Ripeness Is All

What may be the fate of classical music’s new superstars?

Klaus Mäkelä with the Orchestre de Paris at the Philharmonie de Paris, September 2022 (Wikimedia Commons)
Klaus Mäkelä with the Orchestre de Paris at the Philharmonie de Paris, September 2022 (Wikimedia Commons)

Today’s biggest controversy in classical music is the Chicago Symphony’s appointment of Klaus Mäkelä, who will become music director in 2027. He will concurrently take over Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra—one of the half dozen most eminent European ensembles. He will be all of 32 years old.

No one can reasonably dispute Mäkelä’s precocious talent. He seems to have been born with a baton in his crib. From a tender age, he trained with a legendary Finnish pedagogue: Jorma Panula. His subsequent professional trajectory has been meteoric.

The attendant outcry takes three forms: that, beyond conducting concerts, Mäkelä will lack the maturity (let alone the time) to furnish institutional vision; that he will be conducting too many pieces for the first time under a glaring spotlight; that, given his youth, his interpretations will lack “ripeness.”

The third reservation is the slipperiest—and ultimately the most momentous. It’s long been conventional wisdom that symphonic conductors mature slowly—that age suits them better than, say, singers or dancers or instrumentalists, all of whom practice demanding physical skills. And many a famous conductor has been most eminent when most old. Think of Arturo Toscanini, whose reputation peaked when he was in his 80s. Or Otto Klemperer, who acquired a commanding eminence gris when he was in his 70s. But what, exactly, does musical “ripeness” connote? How is it manifest in performance? And is it imperiled by our ever-accelerating world of social media and AI?

I can think of an obvious example of exigent life experience transforming the recreative act. Wilhelm Furtwängler was, with Toscanini, the most celebrated symphonic conductor of the 20th century. Because Furtwängler was a performer who channeled the moment, his World War II broadcast performances from beleaguered Berlin attain an apocalyptic intensity. And his postwar performances, commensurately, are beleaguered by pain. His 1951 Radio Cairo broadcast of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony does not resemble other readings—including his own 1938 studio recording. The difference is the traumatic memory of war. The composer’s autobiographical heartache is transformed into a dire existential statement transcending the personal. The symphony’s most familiar melody—the first movement “love theme”—is taken so slowly that it changes meaning: it emanates a terminal Weltschmerz.

But I mainly find myself thinking of an artist I knew well, because I wrote a book about him. My Conversations with Arrau (1982) documents many eventful meetings with Claudio Arrau beginning in 1978, when he was already 75 years old. Arrau had acquired an elite reputation as a concert pianist prone to tortuous introspection. Earlier in his career, he had been a dazzling virtuoso—and by all accounts a voluble conversationist. When I knew him, he had withdrawn from language. I observed:

Arrau is an effortful speaker. Sometimes, before answering a question, he will draw a breath and look away. His sentences break down when a phrase or name will not come, and the ensuing silences can seem dangerous. …

It is really not farfetched to surmise that for Arrau words and music occupy distinct personal realms, and that the pronounced civility of the first moderates the instinctual abandon of the second. His gentle manners, his fastidious attire … the artifacts that embellish his work environment—these suggest a striving for order whose musical equivalent is his absolute fidelity to the text, and whose adversary is a substratum of fire and ice.

To witness Arrau performing the Liszt sonata is to know how thoroughly this substratum can obliterate his normal self-awareness. Even while asleep, the demons cast a trembling glow from behind his mildest public face. And they penetrate the timbre of his voice.

Arrau listens to his own recordings with visible discomfort; he perceives the clothes of civility being stripped away.

A humbling specimen of Arrau’s mature artistry is a 1976 recording of “Chasse neige,” the last of Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Études and, according to many, the most challenging to play. Liszt has fashioned a ruthless study in tremolo: the rapid-fire alternation of notes or chords. To this he adds gigantic skips, upward and downward, in both hands. The tremolos are pedaled—a smearing effect promoting ambience. At the same time, the more notes the ear discerns, the more exciting—the more harrowing—the étude becomes.

Arrau’s virtuosity is paradoxically mated with patience. Because even in the midst of chaos, he never rushes; the clarity of attack remains exceptional. And because he perfected a technical approach to the piano stressing arm and shoulder weight, his tone remains characteristically plush—not chipped, not shallow—regardless of the frantic demands placed upon his fingers. No other rendering of this music, in my experience, is as thick with incident.

But the coup de grâce occurs two and a half minutes into the piece, where Liszt—having unleashed a barrage of oscillating chords pulverizing the extremes of treble and bass—writes “calmato,” “accentuato ed espressivo,” and “mezzo piano.” Here the left-hand tremolos cease, replaced by rapid chromatic scales racing upward and down like dark breaths of wind. Under Arrau’s cushioned hands, the scales are streaked with pain. They momentarily sigh with exhaustion, and with an uncanny sadness of memory. They are the stilled human eye of an inhuman storm.

Arrau performed the music of Liszt throughout his long career. He studied with a distinguished Liszt pupil. He revered Liszt, identified with Liszt. He portrayed Liszt in a Mexican bio-pic. His earliest Liszt recordings date from the 1920s. But never before the 1960s will you hear anything like Arrau’s recording of “Chasse neige.” (Arrau himself once acknowledged to me: “Many people say I’m a ‘late developer.’”) The very keynote of this interpretation, clairvoyantly extrapolated by an artist already 73 years old, is retrospection. A famous 1840 painting of Liszt, by Josef Danhauser, situates him in a lushly appointed salon. George Sand, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Niccolò Paganini, and Gioachino Rossini are all in attendance. A large bust of Beethoven sits atop the piano. As a conjurer’s recollection of Liszt in his element, revered by his contemporaries, reverencing his great forebear, Arrau’s “Chasse neige” far trumps Danhauser’s painting. Liszt’s “snowstorm” resonates and expands; it jars open a bygone world of feeling and experience both conscious and subliminal. It exudes a veritable elixir of memory.

Could any young pianist or conductor accomplish such a feat? There are ways. Van Cliburn peaked at 23 when he won the 1958 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition. Upon landing in Moscow, he had asked to be driven to the Church of St. Basil. Standing on snowy Red Square late at night, he thought his heart would stop. He identified the Moscow Conservatory, where the competition was held, with his hero Rachmaninoff, who had graduated from that institution with a gold medal in 1892. When he visited Tchaikovsky’s grave in Leningrad, he took some Russian earth to replant at Rachmaninoff’s grave in New York. He called the Russians “my people” and said, “I’ve never felt so at home anywhere in my life.” Living a dream, he moved with a clairvoyant assurance, touching outstretched hands, pledging friendship between nations. Performing Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, he built the first movement cadenza—the concerto’s central storm point, an upheaval of expanding force and sonority—with utter sureness: the tidal altitude and breath of its crest were dizzying. The leading Soviet pianists, on the competition jury, proclaimed him a genius. Cliburn’s filmed 1958 and 1960 Moscow performances of concertos by Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, nestled on YouTube, document a young artist surrendering himself completely to the moment. Never again would Cliburn attain such heights of musical expression. And the Russia he knew, insulated from the West, still reliving its musical past, no longer exists.

In 1962, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was begun in Fort Worth. To date, its most esteemed gold medalist has been Radu Lupu—who won in 1966 at the age of 21. Born in Romania, he trained in Moscow. His earliest recordings already document an uncanny musical worldliness. As a peerless exponent of Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms, Lupu all his life inhabited a bygone world. He shunned 20th-century music. He kept his own counsel. In fact, to the surprise and consternation of the Cliburn Foundation, he had pocketed his first prize and returned to Russia, refusing to undertake the high-profile concert tour prepared for him. Suppose that Klaus Mäkelä had told his manager, Jasper Parrott: Thank you very much, but I am not prepared to take over two of the world’s most prominent orchestras. That was Radu Lupu.

The winner of the most recent Cliburn competition is a Korean: Yunchan Lim, now 20 years old. He has catapulted into a major international career. As it happens, one of his acclaimed competition performances was of Liszt’s “Chasse-neige.” You can see and hear it on YouTube. Lim has great fingers, and he has heart. His rendition is riveting—never glib, never superficial. But it would be vain to look for anything like the scope of Claudio Arrau’s reading. Arrau’s Liszt echoes and re-echoes through corridors of time, a performance for the ages. Lim’s, in juxtaposition, is one-dimensional, a species of intense and spectacular entertainment.

For that matter: Wilhelm Furtwängler’s Cairo Radio recording of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony revealingly juxtaposes with Klaus Mäkelä’s intensely entertaining Pathétique—I heard him conduct it with the New York Philharmonic in December 2022. The third movement march, in particular, memorably ignited. But it would be in vain to look for anything like the pain and tragedy of Furtwängler’s reading.

Will Mäkelä and Lim attain ripeness? Consider: Franz Liszt was born in 1811, Claudio Arrau in 1903—nine decades later. During the intervening century, many things changed. Nevertheless, Arrau was born (in Chillán, Chile) to a world without telephones, without airplanes or cars or radios. He would stay put in Berlin, immersed in the cultural efflorescence of Weimar Germany. As he later recalled,

I’m sure that the twenties in Berlin was one of the great blossomings of culture in history. The city offered so much in every field, and everything had a greater importance than in other places. … You see, there was a great misery. Many people were starving. There were no jobs. Such times are always fertile. Everything was so difficult that people sought a better life in culture.

And what if Arrau had been born, like Mäkelä, in 1996? That’s 94 years after 1903—about the same time gap that separated Arrau from Liszt. And yet, the century of change ending in 2000 documents an upheaval unprecedented and ongoing—what the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa calls “social acceleration.” Writing in 2013 (Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity), Rosa lists three “fundamental dimensions” of this phenomenon: technological, social, and “pace of life.” He predicts an “unbridled onward rush into an abyss,” possibly including nuclear or climatic catastrophes. He also predicts—accurately—“the diffusion at a furious pace of new diseases” and “new forms of political collapse.” Rosa does not highlight the arts. But socially accelerating atoms of human experience today undermine all previous understandings that art is necessarily appropriative; chaotically askew, they support the illusion that, locked in our disparate identities, we cannot know or speak for one another. What is more, a privatized, atomized lifestyle promotes neither arts patronage nor production. Rather, its diversion mode is the soundbite: particulate cultural matter; stranded arts particles.

A month ago, my own quest for anchorage inspired me to reread Buddenbrooks (1901). How can one absorb that Thomas Mann was in his mid-20s when he wrote this novel about a mercantile family history in northern Germany? It’s populated with men and women of all ages, from infancy to late infirmity. How could someone so young absorb so much experience? The only possible answer is that Buddenbrooks was written a very long time before social media and cell phones. No sooner did I share my bewilderment with colleagues and friends than I heard back from a prominent scholar who teaches at an eminent university. He had just shared Tristan und Isolde with his freshmen and encountered blank stares in response.

Currently, I’m working on a documentary film based on my book The Propaganda of Freedom: JFK, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and the Cultural Cold War. So I am making my way through the nine-part Netflix series Turning Point: The Bomb and the Cold War. The archival footage is gripping. Otherwise, this film is an exercise in instant gratification catering to short attention spans. Though an army of scholars has been assembled, the barrage of 30-second soundbites from a multiplicity of sources preempts differing viewpoints. The story at hand becomes a centrist fable, implying a consensus of opinion where none exists: no questions, just answers. And the ubiquity of musical cliché—the soundtrack, which never stops to allow the viewer to reflect—turns it all into melodrama: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Cuban missile crisis, the Berlin Wall, and Kharkov right now.

Commensurately, cultural memory—for untold centuries, a precondition for creativity and appreciation of the creative act—risks becoming a stack of flashcards processed as media clips. Will sustained immersion in lineage and tradition remain an organic prerequisite for composition, interpretation, and reception?

Gloucester, in King Lear, counsels: “Ripeness is all.” Never has Shakespeare’s observation more resounded as an admonition.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Joseph Horowitz is the author, most recently, of a novel, The Marriage: The Mahlers in New York, and of The Propaganda of Freedom: JFK, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and the Cultural Cold War.


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