Pianists are the Nolan Ryans of the music world

April 05, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

In Rudolf Firkusny's business, Nolan Ryans are not rare.

Ryan, of course, is the power pitcher who's still throwing fastballs past hitters at a time when other pitchers his age have long since retired and are acquiring potbellies. Firkusny is the dapper pianist who's still traveling all over the world playing difficult pieces when most men his age are too tired to play with their grandchildren.

But the 80-year-old Firkusny -- who will perform Beethoven's Fourth Concerto Thursday and Friday with David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra -- is just one of a number of older pianists who are suddenly getting attention that they never received before they began to approach the octogenarian stage.

The Czech-born pianist's case is typical. He made his American debut in 1937 and has enjoyed a solid career ever since. But he was never a headliner, and he was never associated in a big way with a major record label. That all seemed to change a few years ago, when the pianist suddenly began to be referred to as "the legendary Rudolf Firkusny" and when he signed a contract with RCA Red Seal Records that allows him to record just about anything he wants. And similarly late Indian summer flowerings have occurred in the careers of such octogenarians as Shura Cherkassky, Vlado Perlmutter, Nikita Magaloff and -- most remarkable of all -- Mieczyslaw Horszowski, who turns 100 this month, who made his debut in Vienna in 1902, who performed for Pope Pius X (now St. Pius X) in 1903 and who did not become truly famous outside the world of other musicians until the last 10 or 12 years.

There seem to be two kinds of need at work here. One is the need of these men -- there are now no octogenarian women pianists of note -- to keep playing. The second is the public's need for grand old men of the keyboard. In Western culture, which puts such a premium on youthful brilliance and virtuosity, we do not venerate age as they do in the East, but we still seem to want elder statesmen. In the last few years, several giants have died -- Serkin, Horowitz, Arrau, Rubinstein and Kempff. None of the aforementioned survivors had comparable careers, but there is something in audiences that seems to need a repository of pianistic wisdom. "Don't they all get better as they get older?" is what novice listeners usually ask when they hear of an elderly man doing remarkable feats of pianistic legerdemain.

What makes the 45-year-old Nolan Ryan amazing is that he still possesses the muscle mass to throw baseballs at more than 90 miles an hour past men less than half his age. But what the elderly pianist does is perhaps even more remarkable. In nature, other animals do most things better than men -- they can swim faster, run faster and are stronger (if a 100-pound adult chimpanzee were thrown in a cage with Arnold Schwarzenegger, my money would be on the chimp). But the most intricately and perfectly coordinated of all voluntary movements in the animal kingdom belong to the human hand and finger, and in almost no other human activity do memory, complex integration and muscular coordination surpass that of the concert pianist.

Musicians' longevity

Now, musicians have the reputation of going on forever -- conductors especially. (The Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. once did a survey of longevity and professions; it discovered that conductors are the longest-lived people on earth.) But conductors, who merely wave their arms, do not have to meet the same demands on their small and large motor skills as pianists. And virtuoso violinists -- who, like pianists, start out very young -- rarely last past 65.

This mystery -- why pianists and not violinists -- can probably be explained by their instruments. The piano is a pre-tuned instrument with -- relative to the violin's strings -- rather large keys. The violin may demand even greater small motor skills than the piano -- a mistake of a fraction of a millimeter in the placement of a finger can mean groaningly out-of-tune playing -- and it also requires sharp hearing for accurate intonation.

Wind players often have shorter careers than violinists, subject as they are to the decay of facial muscle and the loss of teeth. Singers have the shortest careers of all -- sometimes they don't discover that they have a voice until they are nearly 30 and then that treacherous instrument often will begin to betray them before they are 50. Of all virtuoso musicians, it's the pianists that last longest.

A hard question

How well, actually, do these octogenarians play? That's a hard question to answer -- for a lot of reasons. For one thing, although playing the piano and pitching a baseball are both athletic

activities, a Nolan Ryan can quantify how good he is -- won-lost percentage, ERA and strikeouts -- and a Rudolf Firkusny cannot. This is because playing the piano involves more than athleti

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