Last night I attended a piano recital that featured a piece by Bach to open, then a Beethoven piano sonata and the second half was Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky. Can't go wrong with that program, right? I realize that part of the reason my policy usually works is that good musicians tend to pick better programs, aesthetically. But not always, apparently.
I won't give the name of the pianist, but he seemed a bit of a cold fish coming onstage. However, it is the playing that counts. Alas, the Bach did not come off well. The playing was graceless and confused, meaning that the phrases were oddly delivered and stiff. The shape of the music was confused. There was no clarity to the texture or the harmony. All this was exacerbated by fast tempos. The great weakness of the piano as an instrument comes from its very convenience: it is all too easy to hammer away at it, making loud furious gestures, but it is very much harder to play with subtlety and control. This player played every phrase like he was squirting out watermelon seeds. The Beethoven was even worse. Mussorgsky almost survived the performance, but not quite. On the whole the evening was an unpleasant experience, musically. But, inexplicably, most of the audience leaped to their feet, after all the enormous, furious and virtuosic passages at the end of the Mussorgsky, eager to give the artist a standing ovation. I overheard someone saying something about how the music was like rivers and waves of sound, which was apparently a positive comment.
But I was not the only disappointed listener. A pianist spoke to me as I was leaving, saying that she found the performance cold and unemotional, as did a singer sitting next to me. I wouldn't say that myself, exactly. What it was, was musically crude, attempting to replace phrasing and balance with fast notes and sheer volume. But I can see how you might see this as unemotional if you contrast in your mind mechanical virtuosity with musical expression.
Given that most of the audience seemed to like the concert, I guess this explains the success of Lang Lang and others. If you play loud and fast, that is what leads to a standing ovation these days!
So what happened? I mean, this is supposedly a "classical" music audience? Do even classical listeners lack a basic aesthetic sense these days? How can you find, not only acceptable, but admirable, just a lot of big chords played very loud and fast flurries of notes?
A while ago I read a contention by a couple of researchers who claimed that average intelligence has declined one standard deviation since late in the 19th century. This claim is based on studies of simple reaction time, which is a proxy for IQ. They seem to think that this explains what they see as an accelerating decline in creativity in areas like mathematics. I certainly don't know enough about this area to have an opinion myself, and there are lots of people that disagree with them. But I'm starting to wonder if it might not be true. Heck, it might explain what I see as an accelerating decline in musical taste!
Let me see if I can put the quality of this performance in perspective. When I was teaching at McGill University, I would occasionally be called on to attend a recital in fulfillment of the requirements for a degree in performance. These recitals are marked by a jury usually consisting of three faculty members. You give either a "pass" or a "fail" with comments. I would have given this recital a fail for musical insensitivity and technical sloppiness!
Let's listen to a good performance of the Mussorgsky. Here is Evgeny Kissin: