Two sides of the (pianistic) fence

Someone once said there are two sorts of people in the world: those who divide the world into two sorts of people and those who don’t. Now call it a crude generalisation or a silly party game for pianoraks or, as I like to think, brilliantly perceptive, but I think you can divide concert pianists into two sorts. And I think you can do the same with the audiences who go to hear them. There are those who have a preference for a particular type of pianist, Type X, who are drawn to the particular kind of programme that Type X offers rather than a pianist of Type Y and the kind of music that Type Y generally plays. That doesn’t mean one completely disregards, dismisses or despises the other – no pianist can be all things to all men and those with a preference for Type Y will often go to recitals given by Type X and vice versa – but, whether you wish to acknowledge it publicly or not, when push comes to shove, given a choice,  my contention is that you – yes, you dear reader – would rather hear a pianist of Type X than Type Y or have a marked preference for a recital from a Type Y pianist.

            In defining Types X and Y, no factors such as technical accomplishment, tonal refinement, financial and commercial success, age and experience have any bearing on the matter. It has nothing to do with being a good, very good or exceptional artist, though it is the exceptional, top-of-the-range pianist to whom we look as exemplars of Types X and Y.

            So. Type X is the kind of pianist whose recitals are like a religious experience. In fact, the very act of playing the piano is done with reverence. There can never be anything casual about the act of music making. The repertoire of Type X is focused on the central European legacy. He or she likes to offer (and even prefers) one-composer programmes: a sequence of Beethoven sonatas, say, or an evening of Schubert leavened, possibly, with something from the Second Viennese School and a single encore by Kurtag to show how all music is connected and inter-related. Their recitals could often pass for lectures. Audience faces are fiercely concentrated, the atmosphere is tense. At the interval, when interim judgements are passed, talk will be of profundity, emotional depths, uncanny insights and of communing with the very spirit of the composer. Let’s call Type X the Alfred Brendel school.

            On the other side of the fence is Type Y who, unlike Type X, walks on stage giving every impression that he / she actually wants to be there and actively enjoys the act of playing the piano in public. In private, you might well find Type Y sitting cross legged at the keyboard and entertaining their friends with impressions of other pianists. Type Y tends not to specialise in any one school or composer but explores a broad repertoire, delights in his or her own athletic skill, often derives a sensual pleasure from touching the keyboard, and is not afraid to take risks when playing bravura works. Here we might encounter on any one evening Couperin, Schumann, Szymanowski, Ginastera, a Liszt transcription and a sprinkling of encores (Moszkowski, maybe, some hyphenated Bach or even something of their own). Let’s call Type Y the Earl Wild school.

            OK, I admit exaggerating the characteristics of both Types to make my point and, yes, there are any number of hard-to-categorise pianists (into which camp would you put, for instance,  Argerich, Perahia or Richter?). But the division – for such, I submit, it is – was neatly illustrated by Stephen Wigler in the Mar/Apr 2012 issue of International Piano magazine when, somewhat baffled, he tried to make sense of the critical reaction to recitals by Simone Dinnerstein (Type X) and Denis Matsuev (Type Y). Here was a much-hyped (Type X) pianist offering Bach and Schumann in, thought Wigler, adequate but hardly distinguished performances attracting huge critical acclaim beside a Russian virtuoso (Type Y) who set the pulses racing and yet was criticised for being, well, too good, the kind of pianist who thinks outside the box, has an individual sound, and brings an element of excitement and, yes, entertainment to the concert platform. Time and again, it is the pianist with a (restricted) repertoire of over-played pieces and who plays everything as if auditioning for the next engagement / agent / broadcast / record label who gets the more favourable press. Close your eyes and it could be one of any number of pianists of the same mindset.

            Right. There’s your piece of paper with two columns headed X and Y. Now fill in the names of your favourite pianists under one or the other. It’s easier than you think: Paul Lewis, Andras Schiff, Eileen Joyce, Arcadi Volodos, Artur Schnabel, Jorge Bolet…

(This article appears in the Sept / Oct 2012 issue of International Piano magazine)


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