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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

All-round musical greatness

Can we no longer tolerate the 'great all-round' musician within the professional sphere? It could be a feature of our current age of specialization that anyone who appears on the concert platform in more than two roles is suspected of treating the musical profession with a flippancy that is not forgivable. Appearing in a dual capacity, when the later one is that of conductor, and the earlier an acknowledged distinction as a pianist, is perhaps the most acceptable. Other instrumentalists frequently graduate to the conducting rostrum also, though former guitarists (like Berlioz) and singers (like Domingo) are rare. Some conductors appear in public as keyboard accompanists, a part many of them constantly play exceedingly well in private rehearsal. Beyond that, however, there seems to be little space on the platform. A composer, for instance, who is a proficient conductor and who appears publically as a pianist, violinist, cellist and organist, is unlikely now to be taken seriously -- even if there is no discernible flaw in any of the accomplishments.

George Enescu was such a musician. He was one of the world's finest violinists alongside Kreisler and Heifetz; a pianist whose technique was the envy of Alfred Cortot; a cellist and organist; a conductor brilliant enough to have been considered to succeed Toscanini with the New York Philharmonic; a phenomenal musical memory (he memorized Ravel's sonata after one read-through from the manuscript, and sang the part of Wotan from the podium at a rehearsal of Siegfried, Act 3 when the bass had been taken ill). He taught Menuhin, Grumiaux and Gitlis among others. And he was the composer of an opera (Oedipe), five symphonies (of which two involved chorus), many chamber works and songs. He died in 1955, in poverty, in a one-room Paris flat.

The English musician York Bowen was regarded as a pianist 'of remarkable brilliance' in the 1920s, appearing in public as a horn and viola player, as a conductor, and at the Promenade Concerts as soloist in his own piano concertos. His 24 Preludes Op 102 were considered the finest solo piano pieces ever written by an Englishman. The Scotsman William Vincent Wallace toured the world in the mid-nineteenth century, and was heard in Australia as a composer and conductor, and frequently performed his own violin and piano concertos in the same programme.

Contemporary specialism has deprived us of our 'great all-rounders'.

Copyright © 17 August 2004 Patric Standford, Wakefield, UK


From: Robert Jordahl, USA

Patric Standford's recent article on musical greatness calls to mind such American wunderkind as Leonard Bernstein and Andre Previn. It seems that we've always had composers who were equally at home on the podium - think of Mahler and Stravinsky.




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