The Golden Age of the Piano
Introduced by David Dubal
Philips video (1993)

Review by Jenny Macmillan

Ability Development, Summer 1998

This video includes excerpts of performances by thirteen legendary pianists interspersed by snippets of information about the development of the piano, composers for the piano and many famous pianists. Understandably, the sound track from the older recordings is not always very clear, so it is difficult to assess the quality of sound produced by some of these performers of the past.

My children enjoyed identifying odd characteristics of the different players. They described Wanda Landowska as “the witch”, and her hands as “spider-like” - very angular, unlike the “soft” hands young Suzuki pianists are taught - but she does demonstrate very busy, active fingertips. The children laughed to see Rudolf Serkin and Glenn Gould who both work their mouths in the most extraordinary fashion while playing!

Some pianists sit high (Josef Hofmann, Arthur Rubinstein), some sit low (Gould, Vladimir Horowitz), some stoop forwards (Claudio Arrau, Gould, Horowitz), some sit very still (Van Cliburn, Alfred Cortot, Myra Hess, Ignacy Paderewski), some make big gestures with their arms (Percy Grainger, Serkin), but they all make beautiful gestures appropriate to the music. And they are all totally involved in their performances.

Arrau, Alexander Brailowsky and Howowitz have very long fingers which they keep nearly flat and right over the black notes. Rubinstein has very small hands and, together with Cliburn, Grainger, Hofmann, Paderewski and Serkin, plays with rounded fingers well over the keys (in true Suzuki style!). Hess likewise plays with good “Suzuki technique” but she, particularly, varies her style according to the demands of the music - she plays some trills with very low wrists and octaves with very high wrists, sometimes her fingers are rounded and sometimes they are straight. Gould, in his amazing part playing of Bach, keeps his hands nearer the edge of the keyboard, playing with incredibly active fingertips.

We hear Paderewski playing some of his well-known Minuet, a very different performance from that by William Aide on the Suzuki recording, with much more flexibility in tempo and drawing different colours from the piano. Cliburn was obviously a “pop star” of his day - we see young ladies in the audience jostling one another at the edge of the platform, and rapturous expressions on the faces of everyone in the capacity-filled hall! Two pieces from Debussy’s Children’s Corner played by Cortot are accompanied by charming film clips of animated toys - a must for young children.

I would not expect youngsters to watch the 1 hour 20 minute video in one sitting. However they might well enjoy it in short sections, especially if encouraged to compare and contrast the various styles of the performers. Many Suzuki parents would find it extremely interesting. Certainly I thought it a fascinating historical documentary, and can wholeheartedly recommend it to other piano teachers.