Claudio Arrau, renowned throughout the world as one of the supreme keyboard masters of the century, stands today at the summit of his long and legendary career, for the one artistic goal he has pursued for a lifetime: the total fusion of virtuosity and meaning.
Where other famous pianists play the piano for excitement, power or display, Arrau plays to probe, to divine, to interpret. Says Arrau, “An interpreter must give his blood to the work interpreted.”
The famed late doyen of London music critics, Sir Neville Cardus of the Guardian, explained Arrau vividly: “Arrau is the complete pianist. He can revel in the keyboard for its own pianistic sake, representing to us the instrument’s range and power, but he can also go beyond piano playing as we are led by his art to the secret chambers of the creative imagination.”
In a tribute by the Berlin Philharmonic, which bestowed the Hans von Bulow Medal on Arrau in 1980, on the occasion of the 60th Anniversary of his debut with that great orchestra, it was put even better: “When Arrau bends over the keyboard, it is as if Music and only Music itself, is flowing out of his entire body. There is not a nuance of feeling or sound that he has not mastered. His pianissimo is more eloquent, more mysterious than that of others, and his fortissimo has more depth of dimension and is more limitless.”
But a London Sunday Times interview some years back explained the Arrau mystique best of all: “One regards him as a sort of miracle; the piano is the most machinelike of instruments except the organ – all those rods, levers, little felt pads, wires, no intimate subtle human connection with it by breath, tongueing, or the string player’s direct engagement with speaking vibrations. But Arrau makes it live, like God teaching Adam on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel roof; liquid, mysterious, profound, alive.”
At 86, Arrau today is a legend in his own lifetime, not only for the penetrating profundity of his interpretations, but for a still transcendent virtuosity completely at the service of his art. Explains Arrau: “Since in music we deal with notes, not words, with chords, with transitions, with color and expression, the musical meaning always based on those notes as written and nothing else – has to be divined. Therefore any musician, no matter how great an instrumentalist, who is not also an interpreter of a divinatory order, the way Furtwangler was, or Fischer-Dieskau is, is somehow onesided, somehow without spiritual grandeur.”
Arrau is definitely not onesided or without spiritual grandeur. Having won particular fame as a great Beethoven interpreter, he is no less celebrated for his Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Brahms and Debussy. Among the famed peers of his generation, it is a range without equal.
As a Beethoven interpreter, Arrau has played cycles of the sonata and concertos throughout the world. During the Beethoven Bicentennial Year, he played the five piano concertos in London for the fifth time around and the “Emperor” Concerto in New York, London, Berlin, at the Casals Festival, at the Bonn Festival and Beethoven recitals everywhere, including New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and Zurich. He has played cycles of the complete 32 piano sonatas in New York, London, Buenos Aires, Berlin, Mexico City and most of the sonatas in Zurich, Paris and Hamburg.
The Arrau discography is equally vast. His recordings include the 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas, the five Beethoven Piano Concertos (thrice), the two Brahms Concertos (twice) and the complete works for piano and orchestra by Chopin – all on Philips Records and released throughout the world. He has also recorded a great many of the solo works of Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Debussy, Schubert and Liszt, including the awesome 12 Transcendental Etudes, a feat which he pulled off in time for his 75th birthday celebrations. Since then, he has recorded the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Boston Symphony under Sir Colin Davis, the Liszt Concertos and (for the fourth time around) the Grieg and Schumann Concertos, also with the Boston Symphony under Sir Colin Davis. For his 80th birthday celebrations in 1983, Philips Records brought out The Arrau Edition, 59 records in 8 deluxe boxes, CBS brought out a 3-record Retrospective box as did EMI, and RCA later brought out a 2-CD set consisting of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations and the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, recorded in 1941. Recently, he recorded the Beethoven Piano Concertos for the third time around, this time with the Dresden Staatskapelle under Sir Colin Davis, 12 new Beethoven Sonatas (which may form a new set of the 32), the Diabelli Variations and the complete Mozart Piano Sonatas.
Without giving up Liszt, Arrau gravitated to Beethoven. Textual fidelity and freedom of expression became his two guiding principles. In starving Germany, he managed to keep himself and his family alive, and by the time he won the famed International Geneva Prize in 1927, when he was 24 (the judges were Cortot, de Motta and Arthur Rubinstein), the great composers – Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert – had become his life. By the time Arrau was 32, he had not only played the 32 Beethoven Sonatas and all the Schubert and Mozart Sonatas as well as Weber in cycles of concerts, but also, all of the keyboard works of Bach in a series of 12 recitals which made him a legend in Berlin.
During that time, he was also playing Schumann, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, Albeniz, Ravel and Schoenberg, leading the chief music critic of the London Times, William Mann to write years later after World War II, “There are pianists who rank as outstanding in Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt. Arrau is the only pianist alive who, at any rate while he is playing, can convince people that he is the outstanding interpreter of all these composers and a good many others too.”
By the time Arrau returned to play at Carnegie Hall again, in February 1941, he felt ready and mature, and this time, his name had preceded him and the house was packed. The New York Times, along with every other paper including Time Magazine, gave him rave reviews. The following season he played over 100 concerts across the United States and Canada and had the additional distinction of being invited back to play twice in that same season with both the Boston and Chicago Symphony Orchestras.
Today, Arrau’s schedule of concerts still covers two and three continents and sometimes even more, as it did in 1958 when his world tour included the Soviet Union, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, as well as Europe, Israel, the United States, Canada, Mexico and South America – a tour which he repeated for the most part in 1974-75. In fact, with the exception of Peking, there is probably not an important city, large or small, anywhere in the world where Arrau has not been heard. During the 1981-82 season, in addition to the United States, Canada, Europe and Brazil, he also made his fifth return to Japan, capping it with a sixth triumphant return to Japan and South Korea in May 1987.
During 1982-83, the whole world of music joined in celebrating the Maestro’s 80th birthday. His Avery Fisher Hall recital at Lincoln Center in February was the official birthday celebration and was televised as was the concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Riccardo Muti on the actual birthday, February 6th. There were also TV documentaries both in London and Germany. He also picked up a new batch of birthday honors and prizes, including the International UNESCO Music Prize for 1983, the National Arts Prize from Chile, the Aztec Eagle from Mexico, a Commandatore from the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome and a Commandeur de la l’Legion de Honneur, France’s highest decoration.
As part of the continuing 80th birthday celebrations, Arrau returned to his native Chile in May 1984 as a symbol of peace after an absence of 17 years, to play as he said, “For a whole new generation which has never heard me,” and was given a reception probably without equal since the time of Paderewski’s return to Poland after World War I and Liszt’s return to Hungary under the Austrians in 1839. As the New York Times reported in a long story which was given an alert on the front page, Arrau dominated the local newspapers for weeks and his concerts in Santiago (six in eleven days) were seen and heard on TV by 80% of the nation. Until recently playing up to 100 concerts each season, Arrau has now reduced the number to around 50, leaving himself more time to record, study and read, a lifelong passion. His fervent wish: “Another hundred years just to read.”
His 85th birthday, on February 6, 1988, was another occasion for world celebration, winding up with a grand “Emperor” Concerto in London, under the direction of Sir Colin Davis, which was televised and will be brought out on video disc together with the Beethoven Concerto No. 4 under Riccardo Muti. Since 1941, Arrau and his late wife Ruth, made Douglaston, New York, their home base and also a summer home in Vermont, where he loves to retreat for rest and quiet, sometimes with his children and grandchildren and always with his beloved cats and dogs. Arrau became an American citizen in February 1979, but retains dual passports.
In 1978, Arrau completed a new Urtext Edition of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas for the famous music publishing house of Peters in Frankfurt. A performing edition, the first by a famous Beethoven interpreter since Schnabel’s in 1935, it includes all the Arrau fingerings, as well as tempi by Beethoven (where available), Czerny and Arrau and suggestions for dynamics, pedalings and performance practice.
Claudio Arrau was born in Chillan Chile, on February 6, 1903 and like most of history’s great pianists, was a child prodigy. His mother was an amateur pianist and his father an eye doctor, who died in a riding accident when Arrau was one-year old. In order to support herself and her three young children, Lucretia Leon de Arrau, an indomitable woman, began to give piano lessons. Claudio, her youngest, was allowed to sit in so she could keep an eye on him and the result was that he could read notes before he could read words. By five, the boy gave recitals both in Chillan and in Santiago and by seven, he and his entire family, including an aunt, were on their way to Berlin (the musical Mecca of that time) where the young piano genius was to study on a Government grant (by an act of the Chilean Congress) over the next ten years. In Berlin, after blundering around for two years with wrong teachers, Arrau, at ten, finally found the teacher he needed. He was Martin Krause, a pupil of Liszt’s, a famous music critic and the friend of all the great musicians of his time. Between the young boy and the grand pedagogue, it was love at first sight. For Arrau, Krause became the father he never had and to Krause, Arrau was the pupil he had been searching for. “He will be my masterwork,” said Krause, who also taught Edwin Fischer.
In Berlin, the young boy heard all the great pianists of the day; Terese Carreno, d’Albert and later, Busoni, and they all became his idols, especially Carreno and Busoni. At 15, when Krause died from the great flu epidemic of1918, Arrau was 1eft without a teacher. But so much had been imparted to him that he preferred to go on by himself, winning the famed Liszt Prize twice in a row at ages 16 and 17.
Thus, when Arrau, at 20, arrived for his Carnegie Hall debut on October 20, 1923, he was already a seasoned artist who had played throughout Europe since the age of 11, had appeared with Nikisch in Leipzig at 12, and at 17, had made smash debuts both in London (at the Royal Albert Hall) and in Berlin with the Berlin Philharmonic under Karl Muck.
Arrau had come to the United States for a promised tour of 30 dates and found himself with only five (in those days things like that happened even to veterans like Carreno and Busoni): three concerts in New York and appearances with the Boston and Chicago Symphonies. Boston under Monteux and Chicago under Stock were splendid. Carnegie Hall, with the house mostly empty, was far less so. Arrau, thinking himself a failure, returned home to Berlin no richer than he had come, and that, he says today, was probably the best thing that could have happened to him at the time, artistically-wise.
Berlin, after World War I, was boiling over with new ideas. The time of the salon pianists was about over, musicology was a new discipline and great Beethoven interpreters were coming to the fore who were to transform the art of piano playing in our time. The spirit of Busoni, d’Albert and Ansorge were still everywhere, Schnabel and Edwin Fischer were on the rise, and both freedom of expression and fidelity to the text were the order of the day.