Sunday, March 9, 2008

"Top Five" Pianists?

I am barely aware that a copy of Parade comes with the Sunday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, but my wife always seems to enjoy taking the time to skim through it. Thus, I have her to thank for encountering the following item in Walter Scott's Personality Parade column:

Q After listening to Yefim Bronfman play Tchaikovsky, I’ve decided he must be the finest classical pianist of our time. Do you agree?—S.T., New York, N.Y.

He’s certainly in the Top Five. Our choices for today’s finest classical pianists: Emanuel Ax, Daniel Barenboim, Yefim Bronfman, Richard Goode and Murray Perahia.

(Note, by the way, that the hyperlink is included only to establish attribution. This is the full scope of the content. The caveat lector for anyone considering following the link is that Parade is a veritable minefield of popup advertising!)

I obviously have no idea of S. T.'s listening habits or the reliability of his account, particularly since Patricia Zohn just wrote about Bronfman in her CULTURE ZOHN blog for The Huffington Post, which reported on Bronfman's performance at Carnegie Hall of the second Prokofiev piano concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Valery Gergiev. However, I am less concerned with whether this query may have come from a casual listener for whom "those Russians are all alike" than with yet another instance of what I have been calling "top-dog thinking."

In the performing arts, as in politics (which I am beginning to regard as just another medium of the performing arts), the "top dog" concept is a dangerous illusion. Scott deserves credit for diminishing the concept but then loses that credit by trying to talk about the top five dogs (whom he at least tried to rank objectively in alphabetical order). Unfortunately, the star system has as pernicious an effect on live performances as it does on the other media, beginning with the extent to which it deflects attention from the music and, unless the performance is a solo recital, the other performers. So it is that, when I write about a performance of music, I write in terms of the impact it has had on the way in which I listen; and, when necessary, this entails writing about what individual performers (usually soloists) bring to that experience.

In the course of my listening experiences, I have heard "live" performances (which are always more important than anything available through a recording) of all of the pianists on Scott's list. In this blog I have only written about two of them, Ax and Goode; but any efforts I have ever made them to compare them to other pianists has been to establish a context for why I heard them they way I did and has had nothing to do with the public obsession for rank ordering. Bronfman is actually one of my favorites, but it has been a while since I have had an opportunity to hear him "live." I have heard Barenboim as a solo pianist, half of a piano duo, camber music performer, and conductor; and I have no salient memories of him in any of those capacities. I have great admiration for many of the things he has been doing in the world at large; but, when it comes to the performance of just about any composer, I never seem to be convinced to get onto his channel, so to speak. In a similar way I find myself turned off by Perahia's performances.

None of this is important, though. What is important is that there are plenty of pianists not on Scott's list who bring just as much, if not more, "value" to eager listeners. In terms of what I have written on this blog, Garrick Ohlsson's performance of Samuel Barber's piano concerto with the San Francisco Symphony immediately comes to mind, very much in the same tradition as that of what Jean-Yves Thibaudet brought to the Gershwin concerto in an early Symphony season (before I started writing regularly). Then there are pianists at the very beginning of their respective careers who recognize the importance of looking at familiar music through new lenses, as was the case with how Gabriela Martinez approached the third piano concerto of Sergei Rachmaninoff. Finally, there are the pianists who, through the right combination of age and experience, the media have transformed into "monuments" and are best appreciated for their capacity to "bridge the generation gap." Menahem Pressler is such a pianist; and, even if the Beaux Arts Trio has now announced its "farewell tour," I suspect that he will still be making regular appearances at the San Francisco Conservatory in this broader capacity.

This is not to say that personality is not an issue in musical performance. I would probably go so far as to say that any music performed without any personality is not worth the listening effort. However, that last sentence puts the focus on the music, which is what the best performers always know how to do. The rest is just fodder for a publicity business, which, if it has any virtue at all, helps those performers to make a living by doing what they do best.

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