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Re: GG: Alvarez&Brendel; levels of artistic interest

On Tue, 9 Apr 1996 Benjamin.Fechner@jet.uk wrote:

> Alvarez' statement that Alfred Brendel "is generally recognized to be the 
> world's greatest living classical pianist" could be true, after all, because 
> Gould is dead, and other pianists might not be as recognized as Brendel, at 
> least by the record shops which are probably what Alvarez means by 'general' 
> in the statement.

Yes, phrases such as "generally recognized to be the world's greatest
living classical pianist" generally mean nothing.  It's all in the eye/ear
of whomever is making the assertion.  Alvarez in the article (_New
Yorker_, I read it last night) casts his buddy Brendel as a nice, normal
guy, that there's nothing at all extraordinary about him.  Brendel has had
a solid, rather quiet career, not huge headlines or scandals.  (As I read
the article, the parts about Brendel's musical priorities and study of the
score, I kept thinking, "now *this* has to be Captain Nemo's #1 hero!")

I can't think of any Brendel recordings where I could hear it blind and
know immediately, "that's Brendel."  (Maybe I haven't heard enough Brendel
recordings yet.) One hears the composition without the player's
identifiable fingerprints.  Brendel, Jando, Pennario, Serkin, Lortie,
Rosen, Lipatti, et al are all relatively "objective."  Contrast them with
Gould, Pogorelich, Richter, Kissin, Horowitz, Weissenberg, Rachmaninoff,
Cortot, Schiff, or many others...it's usually fairly easy to recognize
who's there, especially with Gould (and I don't mean to imply that I think
Kissin belongs in such company yet, but at least his sound is
identifiable).  Same with Mengelberg, Klemperer, Stokowski, Harnoncourt,
Furtwangler, and Bernstein, who are all easily recognizable in most cases,
against conductors such as Slatkin, Ormandy, Monteux, Previn, or Ansermet,
who project less individualistic personality.  It depends what priorities
a listener has.  Most of the time if I want to hear something in "the
standard repertoire," I choose to listen to performers who are
recognizable, who italicize pieces in their own ways.  But if I want to
hear a piece that's new to me, I'd rather hear one of the more "objective"
interpreters first. 

I am fond of that Philips two-fer set wherein Brendel plays the last three
Schubert sonatas.  I enjoy his levels of large-scale architecture and his
treatment of detail, especially in D959 (and his playing of that slow
movement).  If I want to hear those pieces played on a modern piano, his
are the recordings I choose most often.  But he's still playing the wrong
piano.  The new recording of D959 on a c1830 Graf, played by Olga
Tverskaya, has Brendel's level of nuance *plus* it's on a more appropriate
instrument.  There's so much more color, color which later pianos can't
reproduce.  Clarity of registers and tone, too. 

That's a different problem with Gould and other pianists who use the
inappropriate Steinway or Baldwin or Boesendorfer or whatever.  They're
automatically working against the grain of the music when they play
repertoire from before about 1860 or 1870 (or later).  The earlier
instruments, played by adequately skilled and sensitive artists, make the
proper gestures much more naturally than the modern piano does.  And equal
temperament is wrong for most of that repertoire, too.  Hearing anyone
play it on a modern piano in equal temperament is like seeing something
washed out and gray.  Such a performance is automatically a transcription
into a different sound world.  The length of sustain and decay is all
wrong, the different registers of the piano don't have enough contrast,
the keys all sound qualitatively the same (so modulation doesn't have much
effect), and the concept of "long line" (fewer local variegated
articulations of notes and groups) is a different/later aesthetic.  The
gracefulness and startling power of the compositions get steamrolled by
the later piano, which has a compressed expressive range under most
players' fingers.  (I'm talking *expressive* range of gesture and color
here, not dynamic range.)  I enjoy transcriptions, as long as the player
realizes that that's what s/he is doing.  (And Gould certainly did.  His
Bach is at least interesting.  Pogorelich's, on the other hand, makes me
want to scream.)

So if the music is going to be played on the wrong instrument, it might as
well be by someone who is going to add different levels of interest
(usually his/her own personality) to make up for the loss.  A
"modern-piano" player has to add moment-to-moment and structural interest
which should otherwise be provided automatically by the choice of correct
instrument ("correct" being the type of instrument which the composer
would have known and used himself/herself).  Gould's post-modern
deconstructive approach did that.  

But Bach is still better on harpsichord or clavichord than on piano.  :)
And Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert are still better on the right kind of
piano, where the performer doesn't have to inject substitute levels of
interest into the performance.  Players of modern piano have to work too
hard, when a different choice of instrument would take care of things

Bradley Lehman, bpl@umich.edu       http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl/  

(And yes, there are boring performers on older instruments, too; I have
real trouble enjoying Tan, Hogwood, Pinnock, Gilbert, or Newman, for