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The Winning Entry: A Gracious Mentor

Tomorrow being the official 3rd birthday of this blog, today I am publishing the winning entry from this year’s Blog of the Courtier Birthday Contest.  My regular readers will know that I asked entrants to submit examples of people who exemplify the ideal of “sprezzatura”, that effortless graciousness that the patron of this blog, Count Baldassare Castiglione, extolled in his “Book of the Courtier”.  I received numerous entries, too many to acknowledge individually, but want to thank all of you for taking the time to sit down and write.  Not only were all the entries I received good examples of living individuals who embody some aspect of sprezzatura, but I am also pleased to see that this virtue is not yet entirely dead in our society.

The winning entry came from Jake P., whom I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting in person but have met through Twitter, where he tweets under the moniker of UCCowboy.  If you are a fellow blogger, gentle reader, or if you have an interest in some topic and would like to meet more people with whom to discuss your ideas, I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity Twitter provides.  Through sharing my blog posts and engaging in discussions on Twitter, I have met a number of very interesting people who have not only provided helpful information and discussion on topics that interest me, but in many cases have become patrons of this and my other blogs.  And it is to the subject of patronage that we turn, with Jake’s entry to the Birthday Contest about his former boss, Jerome, whom he met at university.

Of all the entries that I received, that regarding Jake’s mentor Jerome I think best exemplified the virtue of effortless grace that Castiglione was trying to encourage in his writing.  For remember that sprezzatura is not just about how one looks, which is what some commentators focus on, as if sprezzatura is merely some sort of fashion statement.  Rather, it is really about how one behaves in the society of others.  A true courtier who knows his worth, as Castiglione reminds us, is someone who has reached a level of accomplishment in his career whereby not only are others drawn to him and his example, but he in turn is generous with his time and encouragement.  He does not make a show of being, as it were, the smartest one in the room, but makes himself available to those who need his counsel and leadership, without having to call a press conference about it every time he decides to take an action or express an opinion.

And now to Jake’s entry:

My old boss/mentor Jerome is, in my eyes, the epitome of a gentleman. There is nothing grand or eye-catching in the way he holds himself, but rather he has an accumulation of pure decency and a respect for others. He took a basic interest in me as a Freshman at University, took me on as his assistant, and molded me into the person I am today. He routinely gave me career advice, helped me develop social/analytical skills, and served as the one person who would vouch for me in any circumstance.

I’m sure everybody has a mentor like this, but Jerome sticks his neck out for everybody. My best friends/roommates in college were always free to go into his office and chat about school or work. Jerome led a faculty/student class and served as a source of stability whom first years could go to, when University got crazy. And he helped my younger sister get the job with the athletic department she so seriously desired.

Jerome tells me he lives by the belief that he had a lot of help in his path and that, as a way of acknowledging this, he has spread the love around as an adult. Looking out for others, showing mutual respect, and treating others as being on the same plane are the characteristics of a gentleman. Jerome has shown me how to act that way.

Mentors like Jerome, who take the time to give a hand up to those who are getting started in life, make what is often a selfish and self-centered world a more agreeable and civilized place to live in. Rather than being threatened by those on the way up, he responds to the needs of others with wisdom and generosity. That example of good patronage is a trait which Castiglione believes is essential to the gentleman or lady who is worthy of that title.

As the Count himself writes in his “Book of the Courtier”, all of us are given certain gifts, but these must be perfected by training:

Wherefore good masters teach children not only letters, but also good and seemly manners in eating, drinking, speaking and walking, with certain appropriate gestures. Therefore as in the other arts, so too in virtue it is necessary to have a master, who by instruction and good reminders shall arouse and awake in us those moral virtues whereof we have the seed enclosed and buried in our soul, and like a good husbandman shall cultivate them and open the way for them by freeing us from the thorns and tares of appetite, which often so overshadow and choke our minds as not to let them blossom or bring forth those happy fruits which alone we should desire to have spring up in the human heart.

None of us emerges into the world completely capable of caring for ourselves. We are all dependent upon the care and example of others in order to grow into adulthood. By giving an example of generosity of spirit to others, people like Jerome show young people like Jake that when their turn comes, when they are the ones in a position to be a mentor or patron to someone else, they must take advantage of the opportunity, rather than retreat into selfishness. One may call it Christian charity, noblesse oblige, mentoring, or the like, but without it, we descend into the bestial, self-centered tendencies of our fallen nature.

As Castiglione recognized, the encouragement of this nurturing attitude towards others ensures the continuity not only of society, but also of civilization.  I want to thank Jake for his entry, as well as all of those who entered, for showing that there are still gentlemen and ladies of good will who seek to bring a kind of effortless grace to the way in which they themselves behave and treat others.  Let us try to encourage others to follow this example, by first, of course, following it ourselves.

Contest winner Jake P. and his prize,
a scholarly edition of Castiglione’s “Book of the Courtier”

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Sprezzatura Friday: Now It’s Your Turn

This week we have been looking at some examples of Castiglione’s concept of Sprezzatura, as part of the Blog of the Courtier’s 3rd birthday celebrations.  Castiglione praised that ideal of seemingly effortless nonchalance which he believed a lady or gentleman ought to employ in all that they do: being competent or skilled at something, or many things, but not making a big fuss about themselves for so being.  Now it is your turn to submit your ideas about the person or persons you believe embody this virtue in the present day, whether people of your own acquaintance or those whom you admire from afar. Birthday contest entries are due before the clock strikes midnight on the East Coast of the United States this Sunday, July 31st.

I have already received a number of entries that are very interesting candidates for this label of a modern-day practitioner of spezzatura, including a few nominations of candidates whom I actually know. To date, no one has nominated themselves, though of course that would not be sprezzatura at all.  If we are to celebrate the fact that there are still people about, in our increasingly repulsive society, who try to behave graciously, have a curiosity about the world, and are seeking to better themselves at all times, without crying “Look at me!” all over the place, then such persons could hardly nominate themselves.

And this is the point, of course, because Castiglione’s ideal is not a dead, unobtainable thing. We can all think on cases throughout human history of people who tried to always do their best, and hold themselves up to a higher standard without trying to put others down in the process.  Unfortunately the example of these people in the present age is lost not only because of a general celebration of the loud and the perverse, which holds sway at present, but also because by definition the courtiers whom Castiglione would seek out would never be quick to praise themselves in the first place.  Their quiet competence and accomplishments get drowned out in a din of mediocrity, showiness, and immodesty.

It is this last which has done such a great deal of damage, despite in some cases having the best of intentions in aiding those who suffer from serious emotional or psychological difficulties.  With the adoption of the ideal of “self esteem” to replace that of “self effacement” by the Baby Boom generation, and their indoctrination of that ideal into us, their children, Western society has been done a tremendous amount of harm.  The worship of the ego, instead of God, and the command to “do what feels right for you”, instead of “do unto others”, has created a cacophony of selfishness that has led us to the rather muddled point in history where we now are.

This is why the higher standard, as advocated by Castiglione, is so important to a world which is seemingly intent on destroying itself not through wars, famine, and plagues, but by a kind of exaggerated narcissism coupled with celebrity worship.  There are still people out men and women of good will can admire for their talent, their charity, their intellect, and their style, without descending into the depths of ridiculousness, as did Castiglione’s contemporary Machiavelli, who held out the moral reprobate Caesare Borgia as his ideal in “The Prince”.  The worship of fame, wealth, and excess in oneself or in others has replaced the appreciation of dignity and common sense.

The world still needs Castiglione, not as someone who teaches us specifically how to live, but rather as someone who provides a different measuring stick by which to look at history.  For centuries after his death, Castiglione’s “Book of the Courtier” was considered required reading by anyone hoping to live life well – not only for the titled wealthy, but for those in business, politics, the law, diplomacy, the arts, and so on. It is no surprise that now, Machiavelli is more widely read than his contemporary, because his avocation of selfishness and love of “whatever means necessary” over the quiet confidence of Castiglione seems more in keeping with out times.

The correct response, it would seem, is to reject that selfishness as not being the inevitable result of society. It is all very well for the pathologist to diagnose the cancer, but unless someone comes along and shows us how to get rid of that cancer, then all that is served is a recognition that evil exists in the world. Evil must be combated, not embraced, and this is why Castiglione should be embraced today.

My very best wishes of good luck to all of you who enter the Birthday Contest, and I will be announcing the winner on Monday.

Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly chatting on Oscar Night, 1956

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Sprezzatura Thursday: Practice Makes Mozart

Today we continue exploring the idea of sprezzatura, as the deadline to enter my blog’s birthday contest rapidly approaches [N.B. have you entered yet?]  The patron of this blog, Count Baldassare Castiglione, coined the term sprezzatura to express the seemingly unstudied, effortless nonchalance that one should try to develop in how one goes about the business of life.  Among the great composers no doubt all would agree that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is perhaps the most obvious example of this ideal in action, what with his seemingly effortless ability to produce extraordinary, timeless music that is still beloved today.  And yet it is important to remember that by sprezzatura Castiglione does not mean something superhuman; nor was Mozart some sort of a god.  Rather, here we looking at the maxim of “practice makes perfect.”

Last evening I attended a gathering arranged by the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project, to discuss an essay on the nature of beauty by the influential German philosopher, theologian, and writer, and had the pleasure of chatting with the Legacy Project’s Founder and Director, John Henry Crosby.  Professor Crosby described how the project is seeking to translate more of von Hildebrand’s work from German to English, given how relevant much of what the German thinker wrote remains in the present day, decades after his death.  As Professor Crosby put it, the work that he and his colleagues are doing is not a  “museum project,” but rather one which sees the relevance of von Hildebrand’s ideas for a wider, contemporary audience still very much in need of hearing his voice.

So this morning, it was interesting for me to spot a tie-in between von Hildebrand’s thinking and that of this blog’s patron, when it comes to the ideal of sprezzatura in the work of Mozart.  In an essay by von Hildebrand and translated by Professor Crosby, which the latter shared with me today, the philosopher considers the life and work of Mozart, surely one of the most naturally-gifted artists which humanity has yet witnessed.  Although he lived long after Castiglione, there is no question but that Mozart’s work embodies fully the ideal of sprezzatura which Castiglione wanted the ideal courtier to strive for.

Indeed, as von Hildebrand points out:

Along with an extraordinarily ability to give a definite spiritual shape and precision to his works as well as his masterful sureness of touch [Treffsicherheit], there is in Mozart’s work a unique effortlessness.  It is a special sign of the possession of a virtue when the good is done effortlessly; however painstaking the acquisition of a virtue, its possession is distinguished by its effortlessness.  The effortlessness of virtue presents itself in Mozart’s art.

In other words, without actually using the term, von Hildebrand is describing the sprezzatura that is clearly inherent to Mozart’s work.  From his earliest days traveling around Europe with his father and sister, performing for kings and queens, and packed houses of doting admirers, Mozart was a genius blessed with an undeniably great talent. He delighted his listeners with his compositions and performances, and made a name for himself as a result of his facility at both.

Yet even though Mozart was a child prodigy, that fact alone would not have ensured his lasting fame. In our contemporary society we can think of dozens of tragic examples of youthful performers who never successfully transitioned to adulthood, or who, upon becoming adults, sank into utter obscurity. It has happened so frequently as to become a truism – the term “former child star” carries with it connotations of a kind of seediness and despair, as a result of both real-life examples and films such as the classic “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”

Despite the misinformation spread by films like “Amadeus”, as naturally gifted as he was Mozart still had to work out his compositions on paper, in draft form.  They did not spring fully-formed from his mind, like Athena from the brain of Zeus.  That he had a natural talent for improvisation, or for working out some elements of his compositions in his head before putting them down to paper, does not mean Mozart did not have to work hard.  Had he not continued to push himself as an artist, the little boy who hopped playfully into the lap of the Empress Maria Theresa after a private concert would never have gone on to become the composer of such powerful compositions as the choral sequence of the “Dies Irae” in the Requiem Mass.

The “virtue” which von Hildebrand speaks of in his essay on Mozart, and what Castiglione means in advocating “sprezzatura”, is one in which the talented individual not only recognizes his talent, but fosters it, without making a big fuss about it. If Mozart spends time in the mental gymnasium, working out his compositional muscles, it is because he believes that by the time he is to present a composition to a patron who has commissioned a piece, it should be in as perfect a shape as he can get it, not something all sweaty and slapdash.  The man possessing this virtue of a seemingly effortless grace realizes that he has been given a great gift of facility, in anything from gardening to software programming to musical composition, and in nurturing and caring for that gift, he becomes better and better at it.  He embraces his God-given ability and, like the good and faithful servants in the parable of the talents, takes what he has been given and invests in it.

Needless to say, I can certainly empathize with the Legacy Project’s work, given that their goal is not dissimilar from what I am doing on a considerably smaller scale, i.e. encouraging others to read the work of a great thinker for good, particularly when there is so much meaningless garbage that people have been forced to read and absorb into their thinking.  The forgoing is an example of not only why von Hildebrand is still very much a man worth reading, so is Count Castiglione.  Both recognize that a lazy, half-arsed approach to life is one in which the individual will ultimately fail in the eyes of man, possibly, but more importantly in the eyes of God.  And both are still very relevant writers for us today, if we will but pick them up and read them – and perhaps do so while listening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21.

Portrait of Mozart attributed to Joseph Hickel (c. 1783)
Private Collection

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Sprezzatura Wednesday: Lest We Forget The Ladies

You only have until this Sunday to enter my blog’s annual birthday contest, gentle reader, and already I have received a number of entries that show some of you “get” Count Castiglione’s concept of sprezzatura very well.  Yet let us continue our exploration of that concept today, taking the opportunity to consider the ladies among us.  For although a gentleman always upholds the honor of the ladies in his party, the truth is that sometimes the ladies make us laugh, as well.

In a classic episode of the well-known BBC comedy “As Time Goes By”, the character of Lionel (Geoffrey Palmer) is contacted by his ex-wife, who wants to see him and catch up, during her brief visit to London.  Lionel naturally asks his new wife Jean (Dame Judi Dench) to accompany him to the reunion, and Jean becomes very flustered when she realizes she will only have a couple of hours to get ready.  As they are awaiting his ex-wife’s arrival, Lionel and Jean discuss the fact that the latter changed outfits five times before they left the house.  And this gives Lionel cause to ask one of those eternal questions which men always find themselves asking the fairer sex: “Why is it that women always feel the need to impress other women?”

Of course, Jean is not the only female figure in British comedy to become flustered around another woman whom she feels may upstage her.  One thinks of Sue Brockman (Claire Skinner) in the more recent BBC sitcom “Outnumbered”, for example, who is always being shown up by the woman next door and her seemingly perfect life.  Penelope Keith made a career out of playing the type of woman who always tried to get one up on other women, on programs like “The Good Life” and “To The Manor Born”.  And of course British literature is full of women engaging in one-upmanship with each other, from Jane Austen to Mrs. Gaskell.

One author with whom my readers may not be familiar in this regard is E.M. Delafield, the pen name of Mrs. Edmee Dashwood.  Delafield was the eldest daughter of the Comte de la Pasture, whose family had emigrated to England after the French Revolution, and Elizabeth Bonham, from a British family long involved in colonial affairs and diplomacy.  Raised a Catholic, at one time she discerned a vocation to a very strict religious order in Belgium, where she was accepted as a postulant.  However she later left,  decided to marry Col. Arthur Dashwood, and settled down to country life in Devonshire, where her husband was the manager for the Bradfield Estate; she became a mother to two children.

Beginning in 1930, Delafield began to write a semi-autobiographical account of her experiences as a bourgeois housewife in the country, resulting in her first and probably best novel,” The Diary of a Provincial Lady”.  There would be several more novels before Delafield’s premature death in 1943.  While all are amusing, the spark and wit of the first provides a classic example of the sometimes very unsubtle battle between women to see who can do things more effortlessly and perfectly.

Delafield’s narrator, the “Provincial Lady” of the title, is almost always on the losing end to her neighbor and “frenemy”, the glamorous Lady Bowe, whom the narrator often refers to as “Lady B.” An excerpt from her diary provides a good example of how Lady B. seemingly excels at sprezzatura, while the Provincial Lady does not:

February 11th
Hear that Lady Boxe has returned from South of France and is entertaining house-party. She sends telephone message by the butler, asking me to tea to-morrow. I accept. (Why?)

February 12th
Insufferable behaviour of Lady B. Find large party…Lady B. wears an emerald-green leather coat with fur collar and cuffs. I, having walked down, have on ordinary coat and skirt…Lady B. asks me at tea how the children are, and adds, to the table at large, that I am “A Perfect Mother”. Am naturally avoided, conversationally, after this, by everybody at the tea-table. Later on, Lady B. tells us about South of France. She quotes repartees made by herself in French, and then translates them.

This is just one example of the endless, running battle between the Provincial Lady and her nemesis-neighbor.

Of course, Castiglione’s concept of sprezzatura means not only doing something well, but also doing it so well that it seems effortless. The irony that goes unperceived by Delafield’s Provincial Lady is that Lady B. is, in fact, utterly lacking in sprezzatura. She tries to put on airs and snobbery, but she makes colossal mistakes in manners, planning events, and giving back-handed compliments. She is a combination of bad faith and underachievement, rather than a paragon of accomplishment and grace, but appearances blind the Provincial Lady and others to Lady B’s shortcomings as a courtier.

In fact, Castiglione goes through a long list of women in his “Book of the Courtier” whom he expects his female readers to try to emulate as they search for that goal of sprezzatura in their way of living. Some of these ladies are powerful and famous, yes, but some are ordinary women of ordinary or reduced circumstances. Toward the end of his list, Castiglione mentions the recently-exiled Queen of Naples,

who, after the loss of her kingdom, the exile and death of her husband King Federico, and of two children, and the captivity of her first-born, the Duke of Calabria, still shows herself to be a queen, and so endures the grievous burdens of bitter poverty as to give all men proof that although her fortunes are changed, her rank is not.

I refrain from mentioning countless other ladies, and also women of low degree; like many Pisan women, who in the defense of their city against the Florentines displayed that generous daring, without any fear of death, which might have been displayed by the most unconquerable souls that have ever been on earth; wherefore some of them have been celebrated by many noble poets.

Thus, Castiglione holds feminine virtue, of showing courage in the face of difficult circumstances, and acting out of love at all times, as embodying the ideals of womanhood. These qualities give him, as a mere man, encouragement to try to do the same, but also to protect women, who very often are in need of protection. In the present, topsy-turvy world in which we live such a notion will no doubt be rejected by many.

Yet throughout the centuries it is the ladies who have shown us how to act with that sprezzatura, that effortless grace, which is a hallmark of someone making the most of their circumstances, great or reduced as they may be. Should they decide to occasionally compete with one another, it is only because all human beings are flawed, regardless of their sex. Castiglione would hold that it is their favor, and their example, which makes not only sprezzatura, but civilization itself, possible.

Illustration of Lady B. from
E.M. Delafield’s “The Diary of a Provincial Lady”

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Sprezzatura Tuesday: The Courtly Music of Fournier and Curzon

As the deadline for my readers to enter the Blog of the Courtier birthday contest approaches, we continue with this week’s theme of looking at people who embody some element of “sprezzatura”: that kind of effortless, self-effacing grace which Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog, thought that courtiers should aspire to achieve in their work and lifestyle.  Today we look at two musicians whose recordings I have always enjoyed, cellist Pierre Fournier and pianist Sir Clifford Curzon.  One of the reasons I appreciate their respective efforts is that both men clearly love what they are doing, and want to perform each piece as perfectly as possible.  Moreover they each have a certain indescribable something – a kind of innate good taste one senses in their playing, that sets them apart and which embodies, I believe, Castiglione’s ideal of sprezzatura.

Before we take a look at these two musicians whom you should get to know, let me offer an important caveat.  I love classical music, as indeed I do many diverse genres of music, from Gospel to Hardcore; the first album I ever owned was a recording of Haydn’s “Surprise” and “Toy” symphonies, which I received at about the age of 3.  I grew up in a musical household where everyone sang or played an instrument, I took piano lessons for many years, as well as pipe organ lessons, and I sang in both church and school choirs.

That being said, I am no musicologist. I know what I like, but I do not hold myself out to be an expert on music, any more than I am on wine, coffee, etc.  Therefore, if you are seeking something more than the opinion of an armchair aficionado, I suggest that you look elsewhere to those more educated than I. My hope is simply to introduce some of you, who may not be aware of them, to the work of these two great musicians, and for those of you already familiar with their work, to have you reflect on whether they do, in fact, embody the ideal of sprezzatura in their recordings.

French cellist Pierre Fournier (1906-1986) is often called the “aristocrat of cellists”, and it is not hard to understand why. There is a confident, upright style to the way he plays a piece of music, eschewing any kind of exaggeration which, appropriately for our discussion, always strikes me as very courtly. As an example of his brilliance, I would point to Fournier’s 1961 album of Bach’s 6 Suites for Solo ‘Cello.   I particularly like his interpretation of these compositions, because there is a definite sprezzatura in these recordings, beginning with the familiar first movement of the first concerto, and continuing all the way through, though especially notable in the 5th suite.

I always feel as though Fournier approaches the music as something that is to be played bearing in mind what the composer intended, rather than as a set of parameters to be ignored as one wishes.  He keeps the pace of the music going steadily, as to my mind I would expect a musician of the early 18th century performing for members of an aristocratic court to have done.  Much as I may appreciate the work of the arguably-more-famous Miroslav Rastropovich on recordings of Romantic period composers such as Dvořák, I always think that fooling around with Baroque music and trying to romanticize it leads to a loss of focus. Trying to turn Bach into Grieg just does not work, and Fournier always understands this.

And speaking of Grieg, let us turn to the work of British pianist Sir Clifford Curzon (1907-1982), a contemporary of Fournier. I have never been able to determine whether the two of them ever recorded together, but I suspect if they did that it was either a great joy in the meeting of two kindred spirits, or it was a complete shambles. For Curzon, like Fournier, was a perfectionist when it came to his recordings, but unlike Fournier, Curzon was possessed of what became a legendary level of stage fight, to the point that he could completely botch a performance because of nerves. In the last few years of his life Curzon was hardly able to perform at all, whereas Fournier was giving concerts and recitals almost until he was 80.

Curzon’s 1959 recording of the Grieg A Minor Piano Concerto, with Oivin Fjeldstad conducting the London Symphony Orchestra has become, for me anyway, THE recording of this piece. When I am out and about somewhere, perhaps driving or in a shop, and the Grieg A Minor comes on the radio, somehow I can always tell whether or not it is this Curzon recording. I say this not because there is anything noticeably strange about it, but because there is, like with Fournier’s recordings, a kind of intangible, gracious quality.  In this case, after the thunder of the 1st movement, the 2nd movement makes you want to take a small boat and glide off into a fjord, with some Nordic maiden sitting astern, languidly trailing her hand through the water. I have heard many other recordings of the Grieg, but the combination of passion and perfection which Curzon set out to achieve in his work makes this particular example my favorite.

Count Castiglione writes a great deal about the power of music in his “Book of the Courtier”, explaining that music itself, as well as the ability to perform it well, are gifts from God. “We find it used in holy temples to render praise and thanks to God,” Castiglione writes in Part I. “And we must believe that it is pleasing to Him, and that He has given it to us as most sweet alleviation for our fatigues and troubles.”

It is no surprise, then, that Castiglione goes on to write that the ideal amateur musician is one who embodies the same spirit of sprezzatura in his musical performance, as he does in all other aspects of his life:

As to music I hold the same opinion: hence I would not have our Courtier behave like many, who are no sooner come anywhere (even into the presence of gentlemen with whom they have no acquaintance), than without waiting to be urged they set about doing what they know and often what they do not know; so that it seems as if they had come only for the purpose of showing themselves, and had that for their chief profession. Therefore let the Courtier resort to music as a pastime and almost unwillingly, and not before vulgar people nor very many. And although he may know and understand that which he is doing, in this too I would have him hide the study and pains that are necessary in everything one would do well, and seem to value this accomplishment lightly in himself, but by practicing it admirably make others value it highly.

No doubt both Fournier and Curzon had to perform before some rather vulgar people in their day, and both were professional musicians rather than professional courtiers. Yet each embodies this ideal of Castiglione in their playing, a kind of perfectionism that is kept hidden, making the sound of their recordings seem effortless, and without exaggeration. Both of them are well-worth getting to know, as musicians whose sound comes about as close to sprezzatura in classical music as one can get.

Pierre Fournier (L) and Sir Clifford Curzon (R)

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