Great pianist like the sound of solitude

April 23, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

In Charles Dickens' "The Old Curiosity Shop," a carnival worker named Short asks Mr. Vuffin, owner of a sideshow, what happens to giants after they retire.

"They're usually kept in Carawans [sic] to wait upon the Dwarfs," said Mr. Vuffin.

"The maintaining of 'em must come expensive, when they can't be shown, eh?" remarked Short, eyeing him doubtfully.

"It's better that, than letting 'em go about the streets," said Mr. Vuffin. "Once make a giant common and giants will never draw again."

Musical giants have left the stage as well, but their obscurity is continually violated by legends and rumors that have created cults around them, and by pirated records of their live performances that often outsell commercial releases. And if they were to return, they would scarcely become common.

It may seem strange to compare such great pianists as Sviatoslav Richter (who abandoned the recording studio more than 20 years ago), Martha Argerich (who hasn't given a solo recital in the United States since 1979), Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (whose last American appearance was in 1972) and the late Glenn Gould and Vladimir Horowitz to circus freaks. But genius is a freak of nature. And stories about these "freaks" -- whether true or false -- become enduring myths.

Argerich, for example, is truly a "free spirit." She plays when, where and with whom she likes, and her lifestyle -- she has had several children by different men, not all of whom were her husbands -- has lent her a powerful sexual aura.

Then there is Michelangeli. Legend has it that he fought with the partisans against the fascists in World War II, was captured by the Germans, forced to watch several comrades hang and only escaped the same fate when an Allied air raid destroyed the camp where he was imprisoned.

This all seems believable when we hear Michelangeli depict the bizarre horrors of the swinging carcasses in Ravel's "Le Gibet," or when Argerich drives the climaxes of Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto to ecstatic heights unreached by any other pianist.

It is a certainty that if Carnegie Hall were to announce a recital by Richter, Argerich or Michelangeli this week, only standing room would be available by Monday.

The cults that develop around such musicians do depend to a certain extent upon the infrequency of their appearances. They are the objects of a veneration different in kind from the love that audiences once poured upon the late pianist Arthur Rubinstein and currently upon cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman.

The difference has little or nothing to do with ability. Rubinstein was a more dependably great pianist than either Horowitz or Richter. It may even be that a certain amount of unreliability makes some musicians objects of worship; we sense that they are on the edge, that they walk a perpetual tightrope between triumph and disaster. Their combination of supernatural strength with touching vulnerability allows audiences to forge singularly personal relationships with them. We may be dwarfs and they may be giants, but their weaknesses -- the nervous breakdowns of a Horowitz or the painful shyness of a Richter -- allow us to see ourselves magnified.

Not all cult figures can survive public exposure. The reputation of conductor Sergiu Celibidache was diminished when pirates of his performances became easily available, when he began to make videos and when he began to tour. The myth of his Furtwangler-like intensity and Toscanini-like precision could not withstand the reality of performances that were often merely too slow, boring and sloppy. Cults around the genuine article -- as several recent DG and Teldec releases by Argerich and Philips' 21-CD salute to Richter demonstrate -- are only enhanced by documentation.

Why so stingy?

But why are these musicians so stingy with their adoring audiences? Why are the times and places where Richter appears -- almost always in small halls in small European towns -- such carefully guarded secrets? Why does Argerich only make public appearances in chamber music performances with friends such as violinist Gidon Kremer or cellist Mischa Maisky, still more rarely with orchestra and never in solo recital? Why does Michelangeli regularly cancel most of his performances, and why has he repeated the same two or three programs for the last 35 years? Why did Gould quit concertizing in 1964, at only 31, and spend his remaining 18 years performing only for microphones and TV cameras? Why did Horowitz, whose American performing career began in 1928 and concluded with his death in 1989, continually interrupt it with absences -- one lasting 12 years?

And -- this is the truly intriguing part -- why are all these musicians pianists?

Other instrumentalists don't exhibit such behavior. While singers famously display temperament, they seem to crave an audience's adulation. With the exception of Carlos Kleiber, who was trained as a pianist, conductors also seem to like the limelight.

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