In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column, I reflect on Alfred Brendel’s recent announcement of his plans to retire from public performance next year. At what point should an aging artist call it quits–and what responsibility do critics have to call time?
I treasure my memory of the last gig of the jazz saxophonist Benny Carter, who was born in 1907, cut his first records in 1928 and kept on playing until 1995, when I had the good fortune to hear him in New York, eight years before his death. He was still playing well–and he knew it. “I play the same way now that I did when I was 23, so I don’t think age has anything to do with it,” he told Peter Keepnews of the New York Times.
But the performer, unlike the creator, is as much athlete as artist, and thus is slave to the flesh. Sooner or later he must face, like the oven bird of Robert Frost’s poem, the problem of “what to make of a diminished thing.” Some performers, like Horowitz and John Gielgud, solve that problem bravely and resourcefully, balancing the intensified insight of maturity against the physical decline that gradually erodes their mechanical skills, and manage to go out on a high note. Others, like Rudolf Nureyev and Arturo Toscanini, hang on too long, leaving their fans with memories they’d rather not have….
Read the whole thing here.