How we consume and listen to music has been transformed by digital technology. Where once recorded music was available only on the radio and vinyl LPs, reel-to-reel tape (and later tape cassettes) and CDs, it is now possible to access music 24/7 with the same ease with which one turns on a tap.

Today our listening takes many forms – at home on the radio, to a CD or vinyl LP, via a streaming service or YouTube; “on the go” through individually-curated or recommended playlists on an iPod or a smartphone; or to music that is played seemingly ubiquitously in social environments such as shopping centres, bars and restaurants, stations and even banks.

In our instant gratification-driven culture, streaming services like Spotify or IDAGIO (a specialist classical music streaming platform) in particular offer endless listening possibilities, and their portability (an app on your smartphone) means that music can be enjoyed wherever and whenever you are. Platforms such as these also allow users to create and share playlists (much in the way we used to make and share “mixtapes” when I was a teenager, only far less laborious in their creation today with just a click of the mouse!), and it’s wonderful to be able to access a vast range of performers and performances, including vintage recordings of Ravel and Rachmaninov, for example, playing their own music.

Some argue that the instant availability of music via platforms such as Spotify devalues the experience of listening to music, encouraging “passive listening” over “long” or “deep” listening and flitting between different tracks without listening to an entire album or even an entire song/track. These platforms have undoubtedly changed the way we listen, allowing us to engage with a far greater range of music than ever before, making our listening experience incredibly diverse. This has the potential, if we allow it, to revolutionise our everyday listening by mixing genres (classical, jazz, pop, world etc – and their sub-genres) and offering us “algorithm-curated” listening options based on our regular listening habits: the digital version of a friend saying “if you like that, you might like this”, or the recommendations of the record review section of the Sunday newspaper. Set your music service to “shuffle” and you add surprise and spontaneity to your listening experience (not recommended for those who enjoy hearing a piano sonata or symphony in its entirety, the movements in the right order!). Now one’s listening may not be wholly defined by genre, but by the music itself. Spotify creates a Daily Mix playlist “based on the different styles of music you regularly listen to, each mix is loaded with artists you love, plus a sprinkling of new discoveries that fit the vibe too” (Spotify website) and also a Discover Weekly playlist “made just for you [me]” which changes every Monday. I have enjoyed both playlists and have even made some new discoveries as a result.

In his book Every Song Ever author Ben Ratliff overturns the habit of listening by genre and instead suggests listening based on other, more general parameters such as speed, virtuosity, repetition or volume, thus offering cross-genre listening which may encourage one to make unexpected musical connections.

Meanwhile, over in the classical concert hall, some argue that the instant availability of music today and the erosion of the habit of deep or mindful listening is impacting on the way audiences engage with live music, making them less prepared to sit through a long programme or even works longer than c30 mins at a time, and more interested in programmes comprising a variety of shorter works. My experience and observations as a regular concert-goer don’t really concur with this view, and in general I think audiences are very much still prepared to put in the effort to listen in an engaged and respectful way. This is partly because current classical music audiences tend to be of an age and demographic that is less conversant or interested in the current technology to consume music, and I’m certain that it is also because the experience of hearing music live is so very different from the experience of listening on the radio, disc or via a streaming service. Those of us who go to concerts enjoy the spontaneity, the sense of risk and of music being created in the moment. The excitement of live music is a “total experience” – not only of the music itself but all the special rituals of concert-going which can never be recreated on a disc or MP3 track.

 

There’s a unique intimacy in the piano duet and a special etiquette must be observed when playing. For this reason, you need to be on friendly terms with your duet partner! The players sit very close together at the keyboard, often their hands will touch or cross over (Debussy’s Petite Suite contains much hand-crossing between the players), and each must be alert to the other’s part, sensitive to details of tempo, dynamics and musical expression, while details of pedalling and page-turns need to be agreed in advance. While some works for piano duet are undoubtedly aimed at children or junior players, many are highly complex, technically and musically challenging, such as Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands and works by Rachmaninoff and Messiaen. Some of the greatest pianists of the 20th century have enjoyed the very special relationship of the piano duet, including Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim, Radu Lupu and Murray Perahia, and Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick, the great British piano duo from an earlier era.

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The dance is as old as music itself, and many dances for keyboard or piano have their origin in folk dances such as the Mazurka, Polonaise, Polka, Tarantella and Tango. These folk dances and their characteristic rhythms and metres were taken by composers such as Fryderyk Chopin and elevated into refined salon pieces which are popular with audiences and pianists alike.

Playlist curated by Frances Wilson.

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How do we define “virtuosity” in a musical performance? I believe that when one hears it, it is as if one’s level of consciousness had been raised, and that it is impossible to ever think of the piano in the same way again. Such experiences are highly personal, revelatory, memorable and almost impossible to describe.

A true virtuoso “must call up scent and blossom, and breathe the breath of life” – Franz Liszt

It is during a performance by a true virtuoso pianist that we, the audience, enter a state of wonder, from which we emerge speechless, hardly able to put into words what we have just heard because the experience of the performance has awakened in us what it means to be a sentient, thinking, feeling, living, breathing human being.

I hope this selection will demonstrate some of the very special qualities of each pianist chosen.

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First published in 2007 ‘The Rest Is Noise’ by Alex Ross, music critic of the ‘New Yorker’, charts twentieth century Western classical music from the dying embers of “fin de siecle” Europe and the years prior to the devastation of the First World War to the present day. In many ways, the book is less a history of classical music than a history of the twentieth century as told through its remarkable, often shocking and epoch-making music.

Playlist curated by Frances Wilson.

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The piano study or ‘Étude’ has long engaged and challenged pianists, and the practice of writing Études to provide material for perfecting a particular pianistic technique, such as playing octaves or rapid scalic passages, developed in the early 19th century alongside the growing popularity of the piano.

Playlist curated by Frances Wilson.

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