Great pianist like the sound of solitude


In Charles Dickens' "The Old Curiosity Shop," a carnival worker named Short asks Mr. Vuffin, owner of a sideshow, what happens to giants after they retire.

"They're usually kept in Carawans [sic] to wait upon the Dwarfs," said Mr. Vuffin.

"The maintaining of 'em must come expensive, when they can't be shown, eh?" remarked Short, eyeing him doubtfully.

"It's better that, than letting 'em go about the streets," said Mr. Vuffin. "Once make a giant common and giants will never draw again."

Musical giants have left the stage as well, but their obscurity is continually violated by legends and rumors that have created cults around them, and by pirated records of their live performances that often outsell commercial releases. And if they were to return, they would scarcely become common.

It may seem strange to compare such great pianists as Sviatoslav Richter (who abandoned the recording studio more than 20 years ago), Martha Argerich (who hasn't given a solo recital in the United States since 1979), Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (whose last American appearance was in 1972) and the late Glenn Gould and Vladimir Horowitz to circus freaks. But genius is a freak of nature. And stories about these "freaks" -- whether true or false -- become enduring myths.

Argerich, for example, is truly a "free spirit." She plays when, where and with whom she likes, and her lifestyle -- she has had several children by different men, not all of whom were her husbands -- has lent her a powerful sexual aura.

Then there is Michelangeli. Legend has it that he fought with the partisans against the fascists in World War II, was captured by the Germans, forced to watch several comrades hang and only escaped the same fate when an Allied air raid destroyed the camp where he was imprisoned.

This all seems believable when we hear Michelangeli depict the bizarre horrors of the swinging carcasses in Ravel's "Le Gibet," or when Argerich drives the climaxes of Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto to ecstatic heights unreached by any other pianist.

It is a certainty that if Carnegie Hall were to announce a recital by Richter, Argerich or Michelangeli this week, only standing room would be available by Monday.

The cults that develop around such musicians do depend to a certain extent upon the infrequency of their appearances. They are the objects of a veneration different in kind from the love that audiences once poured upon the late pianist Arthur Rubinstein and currently upon cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman.

The difference has little or nothing to do with ability. Rubinstein was a more dependably great pianist than either Horowitz or Richter. It may even be that a certain amount of unreliability makes some musicians objects of worship; we sense that they are on the edge, that they walk a perpetual tightrope between triumph and disaster. Their combination of supernatural strength with touching vulnerability allows audiences to forge singularly personal relationships with them. We may be dwarfs and they may be giants, but their weaknesses -- the nervous breakdowns of a Horowitz or the painful shyness of a Richter -- allow us to see ourselves magnified.

Not all cult figures can survive public exposure. The reputation of conductor Sergiu Celibidache was diminished when pirates of his performances became easily available, when he began to make videos and when he began to tour. The myth of his Furtwangler-like intensity and Toscanini-like precision could not withstand the reality of performances that were often merely too slow, boring and sloppy. Cults around the genuine article -- as several recent DG and Teldec releases by Argerich and Philips' 21-CD salute to Richter demonstrate -- are only enhanced by documentation.

Why so stingy?

But why are these musicians so stingy with their adoring audiences? Why are the times and places where Richter appears -- almost always in small halls in small European towns -- such carefully guarded secrets? Why does Argerich only make public appearances in chamber music performances with friends such as violinist Gidon Kremer or cellist Mischa Maisky, still more rarely with orchestra and never in solo recital? Why does Michelangeli regularly cancel most of his performances, and why has he repeated the same two or three programs for the last 35 years? Why did Gould quit concertizing in 1964, at only 31, and spend his remaining 18 years performing only for microphones and TV cameras? Why did Horowitz, whose American performing career began in 1928 and concluded with his death in 1989, continually interrupt it with absences -- one lasting 12 years?

And -- this is the truly intriguing part -- why are all these musicians pianists?

Other instrumentalists don't exhibit such behavior. While singers famously display temperament, they seem to crave an audience's adulation. With the exception of Carlos Kleiber, who was trained as a pianist, conductors also seem to like the limelight.

The answer may be that pianists spend more time alone than other musicians. The great keyboard players -- and they include pianists who love performing for audiences as much as Rubinstein did -- are masters of solitude.

One of the reasons pianists spend so much time alone is that they practice more than other musicians. Wind players and singers have built-in limits, because over-practice can permanently damage their embouchures or their voices. String players practice less than pianists simply because their repertories are smaller and because they are not required -- as pianists since Liszt have been -- to play from memory.

Striving for perfection in an era in which recordings have accustomed audiences to note-perfect performances, and facing the fear of memory lapses, force pianists to practice as much as six or seven hours a day, sometimes much more. On the evening of his American debut, Paderewski practiced till dawn. After an evening performance that does not satisfy him, Richter has been known to do the same.

Over-practicing has resulted in over-use syndrome, which has deprived some of our best pianists -- including Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman -- of the use of their right hands.

"If a pianist tells you that he practices only two hours a day, he's either a liar or he's not a real pianist," Leon Fleisher has said.

Indeed, budding pianists must be so inured to hours alone that some people wonder if an affinity for solitude is one of the characteristics that makes musically talented youngsters gravitate toward the piano, instead of the violin or the cello.

"Children don't choose the piano because they are loners -- such decisions are based on your emotions or your motor skills or your ear," disagrees pianist Horacio Gutierrez."But in their professional lives, pianists tend to be -- in fact, they must be -- loners."

Solitude is a difficult mistress. The frustrations of spending so much of one's life alone has led many pianists to become conductors. But those who concern us here either decline to spend the hours alone preparing solo recitals (as Argerich does); retreat into silence as Michelangeli seems to have done; passionately embrace solitude, as Glenn Gould did; perform only one program each season, as Horowitz did; or sidestep the problem of memory by using music, as Richter does.

"It's an unnatural act for any musician to get up in public and play," says Dr. Peter Ostwald, a psychiatrist, a talented violinist and the author of "Robert Schumann: The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius," who is now at work on a biography of Gould.

"But the piano makes demands that are really out of the ordinary," Ostwald adds. "It is not an instrument like other instruments, because it doesn't need another instrument. The demands on the memory are really inhuman. And while other instruments force musicians to become socialized -- because you have to adjust to playing with someone else -- the pianist doesn't have to adjust. And if you don't have to adjust to other musicians -- as pianists in solo repertory do not -- what are little eccentricities may become greater ones."

No pianist ever existed in greater solitude or exhibited more eccentricities than Gould. He wore an overcoat and gloves in summer, slept by day, worked by night and communicated with friends almost exclusively by telephone. His recording of all of Mozart's piano sonatas stands those delicate pieces on their heads, and he recorded Beethoven's "Appassionata" for no apparent reason other than that of showing how badly it could be performed.

Romantic throwbacks

Gould seems far removed from Argerich, who abjures the solo recital but still enjoys performing chamber music in public; or from Richter, who continues to give public solo recitals -- just not in the places one expects to find the man generally acknowledged to be the greatest living pianist.

But all -- in their different versions of solitude -- are throwbacks to the Romantic age, in which the identities of the piano and the pianist were created.

Setting aside the great concertos of Mozart and sonatas of Haydn -- which were written for a tinier instrument -- the piano begins its true career in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

Its evolution from the 97-pound weakling Mozart knew into the gleaming, half-ton, industrial-age triumph that we recognize today was essentially complete by 1850. If the harpsichord symbolizes the Age of Reason, the grand piano expresses the Romantic spirit.

Among the goals of the French Revolution were liberation from restraints of the inherited social order. Heroism was defined as individualism -- one suffered martyrdom, not only for a cause, but for oneself. The heroes of Byron, Pushkin or Heine suffer from unrequited love and from dark nights of the soul; they commune with rivers, mountains and their own memories. What they are "about" is their own splendid solitariness.

The piano was the perfect instrument for an age that exalted independence. Its range -- the highest notes are higher than the piccolo and the lowest lower than those of the contrabassoon -- exceeds that of the orchestra. And its power made it the only solo instrument that could satisfactorily fill a large hall. Because it was completely self-sufficient, it fulfilled the Romantic ideal of instrumental music; independent of texts or messages, it was an instrument of pure thought.

Thus it was also an instrument designed for individual expression. Although both Mozart and Clementi were famous virtuosos, the piano enters a new era with Beethoven as an instrument with which a musician could express genius, rather than mere skill, and command the attention of a large audience rather than a few guests at a salon.

But in Beethoven's life (as it does in those of such successors as Gould, Horowitz, Michelangeli, Argerich and Richter), the piano played an important part even when it wasn't being played. On at least one occasion, he shouted at the titled guests of his patron, Count Lichnovsky, "I do not play for such swine!" On another, when Lichnovsky himself first begged and then threatened the composer to play for some of Napoleon's high-ranking generals, Beethoven responded by attempting to break a chair over the count's head.

Playing the piano is a means of acceding to the wishes of the many; not playing is a musical barricades of sorts -- what, to paraphrase Thomas Carlyle, could be called "the everlasting nay." Last year, when Michelangeli canceled -- on less than 24 hours' notice -- a sold-out London recital because he learned that an Italian entrepreneur had bought a block of 500 tickets and made a fortune by selling a charter from Rome to London, he followed in Beethoven's footsteps.

Contempt for economics

But in his contempt for music's economic imperatives, Michelangeli was also in the tradition of Liszt, who abandoned the life of a concert pianist at 35, and of Chopin, who gave fewer than 30 public concerts in his lifetime and whose loathing for audiences affected him physically.

"The audience makes me shy," the composer wrote. "I am suffocated by their breath and paralyzed by their curious stares."

Chopin was not talking about ordinary stage fright. It's human nature to want to look over people's shoulders. More than other musicians, pianists make their living from that psychological fact, and they must, therefore, cope with more visual intrusiveness. The seats that sell best at recitals are those on the left, which offer a view of the pianist's hands.

Glenn Gould was famous for his fear of shaking hands with people. But there was something he feared even more, according to Dr. Joseph Stephens, the former chairman of the Johns Hopkins Department of Psychiatry, who is himself a pianist of concert caliber and was one of Gould's oldest friends.

"He hated to have people look at him during concerts," Stephens says. "He said concerts encouraged a circus-like mentality in which people were just waiting to see him make a mistake."

Even paranoids have enemies, however, and Gould's paranoia hit upon an important truth.

"We all enjoy the trapeze artist -- the risk-taking and the relief when they succeed," Dr. Peter Ostwald says. "But there's another part that's not so flattering to us," he adds. "The Schadenfreude we feel when they miss."

Part of these virtuosos' reluctance to submit to public scrutiny may come from their awareness of expectations and from fear of having to compete -- especially in an age of records -- with themselves. Serkin and Rubinstein were great virtuosos, but their audiences were interested in what they played, not how they played. Such players seem to have, as George Bernard Shaw once remarked, "the best of it in the long run."

Giant scarcity

Nevertheless, our eccentrics are musical giants, and opportunities to appreciate them are scarcer than ever. Gould and Horowitz are no longer alive; and Richter, 81, and Michelangeli, 75, are approaching the end of their careers. The 53-year-old Argerich, however, is at the peak of hers, and it would be unfortunate if her fans -- dwarfs though we may be -- do not get to hear her again.

Her agent, CAMI's Larry Tucker, says Argerich has talked about taking a six-month sabbatical so that she can restudy her solo repertory and begin giving recitals, perhaps as early as next season.

"I'm hopeful, but I'm not about to schedule any six-week tours," he says.

Optimism, therefore, must be guarded. Any piano aficionado knows that the solitary art of the virtuoso -- like the art of listening itself -- all too easily becomes a solitary vice.


To hear excerpts of Martha Argerich performing Chopin's "Major Etude," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6209 after you hear the greeting.

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