When memory fails, great musicians have ways of coping: Some keep playing

July 17, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Performing musicians do not like to talk about memory slips, but all of them -- even the most apparently confident -- fear them. The pianist Arthur Rubinstein used to imagine that the piano awaiting him on stage was a shark about to devour him. And there were occasions when Rubinstein's great rival, Vladimir Horowitz, was so frightened that his wife, Wanda, literally had to push him on stage from the wings.

There's a wonderful New Yorker cartoon that shows an elephant seated on stage in front of a piano. "What am I doing here?" the frightened elephant asks himself. "I'm a flutist!" Ask any musician: Stage fright is just a euphemism for the fear that he won't remember what he is supposed to play or how to play it.

This came to mind because of an appearance by pianist Van Cliburn Monday night in the Hollywood Bowl before an audience of more than 14,000. The reclusive pianist was beginning his first tour after a 16-year hiatus.

What many of his fans hoped would be a triumph turned into a fiasco. Accompanied by the Moscow Philharmonic, Cliburn had programmed his two signature pieces, Tchaikovsky's B flat minor and Rachmaninoff's D minor concertos. But in the Tchaikovsky, the pianist suffered a memory lapse in the final movement that left the orchestra scrambling. After the intermission, the orchestra sat on the stage for 10 minutes waiting for the pianist to come out and play the Rachmaninoff.

After an announcement saying the pianist was "indisposed," Cliburn entered, apologized to the audience and told them that dizziness and high blood pressure prevented him from playing the concerto. He went on to perform four relatively short encore pieces that the pianist -- even in his almost unbroken 16-year sabbatical -- has always played for his own pleasure.

It was the "fight or flight syndrome" that caused the high blood pressure. Cliburn later admitted to friends that he was too paralyzed by fear to tackle the Rachmaninoff concerto. The relatively minor lapse in the Tchaikovsky must have seemed a portent of disaster in the much more difficult Rachmaninoff work. During the intermission, Cliburn, who has played the D minor Rachmaninoff more often than any pianist in history, must have convinced himself that he couldn't remember a single page of the score.

Admittedly, Cliburn is a special case. He has always had a poor memory -- which probably accounts for his tiny repertory. His withdrawal from giving concerts in 1978 was merely the largest of the flights from fright he has been taking for much of his life. But one can'thelp but be sympathetic to anyone who has suffered the demoralizing, confidence-destroying experience of a memory slip -- or the even more devastating fear that it will be repeated.

The most famous memory slip in modern history probably wasn't a memory slip at all. It occurred April 4, 1954, in a concert by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony. In the Bacchanale from "Tannhauser," the 87-year-old conductor, who was celebrated for his photographic memory, apparently forgot where he was, dropped his arms by his sides, and had to be rescued by the principal cellist's cues to the orchestra. Although Toscanini lived in relatively good health for another three years, the shame of what happened at that nationally broadcast concert, and the fear that it might happen again, made him decide never to conduct in public again.

At the time, it seemed the conductor fell victim to pride. Because of nearsightedness and a refusal to wear glasses when he performed, Toscanini committed every score to memory. But the lapse, medical historians now argue, didn't occur because the conductor didn't have a score on which he could fall back. Toscanini apparently had had a tiny stroke that resulted in a few seconds in which he literally did not know where he was.

Nevertheless, age frequently seems to play a part in memory slips. In their last years -- after experiencing what must have been traumatic slips -- Dame Myra Hess and Sir Clifford Curzon regularly used scores when they played. After several lapses in the late 1970s, Sviatoslav Richter -- who in his younger years had what was considered the greatest memory of any pianist in the instrument's history -- began to use a score.

The interesting thing is that I don't remember either Hess or Curzon looking at their scores. And friends who have heard Richter as recently as last fall tell me the same thing about him. The score apparently serves as a security blanket.

But just as obviously, one must be a giant to be a candidate for such a privilege. Not playing from memory stamps most musicians -- pianists particularly -- as amateurs or worse.

It is presumably to the great Hungarian composer-pianist Franz Liszt that pianists owe the distinction of having to give score-free performances. (Cellists and violinists usually play concertos from memory, but frequently use scores in recitals.)

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