Monday, 22 July 2013

Review: The Art of Piano (DVD)

Fascinating documentary that should have been done a lot better

There is a great deal here that every piano buff will relish. For my part, Horowitz's stupendous performance of his ''Carmen Variations'' from his legendary TV concert in 1968 is well worth the price of the whole DVD. So far as I know this performance was watched, studied and very lamely copied by a number of modern virtuosi, but it has never been released officially otherwise.

There is a lot of other rare footage also. Some personal favourites include Rubinstein's playing a lovely cadenza to the first movement of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, or Cziffra's ridiculously fast but irresistibly virtuoso performance of Liszt's ''Grand Galop Chromatique'', which I cannot stand listening to but watching it always leaves me with my jaw hopelessly dropped. Also unforgettable are Scriabin's Etude Op. 8 No. 12 from the same TV concert of Horowitz, or the old Cortot, looking like he has just stepped out of a horror movie, explaining to his students the mysteries of ''Der Dichter spricht'', the last piece of Schumann's Kinderszenen, or the equally ancient Wilhelm Backhaus interpreting Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, his favourite, in terms of the myth about Orpheus and Eurydice. Even the buffoonish posturing of Glenn Gould is an amusing thing to watch for a minute or so, to say nothing of his humming which is sometimes louder than his playing. And what of that G minor prelude played by the young Gilels for the Soviet military aviators by way of propaganda during the Second World War, or Benno Moiseiwitsch's mighty rendition of Rachmaninoff's B minor prelude, etc., etc., etc.

The documentary is full of such tremendously fascinating stuff. Yet I simply cannot give it more than three stars. The next few paragraphs are an attempt to explain why.

Obviously there are two ways to make such a documentary: including many artists and spending little time on each one of them, or including a few great names but spending considerable time on each. This documentary uses the former approach, and it does a fine job encompassing a galaxy of keyboard geniuses from Paderewski and Hoffmann to Michelangelli and Arrau: nearly half a century of video performances, mostly in black-and-white and in subpar sound even for their time, but this is to be expected. Of course everybody cries that some of his favourite pianists are missing, and I may join the lines with the names of Kempff and Bolet, but this is inevitable. The problem here, though the approach is generally commendable, is that too many names are crammed into too short a time. Either the number of the former should have been reduced or the latter should have been extended.

The consequences of this incongruity between the number of the pianists presented and the total duration of the documentary is that many of the musical performances are badly cut. You may rest assured that you are not going to here more than a minute or two from the Polonaise Op. 53 with Rubinstein or the first movement of Appassionata with Myra Hess, let alone anything more from Tchaikovsky's First Concerto than the first movement's cadenza with Gilels or the notorious octaves from the finale with the absurdly young Richter. Even short pieces are often abridged, like Cziffra's ''Galop'' or Horowitz's Etude mentioned in the beginning. (At least Horowitz's ''Carmen'' is complete.) To put it mildly, such cutting is very annoying. Otherwise, the selections are admirably done and there is only one great pianist (Rachmaninoff, alas) for whom there is no footage available, apparently none has survived or ever been done (but the archive shots of Rachmaninoff are nonetheless precious for he is caught doing something very unusual for him: smiling). Hoffman's indifferent rendition of the C sharp minor prelude might well make one wondering what all the fuss about this fellow was, but it is rightly made clear that this is the only video recording of him; it was made in the 1940s when Hoffman was long past his prime.

Except elongation of the total duration of the movie, another fine opportunity to save more time for rare video performances would have been severe cutting of the commentary. There is a narrator who, well, narrates the main text, usually over some terrific photos of the incredibly dashing in their youth Backhaus, Rubinstein or Horowitz, and this is really fine. Also, there are some intriguing interviews with several fellows from the ''cast'', such as Rubinstein, Arrau and Moiseiwitsch, and these are rightly retained. However, in addition to all that, there is a great deal of commentary by contemporary pianists, and the fact that many of these are quite famous (Barenboim, Kissin, Vasary, Kovachevich, the first two speaking with appalling accents) cannot obscure the bitter truth that 99% of this commentary is pure junk of no importance. All that wasted time would have been much better used for showing more of those rare historical performances complete.

On the top of all that, sometimes the commentary is rife with stupid old prejudices which the documentary thus propagates, deliberately or not. The most explicit example concerns the most controversial of these great pianists: Vladimir Horowitz. Apart from some interesting details about his legendary return in Carnegie Hall in 1965, all Schuyler Chapin has to say about Horowitz is that he was a ''phenomenon'', ''extremely shrewd'' and a great ''showman''. Well, Horowitz certainly was a very shrewd showman, but this has nothing to do with his status as phenomenon – unless one superficially equals this with popularity, which is obviously what Mr Chapin does.

The gentle Horowitz-bashing continues with Tamas Vasary's preposterous claim that for him technique was more important than music! This is a very old story, indeed, and it may be taken seriously only by people who have either absolutely no idea of Horowitz's artistry or some personal animosity towards him. Vasary continues with other startlingly brilliant notions such as ''there is something about perfection and artistry which is contradictory''. It is not surprising that he makes a very poor case trying to put into words what that ''something'' might be. When a pianist has a natural technique which comes from the inside, rather than being imposed from the outside, and allows him to achieve technical perfection with ease, there is absolutely no contradiction with artistry. Needless to say, this is exactly the case with Horowitz, as with many other – though by no means all! – great technicians. Such ''gems'' of prejudice and stupidity should have been cut without ceremony.

All in all, a nice documentary full of rare video performances by great pianists that every piano buff will certainly appreciate. The DVD is accompanied by a fine booklet with extensive information about all performances and commentaries, including most years of recording which are not given during the movie. All the same, the documentary is too short, too sketchy and too fragmented, with too many too badly cut performances and quite a bit of useless rambling by contemporary fellows in between. There is a lot to enjoy here, certainly, but there is not a little to regret as well.

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