Where have all the pianists gone? Essay: The century's great players have died, and the generation that might have followed, the Cliburns and Fleishers, has failed to thrive.

October 07, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The title of "Playing with Fire," tomorrow night's PBS documentary about the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, may suggest otherwise, but burning out -- rather than being burned -- is the biggest problem that confronts a pianist today.

For evidence, Jon Nakamatsu, the 28-year-old Californian who won first prize last June, need look no further than the careers of two pianists who appear in Washington this month. The older generation should supply role models for the young, but one doubts that Nakamatsu would want to follow the examples set by John Browning, who gives a recital tonight in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, or by Cliburn himself, who performs the Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1 on Oct. 25 in a gala concert celebrating the re-opening of the center's renovated Concert Hall.

Forty years ago, no one would have predicted that the brilliant, handsome Browning would be performing in the Kennedy Center's smallest theater. Fresh from consecutive victories in two prestigious international competitions and armed with a recording contract from EMI, he seemed an heir apparent to such great pianists of the day as Vladimir Horowitz, Rudolf Serkin and Arthur Rubinstein.

Cliburn loomed even larger -- larger than any American-born and -trained musician in history. In the years immediately after his much-publicized 1958 triumph in Moscow's first Tchaikovsky Competition, Cliburn's records sold more copies than those of all other classical pianists combined. His fees were the highest in the world. And in 1962, when he was 27, he received the distinction of being the first living musician to have a major jTC international competition named for him.

But there's not much Nakamatsu would want to emulate about Cliburn's later career. By the late 1960s, he was playing badly; he retired from giving concerts in 1977; and his sporadic attempts at a comeback in the last few years have now been reduced to ceremonial occasions in which he is trotted out to perform the Tchaikovsky concerto.

There are a few pianists of the Cliburn-Browning generation -- all Europeans -- whose abilities and careers remain undiminished: Alfred Brendel, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Martha Argerich and Maurizio Pollini. But the temperamental Argerich confines herself almost entirely to chamber music; persistent back problems have limited Brendel's activities; Ashkenazy is now primarily a conductor; and Pollini -- at 55 the youngest of the group -- canceled his entire U.S. tour last season because of illness.

Every great artist may be said to be irreplaceable, but the death of Sviatoslav Richter two months ago at the age of 82 was an irreplaceable loss in the most prosaic sense. There is literally no one left to take his place as the reigning elder statesman of the piano.

Richter's death came at the end of a 15-year period in which most of the century's greatest pianists died. Except for Horowitz, who became a big star early, the careers of most of them didn't really begin to flourish until they were in their 40s and 50s.


Had things proceeded as one expected at the beginning of the 1950s, several brilliant American pianists, born between the two World Wars, would now be ready to take the places of Richter and the others.

But destiny had a different plan. Of an extraordinary generation that included William Kapell, Eugene Istomin, Julius Katchen, Leon Fleisher, Gary Graffman, Byron Janis, Browning and Cliburn, not a single pianist achieved his potential.

What happened?

One could say that there was a lot of bad luck: the premature deaths of Kapell and Katchen; the physical injuries of Fleisher and Graffman -- probably from overuse syndrome -- that now impair the use of their right hands; and the crippling arthritis suffered by Janis. But all these pianists -- with the exception of Istomin -- began playing poorly or erratically at about the same time (the late 1960s).

One curious thing is that all of them began to fade before they hit 50 -- the age when many of their predecessors began to reach their prime. There are some factors common to this pianistic malaise.

The colossus in the path of all pianistic careers in the 1940s and 1950s was Vladimir 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 lacquered felts, filed-down hammers and an incredibly fast action -- so that the pianist could achieve his breathtaking feats of sonority and speed.

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