stick to the beat, there is a delicious hesitation before he lands on certain phrases. It is all exquisite. But most likely because that’s what I heard first.
Hugh hated doing the Polish accent and vowed never to change his voice again for a movie. Four Weddings & A Funeral was in the can and he had high hopes for it. He could do all the accents on earth, a lot of people don’t get that he is a mercurial actor but chooses not to be. We ate at Bofinger, Lipp, Brasserie Flo, Au Pied De Cochon, La Coupole and Terminus Du Nord. And others. Richard E Grant joined us one night because he was filming across town. Liz Hurley turned up (I’d worked with her earlier in a Dennis Potter film Christabel) and then we moved to Angers (Loire Valley white wines are the finest known to humanity: Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Muscadet, Vouvray, Savennieres) where Kenneth Branagh arrives and Ken, Hugh and myself play a round of (very poor) golf one afternoon. Ken very sweetly asked me to join his company but I declined, favouring the wide open unknown spaces of my uncertain future (was I on the gravy train?)… It was in Angers that I played my sex scene with Emma – the Duchess. She was a model of professionalism, funny, warm and very kind. One night after work driving back to the hotel from the chateau our driver ran over a rabbit and he braked hard, jumped out and disappeared. “Has he gone to see if it’s all right?” asked Em. We heard the boot open then close with a small thud. “No I think that one’s for the pot” I replied. She wasn’t happy.
24 years later I’m working in Vilnius, Lithuania on a TV show (The Assets) and sitting in a trendy coffeeshop with book-lined walls, a dog and a piano. A young man walked in, sat down and proceeded to play Ballade number 1 in G minor on that piano while people ordered coffee and surfed the internet, came and went. I filmed him on my phone. He made a couple of mistakes. It was kind of perfect.