July 1, 2011 10:44 pm

Hands on

With hundreds of young talents vying for a place in the limelight, what future awaits the world’s budding virtuosos?
Illustration of pianists

There’s always a buzz surrounding the first Prom of the season, but this year’s buzz is louder than usual, for stepping on stage will be the Andy Murray of British pianism, in the diminutive form of Benjamin Grosvenor. At 18, Grosvenor is the youngest soloist in the history of the Proms. He has been groomed like a racehorse since being named BBC Young Musician of the Year at 11, and this event – coupled with Decca’s release of his debut CD – will be his big coming-out. The brilliant recital he gave at the Wigmore Hall a few weeks ago was a very positive omen.

Pianism can certainly draw the crowd: the packed Royal Albert Hall last summer for Maria João Pires’s late-night Chopin recital was proof of that. This summer she’s back playing Mozart, while the 23 other pianists this season include some of the biggest beasts in the game: Martha Argerich, Emanuel Ax, András Schiff, Hélène Grimaud, and Stephen Hough, the doyen of British pianism.

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Grosvenor studies at the Royal Academy, where his tutor, Professor Christopher Elton, runs a stable of young players from which stars periodically emerge. But there’s anxiety in that stable. Of 20 current students, Elton is not sure whether any will go on to international success. Making a solo career, he says, is harder than it has ever been. “When I started out as a pianist, one could come by plenty of honest, journeyman work, but much of that has now dried up. The days when you made your living by getting up, putting on tails and playing a straight recital are over.”

This is corroborated by Martin Campbell-White, who runs Askonas Holt, the biggest musicians’ agency in Europe. Music societies, from which pianists used to derive the bulk of their income, have dwindled both in number and resources, he says. “And there are fewer opportunities in summer festivals, where singers and female trumpeters are now more in demand. Meanwhile the big orchestras are giving fewer concerts outside London, and the regional ones have drawn in their horns, so concerto work is drying up too. If you are phenomenal, as Evgeny Kissin was when he first came over, you will always do fine. But we don’t see the extraordinary pianistic figures we used to.”

Indeed we don’t: we have no contemporary equivalent to Glenn Gould, Vladimir Horowitz or Sviatoslav Richter. Why should this be? Consider the emergence of Richter. Born in 1915 and entirely self-taught, he was earning his living at 14 (with payment in potatoes) by playing for opera rehearsals in his native Odessa; when he eventually entered the Moscow conservatoire, his professor declared there was little he could teach this young Olympian. Richter was a genius, diamond-hardened in fires of which today’s young Europeans know nothing.

The Chinese pianist Lang Lang, however, does know something of those fires: the treatment he endured at the hands of his slave-driving father would have put him, had he grown up in Britain, on the child protection register. And the push from China, where millions of teenagers are learning the piano, is starting to transform the global pianistic scene.

A statistic from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia speaks volumes: when its professors were making their annual selection of young pianists this year – from a strong field from all over the world – they unanimously settled for four teenage players from China. As Lang Lang’s tutor Gary Graffman – a former president of Curtis – points out, Chinese students have now replaced the Jewish-immigrant students who used to fill that institution. Tiger-mother syndrome rules not only in China, but in expat communities too.

This seismic shift is not yet reflected in the concert schedules: Chinese pianists on the international circuit can still be counted on the fingers of one hand. And though Lang Lang is a fine musician, he’s trapped in his own celebrity, and artistically may not develop much further. But no one who hears fiery young Yuja Wang (technically in the Horowitz league, and an artist of great refinement, to be heard in Prom 43) or the slow-burning Hong Xu (oracular in Mozart and Beethoven) will be in any doubt that this influx will make itself strongly felt.

Now another statistic. The British Music Year Book lists a staggering 700 pianists hoping to sell their wares: the lure of the trade remains irresistible, in spite of the superhuman qualities it demands. You must combine the judgment of an aesthete with the stamina of an athlete and the skill of a juggler; you must memorise hundreds of thousands of notes, and if you come unstuck there are no safety-nets; you need to be a solitary type, and maybe a bit mad, as some of the greatest pianists have been.

But back to those 700 hopefuls. Only a small minority will make a good living from concerts, and to join that minority, brilliance is not enough: you must command attention. Players can do this through their charismatic artistry (Mitsuko Uchida, Murray Perahia, Radu Lupu), intellectual grit (Christian Zacharias, Maurizio Pollini), carefully cultivated eccentricity (Piotr Anderszewski), or through a salty back-story (James Rhodes, a middling pianist who makes public his history of drugs and breakdown). But the traditional routes to success – getting an agent, being signed by a record label – are for most pianists a mirage, and competition wins do not count as much as they used to. The BBC’s New Generation Artists scheme works wonders for the happy few, but the media, with their increasingly narrow focus on a tiny handful of stars, just make things tougher for the rest.

That’s showbiz? Yes, but pianists are starting to discover new routes. Anna Tilbrook, now emerging as one of Britain’s leading accompanists, has turned herself into a pianistic Jill-of-all-trades. “One has to follow one’s dream,” she says, “but people need to remain realistic about their chance of an international career.”

After teenage pianistic success, she abandoned her dream, and now leads orchestras from the keyboard, coaches singers and accompanies Royal Ballet rehearsals, alongside her work as an accompanist – all of which she finds artistically fulfilling.

Moreover, the conservatoires’ residual snobbery towards accompaniment is gradually being eroded; small record companies such as BIS and Hyperion are taking young artists seriously; and own-label recordings are getting cheaper to make. It’s not all gloom.

Nor is it from the stalls of the Wigmore Hall, which – like the Carnegie Hall in New York, the Salle Pleyel in Paris and the Berlin Philharmonie – is where every pianist wants to make his or her mark.

The past few months at the Wigmore have seen a cavalcade of such brilliance that some names are in order: Konstantin Lifschitz and Alexej Gorlatch from Ukraine; Michail Lifits from Uzbekistan; Ashley Wass and Sam Armstrong from Britain; Konstantin Soukhovetski from Russia; Bertrand Chamayou from France; Shai Wosner from Israel. All young,all wonderful.

The future of concert pianism is in very good hands.

BBC Proms 2011 opens on July 15. www.bbc.co.uk/proms

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