Lili Kraus: an introduction to the icon of the piano | Gramophone

2022-07-22 21:58:10 By : Ms. Kitty Chen

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Patrick Rucker explores the career of the Hungarian-born pianist Lili Kraus, who left a significant recorded legacy

Those who heard Lili Kraus (1903-86) in concert seldom forgot the experience.

There was her regal bearing as she swept on stage in one of her full-length gowns (often made of cloth of gold), her three-strand pearl necklace and her diamond earrings.

See also: 50 of the greatest classical pianists on record

Personal warmth radiated when she spoke to the audience, as she often did, in her heavily accented but beautifully enunciated English.

Everything seemed calculated to invite and beguile, which of course it did.

As she sat at the piano, however, her demeanour became intensely focused, all concentration and seriousness.

She once said, ‘The true artist has two sacred duties: first, absolute fidelity to the text; and, second, complete identification with every note he plays.’

That was her philosophy and she lived by it.

And in the 55 years since I heard her speak those words, I don’t know that I’ve encountered a better description of the work of a classical performer.

Her career was a long and fruitful one, spanning the aftermath of the First World War until her retirement four years before her death in 1986.

In practical terms, it was a career cut in half by three years’ internment in a Java prison camp by the occupying Japanese forces.

She maintained that her vocation as a pianist was threefold, encompassing performance, teaching and recording.

For an instrumentalist born in 1903, her understanding that any artistic legacy would be weighted towards the recording studio was perhaps prescient.

Steve Roberson’s 2000 biography of Kraus contains a discography of 104 items.

She was the first pianist to record Beethoven’s Eroica Variations, Schubert’s A minor Sonata, D845, and any Haydn piano trio (she recorded several with Szymon Goldberg and Anthony Pini).

Kraus had a full, richly resonant sound at the instrument, accommodating extremes of dynamic contrast.

Her rhythmic élan was impeccable, contributing to the freshness and spontaneity of everything she played.

Today one might call her interpretations highly personal.

Her unique point of view was arrived at only after long and careful consideration.

At the same time, this quest for personal expressivity in the music at hand was tempered by a thoroughly 20th-century ‘objectivity’ characteristic of the Artur Schnabel school.

It is worth noting here that the exquisite sense of proportion that lends her recordings of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert their enduring interest was not exclusively instinctual, but had a scientific basis as well.

As early as the 1930s, Kraus proposed recording Mozart on an antique instrument but met with resistance from her producers, who were wary of marketing such an unusual sound.

Yet long before the ‘original-instrument movement’ had taken up late 18th-century pianos, Kraus acquired an antique Stein piano and began exploring its resources.

During a 1960s television broadcast, she said, ‘Work on the Mozart piano taught me more truth about Mozart than anything else.’

Naturally, her repertoire became more focused as she matured, eventually consisting primarily of the four Viennese classical masters, Bartók and, very rarely, Bach.

However, a publicity flyer from 1930 shows a less homogeneous repertoire on offer, including Liszt’s E flat Concerto and Wanderer Fantasy transcription, the Rachmaninov C minor Concerto, Schumann’s G minor Sonata and Symphonic Études, a good deal of Chopin and, under the rubric of ‘modern composers’, Bartók, Kodály, Albéniz, Debussy, Mussorgsky and Géza Frid, along with much else.

The two lodestars of her pianistic universe were Bartók, one of her teachers at the Royal Academy of Music in her native Budapest, and Schnabel, with whom she studied in Berlin well after her international career was under way.

An ardent chamber musician, Kraus collaborated during the mid-1930s with Goldberg in the Beethoven violin sonatas, which proved to be her breakthrough recordings.

Following her debut as a concerto soloist in 1921 in the Netherlands with the Beethoven Fourth Concerto, she was soon appearing with orchestras throughout Europe.

The conductors under whom she most enjoyed playing were Wilhelm Furtwängler, with whom she unfortunately did not record, and Pierre Monteux, with whom she did.

With so many fine, representative recordings – for instance, three Schubert discs and one of Bartók, made for Vanguard in the late 1970s and 1980 and reissued in the 1990s for Omega – it is difficult to single out one ‘defining’ recording.

In addition to my choice here, the superb 31-disc set released by Erato in 2014, titled ‘Lili Kraus: The Complete Parlophone, Ducretet-Thomson, Les Discophiles Français Recordings, 1933-1958’, is warmly recommended.

Lili Kraus pf Vienna Festival Orchestra / Stephen Simon

These were recorded in Vienna prior to Kraus’s performances of the 25 solo concertos in a series at New York’s Town Hall during the 1966-67 season. Retaining their stylistic edge, these readings embody her lifelong devotion to Mozart. She uses his cadenzas where extant, and Beethoven’s for K466. The rest are her own.

1911 – Enters Royal Academy of Music, Budapest, aged eight

Born in Budapest, April 3 1903. At academy is taught by Árpád Szendy; later studies with Leo Weiner, Bartók and Kodály.

Studies with Severin Eisenberger and contemporary music with Edward Steuermann at the Vienna conservatory, where she herself becomes a full professor in 1923.

1921 – Orchestral debut in the Netherlands

European career launched by playing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with the Orchestra of The Hague under Ignaz Neumark.

With a burgeoning career, now married and with the first of two children, Kraus moves to Berlin to study with Artur Schnabel.

For Parlophone-Odeon: Chopin Waltz in E minor, Mozart Rondo alla turca.

Establishes duo with violinist Szymon Goldberg.

With Europe descending into war, embarks on a world tour; later becomes trapped in Java by Pacific War; arrested and interned by the Japanese.

1966-67 – Complete Mozart concertos at New York Town Hall

Presented in nine concerts – the first time this has been done in the city. Subsequent New York seasons: presents Mozart sonatas and Schubert piano music in tandem with recordings. 1967: settles in US.

Rheumatoid arthritis forces her to stop giving concerts and teaching.

Following five intestinal surgeries, dies surrounded by family.

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