Emergency! Where Have All the Pianists Gone?

“You gotta have a gimmick, if you want to get ahead,” a chorus of strippers sings in Gypsy . In the generally more buttoned-up world of classical music, the same lesson applies: For a young concert artist to make it big today, simply having a big talent isn’t enough.

The thought occurred to me in the course of attending three recent concerts of a sort that has become increasingly rare these days–the piano recital. For anyone old enough to remember Cornel Wilde batting his eyelashes as Chopin in “A Song to Remember,” this news may come as a surprise. Wasn’t there a time in New York (and throughout the land) when the image of a noble profile, white tie and tails, and fingers flying across black and white keys was the personification of classical music? When concertgoers argued passionately about the merits of Vladimir Horowitz versus those of Arthur Rubinstein? When a young virtuoso like Van Cliburn could be given the biggest ticker-tape parade since Lindbergh? When the city’s concert series were chockablock with returning piano titans and a horde of homegrown and imported young pianists on the rise?

It is not that we are bereft of fine pianists in New York, but for the most part they seem to come in two forms: the Wunderkind making his first splash in Weill Recital Hall, or the familiar name who can sell out one of the larger venues, especially if he is making an “annual” appearance. The members of the first category are likely to disappear once they’ve had the obligatory acclaim as a “promising” newcomer. The members of the second category seem to get fewer and fewer. (They include Evgeny Kissin, Maurizio Pollini, Mitsuko Uchida, András Schiff, Alfred Brendel, Daniel Barenboim, Murray Perahia, Radu Lupu, Peter Serkin and one or two others; it is significant that perhaps the most sure-fire draw of all, Martha Argerich, has given just one New York recital in more than a decade–an event so rare that The New York Times put it on the front page.)

All the other concert pianists–that is, the majority of the breed–may be thriving somewhere, but if they are, we tend not to know about it. There was a time when the average music lover could name the members of an American “generation” of pianists as easily as a Yankee fan could name the members of Murderers’ Row. Thus, we had the postwar generation of Leon Fleisher, William Kapell, Byron Janis, John Browning, Gary Graffman and Cliburn, which was followed by the generation of Peter Serkin, Murray Perahia, Emanuel Ax, Horacio Guttiérez, Misha Dichter and Garrick Ohlsson.

Today, if asked to name the generation after that one–the current crop of American pianists in their 30’s and 40’s–the music lover can only say, “Who?”

There are reasons aplenty for all this–among them, the decline of the piano as the centerpiece of upward-striving middle-class households; the implosion of the major CD labels, which have virtually stopped recording all but the most famous instrumental soloists; and the end of the Romantic age of pianism, during which the virtuoso was seen as a Byronic hero. Moreover, we live in an age that values histrionics over history. The piano recital, which presents only the spectacle of a figure in profile sitting at a large black box and absorbed in the reinterpretation of a vast, sophisticated literature, is inherently the least theatrical of all classical music formats.

The city’s concert presenters will tell you that, for whatever reason, piano series simply don’t sell the way they used to, but the presenters themselves have diminished the recital as an attraction in its own right by putting it at the service of the sort of earnest “projects” that dominate so much current programming: “Uchida Links Schubert and Schoenberg!” “Pollini Unites Chopin with Stockhausen!” “Schiff Plays BACH!” I like being enlightened as much as the next man, and some of these events have indeed been enlightening, but their underlying didacticism appeals more to self-improvers than to the people who can really fill concert halls–the enjoyers.

Which brings me to those three recent concerts, each of which offered a distinct approach to the art of the piano recital, as it is currently practiced in New York. The first was played at the 92nd Street Y by the Hungarian pianist Zoltán Kocsis, who, among other things, demonstrated that absence does not necessarily make local hearts grow fonder, even for a pianist who is one of the world’s acknowledged masters. It was 14 years since Mr. Kocsis had played here–he had an aversion to flying and, in any case, he was deeply embroiled in the musical life of Budapest as a pianist, conductor and composer–and the hall was not sold out. Seemingly unperturbed, he took the stage with great ebullience and, though playing a rather harshly voiced Steinway, delivered a magnificent, broad-ranging program of Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt and Bartók that was united chiefly by a commanding, utterly personal approach to everything he touched. Like the late Sviatoslav Richter, who was one of his biggest admirers, Mr. Kocsis has the ability to penetrate to the heart of a piece with an almost ruthless immediacy. In the manner of one of the old, idiosyncratic virtuosos, he chose, for his last encore, the lengthy second movement of Schubert’s monumental B-flat Sonata, which he played–

astonishingly–as a bittersweet dance.

A few nights later, Christopher Taylor showed that for an up-and-coming, 31-year-old American pianist to fill a concert hall–even one as snug as Columbia University’s Miller Theatre–you have to deliver an “event.” Mr. Taylor extended the current vogue for one-composer programs by playing what is surely the century’s most daunting one-work piano program–Olivier Messiaen’s complete Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus, a two-hour panoply of “views” of the Christ child that are as multifaceted as the windows at Chartres. Simply to play this fiendishly dense stuff from memory was an achievement; to sustain it over two hours, with a sense that strange beauties were being discovered at every turn, was astounding. Mr. Taylor, who graduated summa cum laude in mathematics from Harvard, may be a model for today’s recital-challenged young pianists to follow: He tries to play a contemporary work on every program; he is not afraid to follow an abstract étude by Ligeti with a rag by Scott Joplin; and he plays only 25 to 30 concerts a year, while maintaining a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin. He is clearly doing exactly what he wants, the way he wants to do it–and if the audience happens to catch up with him, so much the better. Judging from the cheering at the Miller, they already have.

The French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet is only eight years older than Mr. Taylor, but his career seems decades ahead. He has made more than 20 well-marketed recordings for Decca, played with most of the world’s major orchestras and pursued an international performing schedule of nearly 200 concerts last year. For his Carnegie Hall recital debut, he chose a demanding all-French program, including the second book of Debussy’s Préludes, Ravel’s “Miroirs” and the last of the Vingt Regards. But Mr. Thibaudet, a willowy blond who would look right at home in one of Ralph Lauren’s white-flannel ads, is incapable of making anything sound demanding. Nothing in the exotically ornamented program was foreign to his fingers–they scampered, swept, lingered and leaped with silky ease. If Mr. Taylor’s Messiaen always revealed the struggle at the heart of faith, Mr. Thibaudet’s was almost insouciant. He is a pianist of outer–not inner–fire, a true crowd-pleaser. To nobody’s surprise, he had sold out the hall.

Emergency! Where Have All the Pianists Gone?