Pianists Abroad and at Home, Alone with the Black Beast

The art of the concert pianist is different from that of other classical soloists. The voice is immediately expressive of the singer’s personality; the violin, which fiddlers sometime think of as a “third arm,” has ready-made powers of seduction; but pianists contend with an enormous, alien machine. The eminent American pianist Richard Goode, who’s currently embarked on a special series of programs at Carnegie Hall, once described the instrument to me as a “world of its own.” Alone on the stage with that gleaming black beast, concert pianists are cruelly exposed in all their strengths and weaknesses. As a piano teacher told me in my youth, “You’re not just playing Mozart and Chopin, you’re showing who you are.” I turned to safer pursuits.

Fortunately, the music world is full of brave souls who not only dream of becoming the next Horowitz or Rubinstein, but aren’t afraid to reveal themselves. I recently traveled to the picture-postcard Swiss town of Lucerne to attend an annual weeklong festival featuring some of today’s leading pianists. The event takes place largely in what may be Europe’s finest new music auditorium—an 1,800-seat concert hall in a spectacular lakeside conference and cultural center, designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel. I heard six of the eight featured soloists (the festival also presents an array of jazz pianists in bars all over town)—and, given the hall’s ultra-clear acoustics and almost clinical white and maple décor, there was no place for any of them to hide, musically or otherwise.

Arcadi Volodos, who along with Yevgeny Kissin is the most acclaimed young Russian pianist of his generation, opened the festival in disguise. Rather than begin with one of the super-Romantic pieces for which he’s celebrated, he played two seldom-performed early Schubert sonatas (the E-flat and F Minor) with an unromantic sobriety that obliterated any sense of the composer’s questing charm. It was a deliberate setup: Mr. Volodos emerged after the intermission wearing his true colors and dispatched with fine elegance four of Liszt’s most richly embroidered travelogues (“Vallée d’Obermann,” “Il Pensero,” “St. François d’Assise” and the Hungarian Rhapsody, No. 13). The gorgeous display demonstrated Mr. Volodos’ virtuosity with pedaling even more tellingly than his extraordinary digital skills. Like all Russian pianists of my experience, he’s well schooled in keeping a poker face: He relaxed his look of pudgy blankness only for the encores.

Emanuel Ax, the sole American in the lineup, appeared the following night as exactly who he is—a sunny fellow whose open, self-effacing manner is of a piece with his seamlessness at the keyboard. His program of ballades was characteristically eclectic—a jokey little East-meets-West trifle by the contemporary Chinese composer Chen Yi; four somber ballades by Brahms; an airy, delicately smeary “Ballade” by the contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, and an epic traversal of the four Big Daddy ballades of Chopin. Mr. Ax played everything with his usual straightforward refinement and grace, but I didn’t sense the electric current between performer and audience that normally marks his recitals.

Afterward, I ran into him in the lobby of the Schweizerhof Hotel, and even though it was 1 in the morning, we soon found ourselves deep in piano-talk. Sure enough, despite his outward aplomb, he had not felt entirely at ease on stage. Something about the unforgiving exactitude of the hall had been daunting. “Today’s pianists have a terrible fear of wrong notes—myself included,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with the recording business, which has created this mentality that everything has to be note-perfect. It makes me long for the days of Horowitz and Rubinstein, when pianists could perform with real freedom—and never mind a mistake or two!”

“If you made any,” I said, “I didn’t hear them.”

“Well, there were a few,” he said, smiling. “I was terribly nervous.”

Nerves played no part in the sold-out performance of Mikhail Pletnev. As usual, this preternaturally gifted Russian conductor and pianist exuded a zombie-like charisma as he walked onstage in slow motion and glanced around at the packed throng as though he were bored stiff by their applause. He then sat down to two Mozart sonatas (K. 457 and 331), which he played with a capriciousness of tempo that bordered on contempt for the music—a cat amusing itself with a half-dead mouse. His post-intermission set of the 24 Chopin Préludes demonstrated pointillistic brilliance and remarkable tonal sheen, but it was just that—a demonstration of prowess largely detached from emotional engagement.

Increasingly, Mr. Pletnev seems to prefer playing with the music to playing it.

How different were the openhearted appearances of two French pianists, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Mr. Aimard joined the young English conductor Daniel Harding and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Their Mozart B-flat concerto, K. 456, was pure, unmannered music-making, joyfully infectious. Mr. Thibaudet was more persuasive in the glittering ironies of Ravel’s “Valse Nobles et Sentimentales” and “Gaspard de la Nuit” than in the agitated sincerities of Schumann’s “Arabesque” and Symphonic Etudes, but he’s a keyboard natural whose graceful professionalism never fails to please.

The Romanian pianist Radu Lupu closed the festival with an all-Schumann program (“Waldscenen,” “Humoresque” and the Sonata No. 1) that raised the art of piano playing to its highest level. Sitting magisterially back from the keyboard in a chair rather than hunched on a stool, his beard as shaggy as that of an Old Testament prophet, Mr. Lupu didn’t so much play the music as commune with it. How do the mechanical sounds made by felt-tipped hammers striking wiry strings become intensely human? How does a pianist make the black beast disappear? Mr. Lupu is both a poet and a magician—the Ricky Jay of pianists.

BACK HOME, AT CARNEGIE HALL, I attended a recital given by another wonder of the piano world, Earl Wild, who’d turned 90 only a few days earlier.

A child prodigy in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Mr. Wild studied with various teachers whose musical training descended directly from such piano giants as Liszt, Busoni, Paderewski, Ravel and Saint-Saëns. Back in the pre-rock days, when classical and popular music in America were friendly with each other, he moved easily between jobs: staff pianist with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Toscanini; a weekly gig on a radio show called Piano Playhouse; composer and studio pianist for Sid Caesar’s The Caesar Hour; and a favorite White House entertainer who played for six consecutive Presidents, beginning with Herbert Hoover in 1931.

In the course of a career that’s lasted some 80 years, Mr. Wild has given recitals all over the world and collaborated with virtually every great conductor and orchestra. Only in the past year, when he underwent a quadruple bypass and began suffering macular degeneration in his left eye, has he begun to slow down.

But when he appeared onstage at Carnegie for his birthday celebration, the only thing slow about him was his measured gait as he made his way to an eye-catching Kawai grand piano, specially hand-crafted in Japan. Once he was seated, his fingers became those of a man a third his age in a program that would have daunted a pianist a fourth his age: his own bell-like transcription of an Adagio by the Baroque composer Alessandro Marcello; a zestful Beethoven’s Sonata No. 7 in D Major, featuring a Largo of hushed gravitas; a wonderfully transparent “Les Jeux d’Eaux à la Villa d’Este” by Liszt; a generous assortment of Chopin (the first and third Ballade, the Scherzo No. 2 and the Fantaisie-Impromptu No. 4). Here, undiminished except for a few bobbles caused by his eye problem, were the Wildean trademarks: lightning-like gradations of color; a noble, unmannered melodic line; immense orchestral sonorities; and, above all, the spectacle of a man delighted to be doing things that he can still do just about better than anyone else alive.

Only Earl Wild could have stopped so nonchalantly a few measures into an old showpiece, his fiendishly difficult transcription of the “Mexican Hat Dance,” when he realized that his left hand was running away from his right hand, beam a huge grin at the audience and start the piece all over again, this time without a hitch. During the ensuing ovation, a man sitting near me exclaimed, “I hope I can still brush my teeth when I’m that age.”

The next day, I dropped by Mr. Wild’s apartment and found him as ebullient as he’d been the night before. We chatted about his unrivalled longevity (Rubinstein was 87 when he made his last Carnegie appearance); his Presidential friendships (“Roosevelt used to lean out of his wheelchair to see how I executed a particularly difficult passage”); his admiration for his piano idol Rachmaninoff (“I heard him at least 50 times”); his taking refuge in music as a boy to escape the squabbling of his parents.

When I asked the obvious question—“How do you still do it?”—he replied: “When I sit down to play, all my pains disappear—I’m home.”

Remembering what Emanuel Ax had said about the freedom to make mistakes, I asked: “Are you afraid of wrong notes?”

He laughed. “No,” he said, “because there’s nothing you can do about them.”