Receding Recitals

Watching the 16-year-old pianist Lara Ömeroglu dazzling a nationwide TV audience in the final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition, I started wondering what had gone wrong with piano recitals. Lara’s unaffected passion for her music was glorious to see and hear. Yet I have the impression that the piano recital as we know it is currently meeting a slow and agonising death. 

Concerts by the biggest names still sell out, but a new generation of artists is having serious problems attracting an audience. Unless they are championed by a high-profile young artists’ organisation or win an international competition (and even that’s no guarantee), halls for their debuts are rarely even half-full. The audience that 20 years ago might have attended out of curiosity appears to be losing interest. What happened?

Let’s face it: there are too many indifferent pianists around, playing too small a repertoire. There are only a certain number of times you can sit through uninspired renditions of the Liszt B minor Sonata or the Schumann Etudes Symphoniques without falling asleep. The piano repertoire is the richest in existence, yet we only hear a fraction of it, and often in correct yet emotionally, philosophically and colouristically insipid interpretations.

Do those note-perfect performances, presumably designed to win prizes, sanitise away true artistry? It’s worse. Competitions often turn up fantastic young artists but sometimes the wrong people win for the wrong reasons. I’ve referred before to rumbling allegations that certain jurors take backhanders from their students in return for fixing a prize. Later those players, some of whom might have gone nowhere without that help, may progress to high-profile concert engagements and CDs. 

In such an overcrowded profession, if dubious musicians are shoehorned into careers through corruption of one sort or another, finer ones are squeezed out. Many excellent pianists trying to build careers find they’re competing with indifferent artists on the same circuit, playing the same narrow repertoire. Their natural audience has been bored too often. They would rather stay home and listen to CDs of Alfred Cortot. Today the living must also compete with the finest of the dead.

And the larger public often swallows false artists whole, thanks to glitzy publicity. There isn’t sufficient education available for people to learn how better to assess what they’re hearing (and the British audience is relatively knowledgeable). I’ve witnessed musically and even technically clueless recitals by “big names” receive standing ovations. Are some musicians so poisoned by their own stardom that they hold their audiences in contempt? Do they no longer care how they play? 

There remains a hard core of truly great pianists with deep artistic values and the near-mystical capability to transmit their insights and inspirations to an audience they cherish. Even there, not all is well. Grigory Sokolov won’t play in Britain again until he is not first obliged to have his fingerprints taken by ill-mannered visa officials. He doesn’t make studio recordings and has given up playing concertos. Krystian Zimerman’s recordings too are few and far between. Martha Argerich does not like to give solo recitals. Radu Lupu is a rare visitor and rarer recording artist; Murray Perahia has only quite recently recovered from a thumb problem that plagued him for years. Maria João Pires is retiring from concerts next year. 

Perhaps the music business has pushed its own pressures — intensive concert dates, planning of programmes years in advance, air travel, publicity, etc — to such extremes that this artificial existence threatens to distort artistic results. The above pianists, all over 50, are big-time enough to recognise this and need not conform if they don’t want to. I don’t know what the system will do to the finest younger ones who can’t afford to pick and choose. 

Franz Liszt and his grand-scale tours in the 1830s are the chief model for what we expect of pianists today. But not the only possible model. We always hear that Chopin gave few concerts. Yet he performed a lot — in salons to intimate gatherings of friends, a more appealing setting for performer and audience alike. In Brahms’s day, recitals sometimes took place in beer gardens. Composers such as Fauré, Saint-Saëns and Debussy relied on salons such as the Princesse de Polignac’s to air their piano music, chamber music and songs. More recently, in his last years Sviatoslav Richter preferred to perform at short notice in small venues, his audience gathered via word of mouth. In cavernous 2,000-seat halls, it’s almost impossible to relate satisfactorily to one person playing one instrument. 

We need to bring the concept of intimate communication back to the piano recital. It can happen. I cherish memories of Piers Lane playing Chopin nocturnes by candlelight in St Paul’s, the actors’ church in Covent Garden; András Schiff playing the Bach Goldberg Variations at Dartington Hall; an all-Fauré recital given by the late Grant Johannesen at St John’s, Smith Square to a small, enchanted audience. The listeners seemed to share a profound experience of reflection, poetry and inspiration with the artist and with each other. Encouraging this approach could replenish artists and audiences alike with a little faith in what they’re doing. 

As for musicianship, a few very young pianists offer hope. Benjamin Grosvenor, now 17, won the BBC contest’s piano section aged only 11 — an unpretentious lad from Essex deeply in love with the piano and a terrific range of its repertoire who already has a “sound” of his own. I believe he is potentially the biggest British piano talent since Stephen Hough. And then there’s Lara Ömeroglu. I hope she maintains her freshness and genuine musical feeling when the onslaught begins. 

Ironically, though, it is Lang Lang who has turned a new generation on to the piano with the help of excessive celebrity. Purists nickname him “Bang Bang” and throw up their hands at his personalised trainers and the rest, but his activities are vital. Maybe he’s the nearest thing that we have to Liszt — who, if he were alive, would probably be marketing his own designer clothing range too. 

If the piano recital is to survive, it needs a mix of different ingredients: genuinely great artists with individuality and sound artistic judgment; their accurate recognition by halls, record companies and audiences; an alternative setting in which to play and listen; and performers whose energy can successfully reimagine a 19th-century concept for the 21st century. Otherwise, we can all go back to sleep.

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