Previn’s “little ego trip”
On Music

Don’t shoot the pianists, protect them

Conductors should leave accompanying to the collaborative pianists

This article is taken from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

If ever you wonder if conducting is a proper job, ask yourself why so many maestros do other things on the side.

Playing the piano, for instance.

Simon Rattle has been popping up here and there, accompanying his wife Magdalena Kožená in song recitals. Lahav Shani, young baton of the Israel Philharmonic and Rotterdam Phil, plays four-hand concerts with Martha Argerich, who is old enough to be his grandma (but doesn’t look it). Antonio Pappano, the Covent Garden chief, regularly plays lieder at the piano for the tenor, Ian Bostridge.

We also have a breed of former concert pianists who transitioned into conducting midway through their career but still make a dash for the keys

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Metropolitan Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra, has recorded a solo piano album for Deutsche Grammophon. Myung-whun Chung, ex-head of the Opéra Bastille and the Seoul Philharmonic, has released two solo piano albums on DG.

Why do they do it? Must be too much time on their hands.

These sideliners aside, we also have a breed of former concert pianists who transitioned into conducting midway through their career but still make a dash for the keys whenever they are not waving their arms. The likes of Daniel Barenboim, Christoph Eschenbach, Mikhail Pletnev and Vladimir Ashkenazy spring to mind.

For Barenboim, it’s an obsession: he cannot go half a waking hour without making music. For others, it’s an insurance policy to be called in if the conducting job fails. Either way, it’s a backward step and has a damaging impact on a delicate part of the musical infrastructure.

Most musicians decide quite early how they want to spend their lives. Gustav Mahler, facing a student orchestra at the age of fifteen in the Vienna Conservatoire, resolved that he never wanted to touch a piano again in public now he had the means to create a bigger, more satisfying noise. He returned to the piano only to accompany his own songs in recital. Once, for “educational” purposes, he conducted a Bach suite while playing the harpsichord with the New York Philharmonic.

Most professional conductors followed suit and put the piano behind them. Herbert von Karajan, Evgeny Mravinsky, Rafael Kubelik and Claudio Abbado were all fine pianists who kept their skills pretty much to themselves. An exception was Leonard Bernstein who, as music director in New York, persisted in directing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue from the keyboard, as well as piano concertos by Mozart, Ravel and Shostakovich.

You can form your own opinion of his proficiency, or otherwise, from performances that are freely available on Youtube, but his effrontery — chutzpah was not yet a clinical noun — alienated some listeners and particularly outraged Harold Schonberg, chief critic of the New York Times. Schonberg, a brilliant historian of the piano, missed no opportunity to disparage the quality of Bernstein’s playing and the shamelessness of his audience flirtation. “How much glamour and popular buildup can serious musicianship survive?” he demanded.

Bernstein, by playing both roles of pianist and conductor, indulged a vanity that verged on omnipotence, and he did so at the expense of the music he played. Then along came Andre Previn and Schonberg nearly died of despair: “It seems de rigueur these days for conductors who are pianists to make at least one appearance conducting from the keyboard. It is a little ego trip that does not hurt anybody very badly except, once in a while, the composer.”

So true — but it was not only the composers who suffered. There is a niche in classical music for people who accompany singers and violinists in recital. They are known as “collaborative pianists” and are, on the whole, self-effacing heroes who choose to live in the shadow of greatness.

A few acquire fame by association — Gerald Moore with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Lev Oborin with David Oistrakh, Lambert Orkis with Anne-Sophie Mutter, Helmut Deutsch with Jonas Kaufmann. They are indispensable partners but they are also an endangered species, never more so than when idle conductors invade their protected space.

By playing both roles of pianist and conductor, he indulged a vanity that verged on omnipotence

Put a conductor at the piano and the particular intimacy of a chamber recital is jeopardised. Soloists are trained to defer to conductors and conductors are accustomed to being followed. The parity between performers that is the essence of good chamber music is lost between bars. Listening to Rattle accompany his wife at the piano I hear an over-emphasis on his part and a lack of colour.

Yannick’s performance is even more deficient. A new Debussy track on DG with the violinist Lisa Batiashvili sounds compartmentalised, the violinist in one domain, the conductor in another. The trickling, tumbling cascade of a Debussy waterfall is nowhere to be heard. Listen to the dedicated pianist Víkingur Ólafsson in his current Debussy release and you’ll hear the vivid difference.

What harm is done by letting conductors into our chamber music? More than you’d suspect. Collaborative pianists — we only recently stopped calling them “accompanists” — have struggled to acquire a modicum of dignity for their vocation.

When a conductor pushes them off the stool and blags his way through a sonata or song cycle, an essential occupation is diminished and demoralised.

It hasn’t yet reached the point where we need a society for the protection of chamber pianists, but it is about time that soloists stood up more for their other halves. To his great credit, Jonas Kaufmann always insists on equal billing for Helmut Deutsch, who is not only his recital partner but also his former college professor.

Kaufmann says: “Musical spontaneity only unfolds when you have equal partners that share the same joy of making music. That’s how it should be.” Conductors, take note.

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