A stunning discovery was unveiled on Sunday, when an unknown Socratic dialogue by Plato was revealed by the New York Times. The dialogue (like most) is named for Socrates’ interlocutor, in this case one Sator Arepo. Also, like most Platonic dialogues, it focuses on the definition of a common word that, under Socratic scrutiny, is harder to pin down than previously thought.
Sator Arepo: Tell me, O Socrates, what is virtuosity? Is it technically adept playing, good interpretation, or something else?
Socrates: We tend to think of virtuosity as the musical equivalent of an extreme sport: lots of fast, loud, bravura passages that show off finger power and agility, ideally with enough originality in the phrasing to make the performance seem more than just whiz-bang display.
Sator Arepo: Yes! “Whiz-bang” playing is how I think of virtuosity. But also with musicality, I hope!? Is there a virtuosity of interpretation too?
Socrates: But in his recital at the Rose Theater on Wednesday evening, the pianist Christian Zacharias argued that virtuosity comes in other forms as well, most notably as an expression of patient introspection.
Sator Arepo: “Patient introspection” seems to me to be the…opposite of virtuosity. It is not showing off. It is good musicianship. I like that. But I am confused. Can you elucidate, O Socrates? This seems counterintuitive.
Socrates: That may seem counterintuitive, but some of Mr. Zacharias’s most electrifying playing was graceful and understated, with commanding gradations of tension.
Sator Arepo: The electrifying playing was…understated playing? Surely you are trying to catch me in a contradiction, as is your wont, Socrates.
Socrates: This was certainly true of his account of Schumann’s “Kinderszenen.” These are gentle pieces at heart, and Mr. Zacharias addressed most with a light touch…
Sator Arepo: That sounds very musical and wonderful. But, Socrates, is that virtuosity?
Socrates: …that defined fantasy in terms of dreaminess.
Sator Arepo: It did what now? The…light touch defined…fantasy…in terms of dreaminess? O Socrates, what are we talking about again?
Socrates: But he also acknowledged that straightforward simplicity was not an effect Schumann could sustain for long, and even in the most nostalgic pieces he supplied a restless undercurrent that was true to Schumann’s spirit.
Sator Arepo: Mr. Zacharias acknowledged, by means of his virtuosity, that Schumann could not…sustain straightforward simplicity. Is that right, Socrates?
Socrates: It was subtle, more a matter of a slightly rushed figure or the accenting of a chromatic line. But it was impossible to miss.
Sator Arepo: You are losing me, O Socrates. What is the antecedent to the “it” in these two sentences? Is it “the restless undercurrent” that he supplied? You seem to imply that interpretation, and not merely technical brilliance, can be virtuostic. Is that right? Because I am on that trireme!
Socrates: Mr. Zacharias was more expansive in Beethoven’s Sonata No. 4 in E flat.
Sator Arepo: He was…more expansive? Is this about avoirdupois?
Socrates: If you think in terms of crowd pleasers, this early sonata, normally heard only when a pianist undertakes the full cycle, was an odd choice.
Sator Arepo: It was an odd choice…of programming? If I think in terms of crowd pleasers? I try not to think in terms of crowd pleasers. I also think that “crowd-pleasers” might be better hyphenated. Virtuosity is crowd-pleasing? Usually? Is that what you’re saying?
Socrates: But it was the perfect work to share the first half with the Schumann. All the feverish anxiety that drives Schumann’s piano music has its roots here, particularly in the remarkably idiosyncratic slow movement, with its sudden, brusque chords and unprepared (and unresolved) dissonances nestled amid hymnlike themes.
Sator Arepo: Was the playing or the interpretation virtuostic, O Socrates? Both? Neither? Was the choice of programming virtuostic?
Socrates: After intermission Mr. Zacharias offered a dozen Scarlatti sonatas that pointed up this composer’s cosmopolitan breadth. Some works, like the Sonatas in G (K. 91c) and G minor (K. 4), offer Apollonian refinement, with hints of French and Italian style. By contrast, the Sonata in C (K. 132), with its rolled chords and flamenco-tinged progressions, is as Spanish as anything by Albéniz. Mr. Zacharias played these short works with energy and clarity, but as in the Schumann, power was tempered by elegance.
Sator Arepo: Virtuosity is power tempered by elegance. Virtuosity is power tempered by elegance? I like that, but is that what you mean, Socrates? Socrates? No, that’s hemlock!...
*(I really, really want to read this as a Procol Harum reference.)