The Piano's Golden Generation

A new generation of pianists are combining the revered characteristics of 19th-century pianism with impeccable technique and entrepreneurial savvy, writes Jed Distler

Beatrice Rana

Beatrice Rana records amid a forest of microphone stands (photo: Jørn Pederson / Warner Classics)

The Romantic era of piano-playing has long held fascination for pianists, piano critics and piano mavens. There are several reasons for this. One is the fact that the core recital repertoire remains largely orientated in the 19th century. Another concerns great pianists rooted in that same era who learnt the Romantic traditions at close proximity to the proverbial horse’s mouth, and, more significantly, lived to make recordings. You can read about them in great detail in Harold C Schonberg’s landmark book The Great Pianists (1963). By and large they represent what many consider to be pianism’s Golden Age, sharing a common aesthetic governed by tonal beauty, textural diversity, textual freedom and a preoccupation with a singing line.

To be sure, some of these pianists took liberties that spilled over into eccentricity or even anarchy. Others, however, proved more discreet and controlled. But above all, these pianists conveyed a sense of individuality largely frowned upon by the literalist interpretative zeitgeist that subsequently prevailed in the second half of the 20th century. Moreover, certain areas of their repertoire, such as virtuoso showpieces, charming encores and transcriptions, fell out of fashion.


Trifonov, Wang and Grosvenor

However, the golden age is not necessarily a thing of the past, especially when one considers some of today’s most successful young pianists. Daniil Trifonov’s 2013 Carnegie Hall debut (recorded by Deutsche Grammophon) is a case in point. The then 21-year-old pianist’s level of imagination and pianistic resource truly transcended the instrument that night. One expected his impeccable hair-trigger octaves in the Liszt Sonata, but not such fanciful manipulation of dynamics for dramatic impetus (the sudden, heart-stopping diminuendos, the emphatic accents). Furthermore, Trifonov’s varied pedal effects throughout Chopin’s Op 28 Preludes brought new-found urgency to the composer’s daring harmonies and intricate cross-rhythmic writing. By contrast, when Trifonov offered Medtner’s Fairy Tale Op 26 No 2 for an encore, his staggeringly supple passagework and repeated notes took wing via fingers alone, with little help from the pedal.


Daniil Trifonov (photo: Dario Acosta / DG)

So great was that performance that if you remastered it by adding 78rpm shellac surface noise, you’d probably be able to pass it off as a previously undiscovered Josef Hofmann or Benno Moiseiwitsch recording. But, as with his predecessors’ playing, what appears natural and spontaneous with Trifonov is the result of hard work.

The New York Times reporter Anthony Tommasini observed Trifonov preparing Schumann’s Kreisleriana for his 2016 Carnegie Hall recital: ‘This young pianist repeats passages not so much to master them technically as to bring out inner voices and myriad colorations.’ Trifonov describes the process as ‘paying attention to resolutions – the way sounds connect’. All this evokes a surreptitiously recorded practice session with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli at the Royal Festival Hall, London, in 1957, where the pianist can be heard going over the same phrases ad infinitum, both refining and sharpening his projection each time. Likewise, one thinks of Vladimir Horowitz rehearsing for his 1965 Carnegie Hall comeback, debating whether to remove the three-foot-long red tape from inside the piano to brighten the sound; or Leopold Godowsky, painstakingly adjusting voicings and balances between hands to accommodate the limitations of early recording technology.

Yuja Wang, who turns 32 in February, shares some of Trifonov’s repertoire predilections, but her approach tends to be more free-spirited – as witness the equally subjective yet dissimilar Kreisleriana she played at Carnegie Hall a few months before Trifonov. She restlessly explored inner voices, brought bass lines to the fore and shifted the pulse when it suited her. Yet she displayed consistent polyphonic focus throughout the fugue of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, building its gnarly momentum without losing energy. Perhaps it was misguided for Wang to follow up with those flashy encores, but that’s what her audience wanted and she played them with insouciant joy.

Although Horowitz was touchy and guarded about sharing his Carmen Variations, more and more young pianists are taking them up, including Wang, who also adds her own flourishes. Her affinity for bygone keyboard icons extends to her taking on Georges Cziffra’s interlocking octave romp through The Flight of the Bumblebee, plus my own transcription of Tea for Two taken from Art Tatum’s 1933 recording. And when Wang recorded Brahms’s Paganini Variations, she eschewed the Urtext in favour of Michelangeli’s controversial yet admittedly effective reordering. While in Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka, she goes against the composer’s dynamics and phrasing, but in doing so heightens the score’s whimsy, lightness and narrative interest.

One encounters a parallel ‘old-school’ sensibility in the 26-year-old Benjamin Grosvenor, who was quoted in the New York Times thus: ‘I never want to hear people praise a performance as just about the music, because it’s not. The player is there too, and part of it.’ His recording of Bach’s D major Partita harkens back to another era in regard to his avoidance of repeats and the way in which he allows sheer tonal beauty and a wide palette of nuances to take precedence over the kind of linear specificity one hears from seasoned Bach stylists such as Murray Perahia, András Schiff and Angela Hewitt.

‘One of the most memorable listening experiences of my early teenage years was hearing for the first time the Bach playing of Edwin Fischer and Samuil Feinberg,’ Grosvenor told Gramophone when he was approached for this feature. ‘Up to that point, I’d felt quite ambivalent towards the keyboard music of Bach on the piano, but hearing the luminous playing of these two pianists, I was struck by the enormous richness that comes through playing it with this kind of fantasy, colour and imagination at the keyboard; there need be no concessions, confident in the knowledge that playing Bach on the piano is unashamedly a form of transcription.’

Benjamin Grosvenor

Benjamin Grosvenor (photo: Patrick Allen / Operaomnia)

Grosvenor’s programmes offer a judicious balance of substantial fare and pure, unadulterated ear candy. It’s not every pianist, after all, who can render a vividly detailed and utterly effortless ‘Scarbo’ from Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit alongside a perfectly proportioned Moszkowski étude or Godowsky’s serpentine transformation of Saint-Saëns’s ‘The Swan’. Grosvenor’s Chopin Scherzos, meanwhile, count among the best ever recorded; fanciful touches, long-buried counterlines and surprising rubatos consistently fall from his sleeves like rabbits from a magician’s hat, yet these gestures enhance rather than dissipate Chopin’s structures.

As for the Liszt arrangements of Chopin’s My Joys and Maiden’s Wish, Grosvenor’s amazingly even filigree yields nothing whatsoever to Hofmann’s justly fabled 1935 HMV test pressings. Again, if you added 78rpm surface swish to Grosvenor’s recordings, piano collectors would be bending over backwards praising Hofmann! And if you want a modern-day Alfred Cortot, consider Beatrice Rana’s live Schumann Symphonic Etudes from the 2013 Cliburn Competition when she was just 20 years old. It’s as if she was ignoring the jury and letting her young heart and old soul give in to ecstatic expression, while never missing a note.

How did we get here?

Today’s resurgence of Romantic performance practice and a quest for individuality didn’t just happen overnight, and should be evaluated in the context of a gradual sea change over time that only began after many pianists first returned to a more understated, objective way of playing.

In the first half of the 20th century, pianist Artur Schnabel’s concern with textual fidelity and the structural and metaphysical aspects of music held considerable sway. Even the larger-than-life icon Arthur Rubinstein gradually modified his style with the times; he became more meticulous and less cavalier as he aged, as did Wilhelm Kempff – albeit to a lesser extent.

Schnabel’s belief in serious programming and artistic rectitude went on to influence generations of pianists, including Rudolf Serkin, Alfred Brendel and Maurizio Pollini, and still prevails in some circles today. Marc-André Hamelin, for example, admits that, although certain old-time pianists’ casual attitudes towards the text rubbed off on him in his youth, his involvement in chamber music led him to pay greater attention to the score’s finer details. ‘I would say that my musical outlook nowadays is an amalgam of these two tendencies,’ he says. ‘A liberating sense of freedom is tempered by a respect for what the composer intended.’

Despite Schnabel’s influence in the early 1900s, there remained outliers who caused a stir or two in the face of fashion (if not quite upsetting the status quo’s proverbial apple cart like Glenn Gould or the young Ivo Pogorelich), from the mercurial Shura Cherkassky to the freewheeling Georges Cziffra. And Horowitz, of course, was billed as ‘the last romantic’ in his final performing years. In addition, just as the early days of long-playing discs gave birth to a Baroque revival, the ’60s brought forth numerous discs devoted to neglected and largely unrecorded 19th-century keyboard fare. (Admittedly, the performances varied in quality and often enlisted pianists who were technically and stylistically unsuited to such works, Raymond Lewenthal and Earl Wild the notable exceptions.)

When CDs appeared on the market in the 1980s, so did a resurgence of this repertoire (Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto Series, for example), this time championed by a new generation of pianists. As Emanuel Ax said at the time, ‘Everyone plays so amazingly now. When I was coming up, there were two or three specialists we referred to as the only ones who could play these works. Now everyone plays them – it’s as though there’s nothing hard anymore!’

Ax was surely referring to, among others, the aforementioned Hamelin, who would think nothing of opening a recital with Godowsky’s Passacaglia, a work that Horowitz deemed impossible, while setting empyrean performance standards on behalf of Alkan, Reger, Grainger, Medtner, and nearly every other marginalised Romantic piano composer.

As for Carlo Grante and Francesco Libetta, one doubts that even Godowsky himself would have dared to tackle the complete cycle of his 53 Studies on Chopin Études in concert, as they both famously did.

Meanwhile, Stephen Hough dusted off and breathed new life into long-forgotten 19th-century encores early on in his career; he also concocted a number of original transcriptions ranging from Roger Quilter songs to Richard Rodgers’s My Favourite Things.

And we should bring to mind, too, Mikhail Pletnev, famed for his highly personalised interpretations and frequently played arrangements, and also Arcadi Volodos, who not only mastered Horowitz’s fabled transcriptions to perfection but also made them convincingly his own, while elaborately retooling singular Horowitz encores such Moszkowski’s F major Étude. In addition, Cyprien Katsaris, who worked with Cziffra, demonstrated that he could sail through the Beethoven/Liszt symphonies with unprecedented assurance and maverick audacity, and consequently developed a reputation as a veritable transcription chowhound.


A new brand of audacity

We were now witnessing a revival of interest in Romantic repertoire from pianists who could demonstrate a new level of technical assurance coupled with individualistic flair. This then paved the way for a different brand of audacity, an example of which presented itself in 2013, when Sony Classical released the Russian-born/German- and Austrian-trained Igor Levit’s debut recording, consisting of no less than the last five Beethoven sonatas. How could a relatively unknown 26-year-old pianist possibly hold his own alongside Pollini and Brendel? With flying colours, as it turned out, and with even more colour to his sonority, possessing a clear yet pearly legato evocative of Schnabel and Edwin Fischer.


Igor Levit (photo: Peter Meisel)

As Gramophone’s Harriet Smith aptly declared, Levit’s Beethoven was ‘neither reckless nor arrogant, but a debut of true significance’ (11/13). Levit’s fusion of probity, vitality and spiritual depth amounted to that of a mature master at the height of his powers. Not content to stop there, Levit went on to offer a Bach Partitas set, followed by a triple whammy in the form of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and Frederic Rzewski’s comparably monumental variations on Sergio Ortega’s Chilean resistance song, The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, which captured a well-deserved Gramophone Award. And while transcriptions figure in Levit’s latest Sony release, they are the kind that illuminate more than merely entertain: Brahms’s Bach Chaconne for the left hand alone, two Liszt/Wagner works, Busoni’s demanding piano version of Liszt’s organ Fantasia and Fugue, Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Ad nos, ad salutarem undam, and Bill Evans’s 1958 Peace Piece. Levit casts the transcription of Evans’s original improvised recording as darker, more brooding – evocative less of inner peace than of despair and resignation.

Levit shares Rzewski’s passion for political discourse and activism – in fact, the homepage of Levit’s website introduces him as ‘pianist, musician, citizen’. He memorably prefaced his November 2016 Brussels recital with a speech lashing out at the newly elected American president and denouncing Brexit and the rise of the far right in France and Germany. He’s also active on Twitter, regularly posting about both musical and political topics. Like many artists, Levit has grasped that opportunities for public exposure can stretch far beyond the concert platform. And it seems that there are no rules so far as this is concerned – as witness Lang Lang, who has taken to promoting his own perfume, vodka and fashion lines.

Self-expression, unique programming

There are no limits nowadays when it comes to self-expression, and it stands to reason that this attitude is influencing current performance practice. While websites like YouTube have made it easy to access more than 100 years of archived performances with a click of a button, most pianists are realising that simply emulating keyboard masters from the past isn’t the answer. Even purely musical ends can go hand in hand with unusual programming ideas and entrepreneurial savvy.

Take Dejan Lazić and David Greilsammer, both pianists who mix and match short, stylistically divergent piano works, creating a contemporary context that’s closer to DJ culture than what you’d encounter in the traditional concert hall. Similarly, Jonathan Biss has reached out to new audiences via his free online course on the 32 Beethoven Sonatas. And among pianists cornering the niche market, Jeroen Van Veen stands out for his inexpensive multi-disc anthologies that aim to comprehensively explore Minimalism’s highways and byways. Earl Wild, meanwhile, may not have fulfilled his desire to devote a full recital to improvisation, but, as Gabriela Montero, Denis Matsuev, Kirill Gerstein and Steven Osborne have all demonstrated, classical pianists now seem less intimidated about ‘winging it’.

Pianist and educator Dr Lisa Yui suggests that today’s paradigm shift towards greater individuality in repertoire and programming concepts directly relates to the diminished influence on careers of major competitions. ‘Years ago, the winners of the Queen Elisabeth, Tchaikovsky and Chopin competitions plunged right into a full international concert schedule, with a major record label deal in tow. That’s no longer the preferred route for the best young pianists. And consequently, these musicians tend to avoid the obligatory competition-orientated repertoire. Instead, they play music that they know an audience will enjoy, or else stick with music that they are particularly passionate about, yet that can somehow communicate across the footlights.’

Just how these current young firebrands will fulfil their potential remains to be seen. ‘People always ask me who I think the best young pianists are,’ said Earl Wild to me in an interview on the cusp of his 80th birthday. ‘That’s impossible to answer. You can never know if someone will be great when they’re barely 20. Piano-playing at the highest level comes with time and maturity. It’s a difficult life.’ Right now, we’re living in an uncertain yet exciting era of shifting trends and attitudes regarding what it means to be a concert pianist. And yet, as we witness an unusually high level of keyboard talents en route to finding their path, their identity, we are surely not only re-creating the piano’s Golden Age but reinventing it.

This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Gramophone. To subscribe to Gramophone, the world's most influential classical music magazine, please visit:

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