Are today’s concert pianists boring?

Pianist Khatia Buniatishvili (Photograph: Andy Hall)
Pianist Khatia Buniatishvili (Photograph: Andy Hall)

An article by Martin Kettle, which originally appeared in The Guardian in 2002 and has been doing the rounds of the social networks recently, claims that today’s concert pianists as “so boring”. He waxes nostalgic about the great pianists of yesteryear (Cortot, Horowitz, Rubenstein, Schnabel, Kempf, Serkin, Richter et al), highlighting wondrous sound, insightful and profound interpretations (“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”), a seeming “golden age” of pianism that has passed, never to be rekindled; but the author singularly fails to explain exactly why he feels today’s pianists are boring.

Every age has its “greats” who are remembered, sometimes through rose-tinted spectacles, for their uniqueness, their special qualities. I believe that there are many pianists alive and working today who will also be remembered as “greats” in years to come, and I feel that the international piano scene today is very much alive, rich, varied and exciting. It is also highly competitive, never more so than now in our image-driven, here-today-gone-tomorrow fast-paced 21st-century world.

The life of the concert pianist is hard and can be a smothering profession. All the hours spent working, conjuring magic out of that big box of wood and wires, with only dead composers for companions, can feel like a form of captivity, the grinding, solitary hours of practise only intermittently relieved by work with colleagues, ensembles and orchestras and conductors, and of course concerts. It can be a tough, restrictive and lonely life. Then there is the traveling, living out of a suitcase, sometimes a different place each night, playing an unfamiliar instrument in a foreign concert hall of uncertain acoustic, fine foreign cities viewed through the fog of travel fatigue. These days, audience expectations seem higher than ever and so the pressure to achieve is matched only by the pressure to sustain, and  the uncomfortable knowledge that one’s reputation is only as good as one’s last performance.

To sustain a successful solo career it strikes me that one needs a thick skin, a keen focus and a hefty dose of self-belief and self-reliance. If my Meet the Artist interviews have revealed one key insight (amongst many other fascinating revelations), it is that a musician, whatever their discipline, must remain true to themselves and their own artistic vision. Yet, it can be hard not to endlessly compare oneself with others, with one’s peers, and wonder whether one should be doing it differently.

Alongside this, I feel that the wealth of high-quality recordings available today places an additional burden on performers to produce faultless performances every time. Competitions are also to blame in this regard, with performers under pressure to produce a
perfect rendition in artificial surroundings.

Today digital and social media mean that concert artists can offer innovative ways of traveling well-trodden paths, which can shine a new light on their work and provide audiences with different insights into the working and creative life of the musician. Valentina Lisitsa is perhaps the most famous example of this. Her YouTube films of her practise sessions and her concerts receive millions of hits. But this pianist is no nine-day wonder: I heard her at the Wigmore Hall earlier this year and was impressed to discover she is a “real pianist”, not just a YouTube sensation. Sure, the internet has contributed to her success, but fundamentally she is a committed and very genuine concert artist.

Many pianists working today are stepping outside the traditional concert hall to present music in more informal and/or intimate settings; others are engaged in unusual collaborations, pushing the boundaries of the instrument, commissioning new works, and inspiring the next generation of young musicians.

I will include my personal “top 5” pianists of today at the end of this post. In the meantime, I’d like to publish some of the comments I received on Facebook in response to Martin Kettle’s article:

“…..to say that [today’s pianists] are boring is just ignorant of the fact that there are musicians who can give phenomenal performances which will be in the memory of the keen listener for some time. Though there are dozens more, amongst my favourite living pianists are: Claudius Tanski, Grigory Sokolov, Arcadi Volodos, Maurizio Pollini, Carlo Grante, Daniil Trifonov, the list goes on…..” (LJ)

“Murray Perahia for his consistent excellence…. Andras Schiff for his peerless Bach, Stephen Hough for his thoughtful and sensitive playing, Gabriela Montero for her impossible improvisation skills, and Benjamin Grosvenor for his precocity….” (MH)

“In my lifetime I’ve heard Richter, Cherkassky, Perahia, Baremboim, Lugansky, Schiff, Argerich, Ax, Pletnev et al – all original, all interesting. I lament what competitions, conservatoires and editing suites have done and that a style epitomised by Cortot, Friedmann, Paderewski has been left behind, but boring? Not really” (DG)

“Pianists in “olden” days didn’t have and couldn’t conceive of the post-modernisms and post-colonialsms we have now. Meaning our “now” is about curating and curatorship rather than the “authenticity” of first-hand connection between pianist and composer. There’s also the interesting point about “boredom” in the title of the article – John Cage has pointed out boredom describes what we feel when we don’t connect to the moment, the now. Cage’s point was non-connection is fine (and also it’s temporary). It belongs to the individual rather than whatever the individual is looking at or hearing or experiencing…” (MP)

“There are many tremendously gifted pianists today, performing, recording and in intimate new venues scattered throughout the world…….there are exceptional musicians out there. The recital will thrive, and I surmise there will always be a turnover of talent as generations overlap. I actually see the piano as very much alive. There is a new generation of players studying now, and they will soon be noticed.” (JB)

“This idea of a ‘great’ artist is simply personal taste” (JdC)

“Technology, YouTube, new artists, have expanded classical pianist visibility on an extraordinary level. Simply stated, there is something for everyone now.” (JB)

My top 5 living concert pianists:

Murray Perahia – consistently excellent in all repertoire. I particularly like his ability to highlight the interior architecture and secondary voices in Bach and Chopin.

Grigory Sokolov – insightful Bach and Chopin coupled with an exquisite sound

Marc-Andre Hamelin – pianist and composer, Hamelin is, to my mind, a modern-day Liszt. A real musical polymath who combines extraordinary technical prowess with glorious sound and profound musical understanding.

Maria-Joao Pires – sensitive, thoughtful playing, interesting and exciting collaborations, beautiful sound, particularly in Schubert and Mozart

Yevgeny Sudbin – his exquisite touch and gorgeous soundworld blew me away when I heard him at the Wigmore earlier this year. Insightful and penetrating performances.

Please feel free to leave comments and contribute to the discussion

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Are today’s concert pianists boring?”

  1. Hi Fran,

    Great post, as usual. I am struck that there is no mention of Martha Argerich in your top 5???? No Barenboim? No Lang Lang? Love or hate his mannerisms, his playing is always exciting.

    But the line I keep re-reading and thinking about is “with only dead composers as companions”. If there is anything boring about concert pianists today, surely it is that many concert artists continue throughout their careers to see who can play the same 20 concerti best.

    Thanks for the work you do, Fran!

    1. Hi Terry

      Thanks for your comments – and I agree wholeheartedly with your comment about pianists who stick with the repertoire season after season. I admire Maurizio Pollini, for example, for his willingness to tackle a broad sweep of music from Bach to Boulez.

      My top five is a very personal choice – and I knew that people would perhaps take issue with my choices, or those I’ve left out!

      So glad you enjoy my blog – keep reading!

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