Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Fame: are they gonna live forever?

Great musicians...oh yes, they exist and many of them are properly recognised. Argerich, Barenboim, Zimerman, Lupu... But the way the wheels of the music business turn, on the next strata down there's a lot of confusion about who is a great musician and who simply looks good on a front cover or has a journalisable hobby such as keeping fierce wild animals. The famous artists are not necessarily the great ones; and vice-versa.

Andrew Clements wrote an absolute stinker of a review about Leif Ove Andsnes in The Guardian the other day, saying, basically, that he can't see what all the fuss is about. Andsnes is a really sweet guy and various of my female colleagues think he's gorgeous. But compare him on purely artistic grounds to a pianist like Grigory Sokolov...hmmm...

Hopefully, if you're reading my blog, you already know who Sokolov is. In case not: he is a big Russian bear of a pianist, a one-time protege of Gilels. His face on a poster is not going to make teenagers swoon, but he is the one pianist I've heard in the last couple of years who has made me rethink everything I ever thought about the piano. His playing is so intense, so concentrated, so beautiful and so wide-ranging in style, dynamic and imagination, from Couperin to Prokofiev, that most others look pallid in comparison. He has a following among the cognoscecnti. But shouldn't people be queuing out past the Thames to hear artistry of this calibre? Meanwhile I've heard about one award a few years ago that involved a shortlist of fine musicians...allegedly selected not least because they also looked good on magazine covers.

I don't think there's any secret about any of this - the music business has worked like this for years - but it does get up my nose because it seems that the way to have your piano recital album hit the charts is now to hug wolves in your spare time. With too many competitions and too much corruption in the awarding of prizes, means of making sensible, independent choices about rising stars have diminished somewhat. Therefore decisions about who gets the recording contracts and the promotion campaigns seems to be increasingly a matter of one person's whim somewhere at the top of a company. That person has to know what they're doing and one can't help wondering, occasionally, whether they really do.

Actually they know exactly what they're doing. But that doesn't always involve signing up musicians on artistic grounds alone.

On that merry note, I'm off to Berlin to interview one of the exceptions: Daniel Barenboim.