Three Great 20th Century Composer-Pianists

Cite this article as:

Mark Ainley. (March 11, 2022). Three Great 20th Century Composer-Pianists. International Journal of Music. Accessed July 25, 2024.

One of the biggest challenges for pianists is to make what is essentially a percussive instrument sing. Although its hammers strike strings to produce sound, the piano, in the hands of a skilled performer, is capable of producing beautiful tone and lyrical phrasing. But if the keys are hit in a certain manner, the quality of tone will change — as Bella Davidovich said when advising her students, “never hit the piano or it will hit you back.” Legendary pedagogues like Theodor Leschetizky focused on teaching their pupils to cultivate their tone, and many of the great pianists featured in this series have been famous for their sumptuous sonority: Ignaz Friedman, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Dinu Lipatti … all of the greats, in fact.

As contemporary composers began experimenting with different harmonic frameworks featuring dissonant blends of notes, many pianists seemed to think that this music should be played with a more aggressive sound — and yet abundant evidence indicates that these composers did not want this. There’s a wonderful story about the Hungarian pianist Andor Foldes witnessing Bartók coaching a student playing the composer’s Piano Sonata and saying wryly, “Perhaps you could play it a little less Bartók-ish” — suggesting that even during the composer’s lifetime, he was aware of the trend to play his music more abrasively than he intended.

There are many recordings by Bartók and pianists he knew, just as there are by other composers from the same era, and all share a key characteristic: beautiful tone even when playing dissonant harmonies at all dynamic levels from soft to loud. It is quite instructive to listen to recordings made by three of the most legendary 20th century composers — Prokofiev, Bartók, and Stravinsky — as well as by other pianists of their generation or soon after who played in a similar style. In so doing, we can recognize that the music comes to life even more when played with refined sonorities.

The music of Prokofiev is perhaps one of the most played of the three composers in this feature, his Third Piano Concerto being among the most popular of the last century — and it is a work played far more percussively today than what is heard in its author’s own 1932 recording, and the same applies to most of his solo music. His Suggestion Diabolique Op.4 No.4 is a favourite amongst present-day pianists and another that often suffers from aggressive playing. But as Prokofiev’s own 1935 account of this work demonstrates, it can be played in an exciting way, with power and flash, without a harsh edge to the tonal quality:

While Mindru Katz did not know Prokofiev personally, the Romanian pianist’s approach was very much in alignment with the composer’s. This reading of the Prelude in C Major Op.12 No.7 is magnificent example of how to play this the great Russian’s music without resorting to brittleness: what marvellous tone, glorious pedal effects, and elegant nuancing (his silky glissandi are amazing):

As previously revealed, Bartók witnessed his own music being banged despite his best efforts to demonstrate that this was not his intention. Fortunately he left behind quite a number of recordings — unfortunately most pianists nowadays don’t listen to them, and they really should. This 1940 account of five excerpts (140-144) from his Mikrokosmos Book VI is a fine example: the opening number in particular one would usually hear played with a harder edge to the sound. Notice how the composer eschews any aggression and how accents are pronounced without breaking the line or producing any harshness:

György Sándor was a wonderful pianist who studied with Bartók and like the composer he was capable of presenting the vivacious spirit of his music without any unpleasant sounds. This 1962 reading of the Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm is notable for its rhythmic vitality and transparency of texture:

Stravinsky was another of the major 20th century composers whose music has been played with aggression and a lack of tonal colour. The composer was not a top-tier pianist but he was quite capable performer, and in this 1934 recording of his Serenade, even in the opening loud passages the tone is full and strong without being brittle and hard:

Marcelle Meyer was a pianist who worked with many of the most legendary composers of the early 20th century — Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Milhaud, and Stravinsky, and many others. After hearing her play privately with Ravel, Stravinsky immediately booked her to play Petrouchka with orchestra and later invited her to be one of the four pianists in the world premiere of Les Noces, so it is safe to say he liked her playing.

Meyer recorded quite a few works by the composer (including the Serenade the composer played above), and one of the most interesting is among the first accounts on record of the complete Trois mouvements de Petrouchka, an incredibly challenging suite the composer dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein, who found it so difficult that he was unable to master until many years later. Nowadays it is often played as a virtuosic showpiece, with incisive rhythm and harsh tone, but Meyer has a completely different approach: her articulation is more relaxed so that it sounds almost jazz-like — and considering that ballet Petrouchka centres around a rag doll that came to life, this more playful character is far more evocative while also being similar to how the composer himself played in the recordings he left us.

So what’s the moral of the story? Don’t bang. When played with beautiful sound, music of any era will reveal secrets that might otherwise be missed — and modern music with discordant tonal clusters is no different. If you do your research, you can find performances by composers and musicians whom they knew that can give you more insight than you might glean from only by hearing modern performances or looking at the score.

Conclusion: Rediscovering Tonal Beauty in 20th Century Music

In exploring the performances of three iconic 20th-century composer-pianists—Prokofiev, Bartók, and Stravinsky—alongside their contemporaries, we unveil a compelling narrative advocating for the preservation of tonal beauty in the interpretation of their compositions. As we navigate the intricacies of dissonant harmonies and evolving musical landscapes, it becomes evident that the intention behind these works was not to be rendered with aggressive force but rather with refined sonorities.

The anecdotes surrounding Bartók’s coaching sessions, Prokofiev’s own recordings, and Stravinsky’s piano performances offer glimpses into the composers’ desired tonalities. These insights, unfortunately overlooked in many modern interpretations, underscore the importance of a nuanced approach. The recordings of Mindru Katz, György Sándor, Marcelle Meyer, and others who shared a musical ethos with these composers provide a valuable lens through which to appreciate the delicate balance between power and elegance.

The moral distilled from these musical journeys is clear: resist the temptation to ‘bang.’ By embracing a commitment to beautiful sound, pianists can unlock hidden dimensions within the music of any era, transcending the limitations of harsh interpretations. Whether navigating the complexities of Prokofiev’s percussive brilliance, Bartók’s rhythmic vitality, or Stravinsky’s structural intricacies, the revelation lies in the cultivation of a rich and resonant sonic palette.

In conclusion, our exploration reaffirms the timeless principle that music, even when pushing the boundaries of tonality, flourishes when approached with sensitivity and a commitment to tonal beauty. As we heed the lessons from these 20th-century masters and their sympathetic interpreters, we are reminded that the keys of the piano, when struck with finesse, have the power to reveal profound musical secrets.


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