Entertainment Music

Thursday 27 June 2019

There must be something about pianos and Capricorns


Still performing: Maurizio Pollini
Still performing: Maurizio Pollini

George Hamilton

I never realised that being a Capricorn might have had something to do with my love of the piano. The fact is, I share a birthday week with two of the greatest living pianists who are celebrating today.

Maurizio Pollini will have 77 candles on his cake, while Alfred Brendel turns 88.

Coincidentally, I'm currently reading Piano Notes - The Hidden World of the Pianist (Penguin Books) by the late American maestro, Charles Rosen. His book is about much, much more than the simple experience of a life on the concert stage.

For instance, he takes us into the nuts and bolts of the creation of classical music and relates how the piano has been the principal tool of composers from 1750 to the present.

Working out ideas at the keyboard didn't appeal to everybody, though. Hector Berlioz, for instance.

He wrote that his father wouldn't let him take up the piano, something which was, he felt, a stroke of luck.

Not only did it prevent him from having to compete with 40,000 other formidable pianists, as he put it. It also forced him to compose freely and in silence and saved him from what he called "the tyranny of keyboard habits".

Berlioz wrote nothing for solo piano. By contrast, Chopin wrote nothing that didn't involve the instrument in some shape or form.

Chopin, who lived from 1810 to 1849, was one of the greatest pianists of his era, but he was no showman. The pyrotechnics of the concert hall did nothing for him and he felt at home in the more intimate environment of the salon.

His contemporary, Franz Liszt, was also a regular on the Parisian drawing room circuit. He once famously embellished a Chopin Nocturne in the presence of the composer, provoking a rather piqued response.

"When you do me the honour of playing my compositions," Chopin pleaded, "play them as they are written, or else not at all".

Liszt's arena of choice was the concert hall. He'd appear wearing green silk gloves with a matching pocket handkerchief.

These would be ostentatiously removed before the performance, and would then be left behind afterwards, to be fought over by his admirers.

Liszt was in the top rank of Berlioz's 40,0000 formidable pianists. There was also Sigismond Thalberg (another Capricorn, born January 8, 1812). A musical duel was arranged to decide who was top dog.

The promoter of the event - an Italian princess by the name of Cristina Belgiojoso - famously declared: "There is only one Thalberg in Paris, but there is only one Liszt in the world."

He was undoubtedly the pre-eminent virtuoso of his day. The composer Robert Schumann said there was nobody, apart from the star violinist Niccolò Paganini, who could win over and thrill an audience like Liszt.

Berlioz himself, in his role as critic, declared after a performance that Liszt had solved the riddle of Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata in a way no other player had done, rendering the incomprehensible crystal clear.

Liszt, wrote Berlioz, is the pianist of the future. High praise indeed.

Today's two birthday boys have legions of fans. Though Alfred Brendel is only to be heard in performance now on his vast catalogue of recordings - he finally closed the lid on his concert grand 10 years ago - he's still giving lectures, which are invariably accompanied by a snippet or two from the keyboard.

Maurizio Pollini is still performing. His diary lists a punishing schedule for the first half of this year that'll take him to eight countries with 12 recitals planned, as well as a concert appearance playing the Schumann Piano Concerto in the Lincoln Center in New York in March.

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