Thursday, February 07, 2008

Classical beauty

Hélène Grimaud

I don't want to write today about the United States or Britain going down in a graveyard spiral. Which is to say I don't want to get so cheerful that I look for a cell to hang myself in.

Let us turn to something much pleasanter: feminine beauty, in this instance beautiful women who are stars of classical music.

Even nowadays in our demotic age, there are stuffy people in the classical audience who would object to this as heresy. They would say connecting the performing tradition with the world of glamour publicity photos is vulgar. I say pooh to that. Why shouldn't musical artists be admired for their looks? Tell me one performing art where looks don't count. Seen any 200-pound ballet dancers lately? Oh, you say, but he or she couldn't dance well carrying that much weight. All right, how about film stars? (In leading roles, not character parts.) Notice how, questions of personal taste aside, they're all rather good looking? The actor who has a 30-second scene might be just as talented — maybe more talented — than the one whose name appears above the title. The difference is down to physical attractiveness.

Beauty is additive. A lovely woman (yes, ladies, or a good-looking man) enhances the aural pleasure of the music, on the same principle that a multi-hued sunset seen through a picture window can make a recording of a symphonic performance seem more rarefied. Nobody, of course, is suggesting that glamour is a substitute for ability, or that plain artists aren't worth listening to. Just that when you get both physical allure and musical talent in the same package, it's extra-special. So, on to our gallery.

Leading off, above, is pianist
Hélène Grimaud. I have only heard one or two recordings of her and have no opinion as to her playing, except that she is obviously technically accomplished.

Hilary Hahn

I'll admit to being a Hilary Hahn groupie (metaphorically, naturally; I've never even been to hear her in a concert, alas). Her artistry needs no endorsement from me, as she's widely acknowledged to be one of today's finest violinists, and I can understand why. But I also love her looks: long wavy hair, Mona Lisa smile, a kind of vulnerable or hurt aura. (I know people aren't necessarily anything like how their publicity photos make them appear, and maybe she's really a fire-breathing dragon; in all the examples in this gallery, I'm just commenting on what I can see.)

Did I mention I like Hilary Hahn?

They don't come much cuter than the English pianist Margaret Fingerhut. She excels in late romantic repertory.


Margaret Fingerhut (above and below)


You'd never guess, just to look at her, that Seta Tanyel is quite the romantic, would you? The Turkish pianist also goes in for late romanticism, and has helped revive the works of nearly forgotten composers such as Scharwenka and Moszkowski.

Seta Tanyel

Although she's a Canadian raised in Southern California, violinist Leila Josephowicz looks every bit the sophisticated, worldly, European femme fatale in this glam shot. I have her recording of the Prokofiev concertos, in which she plays with such a smoky, unearthly line and amazing tone colors that it's practically psychedelic. Too bad the recording engineers let her down; her string tone so dominates the orchestra that they're barely in the frame.

Leila Josephowicz

Czech mezzo Magdalena Kožená sounds fabulous singing Handel, and I don't much even like Handel.
Magdalena Kožená

By the way, the classical artist as glowing object isn't entirely a product of modern hype. Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, the German soprano, was a prototype. My wife, who is more into opera than I am, told me that Schwartzkopf was the first famous singer to replace the "fat lady" stereotype with a normally proportioned and visually attractive stage presence. I looked on Google Images trying to find the famous movie-star-ish photo of her from the 1940s, but the only incarnation that came up was on a book cover:


It doesn't seem fair, does it, that these women should have both the looks and the big time talent? Maybe it is their payoff for karma earned in past lives. In any case, beauty is as beauty does: none of them attained their stardom by a "gift." They worked very hard to nurture their skills.

I don't know about you, but just putting together this set of photos has convinced me that life is worth the bother, even with civilizational debacle looming.


How could I have forgotten Martha Argerich? Pastorius (see comments) has reminded me about the Argentine (?) virtuosa. The album cover below is probably from the mid-'60s.




Anonymous said...

Very nice, Mr. Darby, thank you.

Regarding Hillary Hahn, I had the pleasure of attending a recital of hers six or seven years ago and had the privelege of speaking with her briefly afterward. No fire-breather she, in my experience. She was very polite, well-spoken, slightly distant without seeming cold or unfriendly. She signed my CD jacket, and encouraged me in my amateur pursuit of the violin.

Then my mother came along and complimented her on the way her dress looked and the lovely way it moved as she played. Hillary lit up. "Really? Oh, thank you so much!" Two girls doing girl stuff. It was a delight to see.

May I recommend, if you haven't seen it already, the DVD The Art of the Violin. Hillary contributes a good deal to the commentary, along with Itzhak Perlman and Ivry Gitlis. Great stuff.


Thanks again for your blog and for this column in particular.

Best wishes,

Rick Darby said...


It sounds like my intuition of Hillary Hahn as something of an introvert may be right. Lucky you for going to her concert as well as meeting her. Not that I want to sound envious. Because I am.

Pastorius said...

Some of my favorite classical babes:

Martha Argerich

Maria Callas

Kathleen Battle

The Opera Babes

Lara St. John

Anonymous said...

Nothing like a beautiful woman to leave a smile on my face. It makes me wonder why these "exotic" beauties are so prominent on CNN and elsewhere. Oh wait, now I know. . .

Anonymous said...

more about Netrebko, Kozena, DiDonato and more

Anonymous said...

Madge Fingy is a milf ^____________^ i like lizzy mcguire