Pianists are fundamentally jealous of nearly all other instrumentalists, and singers above all. At first reading this might seem an odd statement: we have the most adaptable, powerful, wonderful instrument at our fingertips, capable of all modes of musical expression from the grandly symphonic to the shatteringly fragile.
Which other instrument has such a large solo repertoire, with a masterpiece from practically every great composer you’d care to name, ready and waiting in the library? The violin is the closest competitor, yet even that suffers from a reliance on other instruments (most often the piano) to demonstrate its utmost capabilities.
All this being the case, on what grounds do we spoilt brats, we favoured few of the musical firmament, have for any feeling of discontent, never mind jealousy? As I wrote at the beginning of this post, it’s a question of fundamentals: in comparison with the rest we are inorganic performers; passive operators of a machine rather than active players whose performance depends on instrument and body being in perfect cohesion.
There are many myths about the great pianists sitting down at a clapped out pub piano and drawing forth golden tones indistinguishable from those of the most perfectly regulated Steinway. But that is, not to put too fine a point on it, bollocks. Liszt on a yellow-keyed old Joanna would sound like a very different pianist from Liszt on his beloved Erard. Horowitz down The Dog and Duck of a Friday evening would be a completely different beast from Horowitz on stage at the Carnegie Hall.
We are beholden to this great beast of a machine in a way incomparable to any but percussionists and organists. You press a key; the sound begins; the sound dies. This is the case whether on a Steinway or the poor, neglected Chappell in the corner of the bar. The only difference is the quality of the instrument.
There are many myths about the great pianists sitting down at a clapped out pub piano and drawing forth golden tones indistinguishable from those of the most perfectly regulated Steinway. But that is, not to put too fine a point on it, bollocks.
Of course, great pianists such as the aforementioned duo have many ways of producing shade and colour, multiple levels of dynamics and so on. That is indisputable. But their role is frustratingly passive. In short, they cannot truly control the sound as can a violinist or trumpeter, diminuendoing and crescendoing on one note in imitation of the ultimate instrument: the human voice.
This is the key point. No matter how skilled the pianist, how great their pedalling or command of balance and shade, it can only ever be an approximation, an aural trick. For all the talk of a ‘singing tone’, it is a duplicity into which both pianist and audience enter with equal knowledge of its impossibility. Compare Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s song Die Forelle, played here by Daniil Trifonov, with the original, sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
For all the undoubted brilliance of Liszt’s transcription and Trifonov’s pianism, it’s a pale imitation of the original. The flexibility, variations in colour and shade on single notes, the very humanity of Fischer-Dieskau’s performance, are unable to be matched by the piano. Liszt suggests all these qualities very cleverly, but it remains a suggestion.
I’m sure there will be many who disagree with me vehemently, including not a few concert pianists. I’m open to contrary arguments and will listen happily to anyone who wishes to try. However after twenty years as both performer and audience, I sincerely doubt they’ll succeed. And as a pianist, that’s something in which I take no pride