Monday, February 22, 2016

Musical Explanation 2/22/16: A Briefish Ode to the Piano

(Sviatoslav Richter, as far as I'm concerned, the Emperor. The poet, the thunderer, the philosopher, the natural force of music, all rolled into one.)

Oh how I wish I played piano instead of violin. I'll always love the violin dearly, but I chose the violin as a precocious little shit not because I loved the violin but because it was the king instrument of the orchestra. I never cared about playing the melody. I love the whole sound of a reverberating harmony with all its rich overtones and complete resounding through the room and through the self. Every improvised violin solo I take seems to be an endless series of double stops, every piece I compose seems to make the string player work triple and quadruple duty as they have to compensate for their paltry harmonic limitations.

Alfred Cortot - the ultimate poet of piano

No instrument, not the violin, not the organ, not even the voice itself, not even the orchestra, has the richness and depth of the piano's repertoire. To this date, the piano and the organ are the only self-sufficient instruments that require no accompanying instrument to feel utterly complete. But the grandness of organ precludes nearly any intimacy at all. Only the piano can take you from the grandest thunder of Liszt to the most intimate confessions of Chopin.

(Rubinstein - pure charisma)

In our new era of specialists and mechanization, we the general public no longer need use our hands for anything but...  The piano was the ultimate musical achievement in the days when we built our own houses, grew our own food, fashioned our own tools. We can put on piano recordings to listen to the greatest players ever known to man at the click of button, and yet few of us ever do. When we cease to practice music, we've lost the crucial third dimension of what music is: not just an aphrodisiac used to make us feel a certain way, but a tactile experience that literally becomes a part of our identity, our confidence, our achievements in our brief period on earth. An experience that not only articulates our primary emotions, but explores every emotional nuance and crevice in the complexity of our emotional selves. But what need have we of complicated music when we don't take up the challenge of mastering it?

(Claudio Arrau - Philosopher King)

Many of us memorize songs and play them on the guitar, and they usually require us to remember how to position our hands in five chords. The guitar, at least in the way it's usually played, can remain untouched for years and we'll still sound fine when we play it. The piano, on the other hand, is the instrument of responsibility and middle-class striving. To remember how to play a piece of piano requires daily maintenance and work. The guitar, rather, is the ultimate instrument of middle-class rebellion - for all the would-be Hendrixes and Claptons who accomplish amazing things on the guitar, for most of its players, playing the guitar is to announce to the world that tells us we needn't work so hard to play great music. Are they right? In a sense they absolutely are. Something important was undeniably gained by making music simpler. Music is no longer the purview of emotional obsessives but expresses the primary emotions again of common lives. But something amazing was lost when we abandoned the ways of the piano - a striving not only for something everyday, but something too transcendent to be expressed in simple chords and simple words.

(Vladimir Horowitz - manic extremes)

I feel sorry for those who will never understand what it means to play, however badly, a great piece of music by the old masters. The experience is utterly unlike listening to it in your house or even hearing it live. For those of us who struggle with religion, it is the closest we'll ever get. It gets every one of us who's been called to by this music to a super-articulate truth that you can't express with mere words - a sense that there are more things in the heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

(Glenn Gould, pure intellect)

But as a violinist, I can generally only do it with chamber music, and require other people to feel this way. As a pianist, I could go there whenever I want. Whether your passion is Bach or Monk, Brahms or Brubeck, the communion with wordless, absolute music is something we in America have lost over the last fifty years. In our age, now that articulate ideas separate one America from the other, we desperately need something like this superarticulate metaphysical truth to bring us back together. If we had it, it would be difficult to believe that finding common ground between all of us wouldn't be easier.

(Emil Gilels, perfection and emotion together.)

But if you do nothing else, at least try to sample what it's like to hear the great pianists. Listen to the infinite imagination of Sviatoslav Richter, the poetry of Alfred Cortot, the sheer charisma of Arthur Rubinstein, the philosophical depth of Claudio Arrau, the elegance of Alicia DeLarrocha, the emotional extremes of Vladimir Horowitz, the intellectual leaps and bounds of Glenn Gould, the perfection of Emil Gilels, the seductive sounds of Walter Gieseking, the catharsis of Wanda Landowska (OK, not technically a pianist...), the multi-faceted genius of John Ogdon, the ageless poetry and fire of Shura Cherkassky. And so... so many others.

(Walter Gieseking. A voluptuary of seductive sound.)

What is the piano today, in its reduced state? It is not what it was. That's for sure. The last generation of the 'old school' pianists who have both brains and charisma are dying out - who speak the piano like a first language. The great Latin Americans like Daniel Barenboim, Martha Argerich, Nelson Friere are all around seventy. Russians like Grigory Sokolov and Andre Gavrilov are in their sixties, and Yefim Bronfman is nearly their age. Vladimir Ashkenazy is nearly eighty and has long since done little but conduct, and both Sokolov and Bronfman are morbidly obese and look like they're about to keel over at every moment they're not next to a piano. Stephen Kovacevich is already seventy-five. Krystian Zimmerman is pushing sixty, and he, like Sokolov, refuses to play in America. We have a few fifty-somethings who seem to have that now elusive combination of a brain, ten working fingers, and charisma: we've got Stephen Hough in England, Marc-Andre Hamelin in Canada, here in America, perhaps Garrick Ohlsson gets to their level, but while Ohlsson shows no signs of slowing down, he's also nearly seventy. Helene Grimaud is generally wonderful, so is Arcadi Volodos, and now that Yevgeny Kissin's over forty, his mind seems to have finally grown into his fingers. Mikhail Pletnev at least has original ideas, however bizarre they are. The little I've heard of Alexei Volodin excites me, but half the world thinks he's Arcadi Volodos anyway. We'll basically never know what Jean-Yves Thibaudet sounds like outside of his narrow French specialty. Stewart Goodyear is just getting started on the major circuit, and he looks to be fantastic. Zoltan Kocsis was great, but nobody's talked about him for twenty years. Maurizio Pollini's also over seventy, and while nobody disputes his mastery, he's always been equally boring and interesting from one piece to the next.

(Alicia De Larrocha - elegance, elegance, elegance)

What have we instead? We have pianists with brains but no charisma, and charisma but no brains. After the model of High German 'kunstlerpianisten' like Artur Schnabel and Wilhelm Kempff and Rudolf Serkin and Alfred Brendel, we have the multiplying model of the pianist as high priest. "Isn't this music wonderful?" they seem to say, while their recitals are monuments to high art with all the excitement of an Anglican Sabbath. Their playing is wonderfully delicate, so delicate that the subtleties are often lost in a large concert hall. They perform  nearly the exact same repertoire, and their performances often seem interchangeable because they're not willing to cross the bounds of good taste. Andras Schiff (whom, ironically, I'm seeing on Wednesday...), Richard Goode, Murray Perahia, Maria Joao Pires, Radu Lupu, Rudolf Buchbinder, Mitsuko Uchida, Manny Ax, Peter Serkin, Angela Hewitt, . They're all in their sixties and seventies - they have replacements: Lars Vogt, Leif Ove Andsnes (and half the music world thinks they're the same pianist too), Jonathan Biss, Paul Lewis, Piotr Anderczewski, Till Fellner. these are players for whom the word 'exquisite' was invented, with its revulsion of demotic popularity as pellucidly clear as day. I'm perfectly happy to worship at the temple of Beethoven and Schubert, but surely there are other, more rewarding, ways to approach music. Theirs doesn't even do full justice to their chosen repertoire. We also have pianists of brainless fingers like Lang Lang and Yundi Li and Denis Matsuev and Daniil Trifonov, who hopefully will grow minds into their fingers, and excite the public without giving them any money's worth but their thrills. The senses thrill to their assaults, but the heart is not warmed, the tear ducts not opened. Yuja Wang shows intelligence and technique, but she doesn't exhibit much yet in the way of personality.

(John Ogdon - the heir to Richter, cruelly cut short)

All these lacking soloists show us Age of the Piano is long since over, but surely its popularity didn't have to disappear so suddenly. Orchestral recitals are a dying animal, but piano recitals? Forget it. It's practically already dead. The dwindling crowds who come to hear these people have no idea how the public used to thrill to Horowitz and Rubinstein (which in themselves were nothing compared to how they used to thrill to Liszt and Paderewski). The Piano is the ultimate mechanical achievement of a pre-mechanical age. It reminds us of all the extraordinary transcendental things we can do again when we master our new technology. We now live in an age when the technology itself is much more interesting than the products they produce. One day, let's hope one day soon, we'll have it the other way round again.

(Shura Cherkassky - poetry and fire)

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