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After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance.

After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance. By Kenneth Hamilton. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2008. [xv, 304 p. ISBN 978-0-19-517826-5. $29.95]

Here is a title that raises many more questions than it answers, although that is not necessarily a criticism. Scottish keyboardist and Liszt scholar Hamilton presents an engaging, rather dense exploration of pianists, piano pedagogy, and piano performance ranging chiefly from the early 1800s to the 1940s, with a few excursions further afield at each end of the time period.

Making exceptional use of contemporary sources in original languages, and at times including his own translations, the author seeks to determine what constitutes this "golden age" and whether it is now extinct or if it indeed ever existed at all. He traces the development of pianistic culture from Frederic Chopin through Franz Liszt to Ignaz Paderewski, with intriguing sojourns into the careers of figures as diverse as Anton Rubinstein, Sigismond Thalberg, Vladimir de Pachmann, Theodor Leschetizky, Josef Hofmann, Moriz Rosenthal, and Ferruccio Busoni, along with possibly less-remembered names such as Friedrich Kalkbrenner and Malwine Bree. Chapters cover topics such as "interpretive fidelity" (p.182) to the composer's intent; asynchronization, arpeggiation, pedaling; producing a singing tone; and the now little-used concept of preluding as well as more general improvising. Each major figure has his/her birth/death dates included at first mention, which is helpful in placing them chronologically.

Along the way Hamilton uses copious musical examples to illustrate his points and refers to piano rolls, acoustic, and electric recordings to buttress his views. Of course, the earliest exponents did not have recordings for us to hear, so it is hard to assess their actual performance on the instrument. Relying on contemporaneous accounts, they, especially as exemplified by Franz Liszt "striding" the nineteenth century "like a colossus", seemed to be initiated into a pantheon of "pianistic god[s]" (p.229), sometimes exhibiting egotistical tendencies; at the same time most were aware of their own inadequacies (p.6-7)

A main advantage of the title is Hamilton's unquestioned expertise in this milieu. He sets up a nice contrast between the "reverential disinterring of musical masterpieces" (p.vii), by those claiming fidelity to Urtexts, and the "sad catalog of corruption" (p.280), exemplified by those who added their own (sometimes not particularly relevant or gratifying) flourishes to compositions. He briefly touches on the development of pianos and various makers. Although for the most part he eschews opinionating, he singles out some modern pianos for particular opprobrium: as opposed to those of yore, these evoke a "standard metallic crash" (p.140) or "strident cacophony" (p.vii). He does readily admit that many a talented player confronted with such challenges has overcome these obstacles to bring some measure of enjoyment to audiences.

The evolution of the concert format and codification of recital types such as historical survey, single composer, or complete "something" (p.70) are discussed within the larger framework of etiquette and allowing for alternate programming options. Earlier generations' concerts extended for hours and piano pieces were only one of many genres included, but once its primacy as a solo instrument became paramount, for some performers the "orchestra [became] just a distracting noise in the background" (p.43). Although substantiated by documentation, it is hard to believe that there were no public solo piano sonata performances in Vienna between 1760 and 1810 (p.54). Historical context brings us revealing asides regarding Beethoven's view of Mozart's "choppy" playing (p.14 & 168) as well as how audience behavior shifted from rambunctious in the eighteenth century to more sober in the nineteenth century to "worshipful behavior" (p.89) today, even detailing amusing exchanges about musicians playing too loudly for ladies to hear themselves talk (p.38).

The numerous illustrations, chiefly facsimiles of contemporaneous depictions, add a touch of irreverence and whimsy. An interesting juxtaposition occurs when Dean Martin and the Greek poet Homer finds themselves together on p.13; other popular culture references include the television program Bewitched, which makes an appearance on p.35.

The bibliography is a good combination of old and new while the index appears comprehensive. Very few errors were noted: Girolamo Frescobaldi's dates should be 1583-1643, not 1664, on p. 155; Albert Gutman on p. 39 should read Gutmann. A type font one size larger would have been more easily read, especially against the cream-colored paper. The binding appears sturdy. This book is highly recommended for Hamilton's exhaustive research and enthusiasm.

Barry Zaslow

Miami University, Oxford, Ohio
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Author:Zaslow, Barry
Publication:Fontes Artis Musicae
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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