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When being wrong is right

by Ayano Hodouchi at 04/08/2011 21:14

After 20 rigorous years of classical training, I have a substantial knowledge of music and very decided views about how a piece of music should be played. I also have the logic to back up my views – but ironically enough, some of my favorite pianists are also some of the more unorthodox.

Take Chopin, for example. Chopin's music is elusive, poetic, tender and delicate, but my favorite Chopin player of all time is the flamboyant Frenchman Samson François. After a hard, fast life of booze, women and drugs, he died early, but many recordings remain and are still beloved. His Chopin is almost an anti-Chopin – masculine, decisive, bold and daring. And if you listen closely, almost everything he does goes against what they teach us in conservatoires. Needless to say, anyone who imitates François is slammed for bad taste and deservedly so – only Samson François is permitted to play like François.

Another of my favorites, the late Alexei Sultanov, is another controversial figure. Phenomenally talented but deplorably nonconformist, Sultanov always received either rave reviews or relentless bashing. I agree that sometimes what he did was “too much.” But often, his piano playing was so moving, so convincing, so powerful that you stop thinking about what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s really too bad that some people begrudged him his heart's desire (first prize at the famed Chopin International Piano Competition) for being so unusual (he received second prize, with no first prize awarded); soon afterwards he had a stroke and died prematurely at age 35.

Glenn Gould, another extreme eccentric, was famous for his mannerisms and peculiarities, and his interpretations of Bach were as unorthodox as everything else he did. Yet he remains to this date one of the most revered artists of the past century.

There are logical rules for good piano playing and standards of interpretation, all of which I’ve learnt and know very well. I appreciate excellent playing; playing that takes into balanced account aesthetics, logic, music history and, of course, personality. But to be honest, the kind of performance that really blows me away is the kind that defies much of what I believe in. I have very definite views – and at the same time, I’m just waiting to be convinced otherwise.

I believe I have had the advantages of an excellent musical education. Yet, of course, the most important things cannot be taught. Music education during Soviet times was relentlessly systemized to produce high-level musicians – but artistry cannot be mass produced. Real talent can appear anywhere in the world, regardless of systems. What the Russian piano school did was mass produce very high-level professionals – and it probably glutted the market with too many. The system dug its own grave.

Perhaps a day will come when parents of gifted children will stop sending their offspring to competitive and prestigious schools. I pointed out in a previous column that many of today’s famous musicians didn’t make it to the limelight by winning a competition. I can add that some exciting new Russian faces didn’t necessarily go the standard route of the Central Specialized Music School in Moscow, then the Moscow State Conservatoire. I’m not advocating the demise of elite musical institutions – but I believe, and hope, that there will be much more variety in the years to come.

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