…a virtuoso was, originally, a highly accomplished musician, but by the nineteenth century the term had become restricted to performers, both vocal and instrumental, whose technical accomplishments were so pronounced as to dazzle the public.
‘Music in the Western civilization’ by Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin
Google “virtuoso pianist” and the image search will throw up pictures of Richter, Brendel, Rubenstein, Argerich, Arrau, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Ashkenazy, Barenboim, Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, Trifonov, Pollini, Cziffra, Gould, Kissin, Uchida, Hough, Pires, Ogdon, Schiff, Cliburn, Hamelin, Schnabel, Cortot, Horowitz, Hess, von Bulow, Andsnes….. The list is seemingly endless, with every significant or “great” pianist of today and previous eras afforded the accolade of “virtuoso”. Along with the pictures there are 100s of articles ranking pianists – the 25 greatest pianists of all time, the 10 greatest living pianists, 50 legendary virtuoso pianists……
The word “virtuoso” literally means “a person who is extremely skilled at something, especially at playing an instrument or performing”. It describes an individual with exceptional and extraordinary technical and musical abilities, but as the opening quote notes, the word is more usually associated with dazzling displays of piano pyrotechnics.
Today virtuosity in the sphere of classical music has become almost synonymous with an over-developed technical facility without a comparable level of musical understanding/interpretation or broader musical education. The word has been misappropriated and more often than not is now attached to the performer who simply plays very fast and loud, or one who attracts more attention to themselves than the music (I am sure we can all think of a few examples…..). It has lost its nineteenth-century associations with the sublime and the transcendental. As we gasp in amazement at these pianists’ fleet fingers and glittering pianistic athleticism, the word has nowadays come to mean something rather superficial and derogatory.
Virtuosos are constantly tempted to indulge in an undue exhibition of their wonderful technic, and as many have succumbed to the temptation, the term virtuoso has come to be considered by many as slightly depreciatory, and the greatest artists usually object to having it coupled with their names
W.L. Hubbard et al, 1908
For me, and I suspect others who appreciate the art and craft of pianism, true virtuosity transcends technique alone. It is less about the ability to play the fastest, most treacherous passages of Rachmaninoff or Liszt or to scale the high Himalayan peaks of works like Gaspard de la Nuit or Islamey. Virtuosity is not the ability to perfectly execute thousands of scales and other ‘technical exercises’ with amazing dexterity, but rather an aggregate of many skills which enable the pianist to play a million different passages, and to adjust finger and arm weight and touch accordingly to achieve particular effects and sounds, as well as learning to ‘speak’ the language of music through one’s playing and an ability to stand back from the music to allow it to speak on its own terms.
Nor is it about flashy piano pyrotechnics and extravagant gestures, which may wow the audience but do not serve the music. Indeed, a number of pianists whom I regard as true virtuosi are also some of the most “immobile” in the profession – Marc-André Hamelin, Murray Perahia and Stephen Hough being notable examples.
Liszt is usually held up as the first great virtuoso pianist, yet for many he remains merely a “showman” whose virtuosity was a negative attribute. A poseur and a charlatan, superficial and bombastic, whose playing and music was affected, grandiose and vulgar. But Liszt was no superficial showman: in addition to playing his own music, he played all the best music of his day and all the best music which had been written for the piano. He was “the very incarnation of the piano”. In addition, he was a pioneering conductor, concert promoter and champion of young composers (notably Wagner, who described him as “the most musical of all musicians”). His musical outlook in general was noble, transcendental, sacred, orchestral and metaphysical – surely attributes to be admired rather than denounced?
With Liszt, one no longer thinks of difficulty overcome; the instrument