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This is the third in a series of posts about appreciating classical music. Catch up on the first two parts of the series here and here.

From an early age, I knew I would never be a virtuoso. My piano fingers were fast, but they were skinny and lacked the power to rip booming chords. In this way, I was like millions of aspiring goalies, point-guards, and pitchers. I hit a ceiling. My body wasn't cut out for the top.

This bar is particularly forbidding now. Physical condition plays nearly as large a role in classical music today as in any sport. Jocks with perfect mastery over their fingers, wrists, tongues, or lips rise above less-nimble savants who know Mozart scores inside out. Top performers nowadays are like thoroughbreds: trained when young, developed through dedication and countless hours of practice, then culled in competitions, and crowned with blue ribbons and prizes when in their peak form. Some even pop performance-enhancing pills.

Whatever this pressure does to the profession, for watchers, physical grace is undeniably part of the pleasure. Just as pitching connoisseurs drool over a Stephen Strasburg slider, cello fans can only shake their heads in wonder at Rostropovich's bowing technique. The joy comes from watching something that only the tiniest sliver of the tiniest fraction of humans can achieve. I may do 10,000 bicycle kicks, but I will never match Pelé. And I can say with even more certainty—since I've tried—that no matter how much I pound those 88 keys, I will never be Sviatoslav Richter.

So what makes someone a virtuoso? For those who have never trilled a trumpet, it may seem hard to tell. But in music, as in baseball, it simply takes some exposure to just-great players to appreciate the truly-great. Four skills I watch in performers are speed, power, acrobatics, and control. Each person has different strengths, and some matter more to me (as they will to you).

Speed

Glenn Gould in Goldberg Variation Number Five

Canadian pianist Glenn Gould has a rare following due in part to his erudition, his eccentricity, and his quicksilver fingers. Nobody plays Bach with the precision and insight of Gould. And also, on such variations as this one, the searing speed.


Power

Sviatoslav Richter in Chopin Etude Opus 10, Number Four


Richter, a half-German Soviet, is my favorite pianist bar none. Though he plays this dark, tempestuous tantrum (almost) too quickly, you can hear his insane strength in the chords and, oddly, the quieter passages. My first teacher told me that it takes power to play softly, and Richter shows this is true. In Chopin, Richter cups the music in his paws like a lion for minutes before seizing it with furious strength.

Acrobatics

Hilary Hahn in Paganini's 24th Caprice


Hilary Hahn has won some crossover appeal and a reputation for lyricism. What you will see here is not only speed and power, but also her ability to leap with blind accuracy around the fingerboard. To play like this requires knowing, like a diver perched above the pool, exactly where your finger is going to land. Or, in the case of phenomenal organist Cameron Carpenter, your feet. As one violinist I talked to described the feeling, "It's like crossing a river by leaping between irregular stepping stones—you have to hit them just right or you'll fall."

Control

Wynton Marsalis on Carnival of Venice


Compared to the piano's 88 keys and the violin's four strings, the trumpet has only three valves (buttons) you can push to alter the sound. Everything else comes from the performer's lips, lungs, and who knows what else. In this barnstorming encore, Wynton Marsalis (perhaps better known for his jazz works), shows off an archetype of the virtuoso as cool, phlegmatic conjurer of demonic sounds.

The last, perhaps hardest kind of bravura to see is related to control. It's grace. The Bach Cello Suites are undeniably demanding. But the challenge is not to flaunt the difficulty, but to disguise it so the beauty shines through. (As a pitcher might make a ball appear to have a completely different trajectory.) Here, the legendary Mstislav Rostropovich makes his cello grieve in the Sarabande from Bach's fifth suite.


Stay tuned for the fourth part in this series, which will take a narrower look at a single instrument and its role in modern music: the harpsichord.

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Benjamin F. Carlson is executive editor of The Atlantic Wire.

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