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Pianists each have a distinct touch and each have fettled hands. My pick of the best is displayed below.
Dinu Lipatti could stretch an octave and five, brittle and perfect, fluttered his fingers like wings of angels, secure and saintly. His trademark was a lucid keyboard diction, nothing ever clattered or didn’t make sense, and it was helped by a sparse use of the pedal but also crisp and articulate fingering. He had the perfect pair of hands. His performance of Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso displays omniscient control, I think it is possibly the best piano recording ever (it is certainly my favourite). It’s a monster of a piece, but Lipatti’s paper chase trail of clues is unsurpassed, we know where we are at all times in his performance, his interpretation is like an Ordnance Survey map in relief. The excitement he generates as the work unwinds and then climaxes is carefully crafted, even if it offers an impression of wild abandonment and only haphazard control. Lipatti’s fabled technique is outstanding here, for the work is littered with large chords and distended intervals, and his glissandi (in thirds) beggar belief: such nonchalant aplomb leaves the listener gobsmacked. Lipatti’s hands were sent as a gift from God. There is a sense of divine favour, certainly a framework of order to his life, a sense of order that destined his public career to be bookended by Bach’s magical chorale Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring: his first public recital when a child opened with this piece, and his last recital in September 1950 closed with it. He died aged 33. That we are left today with fragments of Dinu Lipatti, mere snapshots in time, a truncated musical sketch with only dots to be joined together by our imagination, does not matter. Just to hear momentarily the clarity and poise of his playing is enough.
Artur Schnabel, if ever off-duty, must have waxed his fingers as though skittles (look at them) and he played the piano as though they were ten-pins (prone to clumsy mishap and to being toppled), but he threw his skittle balls from the highest intellectual eyrie. Good at darts, too, he was “one ‘undred ‘n’ eighteee” always for his Beethoven and Schubert. Schnabel would not perhaps have succeeded as a pub pianist, his contrarian thought might have emptied the pub of custom. His playing was reluctant to admit noise and he distilled his music to the cerebral before the actual: “the pauses between the notes,” he said, “…that is where the art resides” – that’s clever innit? Leon Fleischer remarked that whenever Schnabel’s fingers touched the keyboard, it was a “kind of life-transformative experience.” The footnote was that when listening to him one could “always distinguish between Beethoven and Schnabel,” and this is the ultimate accolade for a pianist. Schnabel was obsessed with the composer’s text and its integrity, yet his own interpretation was never cast to the shadows, it is centre stage and somehow it got in the way. Thankfully: it’s why we listen to him still today.
Artur Rubinstein was a bon vivant of amorous disposition, but he played the piano as Bobby Fischer played chess: his Chopin makes you weep but it was romantic number-crunching fuelled by an input of data. But at least he turned binary code into emotion, and if you listen to his recordings of the romantic repertoire it is uncanny how each repeat of a passage is of equal length (to a fraction of a second), even if each passage is drenched with rubato. These are the hands that made botched suicide attempts when he was young, yet his febrile tempo as he got older was able to lead us to heaven on the No.9 bus (with a first class ticket always). Of course these hands managed to hit many wrong notes along the way. Rubinstein’s hands were small therefore somewhat haphazard when negotiating the romantic warhorse concertos, and when he lost his footing he was prone to throw the baby out with the bath water, the bowl and towel too, as whole sequences, clusters and fingered filigree would go astray. A youthful apprenticeship of wine, women and song was not forgiving when it came to octaves and demisemiquavers, but his whole pianistic persona was one of risk. He survived a lifetime of poor reviews just as, when a young man, he had survived Russian roulette. His lack of technical fibre he turned into a virtue: his resolve to be a poet rather than a pyrotechnical show horse underpinned his lifelong rivalry with Horowitz. He died aged 94, his last recital was given when 88. Rubinstein-1, Horowitz-0.
Vladimir Horowitz had percussively persuasive hands that hit the keyboard like a mallet hits tent pegs, yet at the same time he henpecked them with a steely gaze, as though a chef watching his crust rising, desperate not to burn the soufflé. His hands are the most eulogised and photographed ever, always held remarkably flat and low slung, fingers shaped as lengthy sticks of dynamite, not much taper and the wick trimmed. They blew up the keyboard and flew down, helter-skelter as a church mouse but not always as quietly. He kidded us that he knew what passion was, but everything about his performance was that of the autodidact. His hands were fashioned less like Garry Kasparov’s – that is, fumbling for his king’s pawn, never placing it in the middle of a chess square, having to say j’adoube more times than should be necessary – and more like Deep Blue’s, the IBM generated computer that bettered Kasparov. Horowitz was an algorithm with a splash of the human condition added like UHT milk to coffee. But the coffee itself was ersatz, instant coffee lifted by the spoonful from the jar. As proof, there is the story (apocryphal or not) of how he had taken a shine to cocktail jazz and had become a frequent visitor to the New York jazz scene. He was an aspirational acolyte of (the all but blind) jazz pianist Art Tatum, and he had the temerity one evening to play one of his grandstanding encore fiestas in front of Tatum – a recent arrangement he had made of Tea for Two (most Horowitz concerts concluded with a staged encore, the most entertaining of which was his own Variations on Themes From Carmen). Tatum’s riposte to this trespass into the jazz fold was decisive, improvisational, virtuosic, and it silenced Horowitz who never played his arrangement again.
Wanda Landowska, when told she played only staccato, explained that the elasticity of her “bouncy touch with its precise and neat outlines” was a byword for a near perfect legato – so not like a pneumatic drill then! Note her sinewy span, scratching like a spider etching its web onto the harpsichord’s manual. She was a harpsichordist gripping the ivory for purchase, as though she was prepared for orgasm – and that’s no wonder as the sound of the harpsichord is likened so often to skeletons making love on corrugated iron roofing. Landowska’s piano playing though was wonderful and full of intent. Her Mozart left you gaping incoherently and strangely at the sky above: you feel as though she has strangled you with taut piano wire.
Clara Haskil fell down concrete stairs at Brussels railway station in 1960 and sustained such serious injury that she died, aged 65. On her deathbed she revived enough to apologise for missing her concert and, as she held up her hands, to announce that “at least I didn’t damage these.” With well weighted hands she sat motionless at the piano, equestrian poise as she performed (she had curvature of the spine) – “her arm seemed to glide over the keyboard without preparation, just as a flat stone skims across the water,” said a fellow pianist – as though sat on an show jumping horse with a full set of dressage skills, the highest jumps taken at a gallop (she favoured fast tempi). She was embarrassed when Dinu Lipatti told her that her hands were bigger than any man’s; in fact her thumb was so long that she could stretch a 12th with it and her second finger (known by her friends as the “fastest thumb in the West”). This stretch was not quite as impressive as the stretches in her imagination or her almost faultless musical balance, so necessary for Mozart, her interpretation often cited as peerless.
Glenn Gould kept his childhood piano by his side all his life, rather like a grown man who takes his teddy bear to bed; likewise his musical interpretation never outgrew his childish intention. He became famous for living a schoolboy’s wet dream, although his pubescent (volcanic) passion was never hidden under the bedclothes; playing the piano was, for Gould, akin to a public masturbatory act, hands focused on repetitive movement. Like all adolescents he had his immature fixations – peculiarly Petula Clark was one of them – but his fevered mind played with counterpoint each night and he would shape it to climax. Peculiarly, also, he feared contamination and he refused to shake hands with people, though he might have shaken Alfred Brendel’s hands, for he fixed plaster (a sticky-backed form of disinfectant) on to his fingers before he played the piano. One feature of Gould’s piano playing was his groaning mimicry of any one of the fugal themes at the behest of his fingertips: his eyes would focus like a dart and hone in on one musical line at a time as it skipped across the keyboard. Promiscuously his attention would waver, and you would see his hands (and his eyes and his glottal hum) spark off in different directions, like snooker balls crashing and cascading on a pool table. His casual vocal would follow (indeed hum) the roll of a red and guide it with his eyes into the corner pocket, then he would pick off each colour in turn: each time he played the piano, especially when he played Bach which he worshipped, he achieved the maximum break of 147. Always the child who never grew up, he suffered from the pianist’s variant of bed wetting: he had both an incontinent mind and incontinent fingers, and these two afflictions were linked. His synapses bypassed all pathways and were soldered directly to his fingertips. His fingertips rattled along a keyboard as though playing a typewriter, but Gould’s head was framed with such a polarity – and polarity is but an echo of counterpoint – that he played every typewriter in the secretarial pool at once, predictive text never in his repertoire, each letter composed on demand, carbon paper never used, copies never filed. So his interpretation of the day would be plucked randomly from the dizziness of his mood and intellect. It was reported that his deathbed reverie was punctuated by his hands rising to the air to mime a performance: hands of wonder.
And last, Harriet Cohen, the lovely Harriet Cohen. Her famously small hands are shown here as an antidotal bookending to Lipatti’s huge expanse. The aesthetic of her repertoire was determined by a Darwinian natural selection as she learnt to play the miniature world of the pre-classical and classical with passion because she could manage only an octave stretch and no more. So within her sights came Purcell, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, but her Schubert and beyond gets a bit flakey, for size matters (and she might have told you that). She legally ring-fenced the extensive repertoire that was written for her (she forbad other pianists from performing it), and likewise she curated her tableau of lovers. She toyed with and enjoyed an endless cast of amorous men who came her way – novelists, composers, prime ministers – as though they were extras on a film set; D.H. Lawrence all but came to blows with Arnold Bax over his own walk-on part. The smallness of her hands was the subject of mystery and popular magazine articles (well they didn’t have TV sets then), and those hands, those beautiful hands, felled Blake’s imagery and the giant men of Albion mythology: all men who stood before her were felled as though Goliath, and she played the keyboard as though David handling his sling – marksmanship and a follow through that bettered Tiger Wood’s (know what I mean? nudge, nudge, say no more). But actually she just had small hands and was sexy, and that’s all there was to it.
So I’m in love with Harriet Cohen, I can say it, it’s taken me so long to admit it. And here she is playing a Vaughan Williams arrangement of an Orlando Gibbons Hymn Tune Prelude (made especially for her, of course he slept with her as well, spit). I saved my pocket money once upon a time to buy the sheet music, then discovered that although the notes were simple to play – even I could sight read it for goodness sake – I couldn’t see how she ever made sense of them, the piece’s architecture beyond me. They were like secret code you needed to wear secret code spectacles to crack. Her hands must have run off a four dimensional mainframe computer to have made sense of those notes. No wonder I love her, gee whiz.
So it turns out that I love a mainframe computer. It’s not a dirty habit or anything, but You Can Call Me Hal. (I think it unlikely that Paul Simon got to sleep with Harriet Cohen, but it would better my jealousies to think that he did and I hadn’t.)