Necessary Evil

I would really like to know how to solve the problem of the huge surplus of talented musicians over the number of listeners willing to listen to them and thus allow them to earn their living from playing music. Competitions, meant to facilitate the start of a professional career for the most talented young musicians, are gradually losing that function. The number of such competitions and, consequently, the number of laureates is so high that the “art market” cannot accommodate the winners. Competitions turn into games, often very dramatic for their participants and always very tiring and stressful.

One is puzzled first of all by the multitude of the jurors’ wrong verdicts, unfair decisions that favour technically correct mediocrity. Behind each such decision – in addition to betrayal of an ideal – we have disappointments and suffering of young people. There are many winners of prestigious competitions who fail to prove their worth in concert. To put it simply, they are not outstanding artistic personalities. There are just as many charismatic musicians who, not fitting in with academic canons, get rejected at the initial stages of the selection process. Often those who have been rejected eventually find their way to concert halls, but with much more effort and at a tremendous psychological cost. Mediocre laureates, meanwhile, cared for by artistic management companies and record labels, fill the market with their second-ratedness and contribute to the decline of the art of performance. People who make money from art, with their methods of manipulating the audience, with aggressive advertising, turning art into a beautifully packed and carefully advertised “product”, make the confusion complete.

Despite the fact that competitions frequently profess to be looking for originality and be guided by high artistic criteria, in practice they favour other values, such as objectively “measurable” virtuosic skills and aesthetic universalism. The reasons behind it are the very principle of selection on the one hand, and the ethical and artistic stature of the jury on the other. And here we come to the question why I consider competitions a necessary evil – I will try to explain my point of view in a moment. We also have a whirl of the vested interests of jurors, who are also teachers, which results in evaluations that are far from objective, scores that are manipulated and methods that are unfair, enabling jurors to reach a verdict favourable to them…

The fundamental issue here is to think about the circumstances and the mechanism which, I deeply believe, contributes to the downfall or “decline” of the art of performing music. The fact that this decline is actually taking place may not be so obvious. I understand it as a gradual disappearance of powerful interpretative visions, unification of aesthetics, increasing mechanisation in the shaping of the musical material. Interpretations become less and less diverse, less and less personal. Schematism creeps in, as does rigidity in developing music in time. Performances lack character, they display no visionary imagination, it gets more and more difficult to recognise the individual idiom of the various performers or characterise their aesthetics. When I listen to recordings of the great masters from the first decades of the 20th century – masters who are the only point of reference for us – I also begin to doubt the widespread opinion concerning the development of technique, i.e. mastering the instrument. The reasons behind this process are numerous and I would list performance competitions among them.

These competitions are in turn part of a phenomenon consisting in commercialisation of art and growing globalisation of art trade, i.e. a situation whereby in all music shops of the world, from Sumatra to Bergen, we can buy the same records and see posters that advertise the same, often poor, musicians. In other words, a huge increase in the ease of information exchange among performers, and between performers and audiences, as well as the willingness (really so praiseworthy…?) to reach as many potential listeners as possible. Mainly to earn money.

Perhaps there is no other way. Perhaps this is some kind of a transition stage. Perhaps changes are necessary in our reaction to the attempts of make highbrow culture (which has always been addressed to the elite) popular among the masses – and not only for “class” reasons but because, as Stanisław Jerzy Lec remarked, “The world must be cone-shaped – the bottom is the biggest”. Anyway, regardless of the view concerning the height of that cone and the diameter of its base, we have a situation in which certain values of performance are lost and performers differ increasingly in unimportant details. Forced to face direct comparisons, they worry mainly about the correctness of their playing skills, as their “to be or not to be” depends on them. They are also excessively nervous… The fact of preparing for a competition is, in my opinion, a factor that negatively affects their subconscious and influences their aesthetic choices, hindering their individual development.

A jury’s evaluation is basically a “resultant” of tastes and opinions. Extreme points of view cancel each other out or are automatically eliminated by the scoring rules. The effect is often a lack of identification of jurors themselves with the “verdicts” they sign. A most peculiar and puzzling situation! The aesthetic result is conservative renditions that please the so-called majority. A criterion with most unfortunate consequences for musical performance.

Sadly, I must admit that there is no simple solution to this problem, no easy way to stop the process that is driven by greed and that involves many people and big money. Those who speed up the process waive banners with seemingly lofty slogans, not noticing how much harm they do to the delicate and intangible matter of music and the sensitive psyche of talented young artists. Perhaps the time has come to devise new forms of looking for young talent, forms that would stimulate the art of performing music rather than contribute to its trivialisation. After all, the term “competition type” has a fairly pejorative tinge….

Vladimir Horowitz

Vladimir Horowitz – a shy pianist…

When reading Piatigorsky’s memoirs I happened to come across a piece of information about Horowitz that really surprised me. Piatigorsky recalled that that the young Volodia (with whom the cellist had made friends before the war and played a lot of concerts – mainly in trio together with Nathan Milstein) was an exceptionally shy and silent person. He was a young man with whom it took a long time to make friends, introverted and very ambitious. Whenever he sat at the piano in situations other than an official concert performance, he always played a piece from the beginning to the end, never showing off or choosing spectacular fragments… His personality made everyone tremble even before Horowitz touched the piano keys, everybody felt that something extraordinary was going to happen whenever he approached the instrument.

What a different picture of Horowitz as a man in comparison with what we know from the last years of his life, when he became a jovial “uncle” always ready to smile, prone to childlike pranks and charming tomfoolery. What an extraordinary metamorphosis!

What I find fascinating about Horowitz is the fact that his artistic personality kept developing until his very last days. There are certain types of performers or creators whose artistic expression intensifies with time, not yielding to the “natural” course of events. Passage of time usually strengthens people’s inclination for synthesis, Apollonian equilibrium or, at the very end of life, for “eschatological” reflection. Speaking more crudely, the senses of a mature person become less acute, which, combined with experience and wisdom that come with age, often produces aesthetically interesting effects. Or perhaps it is only our gratitude to great performers for what they have given us throughout their lives that makes us experience it that way… There is inherent beauty in this situation.

In Horowitz, on the other hand, we observe an intensification of the features of his very strong artistic personality at the end of his long career marked with periods of silence. I have always been fascinated by a unique poetic quality of his art, and by his extraordinary, intuitive musical wisdom that escapes analysis. In this strongly individualistic musical intuition lies the source of the opinion, expressed by some, that Horowitz does not deserve to be put on the highest pedestal. I do not agree. Horowitz exerted on me – and probably on many other musicians – a huge, a formative influence. Let me try to explain why.

“A shy pianist” – this misleading introductory description of Horowitz the man bears no relation to his art, which escapes all criteria. Horowitz possessed rare artistic “moral courage”, great strength, which enabled him to subordinate all he did to musical expression. He had an electrifying technique, very unique skills that were always at the service of his musical artistry. When playing, he was taking risks, never afraid of slight imperfections – he was not an absolute perfectionist. He believed that striving to achieve perfect “purity” of playing had to be at the cost of expression. He played a mechanically very light piano tuned to his requirements, presented to him before the war by Steinway. The piano had a rare dynamic scale, which Horowitz used to the maximum. Under his fingers the instrument displayed a whole array of tone colours.

In his art, Horowitz remained in the world of poetry. Often that poetry was characterised by high temperature of emotional states. Its intensity was created “here and now”. His playing always contained a dose of improvisation, a feature that I value immensely in performers (and not only in them).

Its essence is specificity of perception of the musical tissue and a certain kind of unexpectedness. A great value is created when a performer is able to leave himself a margin for improvisation and has the technical skills necessary to carry it out … Such a situation is the most thrilling for me.

Horowitz’s repertoire was substantial, although not as vast as Richter’s. He kept returning to the same pieces – “talismans” – throughout his career. Thus, he defied the label that some superficial critics gave him – that of a virtuoso and a “technically-minded” artist. He kept returning to his favourite Scarlatti [Sonata in E major], Schumann [Kinderszenen] and Chopin [Ballade in G minor]. He is reported to have said once that he would like to play a recital consisting of several performances of the Ballade… This says a lot. His artistic personality is very capricious and complex. It is unpredictable. The phrase meanders and surprises us with subtle shadings building an intimate and literally unique climate, very difficult to grasp intellectually and virtually impossible to copy. So subtle and numerous are the nuances, making the timbre of His voice so easily recognisable. This vanishing feature – recognisability of the phrasing style and tone – seems to be a great value. Pianists today (as Horowitz repeatedly pointed out in interviews) play more and more alike. And they are not alone. This is a feature of our times, the era of uniformity and globalisation, and a subject for a separate analysis …

Horowitz is instantly recognisable after barely a few notes. Apart from unique phrasing and tremendous sensitivity to the importance of harmony, we are also struck by the space between sound planes and the subordination of the expression to one of them – most often an exceptionally ear-catching melody and its diversity. There is always an impression that music is created “casually”. This illusion is caused by a lack of any effort, also physical effort, in handling the instrument. I think that what worries Horowitz’s critics most of all is their inability to find an intellectual foundation of his art. Horowitz escapes rational justifications, which many people find necessary for full reception of art. People encounter similar problems in confrontation with strongly individualistic poetic phenomena. Horowitz is always extremely “characteristic” in each note he plays and thus challenges our expectations.

The pianist became a living legend, experiencing frenetic applause of his audiences and very emotional reactions to his art. I admire him even more, trying to empathize with his emotions, when he returned to the stage at Carnegie Hall, after twelve years of “silence”.

He began his return to the concert stage with Bach… Yet he reached the absolute heights when he was playing the music of composers whose personality was somehow akin to his own. We need to mention here names like Scriabin, who must have been close to him, as well as Schumann, Chopin and Rachmaninoff. Surprisingly, Horowitz played a lot of Clementi and many small pieces that are now far outside the mainstream of the piano repertoire. Interestingly, he rarely played with an orchestra and performed only a few piano concertos (among them was a brilliant performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto in D minor). After 1965 his art became even more refined and expressive. He played a lot of the composers mentioned above, some late Beethoven, some Liszt and Schubert, a lot of Mozart. Being familiar with many live concert recordings of Horowitz, thanks to the possibility of listening (and re-listening many times after recording them) to the programmes of the late and much lamented Jan Weber, who presented various such “treasures” on the Polish Radio, I think that Horowitz definitely needed the atmosphere of a live concert, of “singularity” and that special concentration which appears on such occasions. His studio recordings fail to do justice to his greatness, some of them may even falsify or diminish it. It is also a pity that Horowitz played so little chamber music and recorded even less of it. What has survived in the form of recordings attests to something truly extraordinary.

I personally deeply regret that I did not have a chance to attend a concert of Vladimir Horowitz. His charisma, as reported by eye-witnesses, was unique in the world of musical performers. People did not mind travelling enormous distances just to attend his infrequent concerts in the 1970s and 1980s, and often cried with emotion after listening to him for a few minutes. And he, always immaculately elegant, wearing a bow tie (one of thousands that he was said to own – he was once voted the “bow tie wearer of the year”), full of warmth and childlike naivety, apparently unaware of what he was offering his listeners and what “magic” he was able to work on the piano, always remained in contrast to the tension of his musical poetry and often psychedelic expression. Perhaps that was a consciously staged contrast … He must have been aware of the “realms” in which he moved.

Uniqueness – this is the word that comes to my mind at the conclusion of this reflection. Never are we going to hear such a pianist again. I even think that this format of artistic personality has disappeared already or is now disappearing from this world for ever…