Does the solo piano recital need a rethink?

Thursday, November 5, 2020

We need to question traditional recital formats to tempt audiences back into concert halls after the pandemic

Stephen Hough plays to an empty Wigmore Hall in June 2020
Stephen Hough plays to an empty Wigmore Hall in June 2020


I have hardly dared admit it to myself, but the present concert no-go has forced me to fess up. Just as many daily commuters have discovered the joy and ease of working from home, so I have wallowed in listening to piano recitals at home without having to make the effort of slogging into town when, more often than not (especially in the past decade or so), I have come away disappointed, enervated, and wondering why I bothered.         

Be the playing mediocre, good, fine or excellent, it is rarely outstanding, unique, remarkable or memorable. I still recall some recitals from nearly 50 years ago – Cherkassky, Berman, Wild, Bolet, Rubinstein, Horowitz – but few from the past 20. And it is the giants of the past in archive performances that have sustained me for my pandemic piano recital fixes, bringing with them the realisation that a) there are too many pianists competing for too few dates; and b) among those successful getting the dates, there are too many with nothing individual to say.

Online lockdown recitals have made it clear there should be separate courses at conservatoires on how to talk to camera, look as though you are enjoying yourself, and choosing the right music. You would think that musicians would realise that their non-paying viewers need something to raise the spirits and inspire. Why do so many feel that pieces of woe and lamentation are appropriate?    

Readers of this column will know that it is no great admirer of the BBC, and the pandemic has shown the Beeb, with depressing inevitability, at its most predictable and unimaginative. We have already noted that its coverage of classical music on terrestrial television – or rather lack of it – is a national disgrace outside the Proms season (this year all but cancelled). At the time of writing, in the UK, there is only one weekly hour-long classical slot on Friday evenings and  (while the composer's anniversary is ongoing) a week-long three-part series on Beethoven.                                                        

The only offering other than these has been a series of lunchtime recitals broadcast live on Radio 3 and streamed online from Wigmore Hall. The musical bien pensants welcomed these like John Mills downing his beer at the end of Ice Cold in Alex, though I for one never enjoy listening to music in a venue that even in normal times has all the welcoming cheer of a crematorium. Nonetheless, albeit slow off the mark, these were much-needed recitals, even if the sepulchral gloom of the hall merely emphasised the joyless reasons for it being empty.

It was these Wigmore séances that provided the lightbulb moment for your columnist. The performances by world-class soloists from the UK were uniformly immaculate, well-prepared and about as emotionally engaging as putting on a pair of cold, wet bathing trunks. They emphasised all that is wrong with the format. In normal times, we take our seats; the atmosphere is informal, relaxed and chatty. As soon as the artist enters, it changes to frozen, tense and uptight. We might be there to witness a public execution. Then what? We sit there for the next 45 minutes without moving. Clap, loo, drink, fag, back for more of the same, go home.              

It is rare for an artist to talk to the audience at any point during proceedings (except to call out the generally inaudible title of the encore). Some artists find it impossible to talk before playing a demanding programme, which is understandable; and for some there is the language barrier. Others attempt to communicate verbally but are not gifted public speakers. But speech is a way of breaking that blatant but unnecessary barrier between stage and auditorium.                                                                      

Then there’s the choice of programme. Usually it is down to the artist (though frequently with interference from the venue management) but it should always contain an audience-friendly element, despite the pianist’s personal disdain for hyphenated composers and Chaminade. You do not always have to be serious, demanding and heavyweight from beginning to end.

Why have an interval? Why start at 7.30pm? Why not earlier? Why not invite a vocalist or instrumentalist to share the programme? Why not introduce a newcomer to share your platform and promote their career? We don’t need extra-musical gimmickry – that detracts from the music. But let us have less of the communion service and more of the shared experience. Less ‘them and me’ and more ‘us’. Less predictable and routine, more memorable and out of the ordinary. Go on. Amaze us! Convince us that we wouldn’t be better off staying at home watching archive performances on YouTube.