"…a virtuoso was, originally, a highly accomplished musician, but by the nineteenth century the term had become restricted to performers, both vocal and instrumental, whose technical accomplishments were so pronounced as to dazzle the public." - ‘Music in the Western civilization’ by Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin. Playlist curated by Frances Wilson.Read more…
How do we define “virtuosity” in a musical performance? I believe that when one hears it, it is as if one’s level of consciousness had been raised, and that it is impossible to ever think of the piano in the same way again. Such experiences are highly personal, revelatory, memorable and almost impossible to describe.
A true virtuoso “must call up scent and blossom, and breathe the breath of life” - Franz Liszt
Virtuosity transcends technique. It is less about the ability to play the fastest, most treacherous passages of Rachmaninoff or Liszt or to scale the highest Himalayan peaks of the repertoire, works like “Gaspard de la Nuit” or “Islamey”, or to perfectly execute thousands of scales and other ‘technical exercises’ with amazing dexterity, but rather an aggregate of many skills which enable the pianist to play a million different passages, and to adjust finger and arm weight and touch accordingly to achieve particular effects and sounds, as well as learning to ‘speak’ the language of music through their playing and an ability to stand back from the music to allow it to speak on its own terms.
The virtuoso takes risks in performance – by which I do not mean coming to the stage ill-prepared. Indeed, the most risk-taking, vertiginous, exciting or profound performances are often the result of many long hours – nay, years – spent living with the music. Even a flawed virtuoso performance can excite, delight and enthrall far more than a perfect non-virtuosic performance: technique over artistry nearly always fails to impress.
The virtuoso appreciates and understands that each performance is a “critique” in the purest sense of that term; it is a profoundly thoughtful, insightful, penetrative response to the music in which the performer invests his or her own self in a symbiotic process in which he/she becomes not a “re-creator” but a “collaborator” with the composer. The virtuoso respects the demands placed upon him/her by the composer by playing the music with passion, poetry and extraordinary technical ability.
“…the further a performance must travel to reach the origin of the music, the more the artist demonstrates the measure of both his conscience and his genius: his virtuosity.” - Mark Mitchell, ‘Virtuosi!’
It is during a performance by a true virtuoso pianist that we, the audience, enter a state of wonder, from which we emerge speechless, hardly able to put into words what we have just heard because the experience of the performance has awakened in us what it means to be a sentient, thinking, feeling, living, breathing human being.
I hope this selection will demonstrate some of the very special qualities of each pianist chosen.