Why Do Some Pianists Sound the Same?

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.

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Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), one of the great Russian pianists of the 20th century.

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.

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Marguerite Long (1874-1966), one of the great pianists of the French school and the artist who premiered Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto.

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.

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Artur Schnabel (1882-1951), the first pianist to record all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas and one of the great interpreters of the German classics.

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.

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That Baize Green Book

In 2004, I was working as a librarian at a small private music school in the city where I reside. My job was to circulate the materials, enter new ones into the collection, and make sure that everything was organized. During the spring of that year, I was asked to look through a bequest that had been gathering dust for nearly forty years and which had never been shelved. That was when my journey as a pianophile truly began.

Truth be told, I had always been surrounded by piano music. As a small child, I would climb on my grandmother’s lap and bang out what I thought was Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto on an ancient upright. When I was eight years old, I started piano lessons and continued taking lessons every year after that through college. I became good enough to play some Mozart variations, a couple of Chopin preludes, and some pieces by Lutoslawski. No Rachmaninoff or Liszt for me.

However, that wasn’t a problem. Even though I couldn’t play some of the pieces I enjoyed, I could listen to them over and over again. Rachmaninoff preludes, Liszt rhapsodies, Chopin mazurkas… You name it. I probably listened to it hundreds of times and drove my parents and sister somewhat crazy, but that didn’t mean that I was a pianophile. I was merely someone who listened to piano music and enjoyed it.

That is until that fateful day when I walked into a corner basement room and started picking up the sheet music from the dusty shelves. Much of what I found was dusty, dog eared, or damaged by water. A lot of the sheet music was completely unplayable, but there were treasures – Godowsky transcriptions, rare pieces by Scriabin, first Russian editions of Rachmaninoff, and a great deal of music by Liszt and Chopin in editions by some of the great pianists of the day.

Among the sheet music was a baize green book. At first, I didn’t pay any attention to it and so I let it sit on the shelves as I cataloged the rest of the collection, organized it, and shelved it. Finally, it was the only thing left and I opened it up. Inside, I found hundreds and thousands of programs that had been carefully cut out of newspapers over a span of thirty or forty years. Everyone from Paderewski to Moiseiwitsch to Rachmaninoff, Gieseking, William Kapell, and Glenn Gould were included.

Slowly, I began to look through those programs. I wanted to listen to many of the pieces which were mentioned. I wanted to hear the performers for myself. I wanted to find out what it was that had made so many generations of musicians fall in love with the piano and compose so much wonderful music for it over the centuries.

That baize book led me on a journey that still continues to this day. I have found out about pianists that I never knew existed, listened to repertoire that I thought was long gone, and fell deeper and deeper in love that with an instrument that I had started playing as a third grader.

This blog is a chronicle of the many things that I have found along the way. Please join me!

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