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Thursday, March 26, 2009
A Question of Status
OK, this is going to get controversial. I was watching a wonderful classical pianist named Valentina Litsisa on Youtube the other day. She was playing Chopin’s Étude No. 10 – a ferociously difficult piece that she played with amazing aplomb, making light of the technical difficulties and giving the piece a serious lash.
An amazing performance by a great musician. I was so knocked out by it I watched it twice over, but about half-way through the second time through I suddenly thought ‘It’s amazing but……………. not one note of it is hers” And this set me thinking again about something which I’ve been thinking about for a while. At the highest level – can you compare great classical performers with great jazz peformers? And if you can, who, if anyone, takes the spoils?
I am a huge fan of classical music and musicians - I’ve read biographies of Yehudi Menuhin (one of my heroes), Glenn Gould, Artur Rubenstein, have read and re-read a book of interviews with concert pianists etc. When you read about musicians such as Rostropovich and Menuhin and their close relationship with great composers such as Shostakovitch and Bartok who wrote music especially for them, and you get into the lives they lead and their status in society, you realise you’re dealing with giants of music, by any standard. When you listen to them playing – their technical skill, their extraordinary feats of memory, the subtlety of interpretation, the understanding of the music of the composer etc. this confirms their greatness. All of that is unquestionable as far as I’m concerned - these are great great musicians. But…………
Again that ‘but’ – because, you can’t get away from the fact that these musicians didn’t produce anything of their own. Alfred Brendel is considered a God of German repertoire, and is treated like a god yet we’ve never heard a note of Alfred Brendel’s own work – his whole career has been based on music provided for him by others. Ditto Rostropovich, Oistrakh, Ashkenazy, Stern, etc. etc. It could be that some of these have done some composing, but I don’t think so, and if they did it was a very minor and neglected part of their activity, and not one they chose to feature in their performances.
Now I don’t mean to infer that any player of original music is by definition greater than any musician who is only an interpreter. A hack jazz musician playing a tired and cliché-ridden blues does not inhabit the same universe as a Richter or a Barenboim. But at the very top of the jazz profession, if you take the real giants of jazz, and you compare them to their counterparts in classical music, no matter how great they may be, I think the jazz guys have the edge on them.
Take such musicians as John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Charlie Parker, and Louis Armstrong - here you have a list of musicians who were (or are) not just great virtuosos on their instruments but extraordinarily creative as well. They combine the virtues that in classical music are usually embodied by two people – the composer and the performer/interpreter. In the case of Armstrong, Parker, Davis and Coltrane, they were not only great players on their instruments, but they changed music itself and their influence was felt far beyond the confines of their respective instruments. Richter was one of the greatest pianists of all time, but how many violinists did he influence? How much difference did Menuhin make to the world of pianism? But Charlie Parker, who was an alto saxophonist, influenced the playing of every jazz performer who came after him, regardless of instrument.
So, the bottom line – I believe that Wayne Shorter is a a greater and more important figure in music than Alfred Brendel, that Ashkenazy does not match up to to John Coltrane – the creator of ‘A Love Supreme, and great as someone like Rostropovich might have been, Miles Davis was even greater. These giant figures in jazz combine instrumental performance at the highest level, with a level of creativity and originality of thought and conception that their counterparts in classical music cannot match.
This opinion is one I’ve only come to recognize recently – I was almost afraid to come to this conclusion – so great is the status of these famous classical performers, and indeed so great was my own admiration for them. It’s almost like heresy to consider someone like Itzhak Perlman to be a lesser musician than someone else – but I have to admit, I DO believe that musicians such as Charlie Parker are greater musicians and more important figures in music than someone like Itzhak Perlman, great violinist and musician though he undoubtedly is.
In the end, does it matter? Probably not – we need the Oistrakhs and Kissins of this world to play all this great music that’s been written for them and their antecedents, just as we need the Parkers and Coltranes for the other stuff. But it does bother me that in general the jazz musicians do not get the status they and their achievements deserve. The great classical virtuosi are treated almost as if they were the creators of the music they play – Brendel being a particular case in point – he is so deified in his world that you’d almost think he WAS Beethoven! These musicians live in a world of privilege and status that even the greatest jazz musicians can only dream about. And it’s this disparity in recognition that bothers me more and more – these classical musicians may be great, but they don’t produce a note of their own music, yet they’re lauded as being the greatest musicians in the world. But the people I believe to be truly the greatest musicians in the world still struggle to achieve anything like the status and rewards they deserve for their achievements.
OK, I’ve stuck my head above the parapet and said it – now discuss!
PS Don’t get me started on how overrated conductors are!
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