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Topic Options
#907232 - 09/09/02 11:51 AM What do you think??
AndrewG Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/26/01
Posts: 2506
Loc: Denver, Colorado
Why are today's concert pianists so boring?
Martin Kettle
Wednesday September 04 2002
The Guardian

It was the reviews of Evgeny Kissin's recent concerts that brought things
to a head. The brilliant pianist is regularly hailed as the greatest of
the modern age. But his reviews were terrible. The fans had cheered him,
yet the critics hated his technically flawless playing. Left cold by
Kissin as always, I sided with the critics. But it made me reflect that
the problem may run deeper than a single pianist. If there were a softer
and gentler way of saying this, then I would say it. But in my view,
modern concert pianists have become boring. Very few of them have
anything very interesting to say, at least to me.

To make such statements is to invite some heartfelt attacks. Some will
say that it isn't the pianists who are boring, but I who am bored with
the piano. Perhaps that is the case. But then I only have to put on a CD
by Schnabel to know that I'll never be bored by him, at any rate. Others
will ask what someone who does not himself play the piano can say on this
subject with any authority. I have no answer to that. I merely believe
that piano recitals - and piano recordings - used to be far more
rewarding than they have become today. Is this objectively the case; and
if so, why?

Many will say (as friends with whom I have discussed this subject have
said): "But what about so-and-so? How can you dismiss an artist like X or
Y?" And of course, in a way, that's unanswerable too. How could anyone in
their right mind ignore an artist such as Mitsuko Uchida, for instance?
But perhaps the world in which we listen to Uchida has changed more than
we realise.

There was a time when the piano was the most accessible and most powerful
medium of music for many people. The piano was to musical culture what
the internal combustion engine was to mobility. The piano revolution
started around the time of Beethoven and began to come to an end with the
arrival of the LP. But its time is clearly over.

The piano's heyday stretched from around 1830 to 1960. That was true in
four ways, all of them connected. Firstly, there was the technical
revolution in the instrument itself, culminating in the unprecedented
expressive richness of the concert grand. Secondly, there was the
explosion of great writing for this wonderful new instrument, stretching
from before the time of Chopin to after the time of Prokofiev. Thirdly,
there was the emergence of a succession of outstanding players (of whom
Liszt is generally acknowledged as the starting point), who gave concerts
and later made recordings that deepened the public's enthusiasm for the
piano's possibilities.

Finally, there was the increased availability of the upright piano and of
relatively inexpensive sheet music, which combined to provide the
principal means of domestic music-making of industrial society.

The days in which every middle-class home, and many working-class ones
too, contained an upright piano - and at least one person people who
could play it a little - have not been completely erased from memory. But
they are fading fast. The gramophone, the radio and above all the
television long ago replaced the piano as the focus and main source of
home entertainment. It will never reclaim that place.

The piano's fall from eminence has been accompanied by a falling-off in
the replenishment of the piano repertoire. As in all other music,
composers have gone in other directions. Who, since, let's say,
Shostakovich (and even this is stretching a point), has written piano
music that genuinely holds its place in the recital repertoire?
Certainly, few composers any longer write music that amateurs are able to
play (not that many amateurs could ever play much Chopin); or (more
importantly) that amateurs want to play, even in simplified editions.

In this context, it is hardly surprising that the piano recital itself
should have begun to wither too. The recital has undoubtedly become a
less mainstream part of musical life. There are fewer of them. They are
not such big events in either box-office or artistic terms. Of course,
there are exceptions. There always are. But we are kidding ourselves if
we pretend that nothing has changed.

This brings us back to the pianists of the modern era, and the question
of whether they have - or could have - remained unchanged amid so many
other alterations in their world. The answer has to be that they have
not. As the place of the piano has changed, so the place of the pianist
has changed too. Pianists, and the audiences who listen to them, can no
longer be sure that they represent a living and constantly regenerating
art form. And it shows in the playing.

There can be no real dispute that the age of the pianistic "lion" - the
age of Liszt and Rachmaninov - is dead. It died with Vladimir Horowitz in
the same month that the Berlin wall fell. It was the end of the era of
the pianist as star, an era in which pianists could be seen as demons
possessed by brilliant and magical technical skills.

What is more striking, I think, is that the age of the intellectual
pianist, the priestly interpreter of the classic works, is disappearing
too. This tradition, stretching from Bulow and Busoni to Schnabel and
Arrau (with a brief detour into the Glenn Gould cul-de-sac) now lives on
largely in Alfred Brendel. But as the years pass, even this tradition is
becoming frayed in the postmodern world.

Arthur Rubinstein once, with a characteristic smile, told an interviewer
that he always thought of Brahms as a modern composer. This wasn't an
assertion of conservative taste on the great pianist's part. It was
simply true. Rubinstein's own youth had overlapped with Brahms's old age.
When Rubinstein played Brahms, which I heard him do in his 80s, he was
playing the music of a man who was part of his own lifetime. Listen to
the wonderful Brahms recordings he left. It shows.

Twenty or 30 years ago, it was still relatively easy to hear elderly
pianists who knew in their very being, as Rubinstein did, that they were
artists in a living interpretative tradition. That quality shone through
everything that such people as Arrau, Wilhelm Kempff or Rudolf Serkin
ever played. All three were, I think, taught by pupils of Liszt (as was
Schnabel before them), and Liszt had famously been kissed on the forehead
by Beethoven himself. Arrau's Beethoven always had a sacramental feel.
Serkin's Beethoven and Schubert recitals, of which I heard several, were
overwhelmingly creative experiences in ways that one now never hears.
Again, the Serkin records provide the proof.

And then there was Sviatoslav Richter. The first Richter recital I heard
has stayed in my head as no other concert has. I remember everything he
played and quite a lot of how he played it: an Olympian rendering of an
early Schubert sonata; Franck's Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, in a
performance so magisterial that I have never had the slightest
inclination to hear anyone else play it; then, after the interval, an
overwhelming account of the Liszt sonata.

This may all seem like nothing more than an exercise in 20-20 rose-tinted
nostalgia. But golden ages really do exist. The 1960s and 70s came at the
end of one such age. But those years were not some caprice of the
pianistic gods. They were rooted in the European cultural history that
immediately preceded them.

It seems to me significant that some of the most outstanding young
pianists of that same era gradually turned away from the solo piano at
this time. Whether this was a conscious rejection, let alone a
coordinated one, is hard to know. But of the four most celebrated 60-
something pianists of that period, only one continues to play regularly.

Daniel Barenboim still occasionally gives piano recitals, but for 30
years and more his remarkable talents have been focused on conducting.
Martha Argerich, whom many people tend to nominate as the greatest living
pianist, has not, so far as I know, given a solo recital in years,
preferring (when she turns up) to play concertos and chamber music.

Vladimir Ashkenazy's withdrawal is especially remarkable in the light of
his wonderful gifts. Like Kissin, Ashkenazy emerged from Russia with a
technique that appeared to sweep away all technical obstacles. Unlike
Kissin, Ashkenazy's technical skill was harnessed to a rare sensibility
and a rich self-awareness. Yet for some years now, he too has turned his
back on a virtuoso career.

The one enduring recitalist of that generation, Maurizio Pollini, seems
troubled in a different way by the pianistic inheritance. The years have
not dimmed Pollini's technique or his intellectual integrity, but there
has recently been a cold intensity to his playing that is disturbing.
This is a condition that seems particularly to affect Italians
(Michelangeli in the previous generation went through a similar process).
It is as though, in the pursuit of objectivity, Pollini now seeks to
negate what was previously understood by interpretation.

This does not mean that there are no important recitalists any more, or
that no pianist makes recordings worth listening to (though I can't help
feeling that digital recording has not helped). Brendel, Uchida, Maria
Joao Pires, Andras Schiff, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and, judging by a recent
recital, Richard Goode, are all active pianists who in various ways
continue to extend our understanding of the art form. The career of
Joanna MacGregor, who is engaged in a one-woman crusade to reinvent the
repertoire and the recital tradition, is proof both that there are
exciting modern pianists and that the cultural terms on which they must
play, if they are not to become mere antiquarians, have changed
fundamentally.

This is not "the death of the piano". The piano will never die. But the
great days have gone. With the passing of time, the piano is becoming
ever more a historical musical instrument and ever less a creative one.
Perhaps that explains why, though the pianists can play all the notes as
well as ever, the notes carry so much less meaning to some of us than
they once did.

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited
---------------------------------------------

Food for thoughts?

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Piano & Music Accessories
#907233 - 09/09/02 02:34 PM Re: What do you think??
Pianorak Offline
Full Member

Registered: 08/24/02
Posts: 101
Loc: UK
Quote: "Perhaps that explains why, though the pianists can play all the notes as well as ever[/b] , the notes carry so much less meaning to some of us than
they once did."

But isn't that perhaps the problem? Pianists today CAN and DO play all the notes - as demanded by the hothouse atmosphere fostered by national and international competitions of which there are far too many - whereas the older generation perhaps could but did not necessarily play all the notes. To wit: Cortot, Perlemuter, Gieseking and even Rubinstein who claimed that all the wrong notes he played were enough to write another piano concerto.

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#907234 - 09/12/02 04:40 PM Re: What do you think??
jeffylube Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/26/02
Posts: 716
Loc: Weatherford, Texas
Wow that's a great article (kinda sad though \:\( )...thanks for sharing AndrewG...

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#907235 - 11/26/02 10:25 AM Re: What do you think??
BeethBaChopin Offline
Full Member

Registered: 11/15/02
Posts: 235
Loc: Atlanta, Georgia, USA
These are interestng facts. But I wonder, what is the cause of all this? Ok, it is perhaps that pianists have stopped to be creative due to the ways of today's music schools and competitions. Or matbe creativity and musical personality are only inborn and not taught. If that's the case, it's hopeless and we're just going to have to wait for another Horowitz to be born.

But i also think it's the lack of public interest that plays a big part in this. All these problems with today's pianists that we hear from critics could just be an illusion, and the problem may be in lack of public interest in pianists and classical music.

And the cause of that in turn could be that there is a lot of fierse competition, a lot of MTV. That the day has changed, music has been too commercialized, and people today want more 'hip' and simple pop-like music, not requiring a lot of musical energy, unlike classical music, as we know. That may be the core of the problem, I think.
_________________________
"...the luckiest man I know." - Arthur Rubinstein about himself and his love of performing.

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#907236 - 11/26/02 10:45 AM Re: What do you think??
BeethBaChopin Offline
Full Member

Registered: 11/15/02
Posts: 235
Loc: Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Here is an article that may clear up this issue.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/features/story/0,11710,793426,00.html

Per the article, today's solo pianists' motives (to show dominance and earn as much oney as possible by giving many concerts) and consequential lifestyle (too much travel, and tradmill lifestyle with no real life experiences and circle of friends like the old masters) don't allow them to bring out creativity.

But things like creativity, etc. are what critics are looking for, not the public, as stated in the first post in this topic. That means, thank God, people still attend concerts and pianists are even busier today. If you ask me, I don't worry about creativity, etc. either, like you guys, who are musically on a different level (maybe I can represent the public and you can represent the critics, just kidding).

Like stated in the article, the public (and myself, personally) expects from the soloist the level of playing we hear on the CDs. Creativity may be overrated for the public these days, which may be a sad thing for music, because like Gould said, performers will never again have the insight insto music that composers have.
_________________________
"...the luckiest man I know." - Arthur Rubinstein about himself and his love of performing.

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#907237 - 11/27/02 11:22 AM Re: What do you think??
BeethBaChopin Offline
Full Member

Registered: 11/15/02
Posts: 235
Loc: Atlanta, Georgia, USA
One idea just hit me. I think that interest for classical music can be resurrected by good showmanship, and I just thought of Liberace. People who wouldn't normally go to classical music performances went to his shows because of his showmanship, and they fell in love with the classical pieces he played. Just an idea of what it takes to bring back classical music to public life. ("Classical music for people who hate classical music.")
_________________________
"...the luckiest man I know." - Arthur Rubinstein about himself and his love of performing.

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