In Classical Music, there are Creators, Re-Creators, and Regurgitators.
The Creators are, obviously, the Composers – along with those tangentially involved in the creative process: Librettist if an opera, Choreographer if ballet score, and so on.
Then, there are the performers, who fall into two categories: Re-Creators, and Regurgitators.
Up until the mid-20th Century, most performers (including singers, instrumentalists, and conductors) were Re-Creators. They often took what are today disdainfully described as “liberties” with the printed text and dared to “impose” their own personality. This was not only permissible, but expected by the audience – and more importantly, by the composers themselves. It’s not for nothing that Mozart, for example, submitted the barest writing in the central movements of his piano concertos, and left blank areas for the performer to insert his own – usually – improvised cadenza. When Beethoven specified in his “Emperor” concerto that the performer ought not play a cadenza but immediately attack the next passage, he did so because such a procedure was unusual. Beethoven broke precedent – but that didn’t mean he was setting a new precedent, or intended to.
It’s worth pointing out that Rachmaninoff, a noted composer, pianist, and conductor, was both a Creator and Re-Creator. This is an important distinction because, unlike Mozart and Beethoven – who almost exclusively performed their own music – Rachmaninoff had a wide ranging repertoire, particularly as a pianist. In his time, he was considered something of a purist in his approach to interpretation. But by today’s standards, he took “liberties” that few pianists today would dare, including altering the dynamic scheme of Chopin’s Funeral March and inserting his own cadenza in Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody.
When comparing two of the most prominent pianists whose careers strode most of the 20th Century, Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz, it’s customary for some of the “purist” school to opine that Horowitz was the better “pianist”, Rubinstein the better “musician”- a statement so vague that it almost nullifies itself. I beg to differ with the conventional wisdom. True, Rubinstein’s playing was more in sync with contemporary standards: he generally played what was written, played reasonably well, and his tone was gorgeous. But it was Horowitz, who trained as a composer, whose playing was more involved, more involving, and often wrung the most meaning from the much of the music he played. Compare Horowitz against Rubinstein in Schumann’s Kreisleriana or C major Fantasia, and you’ll hear the difference between someone whose recordings you can play as background music while you’re dusting, and someone who will pin your ears to the wall. This is not merely a question of recordings either. Compare Rubinstein’s traversal of Scriabin’s Nocturne for the Left Hand with Horowitz’s rendition of the same composer’s Prelude for the Left Hand: Rubinstein glides over the notes and bathes the audience in pretty, but innocuous colors; Horowitz brings the audience into proximity with Scriabin’s anguish. It goes without saying that Horowitz’s left-hand technique is infinitely more honest and sophisticated than Rubinstein – with Horowitz cannily separating each line so it sounds at times like he’s playing with three hands, yet scrupulously observing Scriabin’s markings.
In the second decade of the 21st Century, Rubinstein’s way is closer to what’s being taught in conservatories. But the Regurgitation route is, in the final analysis, a dead end. Between the lack of new music that audiences want to hear, and performers who are sounding increasingly alike, it’s no wonder that even the most talented musicians have a hard time sustaining a viable career. Nor is it a surprise that supposedly “sophisticated” audiences are drawn to the circus act antics of Lang Lang – not because he’s praiseworthy, but because he’s “different.” The same old, same old, gets old awfully fast.
There was a time, from the early 1980s until about ten years ago, when I listened to Rubinstein incessantly. That’s not the case anymore. Beautiful tone only gets one so far – just like a pretty face.
So, to me, it was Horowitz who was both the greater pianist (in his prime), and the better musician – because he played from within the music looking out – not the other way around. Rubinstein was, occasionally a Re-Creator. But most often he was a Regurgitator – although a supremely charismatic one.