Claudio Arrau

When Arrau was a year old his father died. His mother gave piano lessons to support her three children, and after Claudio made his debut at the age of five she moved the family to Santiago de Chile so that he could study with Bindo Paoli. By 1911 the Chilean government had decided to fund Claudio’s training in Berlin. At the Stern Conservatory he studied with Martin Krause (1853–1918), a pupil of Liszt. Krause became a father-substitute for young Claudio, guiding him toward art, literature and opera. The boy had little schooling, and Krause oversaw most aspects of his life and development. At the piano Krause laid a technical foundation based not only on physical stamina and endurance but also on technique being the means to a musical interpretation. It supported Arrau throughout his long career.

The eleven-year-old Arrau caused a sensation at his Berlin debut, and was only twelve when he played Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Arthur Nikisch in Dresden. During this time Krause arranged many concerts for Arrau, but it was a privileged existence traumatically terminated when Krause died in 1918, leaving Arrau at the vulnerable age of fifteen.

Arrau never had another teacher after Krause’s death, applying his master’s methods to any new repertoire he chose to learn. He toured Europe, won the Liszt Prize in 1919 and 1920, the Ibach Prize, and the Gustav Holländer Medal. His debut with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra was with conductor Karl Muck, and he also played under Willem Mengelberg and Wilhelm Furtwängler at this time as well as returning to South America, giving concerts in Argentina and Chile. His London debut in 1922 was with Nellie Melba and Bronisław Huberman, but by this time Arrau was already suffering from depression and self-doubt. The financial support from the Chilean government had recently ceased, and his debut tour of the USA was not a great success. This period Arrau described as ‘the most difficult and unhappy years of my life’. Always shy and retiring, he decided to seek professional help for his depression from a psychoanalyst in Germany. The treatment was successful, and Arrau gained the confidence to accept a teaching post at the Stern Conservatory.

After winning the Geneva International Piano Competition in 1927, he received offers to play in Russia in 1929 and 1930. From the early 1930s he developed vast recital programmes, relying on the stamina and endurance instilled by Krause. In 1933 he gave fifteen recitals and had four orchestral dates in Mexico City, and in 1935 he performed twelve recitals in Berlin, consisting entirely of solo works by Bach. In 1936 he gave five evenings devoted to Mozart, and in 1937 four evenings to Schubert and Weber. The following year he played the complete sonatas of Beethoven in Mexico City. During World War II Arrau went to Chile, and in 1940 he decided to try his luck in America again. A Carnegie Hall recital in 1941 was a great success, leading to many engagements throughout the United States and Canada, and from then on his career was hugely successful for the next four decades. He and his wife Ruth Schneider, whom he had married in 1937, settled in America. He performed the complete sonatas of Beethoven in London and New York, and continued to tour the world. His amazing stamina enabled him to tour Europe, the USA, Brazil and Japan in the early 1980s, as he was approaching the age of eighty. In 1984 he returned to perform in Chile after refusing to play there for seventeen years due to the political regime.

Arrau was showered with awards during his career. He received the Hans von Bülow Medal from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1980, prizes and awards from UNESCO, the National Arts Prize from Chile, the Order of the Aztec Eagle from Mexico, and was made Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur by France.

Arrau’s recording career, like that of Shura Cherkassky, spanned the developments in sound recording from the acoustic era to modern digital recording.

In the early 1930s Arrau made a stunning recording of Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole and just before World War II he recorded Schumann’s Carnaval and some Chopin and Debussy for Parlophone. In 2000 the record label Music & Arts issued two compact discs of German radio broadcasts that Arrau gave in 1937 and 1938. It is a rare opportunity to hear him performing extended works, as they contain two Beethoven sonatas and a Mozart sonata as well as a performance of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat, probably dating from 1935, with Hans Rosbaud.

During the war Arrau recorded in America for Victor some sonatas by Weber and Mozart, and pieces by Bach including the ‘Goldberg’ Variations BWV 988 and the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue BWV 903. However, realising RCA had a harpsichord version by Wanda Landowska in its catalogue, Arrau decided that Bach should be played on the harpsichord and not the piano. Therefore, his version of the ‘Goldberg’ Variations was not released until the 1980s, by which time he had changed his mind again.

In 1946 Arrau began to record for Columbia, this time with another major work of Schumann, Kreisleriana Op. 16. Some fine Liszt recordings were made in 1952, including five Hungarian Rhapsodies and the Piano Concerto No. 1 with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

In 1952 Arrau recorded Beethoven’s ‘Diabelli’ Variations Op. 120 for Brunswick in New York, and a year later embarked on a recording project of the complete piano works of Chopin. However, after recording the ballades, scherzos, impromptus and Barcarolle the project was abandoned. These recordings were not released on compact disc until 2003, when they appeared in an excellent centenary tribute box-set of ten compact discs.

From 1956 to 1962 Arrau recorded for EMI/Columbia (in England), making his only recording of the complete Chopin études in 1956. It was in 1962 that Arrau began his long and fruitful association with the Philips label. The recordings, originally issued on fifty-eight LPs and latterly on forty-four CDs, cover Arrau’s mature repertoire: the complete sonatas and concertos of Beethoven, sonatas by Mozart, major works of Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and Schubert, and music by Debussy and Bach that Arrau had dropped from his public repertoire. As difficult as it is to single out anything from this huge corpus of work, mention should be made of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos Nos 4 and 5 with Colin Davis and the Dresden State Orchestra, Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor and complete Études d’exécution transcendante (which Arrau had learnt with Krause at the age of eleven), and Schumann’s Fantasie Op. 17 and Humoreske Op. 20. Although Arrau made a marvellous, magisterial recording of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor Op. 15 with Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, he surprisingly never recorded the introspective, late Klavierstücke. He himself thought one of his best recordings to be that of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in C minor, D. 958.

Arrau’s method was that each work had to be studied from every point of view, and with his wide knowledge of art and literature (which he read in seven languages) and his total relaxation at the keyboard, he remains one of the most profound of performers. Detractors have found Arrau’s later recordings to be stolid and portentous, yet to most he is an intellectual, sovereign, leonine pianist with total control over every aspect of his instrument and the music he interprets.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).