Is it a competition? To some extent.
Both Richard Wagner & Claude Debussy used the metaphor of the circus acrobat to describe the virtuoso dynamic with an appreciative audience. Whether we’re speaking of singers or instrumentalists, there is an implicit element of competition.
How fast can the pianists play a particularly fiendish passage? How long can the tenor hold the high C? how audible is the voice over a full orchestra in a huge opera house?
But for each of those three questions, there’s a word that could come straight out of the Olympic motto. “Citius, Altius, Fortius” translates as faster, higher, stronger, even though we may not be speaking of faster fingers, higher notes or stronger singing audible over a big orchestra.
If that’s all there is to their playing –fastest, highest, furthest—you might think they belong at the Olympics rather than a concert hall.
At one time such competitions were entirely a matter for anecdote and reputation. Nowadays? I am embarrassed to admit that I just used youtube to compare the tempi taken by a series of famous pianists on the same passage, to determine who is fastest.
Virtuosity interests me.
Some operas or sonatas or concerti are written at least partly as vehicles to show off the capabilities of performers. More recently one will encounter works that seem to mock our earlier infatuation with pure skill. Melati Suryodarmo is famous for having danced on butter, a curious critique of terpsichorean skill, an awesome display of bravery every time she slips and falls.
This is perhaps the most extreme version I know, where we embrace the dance even as we are confronted by its impossibility. I am also reminded of singers such as Maria Callas or Amy Winehouse, whose skills are wrapped in pain and the imminent danger of failure. We also saw this with Judy Garland, a singer and actress who died in slow motion before our eyes, imploding over a half-century even as she loudly proclaimed her determination to go on singing. Virtuosity is sometimes about transcendent skill, sometimes about skill that cannot surmount its challenges.
For what it’s worth, when I compared them, Barenboim and Pollini and even Lisitsa were slower than Goodyear.
I was comparing performances of the last movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata, aka sonata 23 op 57. Barenboim’s is delicious slow, passionate but restrained and elegant. Pollini brings a great deal more pace to his interpretation. Lisitsa is roughly the same tempo as Pollini, perhaps a bit slower at the beginning, but building quite impressively in the coda, and wonderfully fluid. In fact when we get to the coda, Barenboim of all people is the one showing blinding speed on the last pages, especially astonishing after the restraint he’d showed earlier.
And then there’s Stewart Goodyear.
Goodyear’s performance is note-perfect, the cleanest and most precise reading out there, and substantially quicker than anyone. When playing soft notes we get faint ghostly tinkling, but perfectly clear. When it’s time to crash chords, Goodyear is the most athletic player, making massive volume without any sense of banging or percussive tone. Where Barenboim sounds a bit ragged at the end, flying up and down the keyboard, Goodyear takes us beyond the issue of the performer’s athleticism, to a place of pure feeling, and as a result I am hearing an entirely new Beethoven.
Pollini and Barenboim remind me of the Schnabel Beethoven, the realm of middle-aged men with ruffled hair who shake their fists at the sky: like Beethoven himself. Their music is in an anguished search for dignity and meaning in the presence of a harsh world. Their Beethoven is closer to Callas & Garland & Winehouse I suppose.
Goodyear’s technique is so transcendent, so astonishingly secure, that he plays at an entirely other level than anyone performing these works. The pieces do not struggle. There is playfulness and fun in places where other musicians seem to be in a life and death battle. There is the ease of magnificent technique, fluid fingers and music that has a Wagnerian ability to find true feeling without encumbering us in the pianist’s battle with the keys. For Goodyear the battle has been won, likely during his practice sessions. He is at ease, the way a good orchestra should be when they play Beethoven, showing a majestic calmness rather than stress and anxiety. We are atop Olympus looking down, no longer worrying about climbing.
Goodyear’s Waldstein sonata –op 53—is every bit as accomplished. The first movement, employing repeated chords that can sound percussive in the wrong hands, is dramatic but with elegant flow. In the soft passages, though, Goodyear seems to channel a visionary link with the composer, a self-assured lyricism letting every phrase sing. The last movement is a bit of an epic, going from soft whispers of the divine to bold proclamations, that must be reconciled into the same tuneful edifice. Goodyear’s approach seems to favour playing Beethoven as written, easily articulating nuances and shaping the whole with a vivid sense of the unfolding drama. Again, the key ingredient seems to be that Goodyear is so adept at playing the notes that he can turn such a massive composition into something delightfully simple in the end.