I wanna be a man, man-cub

The other night, over pre-concert burgers and fries, my lovely wife and I were doing a post-mortem on the Hatto shenanigans, and critiquing confidence games in general. (She, with her keen judgement of character, was deeply skeptical of any of Barrington-Coupe’s motivations, even in confessing; I, with my ADHD demand for diversion and somewhat more depraved sensibilities, was disappointed that the old guy hadn’t tried to keep the game going longer.) And then she came up with a great philosophical entertainment. Barrington-Coupe claimed that he had chosen his plagiarism targets based on their similarities to Hatto’s artistic temperament, which begged two questions, one easy, one pretty hard:

1. Whose recordings would you like, as a performer, to pass off as your own?
2. Whose recordings would you actually be able to pass off as your own?

Me? This is the best I could come up with:

1. Glenn Gould. Idiosyncratic technique, pinpoint accuracy, eccentric interpretations.
2. Alfred Cortot. Eccentric technique, casual accuracy, idiosyncratic interpretations.

The more Cortot I hear, the more I recognize my own habits: a focus on touch and line, a wayward tempo, and an aural emphasis (maybe over-emphasis) on the the architecture of the piece, all value-adding features to make up for a technical apparatus that, let’s face it, isn’t going to land me a Leventritt award anytime soon.

One thing I noticed is how hard this question is for me now: I hadn’t actually compared myself to other pianists for years. Back in college, I would have answered these questions, particularly the first one, with GPS accuracy: I want Gilels’s fingers and Gould’s brain, I want Argerich’s energy with Brendel’s rhetoric, I want Van Cliburn’s sound and Pollini’s repertoire. But no more. Maybe it’s the wonderfully mundane daily work of music—I’m much more likely to think things like, “I want this phrase to sound like this, and I have to figure out how to do it.” Maybe it’s smaller ambitions, realizing I’m probably much happier noodling around behind singers than I ever would have been on display in front of an orchestra. Or maybe that kind of comparative self-analysis is sufficiently ingrained that it’s become subconscious.

But there’s another reason, too: the knowledge that the image of the fully-formed artist is a myth. I used to imagine how much fun it would be to be up on stage, running a masterclass, having all the answers and a distinguished patina of experience—in other words, being the performer that others hoped to imitate. Years later, I instead find myself still sneaking in to masterclasses, hoping to pick up pointers, trying to figure out just what the hell I’m doing. I was going to say it’s probably more fun this way, but I’m not sure that’s true; being able to sail through the Prokofiev second concerto in front of a world-class orchestra has got to be a blast. Having all the answers, though, is more poignant and melancholy than we likely imagine. So I’ll say this: even when performing is workaday and frustrating, it’s at least never boring. I could do a lot worse.

Addendum (3/1): A.C. Douglas touches on this issue:

I do question [why the Hatto plagiarisms weren’t noticed by] professional concert pianists, a routine part of whose job is to keep tabs on the competition — most especially the competition who’ve released recordings of works also recorded by them (the professional concert pianists), and which competition’s recordings have not only received critical raves in the music press, but raves accompanied by a sensational if tragic back-story.

My own sense is that concert pianists actually don’t spend a whole lot of energy keeping up with the competition via recordings. If there’s a new pianist getting rave reviews, they’ll make the effort to see them live if the opportunity presents itself, but unless it’s a particularly noteworthy performance or choice of repertoire, they’re not all that interested in hearing them on CD. For them, recordings are foremost a window into the past, a library of performance practice by the greats of yesteryear. If you’re going to tackle the Beethoven sonatas, you’re far more likely to listen to Schnabel than any of your contemporaries.

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