New York — What does it take to make a career as a solo pianist, and what does it take to sustain it? In the recent past I was able to hear six artists at differing stages of their careers. Vladimir Horowitz is probably the most popular, sought-after solo keyboard player of the day. Rudolf Serkin is the reigning master of the German tradition. Moura Lympany has not played in America for more than 16 years, but her name was household material in her native Britain, and to collectors of early Angel LPs her Chopin was sought after.
Earl Wild has had a solid, steady career for much of his professional life. Nina Lelchuk emigrated from the Soviet Union, and has been trying to reestablish herself in the United States as a pianistic name to reckon with. Cynthia Raim has had great difficulty getting a legitimate career under way.
All of them play well - even exceptionally. But only two of the above guarantee any sort of box office when their names are announced - Horowitz and Serkin. Mr. Wild garnered a full Carnegie Hall, somewhat for his own reputation, but mostly for an unusual program. Miss Lympany gathered a small but receptive crowd. Miss Raim was offered as the ''bonus'' free concert to subscribers of the 92nd Street YWCA concert series. Miss Lelchuk received remarkable notices for her Carnegie Hall debut, and on the basis of those her presenters assayed another recital.
Horowitz and Serkin enjoyed important careers in their respective youths. Miss Lympany was highly acclaimed in earlier days. In the US Miss Lelchuk is attempting to regain the renown she had in the Soviet Union, in an increasingly crowded US market of Soviet emigre musicians.
Miss Raim, on the brink of a career, garners more praise than actual fame. She is a no-nonsense, direct-to-the-core musician, the first woman (and the second American) to win the Clara Haskil Competition in Switzerland (1979). She placed first in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Competition (1977). Her stage manner and keyboard address are simple, direct. She is a pure, unfussy artist, with high musical ideals. Music is her love, not showmanship. Idiosyncrasy is not a word one would ever apply to her. We will never read about her eating habits, shared with the public to keep her in the news.
Her poetic insights into the Rachmaninoff ''Variations on a Theme by Corelli'' and her ability to manage with ease the stiff technical requirements only reinforced any favorable impression. Her volatile, brilliantly inflected account of the Bartok Sonata captured the visceral, aggressive gamut of the music, and her profound account of the Beethoven A-flat major Sonata, Op. 110, eschewed the sort of ethereal sentimentality that often corrupts the piece in performance. Two generous encores only confirmed Miss Raim's impressive accomplishments. If excellence of this sort cannot find an important niche in America's musical life, something is profoundly wrong.
Horowitz was a legend before his sudden retirement in the early '50s. His legend grew more lofty when he came out of retirement in the mid-60s. Of late he has stayed in the news not just because he still plays so well (which he does), not just because his records are so consistently fine (which they are), but because he goes to discos and will only appear in cities where he can dine on fresh Dover sole and sleep in rooms with black velvet drapes.
True, these eccentricities and foibles have nothing to do with his playing, but there is something of the mischievous gamin (however unsuited he is to that role today) that marks his playing as well. One is just as apt to hear a willful , almost meddlesome personality at work on a Chopin ''Ballade'' as one is to hear a profound musician unfolding his latest insights into the piece at hand.
At the Metropolitan Opera House he offered a half-hour of his beloved Scarlatti - superbly controlled, exquisitely textured and shaped, yet never altogether convincing this listener that a modern piano is right for this composer's music. The two Chopin ''Ballades'' in question - F minor and G minor - were Horowitz at his quirkiest. At his best, he was magical, at his worst, merely mannered, even willful, ultimately distorting line and proportion.
Serkin is the antithesis of Horowitz - direct and to the point. In addition, he is supremely honest. His world revolves around making music, sharing his ever-deepening insights into the works at hand. He shuns publicity, letting his artistry speak for - and sell - itself.Nowadays, the fingers do not always work the way he would like (as was often the case in his Carnegie Hall appearance), and he is even honest about that. Serkin never tries to hide weaknesses, even in so familiar a piece as Beethoven's C minor Sonata (Op. 13, ''Pathetique''), which was fraught with problems. His integrity is admirable, his masterly musicmaking treasurable.
What I heard of Earl Wild's recital (he overlapped with Horowitz) easily demonstrated his status as a concert pianist of the first rank. His unusual program was devoted to ''The Art of Transcription.'' Clearly piano fans were intrigued.
The first half included Gluck-Sgambati, Rameau-Godowsky, Bach-Tausig, Wagner-Moszkowski, and Rachmaninoff transcriptions of Rimsky-Korsakov, Kreisler, and Mendelssohn. The delicate simplicity of the Gluck ''Melodie d'Orfee'' set the tone for the entire program. The choices these various noted piano virtuosi made in adapting familiar nonpiano music for the keyboard proved never less than fascinating.
Wild's career has been abetted by a string of recordings for the erstwhile Reader's Digest series, now being made available on the Quintessence label. His cycle of the four Rachmaninoff concertos (with Jascha Horenstein and the Royal Philharmonic) remains the most satisfying integral set on the market today. It is primarily through records and his long association with the late Arthur Fiedler that Wild's name has remained in the forefront.
Miss Lympany's Chopin recordings have long ceased to be available in this country, and her name seems to have faded from people's minds, as was evident from the small audience gathered for her Carnegie Hall return. Yet the program she offered, and the manner in which she played it, revealed a pianist of uncommon warmth, dignity, poetry, and fluency - the qualities on which she built her career in the first place.
Her second half showcased her strengths - the quiet passage and the long, sustained, hushed phrase. She proved to be a captivating tonal painter.
Nina Lelchuk may have a lot to say in the Russian music so close to her heart - Medtner, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin - but in Chopin and Liszt, she is a puzzling artist. The technique is large, and she has sensitivity to her playing, yet also , sad to say, tremendous quantities of annoying mannerisms. So eccentric and misshappen was her Chopin, one never remotely understood her viewpoint of the music. The Liszt ''Rhapsodie espagnole,'' a study in superinflated vacuity, she managed with superb aplomb. But even in her ''native'' music she tended so to suffuse the line with tempo variations, odd pauses, and other attempts at ''individuality'' that the underlying pulse was never convincingly captured.