By Kyle MacMillan
Franco-Swiss pianist Alfred Cortot famously formed a trio with violinist Jacques Thibaud and cellist Pablo Casals in 1905, and Arthur Rubinstein teamed with the Guarneri Quartet in the 1960s and ’70s for a series of milestone recordings of chamber works including Brahms’s piano quartets. But many other great pianists of the past paid far less attention to chamber music and are remembered primarily for their concerto and solo recital work.
An argument can be made that today’s leading pianists lead more complete careers. They still perform abundant solo recitals and orchestral concertos like their forbears, but many also place a regular emphasis on collaborative chamber music. As evidence, look no further than four of the pianists featured this year at Ravinia—Daniil Trifonov, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Jon Kimura Parker, and Marta Aznavoorian.
Each will be heard at least once this summer alongside a singer or other instrumentalist. Parker, a Ravinia regular since 1991, joins cellist Gary Hoffman on July 24, and Trifonov, one of today’s most celebrated young keyboardists, will partner July 29 with esteemed baritone Matthias Goerne. Aznavoorian appears twice this summer at Ravinia, including an August 21 pairing with violinist Philippe Quint for a program based on their recent recording of music featured or written by filmmaker Charlie Chaplin.
Thibaudet will be featured in Gershwin’s Concerto in F with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on July 13 and then returns July 22 for a recital with a longtime collaborator, cellist Gautier Capuçon. The famed French pianist teamed with Capuçon and noted violinist Lisa Batiashvili for a European trio tour in November, and they plan to follow it up with a North American jaunt in 2020.
“What has totally changed,” says Parker, a professor of piano at Rice University in Houston, “is that now I would not consider any pianist to be a complete artist unless they were comfortable in all three roles—chamber music being highly important because of the collaborative aspect of it and the idea of sharing your musical ideas with others.”
He believes so strongly in this idea that he serves as artistic director of the triennial Honens International Piano Competition in Calgary, Alberta, which defines itself as a search for just that kind of “complete artist.” It puts as much emphasis on chamber music as recital and concerto repertoire.
With classical music holding a less prominent place in the public consciousness than it did even just a few decades ago, star pianists no longer have the kind of lofty, rarefied status that allowed them to essentially go it alone. At the same time, perceptions about duo recitals with violinists or cellists have changed. On vintage recordings of superstar 20th-century violinist Jascha Heifetz, he is presented very close to the microphone with the pianist sounding far more distant, because record labels wanted the spotlight to be squarely on the star artist. “That’s a very anachronistic approach now,” Parker says. “Any violinist and pianist would look at the Beethoven sonatas and say, ‘The only possible way to present these is that the two musicians are equals.’ ”
But keeping up three different phases of a piano career is enormously challenging. It means careful scheduling of appearances and taking varied approaches to rehearsals and performances depending on the kinds of repertoire involved.
“I’m like most musicians,” Parker says. “I take most of the concerts that come my way, because I like to stay busy.” But he has his limitations. While he might be willing to take a detour during a recital tour and perform a concerto he knows well, he would never interrupt a concerto tour to give a recital. Such a solo concert requires upwards of 90 minutes of memorized material—too much to juggle on top of an already demanding series of orchestral dates.
“I used to just play everything in any order, whatever,” Thibaudet says, “and I had no problem playing two concertos and then running out and doing a recital.” But those days are over. In recent years, he has begun to carefully organize his schedule, making a point of only performing recitals every two years or so. That said, he is open to tucking in chamber concerts here and there, because he can play from sheet music and doesn’t face the pressure of having everything memorized. He is particularly willing if it is a collaborator he knows well, like Capuçon.
“With him,” Thibaudet says, “virtually you could call me today and say, ‘We need you tomorrow to play a [duo] recital; someone canceled,’ and we could do it. We could probably go onstage without rehearsing as long as we know our parts, because we play so much together and we have such an incredible chemistry and intimacy in our playing.”
About the only concessions pianists have to make in performing solo recitals are adapting to the keyboard instruments they encounter at each stop and adjusting to a hall’s acoustics, perhaps adding a bit more pedal if the sound seems dry. Even so, Trifonov, Gramophone magazine’s Artist of the Year in 2016, argues that such concerts are the most demanding because the pianist has total responsibility for sustaining a high level of playing for a concert’s entirety.
“When one is alone on stage,” Trifonov says, “it takes a lot of concentration to build atmosphere and create a certain special environment and to keep the concentration of the audience on the music. It takes more psychological energy in recitals—more than any other type of music making.”
When he switches from the recital hall to the orchestral stage, Parker subtly alters his playing style and makes a point of overcoming his “natural reticence” to demonstration. “If I’m playing a piano concerto,” he says, “I believe that part of my job is to actually show off a little bit. A piano concerto is very different than a piano sonata or a trio, let’s say, in the same way that a blockbuster film is different than a TV series.”
Virtuoso cadenzas and octave passages might not advance the musical narrative of the work much, but they deliberately draw attention to the pianist. Parker compares such keyboard fireworks to a car chase or a fight scene in a movie. He points out that even Beethoven, whom he described as one of the purest art composers, included showy moments in his concertos—much more so than in any of his keyboard sonatas.
At the same time, pianists and conductors have to work out the right balances in volume for a concerto, sometimes stationing an assistant conductor in the hall to make sure the sound levels are right. But even with such planning, soloists still might have to play louder than in solo recitals to make themselves heard above, say, a thundering brass section in a Rachmaninoff concerto. “It’s a matter of working together,” Thibaudet says. “I probably will push a little bit more in some big concertos than if I were alone. But somehow, I don’t like the idea of doing that. Maybe a little bit is fine but it shouldn’t be much more than that.”
The exact opposite happens in the case of chamber music, especially in a duo recital where the piano can easily drown out a counterpart violin or singer, so the pianist has to make constant adjustments in volume. “You have a nine-foot piano,” Thibaudet says, “and you open the lid and then you have a violinist or cellist with their four strings and even with the greatest instrument and the greatest bow, if you play fortissimo, they just won’t be heard. You have to be a little careful.”
Unlike other instrumentalists who almost always require a piano partner for their recitals, pianists spend a good deal of time alone onstage. Concertos and chamber music give them a welcome opportunity to work with other people. “This is our chance to open our ears and have musical discussions,” Thibaudet says. “You put two, three people together, and they all have their ideas, but we can discuss it, and it’s wonderful. Very rarely in my life have I had conflicts.”
Working with other musicians on a concerto or trio would seemingly require some kind of compromise, but none of the four pianists are comfortable with this notion. Thibaudet says the word seems too negative, as though the performer has to give up something. He views such music-making as a collaboration in which he exchanges ideas with other artists and everyone learns from each other. Trifonov agrees, saying such opportunities are about finding common ground.
“If there are so many compromises,” Trifonov says, “then it might not be the best match. In an ideal situation, things go in an organic way, and there is a very mutual understanding between the performers, both in chamber music and concertos. Not every collaboration can be optimal, but when good chemistry happens, it’s always great.”
All of the pianists praised the benefits of longtime collaborations, something they have enjoyed with most of their performance partners this year at Ravinia. Trifonov began performing with Goerne in 2015 at the Edinburgh Festival, and the two have performed together regularly since and recorded a yet-to-be-released album. Northbrook-based Aznavoorian has worked 13 years with the Lincoln Trio, which appeared June 15, and the threesome has developed a musical voice and style all its own. But at the same time, all four keyboardists praise the expressive possibilities that can come with fresh encounters. Just a month before that date with the trio in Ravinia’s Bennett Gordon Hall, she took the same stage with theremin player Thorwald Jørgensen in his debut at the festival.
“Without a performance history with someone,” Aznavoorian says, “there is no line drawn in the sand. There are no pre-conceived notions about where our instincts and performance courage can take us. Some of my most surprising and rewarding experiences have been live onstage performing with musicians I have known for less than 30 hours.” ▪
Kyle MacMillan served as classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He currently freelances in Chicago, writing for such publications and websites as the Chicago Sun-Times, Wall Street Journal, Opera News, and Classical Voice of North America.