Once upon a time there was a bushy haired teenager who travelled the world performing all the sonatas of Beethoven. This feat was much admired, as it was generally supposed that young people couldn’t play Beethoven, as it needed lots of worldly ‘maturity’ – especially the slow movements, and most especially the last sonatas, which were out of the realms of possibility for any pianists under the age of 80. “You will understand them when you’re older” was the mantra universally applied to young pianists, the way young people are told they will understand love when they get older.
So we all trooped off to hear this prodigious youth when he came to a concert hall near us. He did indeed play all the sonatas, including the well-nigh impossible ‘Hammerklavier’ – very well. Not with any finesse, but solidly and dependably. This was Beethoven in the tradition of Schnabel – another ‘complete’ Beethoven pianist, and similarly a pianist who made up for what he lacked in pianistic skill with an apparently quasi-religious dedication to the complete works of the master.
Also part of the package was a blanket shunning of all the colourful Romantics like Chopin, Liszt and the rest in favour of this serious corner of the repertoire (which also included Brahms, Mozart and Schubert – i.e. the German classical repertoire). Chopin and Liszt had even had Hollywood movies made about them – how low class and populist could you get! This was not serious repertoire for ‘musician’ pianists, who shunned ‘technique’ and Chopin and Liszt the way theatre actors – real actors – once shunned television and movies.
The lad recorded all the 32 sonatas, as well as the five concertos – more than once. After a while he had performed them so many times it was no longer unusual. So in order to keep the public intrigued he moved on to something else – Beethoven’s chamber music. He even married his chamber music partner, which made headlines in the general press.
But chamber music wasn’t going to hold the paying public’s attention for very long, so the young man took up a baton and started in on the Germanic symphonic repertoire, especially the Bruckner symphonies – lots of mileage there – and made some notable recordings with his famous wife and some famous orchestras.
After a few years of both conducting and playing solo performances of the Germanic repertoire, conducting became the main focus. Conducting may not necessarily have reached a wider audience than playing the piano, but it carried with it much greater power – especially earning power – in the form of music directorships.
As chief conductor of a major orchestra (or two or three concurrently) not only did one receive a seven-figure salary for each (pianists can not even dream about any such thing as a salary, let alone a seven-figure one) but one could control programming and thus the careers of many other musicians and soloists. No matter that one or two orchestras dispense with one’s services amid much furore with government officials; with two or three concurrent directorships one can fill the gap soon enough.
Onward and upward. What better than controlling the programming of major symphony orchestras than controlling major opera companies? Several concurrently, of course. One could even use symphony programmes to rehearse opera house programmes – with “concert performances” of individual acts from long operas.
L’appetit vient en mangeant. Next step, accompanying famous opera singers in recital. The public will actually come, occasionally, to a vocal recital in such circumstances – everyone loves seeing a celebrity. One couldn’t do many such vocal recitals, mind you, just enough to keep the public’s attention.
Nationality becomes an unexpected issue. The bushy-haired pianist’s previously popular nationality is out of the loop of the major opera houses, as well as out of favour socially, due to incessant press attention – some of which is good, some of which is bad, but in general not especially advantageous, so that has to be played down. After a while, it even looks more helpful to go in the other direction and support the opponents of one’s formerly loved nationality.
Best to get right away from this particular mess. New idea: why not make a feature of one’s country of birth – formerly unremarked and unnoticed – which is currently acceptable to everyone. There is even an unknown composer, recently deceased, from that country, whose works can be recorded and sold. Just one record, though – not much there. Nevertheless, must tell the press that this semi-popular composer has always exercised a very great fascination for one.
Operas are starting to become awfully expensive to produce – even with minimalist productions. (This happened once before in history when governments were looked to for this kind of support, instead of the ticket-buying public: look what they did to Ludwig of Bavaria when he persisted in draining the Bavarian government’s coffers to produce Wagner’s operas – they drowned him in a lake).
Symphony orchestras are going out of business all the time in America – even the hallowed Philadelphia Orchestra declares bankruptcy.
What to do next?
No longer bushy-haired (in fact there is now a shiny dome on top, acerbated by the fact that the technique was never good enough to allow playing without sweating), the first move is towards Liszt – the poetic Liszt, to be sure: Sonnets of Petrarca, etc, not anything requiring too much technique, always tricky issue. But there aren’t too many of those: most of what Liszt composed for the piano is hard, and just as the ‘musician pianists’ once claimed with such contempt – requires complete technique.