[Dixielandjazz] The Individual Voice in Music

Stephen Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sat Nov 8 09:45:14 PST 2003

NOT OKOM, BUT CLASSICAL. A strong parallel may be drawn between the
subject of this review and our own opinions regards jazz, jazz players,
and what "we" like, or hate. An interesting read if you choose to do so.

Steve Barbone

November 7, 2003 - New York Times


Thumbs Down, Thumbs Up: Prizing a Personal Voice Even if It Hurts


     Last week, defying the consensus of the connoisseurs, I went to a
concert in the New York Philharmonic's series of all the Beethoven
symphonies and concertos. Critics may complain about such supposedly
unimaginative programming, but Avery Fisher Hall was fuller than I've
seen at a Philharmonic concert in a long while.

But what caught my attention was the piano soloist in Beethoven's
Concerto No. 3, Gianluca Cascioli, who was making his New York debut.
This is a young man — he's 24 — who has been extravagantly praised for
his recitals, concerto appearances and recordings, although still not
reviewed by The New York Times. He is prized in the standard repertory
(Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann) and in 20th-century music, having the
imprimatur of appearing on Pierre Boulez's second set of the complete
works of Anton Webern. Richard Dyer, the respected critic of The Boston
Globe, named him a highlight of the year 1999 after his debut with the
Boston Symphony in Mozart's Concerto No. 21.

Guess what: I hated his playing, and I hated it the only previous time I
heard him, too, with the Pittsburgh Symphony in Mozart's Concerto No.
26, for the same reasons. I found it mannered and stylistically
eccentric. But then I got to thinking. I don't usually hate performing
artists; my reactions normally range between boredom and extravagant
enthusiasm. I took such a strong dislike to Mr. Cascioli's playing
because it wasn't at all normal. It violated norms, norms being
codifications of current fashion. So, I began to think, maybe my
visceral reaction is some kind of tribute to Mr. Cascioli's

Let us be clear: this is not a Dyer vs. me column. I often agree with
him and always respect him. It's about pianistic individuality, and how
it should perhaps be prized even when disliked.

Mr. Dyer realized full well that Mr. Cascioli's style violated norms;
it's just that he liked it and I don't. In that 1999 review he called
the young Italian "unsettling but brilliant," pointing out all the
stylistic traits that drive me to distraction. Mr. Cascioli plays almost
impressionistically, clouding over the contrapuntal rhythmic energy. He
damps down the volume to near-inaudibility (when an orchestra is
chugging along behind him) and then flails out with bangy, to my ears
barely controlled fortissimos. "Aural peekaboo — now you hear me, now
you don't," as Mr. Dyer described the soft side of hisplaying. By 2001
Mr. Dyer seemed to have fewer doubts, writing that Mr. Cascioli's
"extraordinary" recordings showed "how deeply he sees into the heart of
great music."

What are today's performance norms? I would argue that they epitomize a
kind of self-effacing plainness: wan classicism. Three obvious
antecedents are Arturo Toscanini, Artur Schnabel and the early-music
movement, which has made many performers seemingly afraid of romantic
excess. Toscanini was full of a passion that overrode the blunt
directness of his phrasing. But his epigones (starting with the much
admired George Szell and devolving from there) came to espouse the blunt
plainness without the passion.

Schnabel's Beethoven was plain but soulfully considered; sometimes later
pianists, in eschewing romantic vulgarisms, reduced classicism to
anonymity. Sometimes the sober approach can still dig deep, letting the
music speak seemingly without an intermediary. Richard Goode's playing
is often like that.

Then I thought of another, very different pianist, but one who likewise
strikes out boldly, some would say eccentrically, on her own. If Mr.
Cascioli's playing is stereotypically feminine, Hélène Grimaud's is
defiantly masculine. She never seems to play the same passage quite the
same, responding to the inspiration of the moment (in that regard she
might make a nice pianistic partner for Valery Gergiev, if the two
didn't charge off in utterly opposite directions). Her playing —
reviewed over the years by Times critics in consistently friendly and
usually enthusiastic fashion — is to my ears bold, commanding and
rhythmically defined. It is full of a Germanic mysticism (though she's
French living near New York) that escapes Mr. Cascioli.

Mostly she plays Romantic works — Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms,
Rachmaninoff — although of late she's branched back to Mozart and
forward to contemporary music (John Corigliano, Arvo Pärt); in other
words, she overlaps Mr. Cascioli in her core repertory. To my ears, her
playing of this wide range of music speaks with the same pianistic
voice. Yet there is no question she tones down her Romanticism some for

But in 2000, that's not quite the way Mr. Dyer responded. I've heard Ms.
Grimaud play Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, one of his two
in minor keys and hence most susceptible to Romantic treatment, and
liked her performance just fine. In 2000, Mr. Dyer found her appearance
with the Boston Symphony in that same concerto "dainty, feeble,
scared-and-scrambled sounding, and entirely without pianistic or
emotional projection." He specifically adduced Mr. Cascioli as a
"natural Mozart pianist," whereas Ms. Grimaud to him "hardly sounded
like a professional pianist at all." He followed up his review with an
aside: "Most pianists play with tight shoulders, like Hélène Grimaud
last week, and they produce sawdust, not sound." Me, I love what I hear
as the vivid colors of Ms. Grimaud's tone.

To sum up: Mr. Dyer hated her (Ms. Grimaud) to precisely the same degree
that I hated him (Mr. Cascioli).

In his new book "Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the
Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950," Charles Murray calculates (using
his rather peculiar and questionable methodology) that Wagner was the
fourth most important composer in world history, after Beethoven and
Mozart — a tie — and Bach. Mr. Murray then reiterates that he personally
doesn't like Wagner's music, but that he must bow before the objective
truth of the consensus.

Maybe that's what a social scientist must do, but not critics. I trust
my own subjective taste. Probably neither Ms. Grimaud nor Mr. Cascioli
would rank in the Top 10 consensus of the great pianists of today. But a
consensus is like a prize awarded by an uneasy consortium of critics:
quirky brilliance, in Mr. Dyer's terms, is weeded out in favor of a film
or a recording that everyone can feel comfortable with.

So more power to Ms. Grimaud and Mr. Cascioli, even if he isn't my
pianistic cup of tea. Better a personal voice than an earnest student of
convention. And if you make some people mad, and you will, all the

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