Claudio Arrau:

The Early Years (The Complete Pre-War Recordings)


The name Claudio Arrau (1903-1991) is familiar to all piano devotees. His legendary career, marked by extraordinary performances, accolades and recordings, spanned eight decades. And yet, the pre-war recordings of Arrau exhibit a completely different artistry than those he later made. Arrau's later work, the stereo LP recordings, reveal the seasoned, polished and philosophical master. The early recordings, with much repertoire never played later in his career, demonstrate a young artist taking risks, being spontaneous and displaying great virtuosity. The result is pianism with fire, vitality and drama.

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Liner Notes

Claudio Arrau, one of the commanding piano titans of our time, enjoyed a career which spanned both ends of the twentieth century. He played his first recital in his native Chile in 1908, while his last concerts there took place in his ninth decade, in 1984. Arrau was one of the most prolifically recorded pianists of all time, with the lion’s share of his discography dating from after World War Two, when his international reputation solidified. He made relatively few recordings before then, but that group of early Arrau recordings nevertheless constitutes an important legacy in the annals of recorded pianism, gathered complete here for the first time.

Born on 6 February 1903 in Chillán, Chile, Arrau was exposed to music first through his mother, who played and taught piano. His unusual musical preciosity manifested itself early. By the time he was three he could discern composers and he began to read music before he learned the alphabet. At his first recital in the Municipal Theatre in Chillán, the five year old played works by Beethoven, Schumann, Mozart, and Chopin. Of course the Chilean newspapers labeled him “A Second Mozart.” With the government of his country providing financial support, the prodigy, his mother and two siblings were sent to Berlin in 1911 where Arrau could study with masters of the piano.

His first lessons there were with Waldemar Lütschg (1877–1948), a pupil of his father, who had studied with both Moscheles and Henselt, and with Paul Schramm (1892–1954), a Leschetitzky pupil. Two years later Arrau encountered Martin Krause, the man whose teaching and influence would leave a permanent imprint on his art and life. Krause (1853–1918) had played for Liszt in 1883, according to Nicholas Slonimsky in the Seventh Edition of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary, “and for three years, until Liszt’s death, was in constant communication with the master and his pupils.” Krause was one of the founders, and became the mainstay of the Liszt Society in Leipsig. He was also a highly respected music critic, and had taught in Dresden and Munich before joining the faculty of Berlin’s famous Stern Conservatory. Another great pianist, also from Chile and at the time herself a pupil, brought Arrau to meet her teacher, Krause. It was the as yet unsung Rosita Renard (1894–1949), later to become one of the great pianists of the century.

“He was quite tired already,” recalled Arrau many years later. “I’m sure he must have wanted to stop teaching. But then he must have thought, ‘This material is so pliable; something can really be made out of this material.’” Krause wrote a glowing recommendation to admit Arrau into the Stern Conservatory, and took the boy under his wing. He listened to Arrau’s practicing, planned his general education and even supervised his meals. “We would take walks together nearly every day, for half an hour. Krause would also take me to museums. And he decided what operas I should hear.” In many respects Krause represented a father figure, since Arrau’s own father had died when he was an infant. Krause never charged Arrau a fee for his tutelage and mentoring.

These formative years for Arrau took place in Berlin during the city’s extraordinary cultural boom between the two great wars. Two pianistic icons particularly stood out then, both for their mammoth programs and for the passionate, subjective force of their playing. Arrau recalled the final Berlin concerts of Teresa Carreño and Feruccio Busoni.

“Just a few months before she died in 1917, I heard Carreño do the Greig, Chopin and Tchaikovsky concerti. In one evening she played the last three Beethoven concerti and it made an unforgettable impression on me and influenced me a lot. Everything was loose and relaxed, using the whole body to get the power of the piano. She was the first one I ever saw play like that.”

He was similarly overwhelmed by Busoni’s creative personality and his “extraordinary sense of rhythm.” Outstanding impressions were the Beethoven “Hammerklavier” sonata, Liszt’s sonata, and his own “Fantasia Contrapuntistica.” Arrau often spoke of performers who possessed “powers of devination” such as pianists Edwin Fischer (also a Krause pupil), Edward Erdmann and conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. Arrau said the greatest musical experiences of his life were the concerts he heard with Busoni, and the ones he played himself under Furtwängler’s baton in the 1930s.

Arrau’s adolescent career flourished in Germany, pushed by Krause’s advocacy and social and professional contacts. His formal Berlin debut came in 1914, with subsequent tours of Germany and Scandanavia. Well on his way towards making a successful transition from prodigy to adult master, and garnering rave reviews along the way, he was suddenly left at a standstill when Krause died at the age of sixty- five in 1918; Arrau was only fifteen. The loss of an anchoring, decisive role model proved professionally and psychologically difficult for the adolescent pianist. The impact of Krause’s teaching was so great that Arrau never sought out nor desired any other teacher.

More than merely “scraping by”, however, Arrau won the Liszt prize for the second time in 1920. The same year he played the Schubert-Liszt Wanderer Fantasy at his Berlin Philharmonic debut with conductor Karl Muck, and also made his London debut the same year. There he played Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and later shared a program with the Australian soprano, Dame Nellie Melba, who “objected that I had too many bows after Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody. She went up to me backstage and said, ‘That’s enough, young man.’”

Nineteen hundred and twenty-three and 1924 brought Arrau to the United States for the first time, but the tour was not a financial success. He returned to an inflation-ridden Berlin virtually penniless, and struggled to regain his footing. Seeking help, Arrau engaged a Jungian analyst, and a bond between the two was formed which lasted for many years. Through their work together the pianist was able to put his prodigy years behind him, and in 1926 Arrau returned to the Stern Conservatory as a professor of piano, a position which he maintained until 1940. He entered and won the 1927 Concours International de Pianistes in Geneva, where the jury included Alfred Cortot, Jose Vianna da Motta, Josef Pembauer and Arthur Rubinstein, who recalled the occasion in the second volume of his memoirs: “I had first heard about (Arrau’s) talent in Chile, where he had been a child prodigy, so I was wondering why he entered the competition. It was like a race between a thoroughbred and some cart horses.”

Arrau had made only one recording so far, an acoustic Vocalion disc dating from 1921, on which a weighty and almost epic Schubert Moment Musical in F Minor is revealed as something quite different from the charming, “encore-type” piece pianists of the 78 rpm era usually made it out to be—but similar, in fact, to the version Arrau recorded seventy years later, just before his death in 1991. Arrau began recording for HMV Electrola in 1927 and a year later he made ten sides for German Gramophone.

On all these recordings we can hear Arrau’s youthful, fiery exuberance, thoughtful musicianship and his absolute mastery of the instrument. Beneath the daunting pianistic surface of Balakirev’s Islamey, described by the composer as “an oriental fantasy,” lurks a searching soul. The piece was required for all the Geneva contestants and Arrau controls the thorny textures and scales the climaxes with bounding authority. The incisive performance of the “Danse russe” from Stravinsky’s Petrushka is notable for the unsplintered eveness of the fluent chording. Russian music disappeared from Arrau’s repertoire later, as did the Busoni Sixth Sonatina, better known as the “Chamber Fantasy on Carmen,” a work also recorded in the 78 rpm era by two Busoni pupils, Egon Petri and Michael von Zadora. Arrau’s performance more than holds it own in comparison with those two superb versions, and his recording of Busoni’s Elegie No. 5, with its shimmering, deep–in–the–keys voicings and weighty sonority, arguably surpasses Petri’s melodically elegant recording.

Arrau’s early Liszt recordings embody both the serious and the glittering sides of his youthful persona. Martin Krause certainly bequeathed numerous Lisztian insights to his pupil. Arrau told an interviewer:

... There is a Liszt way of playing. The foremost ingredient is a free way of playing, with the ability to encompass great muscular endurance, large stretches and the use of the whole arm from the shoulder. Perfect bel canto playing is also required in melodic passages, and great chordal command. Krause taught me the myriad ways Liszt had of breaking a chord. It was never played with all the notes the same, but rolled either upwards or downwards, fast or slow, in crescendo or decrescendo, and countless other ways... Trills too were to be played... as a means of expression, so that one played slow trills, fast trills, loud trills, soft trills, everything to bring out what a particular trill was meant to convey. But perhaps the greatest thing I absorbed from Krause as part of the Liszt mystique or Weg (way) was an utter devotion to the work to be played—to be totally and profoundly in the service of the music before you.

In his youthful recordings of Liszt’s Au bord d’une source, La leggeriezza and Valse mélancolique, Arrau permits the music’s wistful qualities to speak for themselves. His relatively straight traversal of the Schubert/Liszt Hark, Hark, the Lark! projects the melody line as a great lieder singer might, in contrast to Ignaz Friedman’s more opulent and pianistically-oriented approach on his contemporary recording. Poetry and pyrotechnics prove compatible bedfellows in Arrau’s performance of the Rhapsodie espagnole. The recording captures the pianist’s multi–dimensional timbre with remarkable fidelity for the period. Small cuts were necessary to prevent the work from spilling over to three sides.

Minor nips and tucks are also sprinkled across a group of four of the six Paganini/Liszt Etudes. The pianism, though, is absolutely uncompromising. Arrau’s poetic athleticism can be illuminating, especially when comparing his performance of the “Octave” (Etude No. 2 in E-flat) with the 1928 recording by Vladimir Horowitz, who made his salient points through rhythmic propulsion, and the ferocity of his hair-trigger octaves. Arrau shapes the same passages to completely different effect, imparting a kind of operatic subtext, which involves rather than wows the hearer. It is also fascinating to juxtapose Arrau’s justifiably famous 1928 recording of Les jeux d’eau a la Villa d’Este with his own broader and more luminous 1969 version.

One does not turn to Arrau’s early Chopin for intimate pleasure and surface charm. The sheer speed and jaw-dropping precision of the Tarantelle, or the firmly-etched rotary passages in the faster Etudes never draw attention to themselves. Neither do the quicksilver yet lustrous octaves of the Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp Minor. The darting fioratura passages in the Ballade No. 3 in A-flat are treated like rapid melodies, shaped with the insight and care for detail which Maria Callas brought to bel canto cadenzas.

Two selections by Debussy reveal Arrau’s scrupulous attention to details and his conviction that music should be “played out,” with unabashed expression and a full dynamic range. Those accustomed to Walter Gieseking’s patented half–tints and pastels are often surprised by Arrau’s primary colors and beefier sonorities in this repertoire. I personally prefer the clarity and tighter rhythm of Arrau’s later (1949) recording of Jardins sou la pluie to this plusher version. The whirling Danse is a charming souvenir from the days when the pianist played encores, a practice which he eschewed in his later career.

Schumann’s Carnaval is the only large–scale, multi–movement work which Claudio Arrau recorded before the war, although German radio broadcasts (circa 1938) survive of the Liszt First Concerto, Mozart’s D Major Sonata, K. 576, and Beethoven’s D Major Sonata, op. 10, no. 3. Technique and inspiration mesh triumphantly as the pianist looks the composer’s volatile mood swings straight in the eye, so to speak. The microcosmic musings which sometimes hold up the action in the pianist’s heavier-gaited 1967 Carnaval recording are to be found nowhere here. One wonders had the recording been issued in the United States, would it have attracted the same critical attention garnered by the storied Rachmaninov and popular Myra Hess editions, brought out by RCA Victor? In any event, Arrau featured Carnaval in the program of his 1941 Carnegie Hall return recital, to rave reviews, which effectively launched the American career which had earlier eluded his grasp. Claudio Arrau died in Austria on 9 June 1991.

© Jed Distler, 1999

Sources cited:

Conversations with Arrau, Joseph Horowitz, p. 42 (Alfred A. Knopf, 1983)
My Many Years, Arthur Rubinstein (Alfred A. Knopf, 1980)
Interview with Peter Warwick, Chester, Vermont, 31 July 1996
Pianists at Play, interview with Dean Elder (The Instrumentalist Company, 1982)