The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Are young piano and string players more virtuosic today than before? Consider Yuja Wang, Kirill Gerstein, Yundi Li, Lang-Lang and others.

August 28, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Are young piano players more virtuosic today than they were before, or even just a short time ago?

It’s an old argument and observation, really.

After all, in its own time Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 was called unplayable, as was the same composer’s Violin Concerto. And similar opinions have greeted concertos by Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev.

Still, Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic for The New York Times, thinks he and others, including piano teachers, see a trend toward a new and more easily obtained virtuosity, fueled in part by the difficulty of mastering new music and modern masters such as Ligeti, Carter and Messiaen.

Specifically he cites pianists such as Yuja Wang (below top) who is more in the headlines these days for her micro skirt controversy); Rubinstein and Gilmore competition winner Kirill Gerstein (below middle); and Chinese pianist Yundi (formerly Yundi Li), the youngest winner of the prestigious Chopin competition.

To the same list I would also add Alice Sara Ott, the German-Japanese pianist and one-time prodigy (below top) whose first album was the complete “Transcendental” Etudes of Liszt, and Valentina Lisitsa (below bottom), who just tosses off the most difficult works with apparent effortlessness. And I am sure there are others who belong on the list.

And what about Lang-Lang, whose playing I don’t particularly like but who seems to astonish audiences with his technical proficiency, if not his musicality?

But I am not so sure the new virtuosity is a new phenomenon. The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century saw some pretty amazing keyboard virtuosos in abundance. And Chopin’s and Liszt’s era also has its share of keyboard giants.

And I also wonder if the increase in virtuosity is offset by a corresponding lack of originality and personality, by a certain homogeneity.

He also says the same thinking applies to string players but not to singers whose voices take more time to mature.

In any case, here is a link to Tommasini’s original essay or column:

Read it, put on some piano CDs and let us know what you think.

Do you agree or disagree?

What other names would you add to the list?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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