Notes from a pianist: Playing for the audience

“In my early days I made the mistake of listening to what everyone said and therefore not following my own feelings about what I was playing. Now I know it’s my business to convince audiences that my view is the right one.” – Peter Katin, quoted in 1969

The pianist has a clear task; to interpret the work at hand in the way that best illuminates and communicates its meaning. Since a work of substance grows with you the more you know and play it, this means that interpretation deepens as our familiarity with the music increases and we perceive new aspects and insights, as well as new ways of communicating these.

The approach that I was raised in as a pianist emphasised considerably that interpretation is a process requiring the utmost integrity, honesty and to some extent humility, as the interpreter places him or herself at the service of the composer. Even in works that require a high degree of virtuosity, the musical message remains paramount – consider the virtuoso works of Liszt as interpreted with ideal balance by Claudio Arrau, for example. To display virtuosity for its own sake, to show off with speed or volume purely in order to excite an audience, or to play in a brash or shallow manner has been regarded rightly as being in poor taste. Towards the end of my student days I sat through a recital by a recent graduate consisting mainly of extrovert works of Liszt and Chopin played with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The technical accomplishment was on one level impressive. There was no want of speed, tonal command or power. On the other hand, it did the composers concerned a considerable disservice to be reduced to such a one-dimensional view.

Of course, most pianists are aware of the boundaries of accepted good taste. But in this lies a problem. Firstly, the audience for the classical pianist has grown less attuned to the subtle art of interpretation and, in the shallow spirit of the age, expects the easier option of simply being entertained. Most pianists today seem to play in order to please the audience, rather than developing interpretations that may prove more controversial but are equally more personal and possessing greater integrity. Moreover, because of the prevalence of piano competitions and auditions as gateways to a pianistic career, an orthodoxy is imposed. The pianist is told: this is what the competition jury and the agents want to hear. His or her choice is then between giving the jury and the agents what they want or not having a career. The integrity that should be at the heart of the process is gone, replaced by a consensus judgement born of commercial, not artistic, imperatives.

This is a symptom of the increasing blurred lines between the business worlds of classical and popular music. Both are now concerned with demotic commercialism. If the audience is not pleased, or has been made to work hard for their pleasure, the commercial reward is lessened. This is one reason why so many pianists now sound alike, and play similar repertoire. To play in a different or more personal style, or to choose repertoire that does not have instant audience appeal, is to separate oneself from the mainstream.

The popular musician is often just as intent on personal integrity and artistic expression as the classical musician. For the popular musician, the battle against the restrictions of record labels can take on an epic quality, as the artist struggles to place their creativity ahead of its commercial exploitation. Historically, the classical musician has not had to fight this battle to the same extent, because society has rightly held that high art is an end worthy in itself, and has supported the idealism that is required to achieve it. Now, with high art no longer valued, the non-mainstream classical musician finds him or herself in a similar position to the popular musician who does not find chart success or who fades from fashion; the choice is either between trying to find some form of lasting niche, capitulating to stylistic pressure in the hope of being re-absorbed into the mainstream, or giving up altogether.

Another aspect of this is that the focus is now far more on selling the performer than the music. This again borrows from popular music. It is far easier to sell a personality than it is to focus on the complexities of profound, often elusive music. Again, there is a great deal of conformity in the way pianists are presented today. The agents know what will sell to their audience and what in turn will keep them in business. It is rare that a pianist’s biography these days offers any kind of surprise, for they all follow a very similar formula. Above all, anything controversial or extra-musical is studiously avoided. The result is a blandness and a deliberate concealment of the pianist as a whole person, lest any aspect prove unpalatable to the audience. Gone are the days when Shura Cherkassky, that most individual of pianists, could say  “Some people like my playing and some don’t, but nobody can say that I’m boring.”

There may be no commercial reward for the pianist who prizes integrity above mainstream values that he or she disagrees with, but there is the knowledge that integrity is the more important artistic goal. My view is that the mature artist should concentrate not on what the audience wants but on repertoire that he or she believes in passionately and is capable of advocating to the full in a way that is not merely dutiful but promotes that mystical identification of composer and interpreter such that interpretation truly becomes a recreative activity. The result may challenge the listener, and provoke strong reactions for and against, but if it has integrity, it will ultimately also command respect.