Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Pianist and the Critic

(The following is an article I wrote five years ago. I’d almost forgotten about it till this morning, when by chance I came across it on the web. Amazingly, it found its way to the Wladyslaw Szpilman "The Pianist" Official Homepage ( It is an impassioned piece that I enjoyed re-reading.)


“Those who can’t do, review.”

by Leonardo Ciampa

Last night I finally saw Roman Polanski’s film, The Pianist. I avoided it like the plague, the bitter taste from Shine being still in my mouth. (Shine was a perfectly enjoyable movie, until I actually heard Mr. Helfgott play in real life. Perhaps he was so named because even mit der Hilfe Gottes he still can’t play accurately.)

Not so with the Pianist and its subject, Wladyslaw Szpilman.

Firstly, just in terms of moviemaking itself, The Pianist is a phenomenal artistic achievement. This fact was all the more palpable because the previous movie my wife and I had seen was Gangs of New York. In comparison to Polanski’s work, Scorsese’s was like a bad comic book. Typical Hollywood sensationalism which, starting from the very first scene, screams to the viewer, “This is not in any way realistic or even artistic. This is just an extravaganza of superficiality designed to win awards.”

The Pianist had the ring of truth from the getgo – in large part due to the fact that Szpilman’s work was written in 1946. How brave to document his tragedy so soon after it ended.

There is an old adage, “Those who can’t do, review.” It’s one of those silly sayings about which I wish I could say, “They’re not accurate – they’re just debunking expressions used by people who like to dish.” Experience, however, has told me that this expression in particular is a truthful one.
Critic Norman Lebrecht suffers from the same ailment as virtually every other critic: They seem to be against everything but for nothing. Lebrecht’s book,
The Maestro Myth, is a case in point. He glories in the demystification and deflation of every great conductor under the sun. The fact, however, remains that it is harder to conduct than it is to write about conductors.

Particularly deviant are Lebrecht’s criticisms of Maestro Szpilman, in a 2002 article entitled “The Real [sic] Szpilman Revealed.” Consider the following utterances:

Whether he was a good, bad or moderate musician is immaterial to his story.

No, in fact, it was perfectly material. Here is a man who was so respected that Jews and Gentiles alike rallied to his defense. Would they have done this for just anyone? What made Szpilman stand out among the millions and millions of other Jews who faced the same fate? Obviously (at least, it would be obvious to one with a rational and healthy mind), Szpilman was a special person with a special talent.

The composer Andrzej Panufnik … failed to mention [Szpilman] either in his memoirs, or (his widow tells me) in any of their conversations. Reich-Ranicki, who knew Szpilman in the ghetto, likewise omits him from his memoirs. … None [of the other important Polish musicians] made public acknowledgement of his contribution, if any, to their careers.

Lebrecht began his article by saying, “In classical music, you’ve got to be dead to be good. Only two or three composers at any given time achieve posterity while alive. The rest go gently into that good night, praying for posthumous recognition.” Why, then, does Lebrecht contradict himself by gloating over his inability to find contemporary kudos for Szpilman? How much contemporary kudos did J. S. Bach garner? As a keyboardist, some. As a composer? Yet another case of Lebrecht’s illogic and his obsession with desecration.

Szpilman did not achieve individual renown. He appears to have been a man with no shadow.

J. S. Bach was not renowned until Mendelssohn revived the
St. Matthew Passion 77 years after Bach’s death. Shadows are not always contemporaneous with the people who cast them.

On the other hand, movies tend not to be made about critics’ lives! That’s why criticism contains more ax-grinding than aural discernment.

Musical evidence has begun to emerge from the archives of Polish Radio revealing Szpilman as an artist of ironic refinement and restrained muscularity.

The evidence does not reveal this. It reveals a musician of the highest order, a Golden Age style composer-musician who seems not to have lost a thing despite six years (!) away from his craft. All that should be there is there: a well-grounded technique, a singing melody, an ear for voicing the harmony, an understanding of the structure of the music, all unified by God-given style and taste.

[The] two tapes of the Chopin Nocturne in C-sharp minor … avoid bombast, triumphalism or sentimentality.

Is that piece bombastic, triumphal, or sentimental? Perhaps, then, Szpilman was a good interpreter.

The pianist can almost be heard to smile when there was nothing to smile about.

No, it is Lebrecht who inappropriately smiles. An autographical observation!

In the ubiquitous Rachmaninov Prelude in G-sharp he makes no attempt to compete with the fingerpower of Russian masters, but tosses the piece off with near casual panache.

Incorrect. Szpilman does have fingerpower, which is why the piece sounds “easy.” How Szpilman maintained that fingerpower during those six unspeakable years shall remain one of the great mysteries of pianism.

[The] Sony Classical disc that comes out this week [is] a testament to a shy executant.

Shy? Why, because in Chopin’s Nocturnes he doesn’t pour gasoline into the piano and throw a matchin? Szpilman is one of the only pianists in history to capture Chopin’s dreamy introversion. Or do you prefer Rubinstein’s jaded versions that reek of debauchery?

The most interesting discovery on the disc is Szpilman’s own music… (etc.)

Typical critic behavior: Disarm the reader with a seemly complimentary sentence, then whip out the condescension.

In the ghetto he composed a Gershwin-like concertino for piano and orchestra, astonishingly cocky in the deadly circumstances.

Cocky? Here Lebrecht is making two ridiculous comments – one, that Gershwin’s music is cocky, two, that Szpilman’s is. Is any music that is “lighter” than Beethoven’s somehow brash? And what is the relevance of world events? In 1937 America was in a depression, the world was at the brink of war, and Cole Porter suffered an accident that would eventually result in amputation. That didn’t stop him from writing songs like Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love, From Now On, and Get Out Of Town. Should he somehow not have been allowed to write light-hearted songs at that time?

Naggingly persistent, [the Concertino] is not a particularly likeable piece but it lodges in the ear like a grommet. It’s one of those pieces you find yourself humming and wonder where it’s from.

Typical mentality of the 20th-century music critic: If a piece is popular, it must not be good. So if the piece didn’t stay in one’s ear, would it then qualify as a masterpiece?

In a year or two, Szpilman’s music will be played no more than Górecki’s.

An easy statement to make, because in a year or two no one will remember Lebrecht’s review in order to refute it.

Leonardo Ciampa
2 February 2004

Copyright © MMIV Leonardo A. Ciampa. All rights reserved.

Note: The soundtrack is played not by Szpilman but by another excellent Polish pianist, Janusz Olejniczak.