I had a number of different piano teachers throughout my life. Darryl Rosenberg, the great interpreter of John Cage and Morton Feldman, was one of those whose teaching and playing was truly inspiring. Unfortunately, that was the exception. Most teachers during my university years followed the doctrine of “We know EXACTLY today how <fill in composers name> has to be played!” There was one ‘right’ way, and only one, of playing Beethoven, or Bach, or Brahms. Anything not written down, any freedom from the score whatsoever, was to be mocked and punished.
I will never forget the day when we had Prof. Vassily Lobanov as our guest for one concert. I listened to his playing, completely blown away by his musicality and pianistic brilliance. After the concert I met my piano teacher, who exclaimed “I cannot believe that anyone could play that bad!!!” Needless to say that I was shocked by his statement – it would seem so unfair!
This incident made me remember other remarks I had heard from our esteemed teachers over and over again and hadn’t paid much attention to. About Arthur Rubinstein, whom I adore more than any other pianist: “He is one of the worst pianists ever, he never practiced and played too many wrong notes!” About Evgeny Kissin, also one of my favorites: “He can’t do anything than play fast!” About the wonderful Helene Grimaud: “She is totally crazy!” And about Vladimir Horowitz: “He was a genius without musical taste!”
For quite some time I assumed that those remarks were really just hidden jealousy. None of the people making those remarks had a career anywhere close to the musicians they were rambling about. Certainly that’s part of what it was, but there is more to it. A book, ‘Remembering Horowitz’ by David Dubal, opened my eyes to the root cause of the irritation I was seeing evidence of.
Perhaps a more obvious example of what is happening here can be observed when people claim that Michael Flatley cannot dance. This ridiculous statement usually comes from Irish dancers, and what it really means is: Lord Of The Dance is show dancing, not traditional Irish dancing. For many Irish dancers, the traditional way of dancing is the ONLY way of dancing. You are not supposed to move your arms or your upper body, allowed dance moves are well described and are the basis for all major Irish Dancing competitions. There is not a lot of room for artistic freedom. Lord Of The Dance would most likely not reach the second round in any major Irish Dancing competition.
Likewise, Horowitz, Rubinstein and others are examples of of way of piano playing that is simply no longer in line with the expectation of the majority of musicians. Horowitz lived in a time when this expectation began to shift. For the generation that came before Horowitz it was completely normal that the pianist was an interpreter, not just a narrator or executer. It was expected that the pianist would use the composition and add his very personal view and taste to the music, taking lots of freedom from the written score. Today, that has become unthinkable, at least in the field of ‘classical’ music.
The greatness of Horowitz, besides his brilliant technique, was his overwhelming musical personality. I certainly don’t agree with every single of his interpretations, but all of them are inspirited, nothing is done merely for show. Horowitz has my greatest respect, quite to the contrary to some of today’s heroes who stick to the written score and play lots of correct notes while forgetting to make music along the way.
By the way: a contemporary example can be witnessed tomorrow in Munich, a musician that I believe Horowitz would have deeply admired: Cameron Carpenter, who does with the organ what Horowitz did with the piano. If you want to get a feeling for what Horowitz meant for his time, go to one of Carpenter’s concerts, and you will understand.