Stories » A new generation of pianists are combining 19th-century pianism with impeccable technique and entrepreneurial savvy / GRAMOPHONE

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A new generation of pianists are combining 19th-century pianism with impeccable technique and entrepreneurial savvy / GRAMOPHONE

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The Romantic era of piano-playing has long held fascination for pianists, piano critics and piano mavens. There are several reasons for this. One is the fact that the core recital repertoire remains largely orientated in the 19th century. Another concerns great pianists rooted in that same era who learnt the Romantic traditions at close proximity to the proverbial horse's mouth, and, more significantly, lived to make recordings. You can read about them in great detail in Harold C Schonberg's landmark book The Great Pianists (1963). By and large they represent what many consider to be pianism's Golden Age, sharing a common aesthetic governed by tonal beauty, textural diversity, textual freedom and a preoccupation with a singing line.

However, the golden age is not necessarily a thing of the past, especially when one considers some of today's most successful young pianists. Daniil Trifonov's 2013 Carnegie Hall debut (recorded by Deutsche Grammophon) is a case in point. The then 21-year-old pianist's level of imagination and pianistic resource truly transcended the instrument that night. One expected his impeccable hair-trigger octaves in the Liszt Sonata, but not such fanciful manipulation of dynamics for dramatic impetus (the sudden, heart-stopping diminuendos, the emphatic accents). Furthermore, Trifonov's varied pedal effects throughout Chopin's Op 28 Preludes brought new-found urgency to the composer's daring harmonies and intricate cross-rhythmic writing. By contrast, when Trifonov offered Medtner's Fairy Tale Op 26 No 2 for an encore, his staggeringly supple passagework and repeated notes took wing via fingers alone, with little help from the pedal.

Yuja Wang, who turns 32 in February, shares some of Trifonov's repertoire predilections, but her approach tends to be more free-spirited – as witness the equally subjective yet dissimilar Kreisleriana she played at Carnegie Hall a few months before Trifonov. She restlessly explored inner voices, brought bass lines to the fore and shifted the pulse when it suited her. Yet she displayed consistent polyphonic focus throughout the fugue of Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata, building its gnarly momentum without losing energy. Perhaps it was misguided for Wang to follow up with those flashy encores, but that's what her audience wanted and she played them with insouciant joy.

One encounters a parallel ‘old-school' sensibility in the 26-year-old Benjamin Grosvenor, who was quoted in the New York Times thus: ‘I never want to hear people praise a performance as just about the music, because it's not. The player is there too, and part of it.' His recording of Bach's D major Partita harkens back to another era in regard to his avoidance of repeats and the way in which he allows sheer tonal beauty and a wide palette of nuances to take precedence over the kind of linear specificity one hears from seasoned Bach stylists such as Murray Perahia, András Schiff and Angela Hewitt.

READ Jed Distler's FULL GRAMOPHONE ARTICLE