A recent article in the New York Times bears the eye-catching title Virtuosos Becoming a Dime a Dozen. In it, Mr. Anthony Tommasini, critic for the paper, wrote that, “A young pianist has come along who can seemingly play anything, and easily, is not the big deal it would have been a short time ago.” Mr. Tommasini went on to discuss how technical proficiency at the piano has been raised to an incredibly high level, comparing it to athletes breaking the record for the four-minute mile, once thought to be an impossible feat.
The role of the interpreter is to bring forth the logic and beauty of a great piece of music, to draw the attention of the listeners toward the music and not the player. We have a problem when the interpreter uses music as a mean to glorify oneself, something that we do see in some of today’s musicians. Naturally, a great musician will inevitably bring his or her own special view of the music and inject freshness into the score. Even so, the music is, or should be, the focus of the listeners’ attention.
To be sure, musicians like Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin, Herbert on Karajan and Arturo Toscanini, were very strong personalities. But when these artists came on stage, they knew they were there in service to the composer and the music, not to themselves. Today, there are many pianists who can play the piano very well indeed. Nothing seems to elude them, at least technically.
But are they better musicians?
To be sure, we can measure how fast an instrumentalist polish off a Chopin Etude, or a Paganini Caprice, or how many false notes he or she had played. But we cannot quantify interpretation, depth, musicality, or whether the playing moves an audience. Playing an instrument is not quite the same as running the four-minute mile.
Ever since the advent of the long-playing records, where recorded technology allows the elimination of wrong notes in a performance, audience attending a concert have pretty much expect the same level of polish in a live performance. We live in an age when, with the press (or touch) of a button, we can instantly access a “perfect” performance of any piece of music. Because of this, audiences have come to expect perfection in performance, at least from a technical standpoint. Or they might expect a live performance to sound "just like my CD at home."
I once listened to Yundi Li’s live performance of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto. Afterwards, I listened to one of Arthur Rubinstein’s many recordings of the same piece. In terms of musicality, depth of feeling, and getting into the core of Chopin’s music, Mr. Rubinstein’s performance made Mr. Li sound like a very talented conservatory student. Ironically, Mr. Li’s live performance was technically more polished than Mr. Rubinstein’s studio recording. Can any of the no doubt talented Julliard students playing Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto match the unbearable excitement and indescribable tenderness in Horowitz’s performance of the same piece? Can anyone today play Bach with the same clarity and passion as Glenn Gould? And I challenge any of today’s young keyboard titans to give a performance of greater sweep and sense of grandeur than Alfred Cortot’s recording of Chopin’s Etude in C Major, Op. 10, No. 1.
Yes, there are indeed many pianists today who can play their instrument very well. But look at whom we had in the first half of the 20th century – Emil von Sauer, Moritz Rosenthal, Harold Bauer, Leopold Godowsky, Frederic Lamond, José Vianna da Mota, Eugene d’Albert, Alexander Siloti, Edouard Risler, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Josef Lhévinne, Marguerite Long, Ricardo Vines, Josef Hoffman, Erno von Dohnányi, Alfred Cortot, Ossip Garbilowitsch, Harold Samuel, Egon Petri, Artur Schnabel, Ignaz Friedman, Wilhelm Backhaus, Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Myra Hess, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Clara Haskil, Annie Fischer, Walter Gieseking, Alexander Brailowsky, Guiomar Novaes, Simon Barère, Robert Casadesus, Solomon, Rudolf Serkin, Claudio Arrau, Wilhelm Kempff, Dinu Lipatti, Maria Yudina, Mischa Levitzki, Vladimir Sofrontisky – and this list is not even exhaustive. A little later on, we had Alfred Brendel, Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, Rudu Lupu, Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim, Leon Fleisher, Gary Graffman, Byron Janis, Van Cliburn, Maurizio Pollini and Glenn Gould, to name just a few.
Would Mr. Tommasini have said that virtuosos were a dime a dozen then?
The fact is that all the pianists I named above were stupendous technicians, but the difference is that they did not make technical perfection their chief concern. And I believe that is what made them such interesting artists, each in their own right.
It is a happy fact that we still do have great artists in our midst. Thank goodness we still have pianists like Richard Goode, Murray Perahia, Krystian Zimerman, Andras Schiff, and Mitsuko Uchida, pianists who play with musical integrity, and depth of feeling. In the younger generation, I would single out Ingrid Fliter, runner-up to Yundi Li at the 2000 Chopin Competition, and Ingolf Wunder, coincidentally another silver medallist in the 2010 edition of the same competition. Both are original artists with interesting ideas about music. Again, although equipped with a complete technique, they use it in service to the music, to the composer, not as an end in itself. Certainly true artists are not a “dime a dozen”, a phrase that cheapens both the art and the artists.
And thank God many of these artists would play a wrong note now and again. It serves to remind us that there is a human being playing in Carnegie Hall.