Today’s the first really cold day that I have been in Boston this fall. At New England Conservatory this afternoon we had the preliminary round in a competition to pick a student pianist for a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. (The performance will be in April with Hugh Wolff.) These competitions are a continuing part of conservatory life. A few schools with many excellent pianists do this–specify a particular concerto to be prepared. The piano faculty here chooses the piece. It tends to be mainstream traditional “classical” repertory. One juror yesterday suggested that we might have had Elliott Carter’s Piano Concerto. Last season, when a performance of Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques was scheduled and a competition was held, only two kids entered. In these competitions, there are jurors from outside the school. I never vote or express an opinion. I did listen yesterday. It took about four hours to hear the eight pianists. (Two additional players withdrew.) So the entire piece was heard eight times in succession. And they all played quite well. Perhaps not to your taste. Perhaps not fulfilling your hopes or reaching the level of your dreams… But, there were eight young pianists playing the rhapsody with accomplishment. No disasters (there was a good flub from one of the accompanists playing the reduction of the orchestral parts). I recall that at Juilliard, in these same sort of competitions twenty years ago, there were breakdowns and stops. It’s better now. So, the four-minute mile arrives in piano playing? Not that they all played perfectly today, certainly not. But they delivered competent, uninterrupted performances that would be exceptional in the context of a community orchestra concert or the pride of a Big Ten University. There’s an army of high-level pianists in training…
In the days leading up to the competition, the practice room hallways were ringing with Rachmaninoff’s notes, overlapped and recombined hour after hour. A consequence of our competition and the behavior associated with it is the creation of this “installation”–an art work built from Rachmaninoff’s piece, and sweat, and striving. It’s compartmentalized, and collective. It intensifies for weeks, until on the day of the contest, the parts are suddenly discrete…..
There was agreement that one pianist played with the most technical command and polish–an excellent virtuoso. There was also agreement that this player was especially square, clinical–“professional in a good way and in a bad way,” said one jury member. Perhaps this is an individual case? Can it be that highly skilled, highly trained, even refined players of the piano might not be engaged in “music making”? Music can be many things of course. When my student Francesco Tristano Schlimé played music by J. S. Bach at Juilliard and was criticized for being too cool, unexpressive, I responded by suggesting his performance was reaching a new generation of listeners — Bach for a new century, or something like that? This has been happening for a long time. A native Greenwich-Villager, Oriana Atkinson reports, in her 1954 book Manhattan and Me, “Just about the first remark that I can remember hearing was somebody saying, ‘The Village certainly isn’t what it used to be.'” Still, this excellent virtuoso player of Rachmaninoff sounded especially disconnected from the “content” of the piece… The difficulties were tasks mastered and dispatched. Everything clean and well lighted. No murk, and no ambiguity. Roland Barthes wrote in his 1976 essay “Loving Schumann,” “Virtuosity itself…has suffered a mutilation; it no longer has to match the worldly hysteria of concerts and salons, it is no longer Lisztian; now, because of the record, it has become a somewhat chilly prowess, a perfect achievement (without flaw, without accident), in which there is nothing to find fault with, but which does not exalt, does not carry away: far from the body, in a sense. Hence, for today’s pianist, enormous esteem but no fervor.”
Rachmaninoff was thought to be an emotionally “cool” player by many in his time. To me, his recordings are large. Alex Ross has written about these indelible recordings. Russell Sherman confessed to me that Rachmaninoff’s celebrated recording of Robert Schumann’s Carnaval is so much in his mind and ear that he avoids playing the piece… For Barthes, perhaps this recording of Rachmaninoff’s might be an artifact of that world of concerts and salons, recorded, but not of the recording?
It surprised me that nearly every pianist politely shaped and downsized four bars marked fortissimo in Variation 18. This might be the “point”, the crux that Rachmaninoff seems to have looked for in most every piece. These four strong bars of D-flat can allow for long range shaping of a fairly big event. Ordinary “musical” playing can be the enemy of “composition”–exceptional musical experience. Much of the music was treated “generically.” If a line goes up, well make it louder… There’s an almost continual rising and falling, heaving and sighing that affects the amount of sound and the flow of rhythm. Do classical musicians rush quick notes because they’re impatient? Apologetic, bored–“out of time” quite literally? The accented backbeats of jazz or rock steady it.
Hearing the rhapsody so many times, reinforces my belief that musical performance offers a sort of laboratory. It’s an occasion for discovery. One player’s reading disclosed a beautiful pitch linkage between piano and “orchestra” in Variation 11 (and ever after I was longing to experience it again.) During his life, Paganini was considered unholy, devilish–such virtuosity (etymological oxymoron?) could only come from the dark side? In Rachmaninoff’s rhapsody, the “Dies irae” is all over the place, arising from Paganini’s celebrated theme and invoking this history. Finally in the rhapsody, the “Dies irae” is turned to major and followed by a big plagal cadence (“Amen”!)–salvation? Or Rachmaninoff’s view that Paganini was no devil?