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Fall 2011

On Live Music

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Ethan Iverson

Glenn Gould once called the public concert a “force of evil.” The twenty-first century hasn’t done away with live music yet, but we are quickly falling in line with other Gouldian philosophies and predictions. Gould wanted to preserve an edited ideal; now, every new recording or performance of canonical classical repertoire automatically competes with all previous greats easily accessible on iTunes. Gould thought of giving the audience the ability to edit recordings; these days, GarageBand, Peak, MP3 Trimmer, and Amazing Slow Downer are just a few keystrokes away.

Many of his records are sensational. Some work too hard to prove a perverse point. Almost all are heavily edited. There’s not enough Gould on tape or video that is actually “live.” Indeed, at this point, Gould’s live appearances are receding from collective memory. His last performance was in 1964, so the number of people who actually got to see him onstage, while never large, has dwindled to a few elderly music fans. Among them is my piano teacher, Sophia Rosoff, who heard Gould play several times in New York and reports that he was greater than his records suggest.

Another famous pianist who was greater than his records suggest was Arthur Rubinstein. As with Gould, some of Rubinstein’s discs are disappointing. I can accept his faults more readily than Gould’s, though, because he was so much less pretentious. On off days between engagements and parties, the titan of the world tour cheerfully rolled into the studio and did unedited takes from his voluminous repertoire.

Even in his eighties, Rubinstein seldom played less than a hundred concerts a season. (Gould’s record was fifty-seven, in 1959.) As a result, everyone saw Arthur Rubinstein play. Countless pianists tell of a transformative Rubinstein recital from their youth. My own stepfather loved to talk of how nice Rubinstein was to the solo cellist with the Minnesota Orchestra in the Brahms second concerto. (With hindsight, I suspect that Rubinstein was nice to every cellist he partnered with in Brahms 2.) Recently, I learned from eminent jazz composer Henry Threadgill that at one of the earliest classical music concerts Threadgill ever saw in the Fifties, Rubinstein helped the lost teenager find his way to a seat in the front row before moving to the piano.

For over half a century Rubinstein was a gatherer of minds and bodies in the public space. How many people met, exchanged gossip, or even fell in love at a Rubinstein concert? How many intrigues and spectacles and embarrassments were there? How many times did a sold-out room of thousands hold their breath while he encored with a Chopin nocturne?

My favorite Rubinstein concert anecdote takes place at intermission at Carnegie Hall, reported by Harold Schonberg in his biography of Rubinstein’s arch-rival Vladimir Horowitz.

Martin Feinstein of the Hurok organization, which represented Rubinstein, escorted Horowitz to greet his old acquaintance… To the astonishment of Horowitz and Feinstein, Rubinstein impulsively said, “You know, I’m not really feeling very well, and going on with the second half of the concert will be a big effort. I know the audience will be thrilled if you go out and play the second half for me.” Horowitz was speechless and looked at Rubinstein unbelievingly. “He was really startled,” said Feinstein. “His eyes shot up to the ceiling before he shook his head no.”

Rubinstein was in a win/win position on this one… The chances overwhelmingly were that Horowitz would say no, but Rubinstein had made his typical grand seigneur gesture and knew that word would get around. If Horowitz had said yes, it would have been on Page One of every paper in the world and would have created a billion dollars’ worth of publicity for Rubinstein.

Rubinstein’s best records are great enough that he will continue to live on. My current favorite is the 1959 traversal of the Chopin Ballades. He was already almost seventy and had performed these works thousands of times. The narratives are clear, the phrasing direct, the pace unhurried. While I’ve always liked their occasional wrong notes, at first I didn’t appreciate their simplicity, accustomed as I was to pianists emphasizing speed and power. Now I hear how luminous and timeless these interpretations are, full of deep wisdom acquired through a lifetime of live performance.

Gould would disagree. He felt that a live audience was a bad influence on interpretation, explaining to Elyse Mach that his 1957 recording of Bach’s Fifth Partita was “contaminated” by touring: “I was making an unnecessarily rhetorical statement about the music, simply as a consequence of having attempted to project it in very spacious acoustic environments... A very glib, facile effort, because a series of little party tricks which just don’t need to be there had been added to the piece.”

Gould was on the wrong track, for the quality of his recordings varied ever more widely as he got further away from recitals. With some magical exceptions (like the stunning disc of Orlando Gibbons and William Byrd), the earlier the Gould, the better. The same cannot be said of Rubinstein, who kept learning in the heat of the moment. His last storming Beethoven concerto cycle with Barenboim makes most contemporary Beethoven playing seem tame.

It was undoubtedly music’s loss that Glenn Gould retired from live performance, and perhaps that choice had graver implications for him personally as well. After 1964, Gould wasn’t able to draw from the vital, life-giving force of a live audience, which kept Arthur Rubinstein going as a performer even after he became completely blind. Was the denial of applause part of the reason Gould’s life was abruptly cut short by a stroke at age fifty in October of 1982? Rubinstein was forty-five years older than Gould, but that didn’t stop him from outliving Gould by three months, passing peacefully in December.

Ethan Iverson is the pianist in The Bad Plus.

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