I'm taking an awesome class this quarter (taught by my awesome piano teacher) about performance practice and piano playing. His basic thesis is that modern pianists, at least the most famous ones, as good as they are, don't have distinct playing styles the way pianists did in the early 20th century and before.
For me, this idea rings true, and as my multitudes of loyal readers already know, judging from this post and this one, the idea of distinctive performance is something that I think about a lot. You might even say it keeps me up at night. If true, what are the reasons for this modern lack of individuality, or style?
The first explanation is the modern idea, previously mentioned, that the performer's responsibility is more to a composer, or to a score, than to the music itself, or the audience. How did this idea become so pervasive, and why?
The other reason, I suspect, is that the proliferation of recording technology has a two-fold effect on people's interpretations. First, it tends to stunt creativity, because they get used to hearing things certain ways. I know lots of teachers who explicitly instruct their students to listen to great recordings for ideas about interpretation. Most teachers encourage listening, but not to fore imitation. Even so, as any performer will tell you, it's incredibly difficult to fall in love with a great performance and listen to it over and over, without imitating it to some extent in one's own playing. Thus recording technology tends to cause people's ideas about interpretation of certain pieces to converge.
The other way recording technology may influence performance (as another colleague of mine pointed out) is that the prospect of having one's playing repeated thousands of times curtails one's individuality and generally tempers risk-taking.
We read a really interesting article along these lines by former NYTimes critic Richard Taruskin, backlashing against other critics' lambasting of the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz. (I can't find a link to the article somehow on the NYtimes website...sorry) His main argument is that people who criticize pianists like Horowitz, and composers like Tchaikovsky, are pretentious dicks. I think he's on to something, but don't agree with him completely. But I'll get to that tomorrow or Wednesday....