In 1999, Phillips released the monumental 200 CD set "Great Pianists of the 20th Century". After more than ten years of listening, I see conspicuous absences like Annie Fischer, Vlado Perlemuter, and others who may not have fit the many criteria that go in to assembling a project of this magnitude. At the time of their release however, many of these discs were a revelation to me, introducing me to a bygone age of artistry of which I was previously unaware. Along with the historical recordings on Naxos, it was here that I 'met' some of the teachers, inspirations, and spiritual mentors that continue to act as guiding forces throughout my musical life.
Among the riches of these first acquisitions- recordings by Edwin Fischer, Walter Gieseking, Artur Schnabel, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Clara Haskil, Myra Hess, Solomon, Vladimir Sofronitsky, and Alfred Cortot. With just about each volume, I found a new favorite pianist. More than that, my exposure to a great variety of musical languages began to form a personal sensibility for musical aesthetics. The collection grew into a passion (obsession depending on whom you ask) and has continued to present day.
In spite of the many complex issues surrounding intellectual property rights, Youtube has become a treasure trove of historical performance, a link to the 19th century. We can listen to Saint-Saens improvise, Sarasate tossing one of his showpieces, Arensky and colleagues performing chamber music in 1894 (!) Joseph Joachim playing Brahms along with Brahms' own regrettably short performance of the g minor Hungarian Dance.
The concertgoer has been empowered to go straight to the source, many times hearing the composer interpret his or her own work. When this "primary source material" is not available, there are a multitude of performers closely supervised and coached by the composers of the works they are playing. It should be noted that composers are not always the best performing representatives of their music; Ravel comes to mind.....
This ability to trace performance style back to the origin of a composer has less to do with a literal "authenticity" than it does with the flavor, spirit and general aesthetic of the performance. Listen for example to Prokofiev's 1932 recording of his own 3rd concerto, six years after it was written. It has elegance, flow, and classical clarity. To my mind, no one plays this piece like Martha Argerich, whose approach is more demonic and percussive to be sure. Is there a musical conflict between these? I don't believe so. Great works of art are living beings that reflect different light at different times, different angles.
By acquainting oneself with the historical recordings of composers and their performers of choice, it is possible to develop an ear for the inflection of a given language. When Bartok plays his own music, we hear Hungarian, though most of us do not understand or speak it. When we hear Poulenc play his first nocturne, we hear French and when Rachmaninov plays his concertos, Russian. Having even a small degree of fluency in the spoken language of a composer can be incredibly revealing as far as the syntax of their music is concerned.
While a work of art is tied to its creative origin, it also transcends the boundaries of language, time and space as these factors pertain to the transmission of the work rather than its essential content. Paraphrasing Brahms after a performance of one of his symphonies, "It's not what I wrote, but it's absolutely right."
The work has taken its place out in the universe, its expressive life continuing beyond the guidance of the composer. It is the duty of the interpreter to reflect as faithfully as possible the printed text of a work, always seeking the meaning behind the notes. We walk the fine line between recreation and recitation, transmission and distortion, to be an oracle or a mirror.
The pianists mentioned above devoted themselves to the meaning inside the text, the inspiration of feeling that spurred on the composition of the piece. Busoni speaks of all music being a transcription, the written text being an approximation of something extremely transient. In searching more than finding, looking more than seeing, they direct us to the spiritual content of the piece, and in doing so, unite our collective experience in the beauty of performance.