A new polemic from Oxford University Press, After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance by Kenneth Hamilton, a professor at the University of Birmingham, argues that the worst excesses of the 19th century Romantic age of performance were more lively and fun than what he sees as today’s tedious and stuffy concert scene.
Hamilton lauds the clownish old pianist Vladimir de Pachmann (1848-1933), who was notorious for chatting with the audience during recitals, and occasionally exclaiming “Bravo, Pachmann!” when he had played a passage to his own satisfaction. Hamilton wants concert etiquette to hearken back to the 19th century’s so-called Golden Age. He feels that classical concerts would be improved if pianists today were more unfaithful to the printed notes, if they performed brief, isolated movements of sonatas instead of entire works, and if audiences felt free to applaud whenever they liked, including in the middle of works.
Hamilton must attend some odd concerts to inspire such notions. As for me, on November 3 at Carnegie Hall, I heard the pianist Murray Perahia in a recital of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Chopin. Perahia plays Bach as love music, with plush, seamless legato and a strong sense of polyphony. Beethoven’s “Pastoral” sonata (1801) was played with an ideal sense of rubato, capturing the agitation that bubbles beneath even Beethoven’s works with tranquil-sounding subtitles. The “Pastoral”’s second movement “Andante,” played in a forward-moving yet mysterious way, showed Perahia at 60 to still be a youthful musician (his left hand ardently conducted while he played a passage for right hand alone). Perahia is in his prime today, as indeed are other magisterial pianists like Richard Goode, András Schiff, Maurizio Pollini, and Peter Serkin. Who needs Pachmann? Could our own time be a golden age of performance?
For me, the question was answered definitively on November 7 at Rockefeller University, where the Peggy Rockefeller Concerts series presented the Claremont Trio. Consisting of twin sisters Emily (violin) and Julia Bruskin (cello) with Donna Kwong (piano), the Claremonts, all in their mid-20’s, play and record with exceptional maturity. At Rockefeller University, they performed Schumann’s Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 63, capturing the composer’s obsessive energy, yet with deep feeling, which allowed Schumann’s romantic fantasy world to materialize. Despite their sylph-like appearances, the Bruskin sisters play their respective instruments with hearty, plangently eloquent tones.
A splendid up-and-coming ensemble like the Claremont Trio is the perfect counter-argument to any critic who bemoans the present or future of classical music. Learning from past great musicians—not freaks like Pachmann—is a sine qua non for today’s musicians, yet desperate nostalgia born of boredom obscures all the evidence that we are in fact living in our own golden age of performance. After hearing such spectacular concerts by exemplary artists like Perahia and the Claremont Trio, only a thick-skulled ingrate would react by complaining that something is wrong with classical music performance in our time.