Every great artist is said to be irreplaceable. But the death of pianist Rudolf Serkin earlier this month at the age of 88 is an irreplaceable loss in the most prosaic sense: There is literally no one to take his place as the reigning elder statesman of the piano. In fact -- in the United States at least -- there are no pianistic elder statesmen at all.
In the last nine years three of the century's greatest pianists have died: Arthur Rubinstein (1982); Vladimir Horowitz (1989); and now Serkin. That leaves only the 88-year-old Claudio Arrau, who is in poor health and does not play in public any more, as the last grand seigneur of the keyboard.
Except for Horowitz, who became a big star early, all of these pianists really didn't flower until their 50s and they continued to play magnificently into their 80s. It was only in their last 30 years that they played with the wisdom and maturity that comes with age.
Had things proceeded the way one would have expected 30 years ago, several brilliant American pianists born between the two World Wars would now be ready to take the places of Serkin and the others. But destiny had a different plan. Of an extraordinary generation that included -- to name just the most prominent -- William Kapell, Eugene Istomin, Julius Katchen, Leon Fleisher, Gary Graffman, Byron Janis and Van Cliburn, not a single pianist achieved his potential.
One could say that there was a lot of bad luck, pointing to the premature deaths of Kapell and Katchen and the physical injuries of Fleisher and Graffman -- probably from over-use syndrome -- that now prevent them from using their right hands. But Janis, who now plays only sporadically, began playing poorly 25 years ago and Cliburn, who began playing badly around the same time, retired from the stage in 1977 only to make a "comeback" two years ago that no one (including, apparently, the pianist himself) seems to take seriously.
To judge from a recital a few years back, Istomin, Serkin's student and the pianist once deemed most likely to succeed him, can still play wonderfully. But concert managers, orchestras, publicists and audiences no longer seem interested
in his still considerable gifts and several years ago Istomin himself seemed to lose interest in maintaining the kind of career he had had as a young man.
One of the curious things about this is that all of these pianists began to fade before they hit 50 -- the age when many of their predecessors began to reach their prime. Except for the early deaths of Kapell and Katchen (and the deaths through AIDS of several younger players), there are some factors common to this pianistic malaise.
The colossus in the path of all pianistic careers in the 1940s and 1950s was Horowitz. His speed, sonority and clarity of articulation electrified an entire generation of audiences and pianists. With Horowitz's sound in their ears, the young pianists of the time practiced fiendishly -- certainly, they practiced more than Horowitz ever did. What they were not to realize until much later, however, was that Horowitz used an instrument that was voiced more brilliantly than any other. It was doctored -- with laquered felts, filed-down hammers and an incredibly fast action -- so that the pianist could achieve his breathtaking feats of sonority and speed.
While Horowitz was successful enough to take his own instrument with him, the pianists who imitated him usually found themselves playing in high school gymnasiums in places like Secaucus, N.J., on dead, unresponsive instruments. It was inevitable that there would be injuries from practicing and playing too much and trying too hard. More important, the pianists who were influenced by Horowitz never realized that his unique sound was achieved not only through his fingers but through the mental demon that drove him.
Horowitz's absence from the stage between 1953 and 1965 diminished his importance as an influence, but other factors had been at work during that time to make long-lived pianistic careers ever more unlikely.
Air travel made it possible to play more concerts at a pace that was theretofore unimaginable. And air conditioning and the burgeoning of summer festivals made that pace last throughout the year. When Cliburn first began to experience the problems that resulted in his burnout, most listeners attributed his difficulties to his repeated performances of the same concertos and recital pieces. But there is not -- nor was there ever -- anything inherently wrong with pianists whose repertories are small. Their number includes such giants as Sergei Rachmaninov, Josef Hofmann, Guiomar Novaes and Dinu Lipatti. Although Cliburn had plenty of other problems, one of them surely was that modern concert life (and the clamor for his performances after his celebrated Moscow Competition victory in 1958) demanded that he play those pieces more often in a single season than earlier generations of pianists would have in 10.