088: Parvocellular

Adjective: parvocellular (comparative more parvocellular, superlative most parvocellular) – (biology) Having small-bodied, punctate neuronal cells

TODAY on flaglock: Julian thinks Rachmaninoff and Schubert. Asian pianist defense.

“serge rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 4, op. 40 – Revised Version, 1941 – Reduction for 2 pianos – New Corrected Edition, 2003; Boosey & Hawkes.”

I disagree with the unflattering close-up of the composer’s face and the particular romanization of his name (and the capitalization! Ugh!), but I can’t complain about the contents. Inside that book is the concerto I’ve been eyeing for months. And now, I finally get to start reading it.

First thing I did on the night I got it was listen to Michelangeli, the score in hand. Only then did I appreciate his technical perfection: he runs through passages of terrifying difficulties at dizzying speed. This is what I hold to be my gold standard and this is what I have to play up to. Oh boy, am I ever in for the rough ride.

The first movement is rough reading. The only reason why I’m not fond of reading Rachmaninoff is that (like many other later-time-period composers) he has rather thick and less predictable writing. That is not to degrade other composers (e.g. Chopin), but merely to note that my tiny brain finds it easier to play harmonic mad libs with Mozart than with Ginastera. The second and third, though, seem to mainly pose challenges in the interpretive department (but I’m not concrete-sure yet, though).

Lyra and I have decided to take up Schubert’s Allegro in A Minor D. 947 (op. 144). A preliminary reading suggests this is going to be a very nice (and easy-to-read) step back from Debussy and Rachmaninoff. I’ve been practicing Images (at least Reflections in the Water) pretty hard this week; I’m proud of my progress.

Today, when a passage in my Chopin suddenly cleared up like a blocked sinus, I realized slowly that unfettered musical expression must come first from a refined, mature technique; shoddy, half-assed scaffolding collapses quickly, bringing the music to an ear-piercing halt. This will be important later as I ramp up my practice.

Is it wrong for an Asian person to be a pianist? (This isn’t about me. This is about actual professionals.) As Fou Ts’ong proves, no, it’s not necessarily wrong. It can be incredibly right, as a matter of fact. But as Lang Lang and Yuja Wang and Yundi Li (“YUNDI?”), stacked from most to least controversial, prove, there can be some stunning difficulties in uniting a divided musical world over some of the best stuff in history.

Each of these pianists have technique beyond question (at least, I think so. I’m open to debate and argument and flaming). However, each has respective vices that may or may not be extra-musical: Lang Lang, frequently hawked as “Bang Bang” by the linguistically challenged, is known for his keyboard antics and ability to sustain fortissimos over long periods; Yuja Wang, whose agent needs a good slap upside the head, is too often marched to the ivories in terrifically skimpy dresses and flashy high heels; she too is already being tracked on several keyboards for some Brahms-Paganini controversy and for alleged “lack of emotion;” Yundi Li has gone from “lost little boy” to “gender questionable,” and his agent needs a good flaying, too; he, too, seems to suffer from “lack of emotion.”

I use quotes to indicate where opinions are taken from other people and are almost certainly not in line with my own.

Allow me to establish my position: as I have stated before on Amazon, I refuse to defend any person on grounds of a shared ethnic identity; pianists are no exception. You can be Chairman Mao or President Hu (is he still president? Whatever) or President Ma (I HOPE he’s still president, right?) for all I care: if I think your skills at the piano are no good, I’ll SAY so. I don’t care if you won the so-and-so competition, you’re still fair game for my critical sniping.

Am I suspicious? The above paragraph seems to put me on neutral ground, but … let’s see …

I am not overfond of Martha Argerich. She was one of the first artists I bought, and so her recording holds a special place in my head. But she really loves Need for Speed, Piano Drift – and there’s no arguing that she’s a technical wizard. But sometimes, the speed gets to me – there’s an art to racing beautifully, and sometimes the “racing” part overpowers the “art” bit and that can … well …

I don’t like Vladimir Horowitz at all. He strikes me as a slightly powered up Lang Lang, well-versed in the school of fortissimo (and of steep-gradient dynamics) and whose virtuoso arrangements will forever live on in every aspiring (and wannabe) pianists’ dreams. But was his playing amazing? I rather disagree. Like Argerich, he doesn’t really believe in speed limits. There’s been more than one (several, I think – I have definitively verified two) recording where he completely bent things out of proportion (i.e. fell way out of sync with the orchestra); in addition, his solo piano recordings REALLY don’t take much at face value – he has his own style. Style is good. Style is individual. But too individual, I don’t know … admittedly, Horowitz was stock-still at the bench, and so you can’t call him out for Lang-Lang-ish playing … no, no, I just don’t agree with his manner of musical expression at all.

I really love Mikhail Pletnev. I won’t even expound on why. He’s wonderful. I’ll be sure to keep on the lookout for his recordings in Taiwan and elsewhere.

If I were to praise Blechacz any more than I already have, I may as well collapse this blog into Preludia and hell with the irrelevant other tiny percentage of subjects I write about.

Evgeny Kissin is an old friend. Yes. I like him a lot.

Michelangeli! I have not forgotten you. You’re amazing. Will buy at the first opportunity.

Rubinstein, I haven’t heard enough of you – but yes. You’re most certainly clear of the “dislike” zone.

It is safe to conclude, I think, that I am not biased towards members of my own race at all. I’m not at all fond of Lang Lang, Yundi Li releases don’t excite me unduly, and Yuja Wang … hmm … introspection required.

But I see nothing unemotional or boring about their playing. I detect a disproportionate amount of vitriol aimed at Asian pianists; it’s bizarre how many people can hate a certain group at the same time.

… am I wrong in guessing that this could be a covert streak of racism? After all, what better place to voice an outdated sentiment than under the guise of a relevant critique? “Black people can’t play violin.” “The French really suck with horns.” “Middle-easterners don’t know how to work a sitar.” “Yellow people are really unemotional at the piano.”

Nobody says “yellow people,” I know, but that’s a weird habit of mine that stems from the sallowness of my own skin.

Let me put in a good word for Asian pianists: we’re on our way. Give us some years and some recordings; we promise we’ll deliver. (Not me personally, mind you. Just “we.”)

There is hope, though; I have seen several stalwart supporters of the better-known Asian pianists like Yundi Li and Yuja Wang (less for the latter, but she is still young). Nobuyuki Tsujii is giving the West a run for the money after his victory at the Van Cliburn Competition.

I keep my fingers crossed. In the meantime, I’m waiting for the Beethoven album (Yundi) to depreciate.



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