Saturday, December 01, 2012

“Clotted Cream On The Cusp Of Curdling” Or “Sight-reading Reger”

My father remarked a few days ago that Rudolf Firkušný, were he alive today and in his prime, would be the world’s finest pianist.

Half a century ago, when Firkušný was at the peak of his powers, Firkušný had trouble obtaining prestigious engagements—and no one on the planet believed Firkušný to be among the handful of finest living keyboard artists.

Firkušný’s artistry was never in doubt. The problem was that, during Firkušný’s active years, he was superseded by artists possessing greater gifts and greater magnetic force. All such artists had something special to offer, something unique that Firkušný lacked, whether it be temperament, personality, imagination, more penetrating musicianship or virtuosity. Figures such as Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, Wilhelm Kempff, Wilhelm Backhaus, Claudio Arrau, Rudolf Serkin, Arthur Rubenstein, Vladimir Horowitz and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli were all considered occupants of a class of pianism above Firkušný’s.

Firkušný simply got lost amid all the great keyboard talents of his time. An estimable pianist, Firkušný could not compete in a market overrun with legendary figures.

Over the last fifty years, the giants of pianism have died—and they have not been replaced. A figure such as Firkušný, never in the top flight of pianists during his lifetime, would today tower over virtually every living pianist.

My father’s point was not to advocate raising Firkušný to the pantheon—my father adored Firkušný, but my father was well aware that several of Firkušný’s peers were far greater artists—but to note how unimpressive is today’s supply of pianists.

We do not live in an age of pianism. As always, there happens to be a very large number of touring virtuosos traveling the globe—but most are not worth hearing on a frequent basis. They are, with few exceptions, uninteresting, lacking individuality and distinguishing characteristics.

My father’s dictum was inspired by a piano recital—more accurately, half of a piano recital—we attended a week ago Tuesday night.

Onstage at The Ordway Center was Stephen Hough in a Schubert Club recital, playing for an audience that was very small. Never have I attended a Schubert Club recital with such a large number of unoccupied seats—which signified that many Schubert Club subscribers had stayed home.

Those who missed the recital missed nothing.

The first half of the recital consisted of two Chopin Nocturnes and Brahms’s Piano Sonata No. 3. The second half of the recital—which we, along with approximately sixty other concertgoers who left at the same time we did, decided to skip—consisted of a composition by the recitalist followed by Schumann’s Carnaval.

Hough has good fingers—but he has nothing else in his arsenal.

Hough is the most commonplace of pianists. He has no singular touch, he draws no unique sound from his instrument, he does not explore the instrument’s sonority. His music-making lacks individuality, character, personality, temperament—and grace and charm (if an artist has no other qualities, grace and charm can make up for a lot). Hough demonstrated no emotional range or conviction in the Chopin, he exhibited no grasp of the intellectual demands of the Brahms.

The Brahms was a true disaster. “Clotted cream on the cusp of curdling” was my mother’s description of Hough’s Brahms, and my mother was correct. Textures were thick and crude, rhythms were unsubtle and machinelike, drama and lyricism were absent, tension was intermittent, the pianist exhibited no emotional depth. Hough demonstrated, over and over, that he did not understand Brahms’s counter-rhythms and Brahms’s counterpoint.

The entire performance, I remained clueless why Hough had programmed Brahms’s greatest contribution to the piano-sonata form. In Hough’s hands, the Brahms sounded formless, poorly-constructed, with page after page of weak and uninteresting musical argument—just the opposite of the work’s most pronounced qualities. Said my father of Hough’s Brahms, “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear he was sight-reading Reger.”

Given the first half of the recital, we were unable to countenance sitting through the second half. We had no interest in hearing Hough as composer, and the Chopin and Brahms had demonstrated amply that Hough lacked the poetry and sensitivity necessary to make the Schumann worthwhile.

When we departed at intermission, we noticed that two renowned piano instructors in the Twin Cities were leaving at the very same time, heading out of the building as fast as they could walk, as if escaping a fire. We heard one of them say to the other, “typical British pianist”, which I doubt was intended as a compliment.

I suspect The Schubert Club put Hough on this season’s subscription because his fees are low. The Schubert Club will present only one high-fee artist this season—Anne-Sophie Mutter, whose fee is astronomical—and the rest of the artists on this year’s schedule are very much drawn from the low-budget lists circulated by the various agencies.

Although Hough is not worth hearing, there ARE up-and-coming pianists who carry more than a little promise. Daniil Trifonov, for one, is arousing great excitement throughout Europe. Trifonov is scheduled to make his Twin Cities debut early next year. We have tickets, and we are excited at the prospect of hearing Trifonov.

Another pianist attracting great acclaim in Europe is Simon Trpčeski.

This very weekend, Trpčeski had been scheduled to make his Minneapolis debut. His local appearance was cancelled because of ongoing labor troubles at the Minnesota Orchestra.

Trpčeski was supposed to have played the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2. I cannot stand the music of Rachmaninoff and I generally avoid it—but I would have made an exception this weekend in order to hear Trpčeski.

This weekend’s Minnesota Orchestra program was one of only six during the entire 2012-2013 season that Joshua and I had contemplated attending. Andrew Litton was to have been on the podium. In addition to the Rachmaninoff, the program was to have included Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 7 and Stravinsky’s 1919 “Firebird” Suite.

I regret not hearing Trpčeski.

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