The quote in the title is from celebrated pianist Leon Fleisher, who died in August 2020 at the age of 92.
In the many tributes to him, his wisdom and good sense, as a musician and a human being, and his rich legacy will live on in the memories of his performances, his recordings, his pupils (who include Jonathan Biss and Yefim Bronfman), and teachers, who pass on his wisdom on to their own students.
Back in 2008, in an interview with The Times newspaper, Leon Fleisher said of pianists: “We are athletes, but we’re athletes with small muscles. There is a limit. Now you get kids who can do things with such extraordinary brilliance on the keyboard that they belong in the circus. But it ain’t got nothing to do with music-making.”
Fleisher was primarily referring to practising and the habit of pianists to work themselves too hard, to the point where practising becomes harmful rather than helpful. But I find his comment about the circus and keyboard athletics, and the artistry of musicians interesting too.
How many of us have marvelled at the fleet fingers of young pianists, some as young as 10 or 11 (and the internet is awash with videos of these mini ‘virtuosi’)? The ability to play very fast, very accurately is, for many, both inside and outside the profession, a mark of the pianist’s facility and executive function. For those less versed in the true exigencies of the profession, it is a sign of brilliance – and the younger, and faster, the player, the more we exclaim “genius!”.
And in addition to all those videos of fleet-fingered would-be Ashkenazys and Argerichs, there are any number of tutorials offering advice on how to achieve such velocity: finger drills and exercises to train muscles and reflexes, while simultaneously numbing the mind.
Fleisher is right: keyboard circus tricks have nothing to do with music-making. Pianists are not performing dogs – because the craft of the musician, and the art of music-making, goes far, far beyond mere piano pyrotechnics. It doesn’t matter how fast you can play, if you cannot communicate the deeper message of the music, its emotion and its truth, then you are nothing more than a circus showman, a mere typist albeit with executive function, and what you present in the music is merely surface artifice. The pianist’s repertoire contains plenty of music written to test the player’s facilities and display astonishing keyboard athletics, but pure virtuosity should never take precedence over artistic vision, tone quality, and a proper appreciation of the narrative structure and architecture of the music. Add to this one’s musical knowledge, accrued through training and experience, and a broader discernment of what music-making is truly about, and at this point the music is truly brought to life, with integrity, honesty and communication.
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.
…a virtuoso was, originally, a highly accomplished musician, but by the nineteenth century the term had become restricted to performers, both vocal and instrumental, whose technical accomplishments were so pronounced as to dazzle the public.
Music in the Western civilization by Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin
Google “virtuoso pianist” and the image search will throw up pictures of Richter, Brendel, Rubenstein, Argerich, Arrau, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Ashkenazy, Barenboim, Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, Trifonov, Pollini, Cziffra, Gould, Kissin, Uchida, Hough, Pires, Ogdon, Schiff, Cliburn, Hamelin, Schnabel, Cortot, Horowitz, Hess, von Bulow, Andsnes….. The list is seemingly endless, with every significant or “great” pianist of today and previous eras afforded the accolade of “virtuoso”. Along with the pictures there are 100s of articles ranking pianists – the 25 greatest pianists of all time, the 10 greatest living pianists, 50 legendary virtuoso pianists……
The word “virtuoso” literally means “a person who is extremely skilled at something, especially at playing an instrument or performing“. It describes an individual with exceptional and extraordinary technical and musical abilities, but as the opening quote notes, the word is more usually associated with dazzling displays of piano pyrotechnics.
Today virtuosity in the sphere of classical music has become almost synonymous with an over-developed technical facility without a comparable level of musical understanding/interpretation or broader musical education. The word has been misappropriated and more often than not is now attached to the performer who simply plays very fast and loud, or one who attracts more attention to themselves than the music (I am sure we can all think of a few examples…..). It troubles me when the word is used to describe young children playing (seemingly) complex piano repertoire, whose irritating videos are posted across the internet. How many of these “piccoli virtuosi” will actually grow up to be true virtuosi, in the purest, most romantic sense of the word? As we gasp in amazement at these pianists’ fleet fingers and glittering pianistic athleticism, the word has come to mean something rather superficial and derogatory.
Virtuosos are constantly tempted to indulge in an undue exhibition of their wonderful technic, and as many have succumbed to the temptation, the term virtuoso has come to be considered by many as slightly depreciatory, and the greatest artists usually object to having it coupled with their names
W.L. Hubbard et al, 1908
For me, and I suspect others who appreciate the art and craft of pianism, virtuosity transcends technique. It is less about the ability to play the fastest, most treacherous passages of Rachmaninoff or Liszt or to scale the high Himalayan peaks of works like Gaspard de la Nuit or Islamey, or to perfectly execute thousands of scales and other ‘technical exercises’ with amazing dexterity, but rather an aggregate of many skills which enable the pianist to play a million different passages, and to adjust finger and arm weight and touch accordingly to achieve particular effects and sounds, as well as learning to ‘speak’ the language of music through one’s playing and an ability to stand back from the music to allow it to speak on its own terms. Nor is it about flashy piano pyrotechnics and extravagant gestures, which may wow the audience but do not serve the music. Indeed, a number of pianists whom I regard as true virtuosi are also some of the most “immobile” in the profession – Marc-André Hamelin, Murray Perahia and Stephen Hough being notable examples.
A true virtuoso “must call up scent and blossom, and breathe the breath of life”
Franz Liszt is usually held up as the first great virtuoso pianist, yet for many he remains merely a “showman” whose virtuosity was a negative attribute. A poseur and a charlatan, superficial and bombastic, whose playing and music was affected, grandiose and vulgar. But Liszt was no superficial showman: in addition to playing his own music, he played all the best music of his day and all the best music which had been written for the piano. He was “the very incarnation of the piano”. In addition, he was a pioneering conductor, concert promoter and champion of young composers (notably Wagner, who described him as “the most musical of all musicians”). His musical outlook in general was noble, transcendental, sacred, orchestral and metaphysical – surely attributes to be admired rather than denounced?
With Liszt, one no longer thinks of difficulty overcome; the instrument disappears and music reveals itself
The virtuoso appreciates and understands that each performance is a “critique” in the purest sense of that term; it is a profoundly thoughtful, insightful, penetrative response to the music in which the performer invests his or her own self in a symbiotic process in which he/she becomes not a re-creator but a collaborator with the composer. The virtuoso respects the demands placed upon him/her by the composer by playing the music with passion, poetry and extraordinary technical ability.
In concerts, the virtuoso approaches each performance, each interpretation as a unique occasion – something I feel is increasingly hard for performers when high-quality recordings are so readily available, benchmarks by which pianistic prowess is measured and which lead audiences to expect a certain manner of playing in live concerts. The virtuoso appreciates that there is no one “perfect” rendition of a Beethoven Concerto or Chopin Étude; that one should never aspire to have the “last word” on any work. It is for this reason that many of us seek out the same virtuoso performers in the same repertoire, either on disc or in concert, to hear how their view of certain works changes and develops over time. Yet for some musicians the constant revisiting of certain works (the Beethoven piano sonatas, for example), or playing them on different instruments (fortepiano, for example) suggests an overly reverential or literal attitude to the composer’s “intentions” as they perceive them, and a wish/need to make a final statement on this music and set it in stone. Such performances, for me at least, may come across not as virtuosic but rather as academic, mannered or overly precious.
…the further a performance must travel to reach the origin of the music, the more the artist demonstrates the measure of both his conscience and his genius: his virtuosity
Mark Mitchell, Virtuosi!
The virtuoso takes risks in performance – by which I do not mean coming to the stage ill-prepared. Indeed, the most risk-tasking, vertiginous, exciting or profound performances are often the result of many long hours – nay, years – spent living with the music. Even a flawed virtuoso performance can excite, delight and enthrall far more than a perfect non-virtuosic performance: technique over artistry nearly always fails to impress.
The virtuoso understands that while there is no “definitive” performance, one can create, in that “existing in the moment” of the live concert experience a performance whose communicative and emotional power renders it “perfect”. Audiences know this too – these are the performances during which we enter a state of wonder, from which we emerge speechless, hardly able to put into words what we have just heard (often the hardest concerts to review, in my experience!) because the experience of the performance has awakened in us what it means to be a sentient, thinking, feeling, living, breathing human being. I would cite concerts by Maurizio Pollini (in Pierre Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata), Steven Osborne (in Messiaen’s Vingt Regards), Marc-André Hamelin (in Liszt, Ives and Stockhausen) and Richard Goode (in Schubert’s last three piano sonatas) which transported me into that particular state of wonder.
The miracle of an aristocratic performance lies in its capacity to vaporize everything that surrounds it, and in particular all efforts to appropriate it.
Mark Mitchell, ibid.
And there’s more – because for me true virtuosity goes beyond the notes. It includes the ability and willingness to tackle a wide range of repertoire. By which I do not mean playing a lot of pieces, as some younger performers feel they should be doing, but rather playing a broad range of music. One of the chief exponents of this art is, in my humble opinion, Maurizio Pollini. Not many pianists would programme Chopin’s 24 Preludes, a selection of Debussy’s Preludes Book 1 and Pierre Boulez’s Sonata No. 2 in the same concert. Stephen Hough and Marc-André Hamelin are also notable examples in their championing of lesser-known repertoire and their own compositions.
People will always be impressed by fleet fingers and noisy piano acrobatics, but for me the most profound musical experience often comes in the quietest, slowest or most intimate moments in music when a venue as large as the Royal Festival Hall shrinks to the size of Schubert’s salon through the pianist’s power of expression and musical intuition and understanding. That is true virtuosity.
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