20 April 2013

Prodigal Pianists

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?


  1. Dr Marc,

    Last night I attended a very enjoyable concert by MPO. Due to a “library malfunction” they replaced the intended Rachmaninov 4th piano concerto, with the Ravel two handed concerto (they did a good job, and I have rarely seen orchestral players counting the beats so intensely). And as a freebie the soloist, Alain Lefevre, performed a mini-concerto (the “Concerto de Quebec”) by someone I had never heard of: Andre Mathieu. Before playing, Lefevre explaned background to the work, saying that Mathieu was a pianist who studied from the age of 4, composed at 6, and was 9 when he had written this concerto. It was remarkable. At its premier, his prodigious talents had been praised by both Rachnaninov and Einstein. Why, I found myself wondering, had I never even heard of his name, let alone come across great works from his maturity ? Well, Lefevre went on to say that Mathieu the child pulled in big concert fees, but by the age 14 he had become alcoholic and thereafter…. with a doom-laden gesture to the audience, he invited us to read for ourselves. “It’s a true story” he said “there is even a film about it”.

    This of course, piqued my interest. An on getting home (while avoiding large noisy convoys of motorcyclists waving Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat flags – but that is a different story) I did at least three of the things that you have sternly warned against: consulted Wikipedia to find out what extremely reliable information there might be more about Mathieu, then went to YouTube to look for high quality recordings of any of his other works, and finally checked IMSLP to see what scores had been scanned in and could be downloaded, while contemplating making a volountary donation to his publisher, of course.

    It was a sad story – Mathieu struggled in life, his compositions did not break new ground, his performances increasingly became “musical exhibitionism”, and he died suddenly in his late 30’s in poverty and obscurity. The Canadian Encyclopedia has an entry, and the first two sections are headed “Child Prodigy” and “Unfulfilled Promise”.


  2. (continued....)

    This week also marked the death of Janos Starker, one of the greatest 20th Century cellists and teachers. A towering figure throughout his life, and inspiration to generations of musicians. And a child prodigy. Starker and Mathieu were born only 5 years apart, in musical families, both appeared in public around the age of 6, and Starker’s Wikipedia entry begins with the heading “Child Prodigy”. However that is where the similarities end, in other ways they could not have been more different. Mathieu lived in Quebec; Starker in a Jewish ghetto in Budapest. Mathieu made high-profile concerts in North America; Starker and his siblings were imprisoned by the Nazis, and his brothers died in labour camps. Yet somehow Starker survived, performed, and taught. And perhaps most importantly, he matured.

    Our favourite resource, Wikipedia, gives the following quote from Starker after he had performed with Menuhin, another prodigy who made it:
    He describes himself as becoming physically ill from the realization that he had little idea, from a technical standpoint, how he really played the cello. "I played like a blind man", he has said. "What happens to the bird who flies and doesn't know how it flies? That's what happens to child prodigies.”

    There are many geniuses; some scale the heights, but others destroy themselves. What makes the difference ? I think Starker’s quote is addressing just the technical aspect – to do with the need for a transition from the intuitive to the analytical as one grows up.
    Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book “Outliers” suggests the now famous “ten thousand hours of practice” idea. Actually he says that there are three necessary ingredients: talent, practice and opportunity. But (one presumes) both Starker and Mathieu during their childhood had all three of these things to reach the stage of being child prodigies. So there is something else.

    It is tempting to think that geniuses may often just have it too easy in childhood – while the rest of us struggle with basic schoolroom activities, or doing up our shoelaces, they can rattle off concertos or mathematical proofs with comparative ease (Mendelssohn syndrome, one might call it). Is there something to do with personality, or discipline, or learning to cope with adversity that is formed in the early years – and many geniuses do not get this ?

    For every prodigy that makes it as a highly successful adult, I would guess there are several that didn’t. And there are many stories of those who showed little early ability, yet somehow blossomed later in life (think Einstein, or Bruchner). And for the rest of us, we can at least enjoy attending their concerts, while occasionally wondering what went wrong.


    Dr Peter