How CAR Hills came to discover that there is no one way in music.by CAR Hills / June 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Thirty years ago, when I was an awkward teenager, my music teacher told me that there were three great pianists in the world: Michelangeli, Sviatoslav Richter and Annie Fischer.
Miss Christine Drury, a fine pianist herself, was not liked by fellow staff or pupils. But I warmed to her and adopted her opinions as my own. Arthur Rubinstein was a mechanicus, grinding his way through the repertoire. Neither of us had heard Alfred Brendel or Wilhelm Kempff produce a good sound. Horowitz was just a joke.
Miss Drury left the school, although I saw her from time to time. In the sixth form I had an English teacher, David Lindley, a talented amateur pianist. To him, Arthur Rubinstein was God. He had unique wisdom and compassion. The imperious Michelangeli might be note-perfect, but he was cold and uninteresting. Richter had some good ideas, but wasn’t he too intellectual and eccentric? As for Annie Fischer… well.
I stuck to my guns. I longed to hear Michelangeli, who to Miss Drury was the greatest pianist on earth. But he made only the rarest engagements to appear, and even those were usually cancelled. Finally, one cold spring day in my 18th year, I took a couple of friends to the Royal Festival Hall (Miss Drury could not come) and listened in awe as Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli unfolded the Bach-Busoni chaconne.
I carried my enthusiasm to Oxford. There I had a mischievous friend. One day, in his room, he played me a piano concerto which he had recorded from the radio. There seemed to be almost as many wrong notes as right ones. What did I think? An absolute mess, I said. Then he revealed the name of the pianist: Annie Fischer.
I went to live in London. I bought records, attended concerts, listened to the radio. At some point, I gave up playing the piano myself. I heard concerts by the three pianists, especially Annie Fischer, who often played in London in the 1980s.
For years, I stuck to my position that these three alone were the masters. Richter I heard less often than the others, and my relationship with his art was less intense. But everyone recognised him. The critics disliked Michelangeli, and tried to undermine him, but they couldn’t dispute that he was unique. As for Annie Fischer, her Schumann and Beethoven was so loud and exciting that she seemed to have a left hook rather than a left hand. I trembled at every note.
But my opinions became more difficult to maintain. I became aware that no pianist is so revered among the great and good as Alfred Brendel. And Michelangeli, once disdainful of recording studios, began producing CDs of such staggering lack of expression that even I wondered whether this relentless thumping could be the last word.
Towards 1990, I decided that tolerance and eclecticism were the best policies. There is no one way in music. I began to be excited by Horowitz. Did it matter that he speeded up the piano’s action in order to play louder and faster? He belonged to a different age. And I began to like Brendel. Did I know better than Isaiah Berlin?
In the early 1990s, I heard the last public performances given in London by all three of my heroes: Michelangeli, in winter, returning once again to the Debussy he had given his life to illuminating; Annie Fischer launching into the last pages of the Hammerklavier; Richter idiosyncratic, impish and profound under the lamplight.
In 1995, Michelangeli and Annie Fischer died. In 1997, Sviatoslav Richter joined them. These days, I dislike concerts. So I haven’t heard the marvellous young Evgeny Kissin. Nor have I bought his CDs. I wonder what Miss Drury thinks of him. No doubt, she’s impressed.
The other day I heard a pianist on the radio. The freedom, the individuality, the imagination with which he played Chopin brought me leaping to my feet. I didn’t quite catch the pianist’s name, but he is bloody good. I discovered that myself.