Twilight of piano composers Essay: There's a dearth of new compositions for the instrument, even as the supply of virtuosos seems to be growing.

April 09, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

This is the season that will probably be remembered as the year of the piano.

Since September, this area has been visited by more major pianists than in the previous five years combined.

Horacio Gutierrez, Radu Lupu and Andras Schiff have performed concertos with the Baltimore Symphony and performed recitals; Leon Fleisher, Peter Serkin, Richard Goode, Garrick Ohlsson and Murray Perahia have given recitals; Andre Watts will perform Rachmaninoff with the BSO tonight; and the biggest enchilada of all, Russian phenom Evgeny Kissin, will cap the season April 27 with a much-anticipated recital in Meyerhoff Hall.

What seems strange is that, despite the number of high-powered virtuosos passing through these parts, only two major works composed in this century have been performed this season: Rachmaninoff's Second Concerto, which was completed in 1901 and would have been a 19th-century work had its delivery date not been delayed by the composer's depression; and Prokofiev's Sonata No. 8, which was finished and first performed 53 years ago in 1944.

But what seems strange is not strange at all.

The fact is that with the exception of a few pieces -- notably the concerto by Samuel Barber and Shostakovich's Second Concerto and assorted solo works by Shostakovich, Olivier Messiaen and a few others -- little music for the piano has entered the repertory since the 1940s.

Not incidentally, that was also the time when the last of the great pianist-composers, such as Bartok, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, passed from the scene. These composers were not merely proficient pianists, but also world-class virtuosos who for most or part of their careers made their living by playing the piano in public.

There's no surprise here. From Mozart through Shostakovich, almost all composers who have written successful works for the piano were themselves terrific pianists. In the roll call of the great piano concerto composers, for example, the only exceptions to this rule were Tchaikovsky and Ravel -- skillful players but not virtuosos.

It's entirely possible that the piano has run its course as a source of inspiration to composers, that the heroic conflict between the soloist and orchestra in the piano concerto or the moody introspection of the solo piano repertory belongs to a more romantic age. And it is no accident that most of the great works for the instrument were written between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 20th, an era in which the piano had a popularity -- there was one in almost every middle-class home -- that can only be compared to that possessed by the electric guitar today and that is rapidly being acquired by the synthesizer.

But concertos and solo pieces for the violin and cello, as well as for other instruments, have continued to enter the repertory in recent years, and I suspect that the dearth of compositions for the piano may be a special case, a result of the specialization that doomed the pianist-composer.

With very few exceptions, the performers who popularized the masterpieces of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Brahms were those composers themselves. And until fairly recently, even pianists that we think of only as pianists were also composers. Artur Schnabel, Leopold Godowsky, Dinu Lipatti, Robert Casadesus and even Vladimir Horowitz (particularly in his younger years) were composers of note.

The contrast to modern times could not be more tellingly illustrated than by an interview the composer Samuel Barber gave 35 years ago on the occasion of the world premiere of his Pulitzer Prize-winning piano concerto. Barber was quite a good pianist, but when asked if he could play his own piece, he merely laughed.

The specialization of composers only composing and performers only performing started to set in when Liszt began to play the works of other people, and a vast repertory of great works began to be built. This huge repertory required pianists increasingly to live in the past rather than the present. Pianists today have a bewildering variety from which to choose. It is almost impossible to blame them if they neglect the works of today for those of the past, particularly since they find the new ones so much less attractive.

The pressures toward specialization were apparent as early as the 1880s, when a talented child such as Rachmaninoff caused his teacher, Nikolai Zverev, to worry that his student's interest in composing might prevent the boy from practicing enough to become a virtuoso. Rachmaninoff did become both a great composer and a great pianist. But until the Russian Revolution separated him from his country and his inherited wealth, he was primarily a composer who played his own music. The imperative of having to earn a living by playing the piano forced upon him the necessity of building up a repertory and of practicing enough to keep it in his fingers. In the years after he left Russia, the number of hours he was able to spend composing was severely restricted.

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