Notes from a pianist: The mafia

“There was, he said, “always a mafia running the music world, but when I started my career the mafia was musical. The mafia now calling the shots derives its power not from musical expertise but from money.” – Peter Katin, quoted in his obituary in the Daily Telegraph (1)

There have been few more detrimental aspects to the world of the classical pianist than the domination of that world, during the past two decades in particular, by demotic commercialism. This commercialism has had a profound influence on the life of both prominent and lower-profile pianists, since for many it has resulted in loss of opportunity. It has also seen changes to the audience for pianists, as this audience has been transformed from connoisseurs into one of consumers.

In a perceptive article for The Guardian in 2002, entitled “Why are today’s concert pianists so boring?(2)”, Martin Kettle identified the changes in the place of the piano in society that have led, despite a number of outstanding artists, to a position where many pianists seem not to have anything very interesting to say. The change is not merely cultural, but commercial.

The past few decades have seen classical music become an increasingly homogenized product, in which live performance is secondary to recording and in which the audience is no longer, as once was the case, composed of those who have at least some personal experience of amateur music-making via a piano in the home. Moreover, our education system has no longer placed Western classical music at the heart of a liberal education, instead embracing a false relativism in which popular and non-Western musics are allowed to supplant it. Together with this, we have the indifference of the mainstream establishment to classical music (Desert Island Discs today is full of pop music), and the disappearance of classical music from many everyday situations such as background music and theme music for radio and television programmes.

Lastly, we have the dominance of musical institutions – concert halls, orchestras, conservatoires – by financial rather than musical imperatives, due to the funding regime in which they now operate. But there is more to this than Katin’s analysis of money leading the way. There is also a dominant authoritarian leftist set of values that has taken as its watchwords the modern shibboleths of diversity, equality and anti-elitism. Those pianists whose living depends upon this establishment for work are unlikely to speak out against it, and yet in acquiescing, they are willingly abetting the destruction of classical music as we know it. What has been desperately needed amid the current crisis of ridiculous wokeism is a robust public defence of Western classical music and its values, and a demonstration and proof both of its cultural importance to the British nation and its superiority over politically correct alternatives. Of course, this has not been forthcoming, and we now see the brash promotion of classical artists and music on the basis of their conformity to fashionable woke tropes rather than anything as non-inclusive as their musical superiority.

Where we see the combination of wealth and leftist authoritarianism on the world stage, major political forces are unlikely to be far away. Their strategy is to weaken the West’s values and resilience, and it will not take much reflection to see these factors at work in the piano world.

Because the modern audience is less informed, it is less capable of making genuine distinctions between interpretative values, and less likely to give the benefit of the doubt to performers who do not play in an increasingly narrowly-defined accepted style. It can be led more easily by influencers, and this fact is unlikely to be mere coincidence. It is obvious both in reading published reviews of concerts and recordings and in more informal commentary concerning pianists on the internet to see that standards have coarsened and that reductive assessment is now the order of the day in a world that is sadly dominated by soundbites, inattentiveness and immaturity.

It is quite possible, indeed, to identify many features of this modern accepted style of pianism: rapid tempi, dry textures with little use of the pedal, an emphasis on note-perfection, and an objectivist avoidance of pronounced rubato or anything deemed too personal. Often, it speaks of commendable technical accomplishment. But it is also shallow, dull, and ultimately unrewarding. Too often, it is rather like listening to Glenn Gould with all the personality and individual quirks of Gould’s genius surgically removed.

Above all, it seems to avoid anything that might be taken as expressing the profound or the numinous. In the past, the piano recital (in the right hands) could take on an almost sacred aspect, emphasising the spiritual quality that is inherent in so much great piano music. Nowadays, it too often partakes of the aridness of Western society’s loss of faith and the emptiness of postmodernism. It is not necessary for a pianist to have religious faith. But it is essential for a pianist to have spiritual awareness, to be familiar with the experiences that others gain through the religious life, and to recognise when a composer is drawing upon that legacy.

We might also reflect on a piece of archive tape recently rediscovered. In 1980, the BBC broadcast the presentation ceremony of the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Gold Medal to the great pianist Sir Clifford Curzon, pupil of Schnabel and Landowska and an outstanding exponent of the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert inter alia. In his presentation speech, Sir Michael Tippett firstly cites Curzon’s outstanding musical qualities (“excellence amounting at times to near perfection”). But then, he says something quite remarkable, “and for the moral quality of his musical taste”(3). The idea that musical taste might have a moral quality is alien to many of today’s pianists because they themselves shy away from morality and above all from the idea of an informed taste, which is a quality that anyone may aspire to through study and cultivation. That remark about moral quality could also be applied, of course, to Curzon’s teacher Schnabel himself and to many Schnabel pupils, particularly in my view to Leon Fleisher. It is this ultimately that marks out pianists as great musicians and not merely as great technicians. Curzon had an outstanding technical capability (hear as evidence his 1950 Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with Szell(4)), but did not lay great emphasis in performance on mere accuracy. He served the spirit of the music above all else, not simply its letter.

The piano seems today to have departed the world of high culture to arrive in a backwater of mainstream showbusiness. Perhaps what has happened is that classical pianism has become a commodity that is now sold in the same way as pop music. There are many points in common. It would be difficult to listen to BBC Radio 3 for more than a few minutes without becoming aware of the fixation with youth that dominates classical music today. There remains a great deal of money in piano competitions for young performers, most of which are fixed in some way and none of which seem to succeed in producing the great musicians that they are supposedly looking for. I am tempted to suggest that Simon Cowell’s various enterprises are, if not necessarily more fair, at least much more transparent about their business.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a steady stream of highly competent young pianists all too ready to sell out and embrace the system in order to “make it”. None of them seem to question the loss of integrity that is the price of such a reward; it is hardly in their interests to do so. Doubtless they are assisted in this process by those institutions and pedagogues who long abandoned the idea that their responsibility was to set the standard for pianism rather that simply feed the system what it wants. And, as ever, foreign money is never far away, but also never without ideological strings attached. Indeed it is no longer necessary to win a piano competition to launch a career; it is more important to come to the attention of those in a position to promote concert artists – those with the necessary money and connections.

With the showbusiness ethic has come the expected concentration on external appearance and overt selling and promotion that is, to my mind, highly distasteful in this context. The Telegraph obituary of Peter Katin tells us that he “was from a generation of pianists that eschewed publicity and marketing, preferring to allow the integrity of the music to speak for itself.” Without integrity, an artist is nothing.

No longer does Radio 3 content itself with informative comment on the music and artist we are to hear. Now we are told what to think by the continuity announcers, with superlatives and value judgements that are both a form of shallow promotion and an indication of the fragility of the product, which clearly cannot be left to sell itself on its own merits. Here, as so often is the case elsewhere, the BBC lets both itself and the nation down.

In times past, there was a range of concert careers open to the performing pianist. A few would become international touring and recording artists, even global superstars. Far more would have a respected national profile, concertizing principally at home but also regularly abroad, recording and teaching. Some, like the late Bernard Roberts and Edith Vogel, concentrated on broadcast recitals for the BBC while making few commercial recordings. Then there were those who were based more regionally or locally, with the majority of their performing done for music clubs and societies or in an educational setting.

Even without the impact of COVID-19, these performing opportunities had shrunk dramatically in recent years, and the strata of the profession are today much narrowed. I remember talking in the mid-90s to several established professional pianists (who had had significant performing careers but were now primarily teaching) about this trend. Their response was that there was no concert work available for them and none of them could understand why this should be the case. Indeed, I remember reading a desperately sad article by Peter Katin in which he reflected on an empty diary at a time when he still had a great deal to offer in recital and was still making glorious recordings.

Of course some pianists can promote their own concerts and recordings, not infrequently with the assistance of wealthy patrons, and thus gain a foothold in the musical establishment. But Peter Katin was not wrong to speak of a mafia controlling the classical music world. It is a closed world, one that has no tolerance for those who question its norms or its politics, and one whose masters are about as far away from the values of high culture as it would be possible to be. Indeed, it may be argued that the only path towards integrity for the pianist lies in separating altogether from such degeneracy and instead regaining artistic control, however high the cost of doing so may be.