Two Pianists

I had the occasion this month to attend two classical piano recitals, one by a world-class artist at Carnegie Hall, and the other by a knowledgeable and evidently skilled specialist in the Spanish repertory at the Village redoubt that calls itself (le) poussin rouge. It would be presumptuous to comment on the finer points of the musicianship, which I am not qualified to do, but I enjoyed going to both events and there is a theatrical element to classical pianism that I have been thinking over since.

I was struck by the way that Stephen Hough held himself and how that varied with the material he played. It transmitted to us something of his attitude toward the pieces being played and told us, I would venture to say, something of how to regard them ourselves. Straight and erect posture is nothing unusual for a classical pianist, but his was particularly rigorous and angular, the spine drawn as though with a ruler, the legs as sharp as the inside angle of an open pair of scissors. He seemed not to strike, or hit the keys, but to touch and press them, as though the music were there to be had, if only he were persuasive enough to draw it out.

The effect was one of great delicacy, the summoning of a current that now and then jolted him, as one sees with musicians of all stripes, like an electric shock: music as a power which can enter the body itself, with effects both strong and gentle. That was Hough’s attitude toward the Chopin, the Brahms and the Schumann that he played, but he also premiered his own sonata, “Notturno Luminosa”. His attitude to it was very different, as makes perfect sense given his authorship of the work. He seemed to be putting the music into the keys, rather than finding it inside of them, the hitherto straight back bending, and the light touch of the fingers becoming forceful, almost whole-hand. It was a thorough – and fascinating – alteration of the directionality of his performance.

The following week, I saw quite a different attitude at work in Adam Kent’s recital of works by several Catalán composers (bottom photo), of whom Granados and Albeniz were probably the best known. I have a special liking for Spanish music, and find it is enjoyable to hear hints and variations of folk traditions like flamenco and sevillanas, or music from the corrida, in the classical compositions (although the composers were from Catalonia, their work ranged freely through the peninsula). If Hough showed me two ways that the hands can appear to either transmit the music to or draw it from the keyboard, Kent showed me a third.

Kent’s posture was looser, but his contact with the keys consistently more forceful; the music felt like a third element, neither proceeding from the creator to the piano nor from the instrument up the arm of the pianist. The music was there to be had, but to find it the keys had to be struck, and hard, and almost by coincidence, the notes became sound. There is somewhat less unity to this effect, since I was always aware of the separateness of player, instrument, and score. And that explains, perhaps, why I found myself closing my eyes to let the sound alone have its say with me, which is, I think, its own kind of achievement.

Click on Carnegie Hall and (le) poisson rouge for information on upcoming events at those venues. Lead image is of Adam Kent.