Pianists are not my strong suit. Despite the fact that every year I am surrounded by discs of pianists vying to get on the short-list for the Instrumental category in the Gramophone Awards, I very much regret to say that I find it difficult to tell one from another. True, I am as quick to spot outstanding playing as the next man (or woman), can tell a good performance from a mediocre one, and have a level of sensitivity which brings about a fit of near nausea whenever I hear a bad one. But while I recognise all of this, in a blind tasting I can never, in a million years, recognise one pianist from another. I do hear a certain hardness of tone and almost aggressive edge if I know it’s Mitsuko Uchida, I recognise the flamboyance of Lang Lang when I see him credited with the playing and salute the intense musicianship of Alfred Brendel whenever I hear a recording of him. But I doubt very much whether I would recognise any of these pianists if I did not already know it was them playing. When the cry went out amongst Gramophone reviewers a few years back asking if any of us had inadvertently acclaimed Joyce Hatto as the greatest pianist of the century when, it transpired, her playing was largely a figment of her husband’s imagination, I had no qualms. I would never have confused her with anyone else simply because I wouldn’t have recognised anyone else’s playing in the first place.
I am sure that there are those who, on hearing a single chord or a nuance in Chopin or Liszt, will immediately identify the pianist. But I’m not one. The thing is, I listen to music and not to a performer and, as a result, have a remarkable ear for the former and a non-existent one for the latter. Even with my own instrument (the organ) I can no more tell whether it’s Thomas Trotter or John Scott, Cameron Carpenter or Carlo Curley, Jennifer Bate or Gillian Weir. I very much prefer the playing of Nicholas Kynaston to that of Wolfgang Rübsam, but I would not immediately recognise either without the aid of a concert programme or record sleeve.
And because I cannot readily recognise individual performers from sound alone, I do not always understand those who rave about their particular heroes. So when a subscriber to this blog writes to express her profound admiration for the pianist Dmitri Sgouros, I am fascinated. She asks if I could use what influence I have to secure a performance by Sgouros in Asia. I might beg and beg for certain works to be performed – please, please, please can the SSO perform Stanford’s Seventh Symphony or the HKPhil do Martin’s Golgotha, might not somebody schedule Bossi’s superb Organ Concerto into a season calendar or do the original version of Copland’s First Symphony? – but I never feel that strongly about performers. Nevertheless I owe it to my readership to do what I can so, never having myself heard of Sgouros, I decide to see what I can find out.
Being away from home at the moment, so with no access to my books, magazines or recordings I resort to a Google search. And what do I find out? “Is Dmitri Sgouros the worst pianist ever?” (on www.pianostreet.com). That can’t be ignored, so I follow the link and read one of those mind-numbingly pointless and self-indulgent forum discussions which includes such gems as “ok his technique is fabulous - but his musicality is non-existant” and “ok - but hes total crap” (what is it about online forums which attracts the illiterate and the grammatically-challenged?). Not much help there. Back to Google.
"Sgouros plays with technical command, rich piano sound, strong rhythm, power, and musical authority.” Ah, that’s more like it (although I wonder what the alternative to “rich piano sound” is? Perhaps “poor violin sound”??). However, this adulatory quote appears on www.sgouros-pianist.com, so we could expect the man himself to cherry pick the comments he adds to his homepage. But look deeper and we see that, while this quote is attributed to Harold C Schonberg, no less, it is not cited; I wonder whether Schonberg, in his dotage, uttered those words when pushed into a corner to say something nice. All critics have been in that position and prayed fervently that our words would never be recorded. So let’s search on.
“Dmitri Sgouros is an amazing 13-year-old - a genuine prodigy. His playing has a youthful spring to it - a dextrous contrapuntal command and elasticity, and more than a touch of poetry”. That is to be found on the New York Times website itself, so would seem a legitimate support of my correspondent’s admiration. Except that the review was written in 1982, and if you read on you see that not all is sweetness and light; “Yet he is still an immature artist. He often overestimated his virtuosity and played certain passages at such a speed as to render them blurred and meaningless. He also suffers from an occasional lack of structural focus, and treats his showpieces as if they are hurdles on an obstacle course. But there was no reason for such a lengthy and tortuous concert in the first place, except to present this likable, sweet-faced child as the pianistic equivalent of a decathalon runner”. Not so good after all. But, as I say, that was in 1982. There must be a more recent quote.
Frustrated at finding anything recent or impartial I resort to YouTube where, below indifferent and forgettable performances, I discover an interview with the man himself. It includes the following gem: Interviewer; “Do you do much cooking?”, DS: “No, but I know how to eat”. Music doesn’t feature prominently in this interview, but a comment from a passing loony suggests; "he's only able to play the piano because otherwise he's not good for anything else". Out of desperation I decide to listen for myself, but all the recordings go back six years or more. I eventually find what seems to be the most recent solo recording, tagged as having been uploaded “two years ago”.
Oddly we see him in an aircraft museum surrounded by Luftwaffe gems of the 1940s. By one of these is situated a piano (the heading suggests it is a Harpsichord – how bad can things get on YouTube?) and we see a blurry figure playing some Bach surrounded by curious onlookers. But can we hear it? No. There is music being played but a German voice-over comprehensively obscures it. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iE7M2ZgbRg) What is more serious, however, is that when we do see Sgouros in relative close-up, this is by no means a man of 45 but a young lad in his teens. Forcing me to the inevitable conclusion that Dmitri Sgouros is a classic example of that all-too-common phenomenon; the burnt-out prodigy promoted way beyond his abilities.
Do let me know if the impression derived wholly from an Internet search is wrong?