The Pianist and the Critic

A guest post by Dr. Michael Low

on No Dead Guys / Written By Rhonda Rizzo

What makes a performance good or bad? And, importantly, who gets to decide? In this era of declining critical standards and rising relativism, where is the line between a reasoned, thoughtful critique of a pianist’s performance and being a judgmental troll?

These questions were ones few of us considered before the disappearance of most classical music critics and the creation of social media platforms. Today, with the advent of video performances, we’ve become the critics and as such are tasked with striking a fair line between rigid classical orthodoxy and (to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton) being so open-minded that our brains fall out.

This guest post by pianist and pedagogue Dr. Michael Low explores these questions and more. Through reasoned, fair-minded examples, he writes as one who has experience as both critic and performer. In much the same way he discussed the dangers of hero worship in his first guest post, False Gods and Fictitious Prophets, Low never avoids hard questions or thought-provoking statements. It is an honor to feature him again on No Dead Guys

A guest post by Dr. Michael Low

I am in three minds about Ivo Pogorelich. The juvenile non-conformist in me sees him as a maverick, a musician who is not afraid of taking risk and challenging the interpretative norm, and who, more often than not, especially in his earlier studio and live recordings, manages to shed new light on the standard repertoire.

However, the cynical side of me sees Pogorelich as a charlatan, an individual whose musical interpretation, especially since his comeback from retirement in 2015, are so surreal that they feel like reimaginings of the Mona Lisa by Jackson Pollock. Even more cynically, I would argue that Pogorelich’s so-called recent ‘success’ has much to do with the pianist’s reputation as well as the audience’s desire for the unusual. The line between genius and insanity is so subjective that audiences can sometimes confuse one for the other.

The human side of me sees something completely different: Here is a gifted individual who clearly suffered personal tragedies and setbacks to such an extent that he is no longer able to gauge what is musically and interpretatively possible. It is not beyond the realm of possibility to surmise that the death of Aliza Kezeradze (Pogorelich’s mentor and piano teacher who became his wife) had such a devastating effect on the pianist that it forced him to take a complete break from piano playing at one point in his life. The pianist’s somewhat surreal interpretation is much in evidence in the tempi of the slower moments of his recent performances of the Liszt Sonata, which now lasts close to fifty minutes, and the Schumann Fantasie.

In spite of my reservations, the most lasting impression Pogorelich had on me was not in any of his live performances or recordings, but rather the aftermath of his recital in London in 2015. My colleagues and friends who attended the performance spoke about the ‘unpleasantness’ of the first half, in particular the Schumann Fantasie, but almost all of them agree that Pogorelich redeemed himself after the interval. I wasn’t in London at the time, but I managed to find a Pogorelich live performance of the Schumann Fantasie from 2014, and if the London recital is anywhere close to his 2014 interpretation, it is not difficult to see why my colleagues expressed their reservations.

The following day, music critics from the mainstream media panned Pogorelich’s performance, one going so far as to question whether concert promoters should be supporting such ‘disturbing exhibitionism’.

All of them apart from one.

I came across Laura Bodo Lajber’s blog The b-flat Sheep shortly after Pogorelich’s London recital. What made The Sheep (Lajber’s alias when she is writing musical reviews – which in itself drew parallel with Schumann’s Florestan) different was not because she praised Pogorelich’s performance – she didn’t – instead she merely conveyed how Pogorelich’s recital made her feel throughout the course of the evening, before leaving the reader to make up their own mind as to what is good and what is not so good. For those interested, the Sheep summed up Pogorelich’s London recital as two-hours of ‘experimental sight reading’ before expressing her irritation at the ‘lack of structure’ of the performance.

The Sheep’s writing moved me so much that I was compelled to get in touch shortly afterwards. Alas, my initial Facebook message got lost in cyberspace and it was only sometime in 2023 that I came across her Instagram profile. This time Laura did write back. She expressed her gratitude for getting in touch but told me that The Sheep no longer writes because (in her own words) who is ‘she’ to judge others? I can only surmise that Laura’s decision to take a break from Classical music had to do with the cut-throat nature of the industry, as well as being affected by a bolt of ‘imposter syndrome’ – something that is not entirely uncommon amongst artists, especially amongst those who are sensitive, and exceptional at what they do.

Laura’s reply did make me think of something about critics and musical criticism in general: are critics really knowledgeable about what they are saying? Many critics are not musicians themselves, so while it is possible for them to have some form of musical opinion, they will never be in the performer’s ‘shoes.’ To some extent, performers at the mercy of a critic’s whims, and one may well ask how they were appointed to that position. And what happens when a performer disagrees with a critic? Does it make sense for the performer to response in writing?

This may be an unpopular opinion amongst many of my musical colleagues, but I believe that those who put themselves on a platform for the world to see and hear will be judged. Furthermore, it is only right that they are judged, as there needs to be a measurement as to what is good and bad, exceptional and mediocre. I am an avid follower of the English Premier league and after every weekend the players that presented themselves on the football pitch are either revered as gods or dismissed as villains; social media is a brutally unforgiving platform. But at the end of every round of matches, at least every supporter knows where their team stands on the ranking table.

Musical interpretation may not be as black and white as a result-driven sport like football, but even there it is possible to ‘play badly’ and still win, especially if your opponent fails to put the ball in the back of your net. I personally don’t think that it is possible to be technically inept and still successfully convey the musical intentions of the composer. I say this without wishing to disrespect Artur Rubenstein, who was very keen on the narrative that the success of his recitals during the earlier part of his career was due to his communicative flair rather than his technical skill. If so many notes are missed or dropped during the course of a performance, how is it possible for the listener to get a complete sense of the structure of the musical work? Surely this is akin to watching tennis player who struggles to put the ball in play? On the other hand, it is also possible to be technically invincible only to ‘miss’ the composer’s musical intentions – I will never forget how one of my professors told me that he walked out of a recital because he felt that the pianist has play ‘too many right notes’. I have often felt that the performer’s technical ability has to be taken for granted when it comes to criticism at the highest level. Any performer who cannot negotiate the technical demands of the music should not be on the stage performing in the first place. There needs to be certain parameters as to what is acceptable, both musically and pianistically. Otherwise, David Messulam will be as great an artist as Grogory Sokolov, and Florence Fosters Jenkins as Maria Callas.

The notion that the critic shouldn’t be allow to express his/hers opinion because they cannot do any better is also a somewhat juvenile argument. This may sound harsh but if you don’t want other people to have an opinion on what you are doing then don’t put yourself on a public platform for a start. I don’t see professional footballers calling out fans who criticised their poor performances just as I don’t see the likes of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal asking those in the commentary boxes if they can do better in the modern game – even though some of these are amongst the best athletes of their generation. I often find it quite paradoxical (and somewhat amusing) when people who tell me that they learnt to play an instrument ‘only’ for themselves, end up uploading their performances on major social media platforms (‘I am only doing this for a laugh, YouTube looks fun’ etc., etc,), only to be disconcerted by the lack of views or positive feedback. My initial thought was: If you are only playing for yourself in the first place, why do you care what everyone else thinks?

A few year ago a colleague of mine attended a piano recital in London. She herself enjoyed the performance and so did the rest of the audience, it seems. Unfortunately, the critic present felt differently and flexed his musical sinews in one the mainstream newspapers the day after. The pianist then responded on one of her social media accounts, justifying the rationale behind her musical interpretation, especially in the places where the critic had expressed his reservation. The entire exchange has an unpleasant, personal feel about it all. I wasn’t present at this recital, and I certainly have no problem when an artist made the decision to defend his/her performance. However, (in my not so humble opinion) the artist will have more ammunition for their proverbial shotgun if they can base their reasoning on indications in the score. For example, saying something like, ‘I made the decision not to overuse sustain pedal in the middle section of Liszt’s Harmonie du soir because he indicates rests after some of the arpeggiated chords’ will be more convincing than, ‘You mention that my tempi were extreme but fast tempi are characteristics of Liszt’s signature.’ Any critic with a modicum of musical intelligence will no doubt sharpen their claws and hit back asking, how ‘fast’ is ‘fast’? And since none of us has the composer’s hotline, how can one tell what exactly were the characteristics of Liszt’s ‘signature,’ especially when it comes to performance? Furthermore, when the performer (for whatever reason) make the decision to underplay the composer’s dynamic markings, it will take more than an extended prose explication to convince the listener. If you have been acclaimed as a generational defying talent (which this pianist was) then surely you will be able to find a way to make the composer’s written text sound even more convincing? Going against what the composer has written seems a rather facile way of demonstrating your ‘originality.’ Perhaps a healthier way to deal with a less than positive review is to accept the differences of opinion and move on – something any good teacher will tell their student when feedback from exams and competitions is less than favourable.

I will leave you with The b-flat Sheep’s closing paragraph in her review of Pogorelich’s 2015 London recital:

Being a concert pianist is heartbreakingly difficult, people don’t know how hard it is, what a slave you have to become, a martyr, a sick, mad, lost and beaten human being. And bless the piano and its slaves, because they bring the highest beauty to this world.

All of us will do well to bear this in mind when it comes to judging someone else’s work, be it playing the piano or otherwise. Because at the end of the day, there is a child in every single one of us still waiting to be heard. And social media provides a powerful – and at times unforgiving – platform that feeds into our basic need for emotional (and musical) affirmation.

Praised for his innovative approach and passionate insight into piano playing, Dr Michael Low’s teaching career in Asia and Africa has spanned almost a quarter of a century. Since 2013, Michael has built an ongoing international collaboration with eminent musicians as well as numerous music institutes in Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia and South Africa. This resulted in Michael working closely with the next generation of pianistic talent to improve their musical knowledge and performance. The success of Michael’s uniquely teaching approach to piano playing, which marries the musical and pianistic cultures of East and West, has expanded to further teaching engagements with future masterclasses scheduled in London, Indonesia, China and Malaysia.   

As a performer, Michael made his debut performing Tchaikovsky’s B-flat-minor Piano Concerto in the 1999 Guildford International Music Festival as a winner of the concerto competition held by the University of Surrey. He has also been engaged to perform in high profile events such as the Penang Governor’s Birthday Gala Celebration Concert, South Africa’s celebrity weddings (most recently that of the former Miss Universe and Miss South Africa Demi-Leigh Nel Peters) as well as private performances for Pam Golding. Michael is the founder of the Elvira Ensemble, who specialises in the chamber version of Mozart piano concerti, the success of which has led to the formation of the Lensky Piano Trio. 

As a student, Michael studied piano with the current director of the BBC World Voice Programme, Richard Frostick, before enrolling as a member of London’s prestigious Centre For Young Musician where he studied piano with the international pedagogue Graham Fitch and composition with the famed English composer Julian Grant. He obtained his Honours at Surrey University under the tutelage of Clive Williamson before completing his Masters of Music whilst studying with Nils Franke and Niel Immelman. An International Scholarship brought Michael to Cape Town where he completed his Doctorate under the supervision of South African greatest living composer, Hendrik Hofmeyr. Michael has also worked with numerous eminent teachers and pianists including, Nina Svetlanova, Frank Heneghan, James Gibb, Phillip Fowke, Renna Kellaway, Carolina Oltsmann, Florian Uhlig, Gordon Fergus Thompson, Francois du Toit and Helena van Heerden. 

Photo by Markus Winkler, courtesy of UpSplash

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