Today, many people often complain that many classical pianists sound exactly the same. This wasn’t the case forty or fifty years ago. Back then, no two pianists sounded exactly alike. When Ignaz Friedman played Chopin’s great “Revolutionary” Etude (Op. 10, No. 12), the keys seemed to be on fire, while Alfred Cortot’s playing was much more artistocratic fluid. Of course, there are many reasons for why pianists don’t sound very different from each other today, but the main ones have to do with national schools of piano playing, recording technology, and the different ways in which pianists view the music that they are playing.
For most of the 20th century, there were many different schools of piano playing that existed around the world. The three most famous examples of this were the French, the Russians, and the Germans. The Russian school began with the great Anton Rubinstein and has included pianists such as Rachmaninoff, Josef Lhevinne, Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and Evgeny Kissin. When listening to Russian pianists, the main things that one immediately notices are an enormous sound, a virtuoso technique, and playing that is filled with depth and feeling for the music.
French pianists, on the other hand, have included Alfred Cortot, Marguerite Long, Raoul Pugno, Pascal Roge, Jean-Philippe Collard, and Alexandre Tharaud. When one listens to a recording by a French pianist, the traits that stand out the most are an elegant and supple sound and a great sense of color. These two characteristics are to be found in the compositions of Gabriel Faure, Maurice Ravel, and Claude Debussy. I’m sure that many pianists who are active today could learn a thing or two by listening to Cortot’s magnificent recording of Debussy’s Preludes or Alexandre Tharaud’s recordings of Couperin to hear what I’m talking about.
The German school of piano playing is probably the oldest. Most German pianists have tended to concentrate on Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms with some being more adventurous and including the music of their contemporaries. Most German pianists such as Walter Gieseking, Artur Schnabel, and Wilhelm Kempff possessed tremendous technique, but were also musicians who deeply respected the music they performed and tried to give interpretations that were as accurate as possible. The German sound is a mixture of the French and Russian, in my opinion.
Today, however, these national schools no longer exist. Young pianists tend to study with teachers from all over the world and the teachers themselves might find themselves living in other countries. For example, Van Cliburn’s teacher was Rosina Lhevinne, a great pianist and pedagogue who came to America after the Russian Revolution and taught in the United States for many, many years.
However, there is another factor apart from globalization that has created a certain amount of uniformity among today’s pianists and that factor is to be found in the recording studio. In the old days of the 78 rpm disc, pianists made their records in one take. At that time, there wasn’t a way to edit the recording. If a pianist made a mistake, they would have to record the whole piece all over again.
Today, however, the world of recordings has changed a great deal. With the advent of magnetic tape and splicing, it has become possible for a pianist to record as many takes as he or she wants. Even in live recordings, it is possible to splice several takes from several different concerts to make a complete recording. This was something that Vladimir Horowitz asked for on a regular basis and many of his “live” recordings were collages taken from recitals that he gave at different cities at different times.
Many pianophiles will tell you that the old 78 rpm recordings are much more honest than their digital counterparts. For example, you can hear Alfred Cortot’s and Paderewski’s wrong notes. You can even tell, if you listen closely enough, whether or not the pianist in question had a bad hair day in the studio. With digital recordings, however, this is all but impossible. The recordings are note perfect without any wrong notes, strange accelerations in tempo, or any other idiosyncracies. Also, because of the high technical standard that exist today, the emphasis on the score as sacred text, and the globalization of piano pedagogy, many of the pianists in these digital recordings do sound similar to their contemporaries.
A final factor that must be considered is how pianists of yesteryear and today treat the score that they are performing. In the past, most pianists would take great liberties with the works that they were performing. Rachmaninoff, for example, added an extraordinarily difficult cadenza in his recording of Liszt’s Second Rhapsody, Horowitz embellished Liszt’s 19th Rhapsody and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition for his concerts, and Ignaz Friedman doubled the left hand octaves in Chopin’s Heroic Polonaise. At that time, tinkering with the score was considered and most pianists featured various arrangements and transcriptions in their programs that are probably in bad taste today.
Of course, the current situation is very different from what it was fifty or sixty years ago. Most pianists today will play Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition as the composer intended it to be played. They will scrupulously observe all tempo markings, all colorings, and give note perfect performances. If you listen to a pianist who is active today, you will hear a performance that is beautiful, but also somehow lifeless. Fidelity to the score, while important, should not be a straitjacket. Instead, it should be a spring board for a pianist to create his or her own interpretation.
In my opinion, the pianists of yesteryear and some today have far more personality than the ones that are getting a lot of playing time on the radio and in concert halls. When I listen to today’s pianists, I long for the joie de vivre of Arthur Rubinstein, the hushed respect of Schnabel, and the glorious golden sound of Moisiewitsch. Sadly, those golden days of piano playing are long gone, but we should be thankful that pianists like Martha Argerich, Maurizio Pollini, Evgeny Kissin, Daniel Barenboim, and others still continue in that tradition and who give us performances that, in some cases, match or surpass those of their great predecessors.