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Grand pianists

There's no time like the present to harvest a turn-of-the-century bumper crop of fresh piano virtuosi.

Martha Argerich
Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Evgeny Kissin
Awadagin Pratt
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Published 2/17/1999

It’s become almost fashionable to join the chorus of Jeremiahs who lament the passing of the old guard of pianists and wail about today’s lackluster performers.

The charge is not without some merit. Conservatories tend to churn out perfect pianists who are imperfect musicians. Few are willing to take risks or put the imprint of personality on their playing. But to hear the whining of reactionaries, no living pianist is worthy of turning the pages of a Vladimir Horowitz or Arthur Rubinstein. This broad-brush dismissal of today’s pianists just doesn’t wash.

Consider Martha Argerich, whose playing is ferocious, impulsive and technically astounding. Argerich inspires fireworks the moment she walks on stage. She often cancels concerts, but temperament is tolerable from an artist this good.

Less fiery but equally artistic is Alfred Brendel. His traversal of the complete Beethoven sonatas is exemplary and his Schubert shines. He also plays Schoenberg’s thorny Piano Concerto with the same depth he brings to the old masters.

When it comes to French impressionism, you can’t ignore the young Frenchman Jean-Yves Thibaudet. His recording of Ravel’s complete piano music is striking for its prismatic shifts of color and sensitivity.

Among younger pianists, no one can hold a candle to Evgeny Kissin, a 27-year-old Russian with the face of an angel and the fingers of a demon. Kissin burst on the scene as a child and has ripened into an artist of the rarest gifts. His technique is so assured that he simply has to focus on artistry – and he does so with a jeweler’s concentration. Last year, Kissin made his memorable Ann Arbor solo recital debut, tackling Liszt’s sprawling Sonata in B minor and subduing the Byronic work with the skill of a lion tamer.

Murray Perahia is an aristocratic poet. Elegant but unfussy, his Mozart is pristine. And his recent recordings of Bach, Scarlatti and Handel prove he’s just as adept in the Baroque literature.

Ivo Pogorelich gained fame at the 1980 Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Martha Argerich, one of the judges, stormed out when the Yugoslav didn’t make it to the finals. His playing is often exaggerated and his tempos are stretched to the point of wild self-indulgence. But he’s seldom dull.

Among the 30-something pianists, Awadagin Pratt and Stephen Hough are worthy of attention. Pratt may not be the most polished technician, but his playing can border on the sublime, such as in his lovely interpretation of Brahms’ E-flat Intermezzo. He performs Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 April 29-May 2 with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Hough takes an intellectual approach that’s never dry or academic. His Liszt is revelatory, but he probes the offbeat literature as well.

For sheer energy, the dexterous Jon Kimura Parker is nearly unbeatable. He’s even been known to play Art Tatum as an encore.

The young Norwegian Leif Ove Andsnes has a big, brawny sound and the stamina of a bull. His Prokofiev is charged with vitality.

Grigory Sokolov has made a name in Russia, but he’s starting to make waves here. A technical powerhouse, Sokolov displays his prowess in a solo recital March 18 at Orchestra Hall.

Garrick Ohlsson is rightly praised for his Chopin, but his flawless handling of Liszt, Rachmaninov and Busoni is also commendable. Ohlsson plays Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 March 25-27 with the DSO.

George Bulanda frequently writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail

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