“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Sunday, June 9, 2013

On Perfectionism in Piano Performance

     We pianists tend to be compulsive types. If we aren't at the piano, we feel we should be. If we aren't practicing for that next big event, something gnaws at our unconscious. This drive is both an asset and a liability. On the one hand it compels us to achieve great things and on the other it compels us to attempt to over-achieve. Striving for perfection is a good thing as long as we realize how elusive it is.
     There was a time, yes, even in my lifetime—that's how old I am—when a performance was ephemeral. It happened in time. Floated for a magic moment in one's consciousness and then was gone forever, leaving only shards of impression in the listener's mind. Preparing for such a performance was not so different from preparing today, except that today our performances come in the wake of umpteen recordings, shaved to perfection in the studio. How do we compete, live, with such perfection? Well, we can't, not really. Though I would venture a guess that this particular pressure has contributed to the ever-increasing technical prowess of young pianists—and, regrettably, to the homogenization of many of the resulting interpretations. The anxiety level, too, has without doubt risen correspondingly.  And YouTube looms as a burgeoning threat, perhaps to come back and haunt the performer long after the fact. When performances are captured surreptitiously, unauthorized, it is theft and diminishes all of us.
     Standards of accuracy in performance are much higher now than they were even when I was young. It was possible to make an impression with musical effects, though imperfect in technical execution. The Brahms B-flat concerto and the Rachmaninoff third were benchmarks, thought impossible to play technically reliably. I grew up on Rudolf Serkin's technical imperfections and insightful interpretations, thinking that was the standard. Then along came Garrick Ohlsson, who played the Brahms note perfectly one summer at Tanglewood.  I was shocked. Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky with a stunning performance of the Rachmaninoff third that was sprinkled with inaccuracies; it's still my favorite recorded performance. Today, every young pianist can play it without event. 
     Just because we now know these spectacularly accurate performances are possible, does not necessarily mean that they are the norm. I've heard many a great artist fail to meet his/her own benchmarks on many an occasion, which is not to say that the performances were at all disappointing. So let us prepare as best we can, setting our goals high, but let the idea of the music carry us along so that, just in case a note or two falls by the wayside, the music will survive.
     Take a look at this video of assorted greats in not so great moments, starting with a spoof by Victor Borge. I was present in the audience for that fateful return to Carnegie Hall by Horowitz. The concert was electric. About halfway through the video, which I assume is authorized, there is a wonderfully insightful interview with the immortal Arthur Rubinstein: Great Pianists, Great Imperfections.

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