After Franz List , there were not many great composers. Mozart, Chopin and Beethoven as great as they were as pianists, there were also great composers. Johann Brahms was trained as a pianist in his youth, but he did not practice enough to keep his fingers loose. Critics said he lacked the finishing touch, was unmusical, and was lacking in style and contour. His playing was more composer than virtuoso. He made some fearsome noise on the piano at a superficial level and rather his playing was rather chaotic.
Edvard Grieg on the contrary kept his piano technique in great shape and played his own music skillfully. He was not pretentious. Cézar Franck, had been a prodigy and was touring at the age of eleven. Franck gave concerts and taught piano as well as composed a few bravura masterpieces. He concentrated on organ and composition. He was an extremely gifted composer.
George Bizet, who wrote Carmen also ‘played the piano like Hummel, Heller and Chopin with exquisite taste for the great virtuosos. He had the ability to play back music immediately. Bizet also has the ability to read at sight Liszt’s music with accuracy and rapidity.
Isaac Albéniz was composing at the age of seven, blessed with perfect pitch, good looks and a healthy body and independent mind. His parents put him on a concert tour, but he was unhappy and always ran away from home as he was always being treated like a ‘trained’ monkey.
Albéniz got subsidized by the Spanish government where he gained admission to Brussels Conservatory. He ran away to the America. When he returned to Brussels, he won first prize at the conservatory. In 1878, he went to Budapest and had an audition with Liszt. Liszt accepted Albéniz as his pupil and he followed Liszt to Weimar and Rome. This helped complete him as a formal pianist.
The rest of his life was fairly quiet and he settled as a touring virtuoso. By 1893, Albéniz settled in Paris and stopped playing in public. By 1904, he composed hundreds of pleasant salon morceaux. The last three years of his life, he started to work on complicated pieces, which were published under four-volumes called Iberia. Iberia are preserved to be played by superior pianists.
Alexander Scriabin (classmate of Rachmaninoff), won the gold medal for Piano at the Moscow Conservatory in 1891. Scriabin started concertizing and composing in 1898 and become the Professor of Piano. In 1903, he left the conservatory for good and start concertizing. His playing was said to have resembled Albéniz. Both were described as elegant, light-handed and more on the shallow side with their repertoires. Scriabin was a spontaneous pianist and never played his repertoire twice the same way.
Claude Debussy was not generally remembered as a fine pianist who could have had a professional career. Debussy was very good as a score reader. His music reflects his profound knowledge of the capabilities of the instrument. He has contributed more than any other composers since Chopin, new theories about pedalling, new ideas about sonority, and a completely new concept of figuration and layout.
He suggested a piano without hammers. Marguerite Long, who studied Debussy’s work under his supervisor described his playing:
‘Debussy was an incomparable pianist. How could one forget his suppleness, the caress of his touch? While floating over the keys with a curious penetrating gentleness, he could achieve an extraordinary power of expression. There lay his secret, the pianistic enigma of his music. There lay Debussy’s individual technique; gentleness in a continuous pressure gave the color that only he could get from his piano. He played mostly in a half-tint but, like Chopin, without any hardness of attack…. His nuances fanged form triple pianissimo to forte without ever becoming disordered in sonorities in which harmonic subtleties might be lost.
Andrés Suares referred to Debussy’s hand as flat when he pressed, instead of struck. Maurice Dumesnil, the French pianist attested that this was true even in chordal passages. He caressed the key by rubbing them gently down in an oblique motion. They way Debussy played a chord was as if the key was being attracted to your fingertips. Playing Debussy’s music was not all clouds and dreamland. He employed pedal and the kind of touch new in the history of music and piano playing. He liberated the piano from its hammers.
Ernö Dohnanyi started his international success as a thundering virtuoso. He studied with d’Albert, and toured Europe and America in 1890 and 1900. He had excessive finesse. Naturally, he was a romantic pianist. Later in his days, he concentrated on composing and teaching with very little public appearances. When he re-appeared o the concert stage after WWII, he was a very old man, and age blunted his fingers, but his playing was still noble in style.
A more famous country man Bela Bartok, four years junior to Dohnanyi, was a ‘second Dohnanyi,’. He was appointed as professor of piano at the Budapest Academy in the 1970s. Bartok generally played his own compositions. His recording showed that he was no where as percussive as some of today’s young virtuosos might think. Bartok was an old school pianist, where his tone was still the most important thing.
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