THE GREAT PIANISTS

Harold G. Schonberg

This is a thoroughly enjoyable volume which is well-worth reading.

What does it lack? Interesting text that would make it longer.

The author describes keyboard playing by most of the great pianists. The text changes in the last half of the twentieth century, losing some description and comment: A vocabulary arises in the eighteenth century which extends into the Twentieth. But this text becomes more concert criticism than analytical when the author has heard the pianists.

There is no accurate representation of the first-class composers set forth – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy and sometimes, Liszt and Schumann, and others less capable, original composers for the piano like Mendelssohn. How did composition change their playing. The author treats these persons as pianists, yet some of Mendelssohn’s music isn’t fit to be played at a dog fight: The rhythms are uninteresting; they are straightforward rhythmic (if any) and thematic development, and the general presentation of imagination is incomplete. Indeed, many of he pianists whom the author describe played their own, insufficient compositions. That music is lost today, or might be taken from cold basement rooms of libraries and castles. None is as good as the piece discovered in Czechoslovakia in 1960, a second Haydn Cello Concerto.  

The audience is not fully explained. Did they only want acrobatics, displays at the keyboard of music that should not be played. Although opera was popular in the nineteenth century, the rush to arrange portions of operas for piano concerts was everywhere and a waste of time. Those arrangements are not played today. Yet these pieces, technically difficult and harmonically improved, took as much as half of each concert. Pianists into the Twentieth Century performed them  and other favorites – waltzes by Johann Strauss and others. Why these arrangements fell out of favor or have been ignored by pianists since 1970 remains open.   

The relationship of pianists to one another is not fully set forth. Individual meetings are noted, followings are chronicled and schools and methods are mentioned. But what of the true effect of Liszt who would sight read and play anything up to speed, or faster with control. Saint Saens had the same sight reading ability. Where were the force and effect of their compositions, definitive works? After 1855 the reader has no idea of the effect of Liszt’s E-Flat Concerto, a remarkable work that develops one theme. And the Saint-Saens Second Concerto in C minor was popular into the cartoon age, but Pianists were graded on their performance of it. Obviously Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, D Minor (l909) (the most difficult piano concerto) set a high bar for technical performance, endurance and interpretation. Schonberg does not describe much of this.

Indeed, Saint-Saens and other composers were not composing for piano alone. Why? Change of audience, or something else? Music for the piano played in 1900 was mostly composed before 1850, unless a gross adaptation of an operatic piece. The author does not explain or mention why music composed for the piano fell off. Not everyone was willing or capable of composing for orchestra. Much orchestral music of the Nineteenth Century, as well as the Eighteenth did not survive their centuries.   

What The Great Pianists also lacks is one pianist looking and hearing another and saying, “I never have to perform that piece of music again,” Sergei Rachmaninoff’s reaction after hearing Josef Hoffman playing Chopin’s Funeral March Sonata in recital. Indeed, Hoffman plays it well and distinctly.

There is little sense that pianists listened to one another much. Beginning in the first half of the Twentieth Century when recordings were made, pianists had more opportunity to listen and be informed.  More recording has made it an issue. It becomes a different issue because about 1950 the world lost two young pianists who were masters. Schonberg devotes a paragraph to each of them, and acknowledges had each lived he would have had a great career (and influence?). Indeed, Dinu Lipatti (died 1950) and William Kapell (died 1952) may have lifted pianistic performances during the last half of the Twentieth Century. The sense that any pianist during his or her life time actually influenced or lifted piano playing is not described well.

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