Last week, I attended a very fine performance of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto. I would never suggest that the Rach II, whose undulations in musical weight are as delicately nuanced as a ballerina’s, is a bad piece of music. But when I saw it played the other night, it was not a piece of music at all: It was a piece of evidence.
It was a very fine rendition, no question. But the interpretive headroom in a piece that’s been done so many times in the past is miniscule, and it’s only getting smaller. What can you bring to such an old chestnut that hasn’t already been brought? Something, I’m sure, but something tiny. Likewise, I’m sure the soloist gave due consideration to his task and carefully developed an approach that brought out details in the piece of personal significance to him, but it’s impossible to deny that tackling such a piece is undertaken by a young pianist in part to furnish proof of his capabilities. I do not go to concerts to hear proof. I don’t care if you can play the Rach II. I checked Amazon.com: Lots of people, as it turns out, can play the Rach II. You probably don’t play it better than Horowitz. You probably never will. Sorry.
But take heart, up-and-coming pianists (and violinists, and trumpeters, and harpists, et. al.): There’s plenty of music you could play better than anyone else in the world, if you were so inclined. It’s called “new music;” you may have heard of it. You’ll have to snoop around a bit, because this stuff isn’t exactly growing on the immaculately landscaped trees of the American classical music system. But when you find a newly written piece that moves you, or a composer whom you might be moved to commission, bear in mind that you may well become the very best interpreter in the world of this music. About how many 19th-century composers can you make a similar claim?
I’ve been working with a pianist recently whose dedication and creative curiosity have produced results far beyond what I’d imagined. She’s the world’s foremost pianist when it comes to this piece of mine—and unless you take up the gauntlet yourselves, pianists, she always will be.