The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Can young performers do justice to great and mature masterpieces of music? | January 8, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

There are so many gifted young professional musicians on the concert stage today.

And yet many of them have doubts about performing mature and late masterpieces by such great and profound composers as Ludwig van Beethoven (below top) and Franz Schubert (below bottom and at the bottom in a YouTube video of Alfred Brendel playing his last piano sonata).

Beethoven big

Franz Schubert big

Do young performers really have to wait longer or suffer more in order to enhance their understanding of profound music that derives from maturity and the composer’s own suffering?

That was the topic of a recent story by critic Vivien Schweitzer in The New York Times. The story had a great headline: “Wait, you have to suffer some more.”

It was an interesting question that was put to some of the great young performers today, including pianists Jeremy Denk (below top, in a photo by Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times), Leif-Ove Andsnes (below middle, in a photo by Tina Feinberg for The New York Times) and Yuja Wang (below bottom, in a photo by Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times).

Jeremy Denk playing CR Hiroyuki Ito NYTImes

Leif Ove Andsnes at Carnegie CR Tina Feinberg for NYT

Yuja Wang at Carnegie Hall CR Hiroyuki Ito NYT

But it also covered string players, including the legendary cellist Pablo Casals (below) and Beethoven’s late string quartets as well his late piano sonatas and the “Diabelli” Variations as well as the bigger instrumental works, like the “Goldberg” Variations and solo cello suites of Johann Sebastian Bach.


And one performer, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, made the case that Frederic Chopin (below) was the most difficult composer to play well, even harder than Beethoven. Curiously, no mention was made of the often knotty late piano music by Johannes Brahms. And conductors were not mentioned.


Here is a link to the story:

The Ear thinks it all depends on the performer. Some young performers are deeply capable of profundity. And yet there is no denying that age, maturity and experience often bring new points of view or perspective on great art.

But some older performers also remain pretty superficial.

What do you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. I was ready to make the case for age until I read M. Utevsky’s comment and also that of D. Susan. Often, age does seem to burnish the approach: witness A. Rubenstein but then again, he often made technical mistakes in old age; or, Leonard Bernstein (but most of his creative composing was done early). Mr. Susan’s comment that many of the greatest composers lived relatively short lives, into their 20’s or early 30’s is also telling. Great question with no easy answer and probably the truth is that it depends on the individual.

    Comment by fflambeau — January 9, 2015 @ 1:03 am

  2. I think it’s ridiculous, speaking as a young performer, to place an age restriction on great art. For example: the music of Dmitri Shostakovich is incredibly deep and complex, charged with personal tragedy, adversity, and strong political implications. It is also passionate, powerful, and deeply magnetic to young performers. The finale of the 5th Symphony is one of the most terrifically exciting things I’ve ever played, and it ignited a fascination with his music that will likely be with me for decades to come. Do high school kids have a personal reference for the depth of tragedy in the slow movement of that symphony? Almost certainly not – though, it bears mention, neither do many adults, having not lived through the Stalinist purges of the 1930s themselves. Will their performance be worse for it? Maybe. But do we believe that performers have to add that content to the music, or that Shostakovich put it there? If the latter, then even their inexperience should not be a barrier to conveying the composer’s intent.

    Moreover, if we were to accept that certain works of art – the Beethoven piano sonatas, string quartets, and symphonies, say – are off-limits to anyone under 40, then how do we get young people into music? How do we train performers – on the B-list rep only? I sure wouldn’t keep at it for forty years on the hope of getting to the good stuff in middle age. What would cellists play, deprived of the Suites? Nothing but Popper etudes?

    And what about the listener? It’s far more torturous to sit through lifeless Mozart or stale Haydn than to energetic Beethoven with a few wrong notes. Some composers are ascribed a higher level of emotional complexity. Others require a greater delicacy of phrasing, a more intellectual approach to structure, or better chops. But no music is so straightforward it can’t be played better. Why not permit ourselves “good”?

    Comment by Mikko Utevsky — January 8, 2015 @ 6:49 pm

  3. Thank you, Jake, for referencing the NYT article! I agree with Schweitzer that “the player’s life experience, empathy and technique are no guarantee of a truly communicative performance.” And since when is “youth” a drawback to “profound” music? Some of the greatest “profound” composers themselves did not live past their thirties–for example, Mozart, Schubert and Mendelssohn.

    Comment by David J. Susan — January 8, 2015 @ 10:49 am

    • An interesting idea, that the past masters did not live long or even lives to middle-age, yet found a timeless place in our pantheon. Is what we now consider maturity a modern concept? Did anyone expect to live to be “mature” or was survival the main goal, and not development?
      Did these men find themselves fully in the short time Life allotted everyone in those days? Is the fact that many people live much longer a boon or a disincentive to early maturity. Is a long artistic life a luxury that makes one less compelling as an artist, or is it the modern way of rewarding the efforts of a lifetime?
      I’d like to think that the soul/mind/intellect that makes for musical profundity or genius is an innate psychological and personality trait that cannot be tainted by delay or lessened by youth, but that may be enhanced or dissipated with Time.

      Comment by 88melter — January 8, 2015 @ 10:59 am

  4. The innocent and perhaps naive perspective, as well as the fresh, exuberant energy younger artists bring to the later music of great composers of the past can be just as refreshing as the interpretation of a player whose life is in a similar stage of maturity to that of a composer’s late period.
    Artur Rubenstein is a classic example of a player whose maturity was eventually reflected in his playing, almost at the demand of critics! Remember, if you can make sense of the musical gestures of a great piece, be it as a soloist, a chamber or orchestra player, or a conductor, you probably deserve to be performing it. Your attempt will speak for itself. Lang Lang, are you reading this?
    Brahms’ music is indeed some of my favorite piano rep. That late stuff has so much content per square inch that it seems like a fusion of Beethoven’s weight, Chopin’s flights, and Liszt’s technical innovations.
    Without young artists to tackle, and I use that word deliberately, these monumental pieces, they will not continue to live. if the “kids” live to add depth or some other character they cannot find in themselves as youth to their later renditions, well, that seems like the Process of Art at work to me!

    Comment by 88melter — January 8, 2015 @ 9:51 am

  5. Agree — it depends. Another thing that depends is the audience: When I was young and lusty and full of angst, I liked whiz-bang virtuosity. Now that I’m old, I want something that communicates at a deep level, and it may seem less demanding to play. That’s probably a typical trajectory for a listener; we deepen with time and experience. It may explain why the audiences in performances I choose to attend are older — and why organizations trying to build audiences bring in flashy soloists.

    Comment by slfiore — January 8, 2015 @ 8:43 am

    • As always, you make a great and insightful point.
      Audience like and respond to the same music in different ways as they mature.
      So do performers.
      It is not unlike how our response to books and movers change over time.
      Mozart is one of those composers who can sound light and even superficial in some performance by younger artists, but whose deceptively transparent works and true depth tend to attract older performers.
      Thank you for reading and replying.
      Maybe other readers will also come up with specific names of composers, works an performers that illustrate your point.

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 8, 2015 @ 8:50 am

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