A Fusion of Piano and Cerebellum

Charles Rosen: He could pick a fight in an empty room

Days after Charles Rosen’s death in December, videos began to appear in which the master pianist was seen holding forth in accent-free French on the music of Pierre Boulez, in Italian on the problems of music criticism and in robust Upper West Side English on practically every topic known to man, at irrepressible length and with irrefutable authority. Charles was the epitome of the philosopher-pianist, a hybrid species that risks extinction with his passing and which deserves more concentrated attention than he himself accorded it, and in much shorter sentences. So there.

Charles was, first off, a pianist. Steeped in the grand tradition by the Liszt pupil Moriz Rosenthal, and drawn to the Russian fantasy by the playing of Josef Hofmann, he imposed an incontrovertible immediacy on whatever he played, be it Bach’s Goldberg Variations or the constipated chordal sequences of middle-period Elliott Carter. His manner of playing made you believe that this piece could go no other way.

A friend who heard him play on ill-tuned Oxford college pianos observes that, of all modern pianists, only Sviatoslav Richter possessed that monumental rightness in performance — that sense of having received the truth from source and, simultaneously, asserting that it would never sound the same again, that its centre of gravity would shift as the earth turns. If you can afford the ICA Classics release of Richter’s Festival Hall Beethoven recital of June 18, 1975 you will hear exactly what is meant by this rightness. I would love to recommend a Rosen recital by way of further validation, but his label, in idiot hands, has let the entire oeuvre lapse out of print so you will have to make do with less edifying YouTube uploads.

Rosen, unlike Richter, was fond of making grand statements. Bach, he declared, was the only first-rate composer. Chopin wrote the best piano sonatas. Schoenberg was not an atonal theorist but a creator in whom “the emotion is so violent and so consistently tense that for a great many people he is a non-emotional composer”. He issued these pronouncements with the intention to provoke an argument, and seldom failed. Like every hard-working intellectual, he could pick a fight in an empty room and regarded contrariness as being part of life’s purpose.

We once quarrelled in a BBC studio about declining attendances at classical concerts. “On occasion,” intoned Charles with lofty disdain, “I have played for as few as 15 people in a recital. Of course, 12 of them held Nobel prizes . . .”

His intellectualism arose (as it does in most) from a fear of boredom — in particular, I suspect, from an awful anxiety that music itself would fail to satisfy his personal need for meaning. While rehearsing for his concert debut at 23 years old, he completed a PhD in French literature at Princeton, adding further credits in mathematics and philosophy. Making his first records, he dispensed with hack-written sleeve notes and composed his own. A publisher, impressed, commissioned The Classical Style, an award-laden book which not only defined lucid distinctions between Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and the rest in truly original capsules but served for 40 years as the final arbiter of style — the top item on every music student’s booklist and a cop-out for academics who never needed to rethink classical form once Charles had nailed it.

He was, by this exalted measure, the ultimate fusion of keyboard and cerebellum, of profundity and playfulness, of performance and reflection — all of these, along with such other expert interests as French cuisine, 19th-century art history and the ribald tradition in English theatre. 

Brilliant as violinists can be, charming as most cellists are, none can play the public intellectual as pianists do. From the high brows of Liszt and Busoni, to the iconoclasms of Scriabin and Wanda Landowska, from the religious devotions of Maria Yudina and Albert Schweitzer to the logical perversities of Artur Schnabel and Glenn Gould, pianists assert the right to think aloud, independently and outside the box.

String players have to fiddle too much with bits of hair and gut and rosin to find the leisure for intellectualism. They have to make their own notes, where pianists have everything laid out for them in black and white. Violinists turn to other musicians for mental stimulation. Yehudi Menuhin, a man of the greatest imaginable curiosity and most catholic interests, told me that he relied on his accompanist for enlightenment on lengthy prewar tours. If the pianist read thrillers, he got replaced. A pianist was meant to raise his partner’s IQ.

Of Richter, it is related that he sat all night long beside the open coffin of Boris Pasternak, playing Scriabin from memory on an upright piano, in the peculiar and intimate knowledge that the late poet had been taught the piano as a boy by the great composer and that, in 1930, Pasternak had eloped with the wife of Richter’s teacher, Heinrich Neuhaus, who, ever after, obliged his Muscovite piano students to memorise his writings.

In such zig-zag connections (and in a sentence of Rosenian parody) we may glimpse the mission that a man or woman who sits upon a piano stool can fulfil in the embodiment and transmission of cultural values across genres and generations. The piano inhabits our living room, a reminder and reproach of creative limitations. The profession of philosopher is not incidental to playing the piano; it is inherent.

So who will bear that mission now that Charles Rosen is no more? Fear not, the vacuum will be filled. Daniel Barenboim, a pianist at heart, is an avid reader of arid tracts. Alfred Brendel writes and lectures on his view from the stool. Every French pianist is by national perception a philosopher manqué. Lang Lang has gone on an advanced reading course. None of these yet wears  both hats, but I know one who does.

The Merseyside melismatist Stephen Hough is widely read to an indecent degree. A teenaged candidate for priesthood, he has published his own translation of the Book of Psalms for long-haul flights, recorded an album of his compositions and presented an exhibition of his paintings. He blogs intermittently on art, dance, hats, faith and gay experience. He speaks in whole paragraphs. He plays — we are near-neighbours — far into the night. I don’t expect Stephen to write The Post-Modern Style. Not his style at all. But having him around the corner is a constant reminder that the piano is there for no better reason than to make us think.

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