The Arts, the Senses, and the Imagination
by Robert Millar on November 20th, 2014

As a longtime pianist, I am only too aware of the many challenges involved in mastering the instrument and its repertoire. What audiences ultimately hear in the concert hall and on recorded performances is only the very tip of the iceberg. Just beneath that tiny, perceptible tip there exists a huge, invisible mass of preparation comprised of planning, study, decision-making, reflection, assessment, introspection, interpretation, relentless practice, and sheer disciplined effort that makes the final product possible. Most people have an inkling of this on some level, but few fully understand how truly difficult a task the preparation is. As is the case with all of the Arts, what appears to be an average, normal, and expected performance level, a level that may even appear attainable for the average audience member given a little time and practice, actually requires extraordinary talent and training (ballet comes to mind in this regard).

Now, there are many, many fine pianists around the world, both professional and amateur, who are fully capable of delivering decent, technically adept, and sometimes even dazzling performances. But every once in a while we encounter someone whose playing goes beyond the realm of proficiency and demonstrates an even higher quality --- artistry… the ability to translate what at first glance appears to be prosaic into poetry. These are the people to whom we must pay particular attention because they can give us keen insight into possibilities that sometimes escape our perception, possibilities that might lead us to more richly satisfying aesthetic rewards.

A case in point is the following figure from the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in A Major for Piano, Opus 2 Number 2 (seen here in various iterations):
This is not an example of a dramatic moment among Beethoven’s works. We often tend to think of musical interpretative success in terms of the projection of strong, highly-charged emotions like anger, sadness, melancholy, joy, and the like. But this is none of those. It’s actually kind of awkward looking on the page, coming out of nowhere as it does from a low note, rippling up to a high one, bouncing a couple of times, and then dropping like a stone back down into the depths. For the pianist, questions arise regarding what to make of it without turning it into a mere, somewhat gangly, technical feat. And then comes along an inspired solution from the pianist Emil Gilels, and the musical idea immediately becomes infused with vivid character. Click on the album cover to listen.

This is but one example of true artistry. The apparently awkward musical figure is transformed from just notes on a page into a poetic gesture. Each time it is heard, it's as though an elegantly graceful bird has fluttered up out of obscurity, settling lightly and delicately on a tree branch. And as we listen to the rest of the piece, we find ourselves not just enjoying the music, but eagerly awaiting that musical figure's delightful reappearance.

Posted in ARTISTRY, MUSIC    Tagged with music, ARTISTRY, Beethoven, music, EMIL GILELS, PIANO


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