Google “virtuoso pianist” and the image search results will throw up pictures of Richter, Brendel, Rubenstein, Horowitz, Argerich, Arrau, Rachmaninov, 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 earlier eras afforded the accolade of “virtuoso”. Along with the pictures there are hundreds of articles ranking pianists – the 25 greatest pianists of all time, the 10 greatest living pianists, 50 legendary virtuoso pianists...

Liszt giving a concert for Emperor Franz Joseph I
Liszt giving a concert for Emperor Franz Joseph I

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 today the word is more usually associated with dazzling displays of piano pyrotechnics.

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. It troubles me when the word is appropriated to describe young children playing (seemingly) complex piano repertoire, whose irritating videos are posted across the internet. How many of these “piccoli virtuosi” will actually grow up to be true virtuosi, in the purest, most romantic sense of the word? As we gasp in amazement at these pianists' fleet fingers and glittering pianistic athleticism, the word “virtuoso” has become more associated with showmanship and surface artifice rather than musical depth.

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 (writer), 1908

Marc-André Hamelin © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Marc-André Hamelin
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

For me, and I suspect others who appreciate the art and craft of pianism, virtuosity transcends technique. It is not so much about the ability to play the fastest, most treacherous passages of Rachmaninov or Liszt or to scale the highest Himalayan peaks of works like Gaspard de la nuit or Islamey, or to perfectly execute thousands of scales and other technical exercises with amazing dexterity. Rather, it is 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 being able 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 really 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.

A true virtuoso “must call up scent and blossom, and breathe the breath of life” 
Franz Liszt

Liszt is usually held up as the first great virtuoso pianist, yet for many he remains merely 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. 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 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 disappears and music reveals itself
Heinrich Heine

In concert, the virtuoso approaches each performance, each interpretation as a unique occasion – something that I feel is increasingly hard for performers today when high-quality recordings are so readily available, benchmarks by which pianistic prowess is measured and which lead audiences to expect a certain manner of playing in live concerts. The virtuoso appreciates that there is no one perfect rendition of a Beethoven Concerto or Chopin Étude, for example; that one should never aspire to have the last word on any work. It is for this reason that many of us seek out the same virtuoso performers in the same repertoire, either on disc or in concert, to hear how their view of certain works changes and develops over time.

 ...the further a performance must travel to reach the origin of the music, the more the artist demonstrates the measure of both his conscience and his genius: his virtuosity
Mark Mitchell, Virtuosi!

Maurizio Pollini © Mathias Bothor | DG
Maurizio Pollini
© Mathias Bothor | DG

The virtuoso takes risks in performance – by which I do not mean coming to the stage ill-prepared. Indeed, the most risk-tasking, vertiginous, exciting or profound performances are often the result of many long hours – nay, years – spent living with the music. Even a flawed virtuoso performance can excite, delight and enthrall far more than a perfect non-virtuosic performance: technique over artistry nearly always fails to impress.

The virtuoso understands that while there is no definitive performance, one can create, in that being in the moment of the live concert experience, a performance whose communicative and emotional power renders it perfect. Audiences know this too – these are the performances during which we enter a state of wonder, from which we emerge speechless, hardly able to put into words what we have just heard (often the hardest concerts to review, in my experience!) because the experience of the performance, and sharing the music, has awakened in us what it means to be a sentient, thinking, feeling, living, breathing human being. I would cite concerts by Maurizio Pollini (in Pierre Boulez's Second Piano Sonata), Steven Osborne (in Messiaen's Vingt Regards), Marc-André Hamelin (in Liszt, Ives and Stockhausen) and Richard Goode (in Schubert's last three piano sonatas) which transported me into that particular state of wonder.

The miracle of an aristocratic performance lies in its capacity to vaporize everything that surrounds it, and in particular all efforts to appropriate it.
Mark Mitchell, ibid.

And there's more - because for me true virtuosity goes beyond the notes. It includes an ability and willingness to tackle a wide range of repertoire. By which I do not mean playing a lot of pieces, as some younger performers feel they should be doing, but rather playing a broad range of music from Bach to Boulez, and beyond. One of the chief living exponents of this is, in my humble opinion, Maurizio Pollini. Not many pianists would programme Chopin's 24 Preludes, a selection of Debussy's Preludes Book 1 and Pierre Boulez's Sonata No. 2 in the same concert.

People will always be impressed by fleet fingers and noisy piano acrobatics, but for me the most profound musical experience often comes in the quietest, slowest or most intimate moments in music when a venue as large as the Royal Festival Hall shrinks to the size of Schubert's salon through the pianist's power of expression and musical intuition and understanding. That is true virtuosity.