Don’t shoot the piano player; he’s doing the best he can

ImageBack in the late 1970s, as a teenager in rural Ireland, I had few opportunities to indulge my growing enthusiasm for classical music. I remember with great fondness certain Thursday evenings when I could tune in to fuzzy long-wave broadcasts from  the BBC, when a concert from London would be preceded by a talk on one of the pieces to be performed. That was meat and drink to me. While most people my age were being thrilled with the subversive, rancorous promise of punk rock, I sought solace and stimulation from whatever the BBC Symphony Orchestra had to offer in those weekly broadcasts. I was, therefore delighted when I encountered an elderly man in the village who was also keen on classical music. This man leant me a book called Am I Too Loud by the distinguished piano-accompanist, Gerald Moore. I fell in love with the book then, and was gratified, many years later, to get my own copy from a second-hand book shop in Hay-on-Wye. It’s a book that I return to often.

Back in those days Gerald Moore was a name to conjure with: he could look back at a musical career of many decades as the most admired and sought after of all piano-accompanists.  When Count John McCormack embarked on his farewell tour in 1939, he insisted that “Moore and none other” should accompany him. Subsequently Moore worked with Casals, Menuhin, Fischer-Dieskau and Maggie Teyte, indeed pretty much every significant musical artiste of the middle part of the twentieth century.

Am I Too Loud has an old-fashioned charm. Moore writes with affection and great respect of the artistes that he worked with. On the occasions that he touches on less appealing characteristics of his musical collaborators, he good-naturedly grants them anonymity.

One exception to this courtliness arises when Moore discusses Josef Szigeti. While acknowledging Szigeti’s superb musicianship, he nonetheless finds the man lacking in courtesy on the platform. Szigeti, he tells us,

regards his colleague at the piano – even when performing sonata duets – as an employee. I found it a waste of time donning evening dress at a Szigeti concert, for he stood at the end of my keyboard between me and the audience rendering me invisible; and our sonata finished, Szigeti with an unsmiling nod in my direction – as if summoning a waiter – signified his permission for me to stand up and acknowledge the applause.

I doubt that Szigeti was the only musician at the time who treated his pianist as the hired help, though such attitudes were already quite rare at the time. With reference to this, Moore quotes the man he refers to as the “doyen of accompanists”, Coenraad V Bos, who in his The Well-tempered Accompanist, encourages pianists to provide their soloist partners with “unobtrusive support” and to perform with “self-effacement”. According to Bos, should the pianist have the opportunity to play solos, “they should not be too elaborate or too long; nor should an encore be given without deferring to the soloist”.

These days it’s universally accepted that the pianist on stage with the solo-instrumentalist or singer is an equal partner. Indeed, often the pianist will be the more celebrated member of the duo . Mitsuko Uchida, for example is an occasional “accompanist”, as is Stephen Hough.

ImageLast week I had the pleasure of seeing two great stars perform together at the Wigmore Hall in London.  The Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey is as fine an exponent of that instrument as any now working. His playing is warm and characterful, but also high-minded and frequently challenging. His partner on this occasion was the French pianist Cedric Tiberghien. Wispelwey and Tiberghien had chosen fairly unusual repertoire for their recital; it was a French and Russian evening. Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata in C Op 119 was new to me. It had many of the Prokofiev hallmarks: the maddeningly playful tunes, the mercurial approach to development, the frivolous sweetness and the frowning dissonance. Perhaps at times the capriciousness of his writing threatened to overbalance Prokofiev’s structure, yet somehow he holds it together and leaves his listeners thrilled. The Poulenc Sonata that followed is very fine. In its way it is as wayward and peculiar as the Prokofiev, but somehow seems more centred, with that refined spiritual sensibility that one notes in much of Poulenc’s music. After the interval, we heard Debussy’s D minor sonata. I had heard this piece a couple of times before and liked it very much, but it was only on this occasion that I appreciated it as the masterpiece that some of my musical friends consider it to be. The Debussy Sonata is a late piece (written in that oh-so-significant year, 1915). I was reminded of Schumann’s celebrated phrase about Schubert’s C Major Symphony: “heavenly length”.  The Debussy Sonata, however, has, instead, heavenly brevity. Succinctly it encompasses a world of rich emotion. It has power in its precision.

It’s important to note at this stage, given the attitudes towards piano-accompanists that Moore touched on his book, that the three sonatas I describe above were written by highly accomplished pianists, who also gave the first public performances of the works.

The final work in the Wigmore Hall programme was Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne from Pulcinella. This work is no mere occasional piece, no simple from-the-popular-ballet arrangement. In its way it is as fine and engrossing as any of the sonatas played. I love it, and the performance that evening was exemplary.

I do need to go back, however, to Gerald Moore and the status of pianists. As I said, the notion that the piano-accompanist is there to support the star of the evening (whether an instrumentalist or a singer) has rightly been dismissed. But concert-platform etiquette aside, I’m afraid I came away from the Wigmore Hall that night with a niggling feeling of guilt. Pieter Wispelwey, who is never less than excellent, played on this occasion with bewildering facility. I found myself utterly absorbed in his playing: its colour, nuance of phrasing and dramatic power. Because of this I was only partially aware of how well Tiberghien was playing. I like to think of myself as a seasoned listener who is capable of appreciating the complex interaction between the performing voices at a recital, yet on this occasion, I fear that I didn’t do full justice to the pianist. Afterwards I lamented the fact that no recording had been made; I would love to listen again and give proper appreciation to Cedric’s contribution. I know full well what a truly great musician he is.

As an encore, Cedric and Pieter gave us an arrangement of Fauré’s Après un rêve. When you hear two great musicians (and, yes, on this occasion, I was as aware of the pianist’s contribution as that of the cellist) performing a song-arrangement such as this without any noticeable drop in their sincerity, commitment or level of musical proficiency, it makes for a moving experience. They made Après un rêve sound like a masterpiece. Perhaps it is.

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Posted in Classical music
2 comments on “Don’t shoot the piano player; he’s doing the best he can
  1. I’m so glad I read this, not only because I enjoyed your writing a lot but also because I had completely forgotten about “Am I too loud?”. This book was mentioned to me about 4 years ago and I had all the intention to find it, but then I completely forgot about it. Your post reminded me of this, so thank you very very much 🙂
    I won’t forget this time haha

    And as I said before, I enjoyed your post a lot 🙂

  2. G.H.Bone says:

    Well, bless your heart. What a nice thing to say. When I was tinkering away at the post I did a brief google to see whether the book is still available. I’m not sure that it’s still in print, but 2nd hand copies seem far from rare, so I hope you’re able to get one. It’s a lovely book, and I hope you enjoy it.

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