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Tale of two pianists

When I was playing concerts as a pianist, my pride was bruised by at least one reviewer's comment that my playing seemed much more vital in contemporary music than in, say, Beethoven. But the comment stuck, and today it makes a lot of sense to me. In fact, it leads to a general question about 20th-century performers in relation to the music of their time.

In short, why should we find it strange that a present-day performer - especially a young one - should feel more deeply and genuinely about music composed by people who share his modern world?

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Music in our day is being strained in opposite directions, under the need for variety - fresh repertoire - and the common pressure to keep it always the same.

Moreover, in effect, today's performer has become something of a surrogate creator, trying to lend the vital element of freshness to the repertoire of the past via new interpretations, or through exploring alternative versions or instrumentations.

However supercharged with romanticism our swashbuckling jet age virtuosos may be, and however much our current state of affairs has been due to the excesses of composers who have pulled away from composition that speaks directly or immediately to listeners, the fact remains: Every season performers spend sticking to the tried-and-true masterpieces carries us one year further from the cultural milieu that spawned these works, and widens the angle of distortion necessary in their playing to keep the repertoire sounding new to us. This moving-away may be invisible, like a glacier perhaps, but it is happening nonetheless.

That is why it is so refreshing to run across performers today who are alive to the need for the original creative factor to play its part in the scheme of things. And who don't suppress, but respond naturally to, the impulses of music whose cultural genesis they can relate to.

One such young pianist is Randall Hodgkinson, whose career has been blossoming, abetted greatly in 1981 by his winning of the grand prize in the Rockefeller Foundation's International American Music Competition. This quadrennial contest seeks to uncover gifted performers of American music, and confers on them lavish, career-launching awards, including a recording contract for the grand prize winner.

In talking about his enthusiasm for venturesome programming of modern works, Hodgkinson made me recall my own earlier, underestimated better grasp of the modern repertory than of older music. He remarked on how easily contemporary works can be made to sound new and fresh - simply because they are new and fresh. And the corollary, that it is the exceptional performer - or the self-deceived one - who is able to disregard his rapport with the music of his own time.

In my elation over hearing Hodgkinson go on like that, I thought of another brilliant pianist, one whose every fiber ran contrary to what Hodgkinson was representing: the late Glenn Gould, who, for all the incandescence of his Bach and Mozart recordings, remains the extreme example of a musician cut off from our own time.

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Hardly have we seen a more brilliant musician than Glenn Gould. And scarcely a more original performer. But, alas, that is part of the point: His recordings of Bach and other classics are nothing if not the acme of idiosyncrasy, being a good deal of the time far more Gould than Mozart (or whoever).

Fact is he was a performer who didn't perform. At least, in 1964, after only nine years of touring, he stopped playing concerts, claimed later he never even attended one after 1967, and retained his contact with the musical world mainly through his numerous recordings. That he could play, there never was much doubt, so suspicions about whether he couldn't, and was following the disk route taken by many less-gifted players, were unfounded.

He was simply a highly gifted, complicated man, with a highly reclusive streak - hence the denial of the recital as a concept and the insistence on recordings. I have thought of him for years as a musician stranded in the realm of overfamiliar repertory and yearning to be ''born again'' to our time through the modern medium of the microphone and tape. And, as such, he was actually very much a child of his time, happily suited to the reclusive tendencies inherent in our culture's electronic self-sufficiency. He simply found out about that message of the medium a lot earlier than the rest of us.

Gould's dispensing with the audience, as he did it, represents two things. One, it was certainly an echo of the same intellectual attitude on the part of non-aural, 20th-century composers (who often are concerned more with being stylistically modish than with what their music sounds like), of which we have seen and heard so much.

But also, in tandem with those brilliant but quirky recordings, his musical hermitage demonstrates in the extreme that wide angle of distortion I mentioned, to which so many current performers grow close in attempting to keep actively original within a stagnant repertoire.

Perhaps in this too, as in the attractions of electronics, Glenn Gould was an early bellwether for us. At any rate, there is a valuable lesson to be learned there, and I am glad so many younger players like Randall Hodgkinson are taking a stand for the fact that musical art rests on three feet (performer, listener, and composer), and couldn't survive for very long on only two.

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