Friday, August 12, 2011

Classical piano playing and the four-minute mile

The four-minute mile seemed an impossibility until Roger Bannister made the breakthrough in 1954. Since then, runners have knocked nearly 17 seconds off Bannister’s time.

Something similar has long been occurring with pianists. And in the last decade or so the growth of technical proficiency has seemed exponential. ...

Some months ago I was speaking about the issue with the pianist Gilbert Kalish, who teaches at Stony Brook University on Long Island. He said that when Gyorgy Ligeti’s études, which explore new realms of texture, sound and technique at the piano, gained attention in the 1990s, they were considered nearly impossible. Only experts like the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard could play them, it was thought. But now, thanks to greater familiarity, Mr. Kalish said, “my students at Stony Brook play them quite comfortably.” ...

A reason that pianists are getting technically stronger is that as in sports, teachers and students are just learning to practice the craft better, becoming better conditioned and getting better results. But as Mr. Kalish suggests, another reason is that pianists are rising to the challenges of new music that pushes boundaries.

This phenomenon should be seen in historical context. The first several decades of the 20th century are considered a golden era by many piano buffs, a time when artistic imagination and musical richness were valued more than technical perfection. ...

But audiences and critics tolerated a lot of playing that would be considered sloppy today. Listen to 1920s and ’30s recordings of the pianist Alfred Cortot, immensely respected in his day. He would probably not be admitted to Juilliard now. Despite the refinement and élan in his playing, his recording of Chopin’s 24 études from the early 1930s is, by today’s standards, littered with clinkers.

These days playing the Chopin études with comfort is practically an entry-level requirement for membership in the ranks of professional pianists.
--Anthony Tommasini, NYT, on the expanding technical frontier in piano playing