Pollini and the Player Piano

Musical brilliance is not the same as mathematical perfection.

In the 1910s, engineers at the player-piano company Aeolian had an idea that was too clever by half: Music would be easier to dance to, they reasoned, if the beat were completely uniform. So they invented a sophisticated pneumatic computer that could steamroll any pesky human irregularities into an unvarying pulse. They began to apply what was later called “quantization” as a standard part of the editing process for new piano rolls.

The results were as neat as a pressed shirt, but they sounded odd: The notes were all there, but somehow the music had gone missing. Great roll pianists like Frank Milne and George Gershwin invented new styles of playing to minimize the effect. Reproducing pianos like the famous Ampico B attempted a more faithful re-creation of an original performance. But quantization was emblematic of the player piano’s inherent limitations. Aeolian told Artur Schnabel that their pianos were capable of 16 degrees of nuance. Schnabel said sorry, he was capable of 17. He recorded his ground-breaking cycle of Beethoven sonatas for the gramophone instead, and player pianos went bust.

Recorded sound is more artificial than a player piano in important ways. Instead of an actual instrument, we hear sound condensed and re-expanded. So its flavor is a little off, like orange juice from concentrate. But recorded sound won because it was better at capturing the most important aspect of any musical performance, which is the human performing it.

Schnabel’s Beethoven cycle contained many wrong notes, but they were part of the performance.

This is worth mentioning because today’s pianists, in the mode of classical pianist Lang Lang, are reaching new heights of mechanical perfection. Their technique is so good that they might almost be player pianos themselves. But the music they’re producing is no more satisfactory than piano rolls were, and for the same reasons. Schnabel’s Beethoven cycle contained many wrong notes, but they were part of the performance. When the recordings were being recut for LPs in the 1950s, an enterprising sound editor at RCA Victor found he could eliminate Schnabel’s mistakes by careful cutting and pasting. His boss explained the situation to him in a few well-chosen words: “Put those goddam clinkers back!”

Last weekend, Maurizio Pollini performed at Carnegie Hall on the 50th anniversary of his debut there. He is 76, and his technique is fading: His performance, too, contained many wrong notes. But he represents a humanistic tradition of piano performance, which is apparently nearing retirement age.

Pollini no longer plays Beethoven at Carnegie. He uses the damper pedal liberally to soften imperfections, and his repertoire is closing in. Last year he played all Chopin, sparkling and shimmering. This year, the second half of the program was Debussy — a composer sufficiently self-indulgent to have described his guiding rule in composition as “mon plaisir.”

Debussy had no particular interest in the piano’s ability to produce discrete pitches that could be strung together into melodies and harmonies. What fascinated him was the sound of the piano itself, and its shifting texture and timbre in different registers. So Debussy sounds like a man with four hands but no fingers. He is a fraction of Chopin, less than a sliver of Beethoven — but there is enough for a good performance, and Pollini extracted every ounce.

The recital did not become exceptional, however, until after it had apparently ended: Pollini stood a few steps from the piano bench, smiling in the applause but looking tired. He may not have been in the best health — during the first half of the program, between Chopin’s Barcarolle in F-sharp Major and the Second Piano Sonata, Pollini had uncharacteristically left the stage for several minutes, and the audience wondered in their seats whether he would be able to return.

At the very edge of his physical limits, he played his best and made the music most beautiful.

He did not perform the Chopin well, and evidently he felt this. So at the end of the program, after being recalled to the piano by stubborn applause, he decided to do something about it: He played a triple encore, performing in succession, Chopin’s Scherzo no. 3 in C-sharp Minor, the Berceuse in D-flat Major, and the “Winter Wind” Étude in A Minor, three of Chopin’s greatest pieces. It was a complete program in miniature, offered with such warmth and feeling honesty that the audience was transported, the mood transformed.

After the Étude, the crowd cheered on their feet with their hands above their heads, not in deference to an august presence, but in recognition of Pollini’s remarkable achievement. At the very edge of his physical limits, he played his best and made the music most beautiful.

This, then, is a note to young pianists: Listen to Pollini, listen to the old Schnabel recordings. Oscar Wilde was joking but essentially correct that anyone can play accurately. Even a machine. Especially a machine. The music lives elsewhere.

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