2010 is the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s and Schumann’s births—and offers a timely reminder of the piano recital’s declineby Martin Kettle / December 16, 2009 / Leave a comment
Maurizio Pollini: one of the last great recitalists
Classical music’s overdependence on anniversaries—an inevitable result of the art form’s enduring inability to replenish the repertoire—means that two of the dominant concert hall themes of the new year are safely predictable. The 200th anniversaries of the birth of Chopin in March and Schumann in June do not merely mean that we are going to hear even larger amounts of their music than usual. It also means that 2010 will be a year of many piano recitals.
There was a time when most of the musical public would have found this an exhilarating prospect. And, looking ahead to some of the Chopin and Schumann recitals so far announced in London, there are still some stellar events for which one should book now in order, as promoters like to say, to avoid disappointment. Krystian Zimerman’s Chopin recital at the Royal Festival Hall on 22nd February, followed by Maurizio Pollini on 1st March at the same venue, are the most obvious examples.
It is hard, though, to disguise the fact that the piano recital is a genre in decline. Not so long ago the annual South Bank piano series, of which the Zimerman and Pollini concerts form part, would have been mostly scheduled in the Royal Festival Hall, with a few less celebrated soloists relegated to its smaller neighbour, the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Today, though, the reverse is the case. Of the 16 recitals in the 2009-10 series, just five are at the RFH and, judging by the lamentably small turnout for the first of them—John Lill’s Schumann and Brahms recital in November—even this may prove optimistic marketing.
It would be hard to argue that this decline reflects any waning of public enthusiasm for the music of either Chopin or Schumann, or indeed for Franz Liszt, whose own bicentenary looms in 2011. It would be truer to say that what used to be thought of as the core 19th-century repertoire is less hegemonic in concert life than it once was. Nevertheless, I think we need to look for the explanation in the changing place of the piano in 21st-century concert practice, as well as at the changing role of soloists in modern concerts.
The piano first. There was a time, perhaps from around 1830 to around 1950, when the piano was the most important and most accessible musical medium for most people in industrial societies. In the 19th century, the piano was to domestic musical life what the steam engine was to mobility. But home entertainment moved on long ago.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the piano recital has been eclipsed as a consequence. And, for that matter, the piano concerto too. It would be interesting to try to quantify this, but my impression is that both the piano concerto and the piano recital play a less central and less exalted part in concert planning today compared with, say, the 1960s. And that surely says something about the change in the nature of piano soloists.
The Scottish pianist Susan Tomes, who plays in the Florestan trio, has written that while lots of people still play the piano very well, the true visionaries are at least as likely to be found in chamber music as among soloists. The soloists of earlier generations, she believes, had more time for chamber music, travelled less, gave fewer concerts and had a better work-life balance than those today. Too many of today’s soloists, she says, play to show off, rather than to “give the music” to the public.
If that is correct, which I believe it is, then it is not surprising that the public has lost interest in solo recitals because so, too, have some of the most interesting pianists. Whether theirs was a conscious rejection of the solo repertoire, let alone a co-ordinated one, I do not know. But it is very striking that three out of the four most talented pianists of the sixty and seventy-something generation, the generation with one foot in the old pianistic world and one in the new, no longer play regularly.
Of these four, Daniel Barenboim, Martha Argerich and Vladimir Ashkenazy rarely give solo recitals, while Ashkenazy, unlike the other two, doesn’t even play concertos. All of them, though, are active and outstanding musicians. Only Pollini still pursues a traditional solo career, and the cold intensity that has become his hallmark suggests he too has become uneasy with the tradition into which he was trained.
Of course there are exceptions. Things are not as black and white as the keyboard. But the days of the revelatory or mindblowingly barnstorming piano recital are slipping away. That world ended with the death of Vladimir Horowitz 20 years ago, in the same month that the Berlin wall fell. And not even the experience of listening to Zimerman playing Chopin can bring the piano back to the central place it once occupied in musical life.