According to the biographical dictionaries, Claudio Arrau is a pianist who was born in Chillan, Chile, on February 6, 1903, played in public at the age of five, studied in Germany with Martin Krause, has toured extensively in Europe since 1914, made his United States debut in 1923, won the Grand Prix International des Pianistes at Geneva in 1927, and settled in the United States in 1941.
Arrau at Philharmonic Hall.
According to various critics, he is a man with "no equal at the present time in point of technical stature and depth of musical imagination," "the No. 1 pianist of our time," a "pianistic titan," a "lion of the piano," or, if you like, a "neo-Liszt from the Tropic of Capricorn."
Somewhere between the statistics and the metaphors there is a human being - industrious, curious, sensitive, devoted and extremely talented. As he embarks on his seventh decade, he enjoys the usual domestic privileges (he has a wife, three children, several grandchildren, two cats, three dogs and a home on Long Island), and also the unusual privileges which come with international fame. He has received many awards and citations (he is an "Hijo Predilecto" or "Favorite Son" of Mexico, and streets have been named after him in Santiago and Chillan); and his artistic services are in demand all over the world. For the last 20 years, he has averaged 120 concerts a season. Equally astounding is the extent of Arrau's repertoire. At one time or another, he has performed the complete keyboard works of Bach, Beethoven and Chopin; he has also programed such off-the-beaten-path composers as Alkan and Busoni and illuminated obscure corners of the Liszt repertoire. Complete cycles of the Beethoven sonatas or piano concertos are not unusual for this seasoned performer; last spring, he did the sonata cycle in four different cities. It has been estimated that Arrau's total repertoire would carry him through 76 recital evenings, not counting the 60-odd works with orchestra which he also knows.
Like many virtuosos, Arrau was a child prodigy. But, unlike many virtuosos, there had never been a professional musician in his family. His mother, who was an amateur pianist, introduced him to the instrument, and at the age of four he was reading Beethoven sonatas. A year later, he gave a public recital. (He did not make his official debut in Santiago, however, until he had reached the ripe old age of seven.) In 1910, the Chilean government sent the whole Arrau family to Germany, where the young Claudio could study with Martin Krause, one of Liszt's pupils.
On February 6, Claudio Arrau, looking a spry 50, celebrated his 60th birthday. His concert schedule on the West Coast gave him just enough time to fly to New York for the evening and back to Seattle the following day.
The birthday party, complete with enormous becandled cake, took place in his Douglaston (Long Island) home, the repository of what might well be called the Arrau Collection of art objects from all corners of the world: Russian icons, pre-Columbian vases, Chinese figurines, African statues, modern paintings, and a huge library of books in seven languages. lt was a large party numerically, but Arrau's friendly, unpretentious manner created an atmosphere of intimacy and warmth. The somewhat outof-tune rendition of "Happy Birthday," performed without conductor was a heartfelt tribute to a gentleman and a scholar - and one of the great artists of our time.
Arrau was only 15 when Krause died, but he did not continue formal study after that point. He had already begun concertizing in Europe, and whatever barriers may have remained between the talented youth and mature artistry he worked out on his own.
At 21 he descended on the United States in appearances with Pierre Monteux and the Boston Symphony and with Leopold Stokowski and the Chicago Symphony. Since that time, he has made 22 American tours, and performed in practically every musical center in the country. The Beethoven sonata cycle which he began in Phil- harmonic Hall in New York last fall was the first recital series to be presented by a pianist in the new hall. Unfortunately, illness interrupted the cycle, but not until over 10,500 persons attended the first four programs.
In addition to his American tours, Arrau has continued to be active abroad. His achievements during almost 50 years of concertizing in Western Europe are too numerous to mention here, for a single tour can be a very busy affair. In the spring of 1962, for example, he gave 12 concerts in 15 days in Israel, just before presenting a concerto marathon (nine concertos in three concerts) with the London Philharmonic in its home city; in June of the same year, he became the first pianist since Schnabel to play a cycle of the five Beethoven concertos with the Concertgebouw Orchestra.
A current highlight of Arrau's foreign touring is his return to the Soviet Union this season. Under the auspices of the State Department, he left in late February for what will be his first appearances there in over 30 years. Also this spring, he will be touring Germany for the 14th time in eight years.
Arrau's concert career has been remarkable, but even more remarkable (and more important) is what actually happens when he sits down at the piano to play, for example, one of the Beethoven sonatas. Like all the finest performers, he has acquired that ability which is essential to great performance - the ability to become so intimately involved with the composer and his ideas that the composition seems to play itself rather than to be interpreted. As Arrau himself explains it: "Between Beethoven and me it is a 50-50 combination. It is all of Beethoven as with the grace of God I can know him, and all of me through which I pour him out to my listeners. I pray for nothing to stand between us, and when I am finished with a Beethoven evening I feel both elated and emptied out, as if I myself had somehow helped write those fantastic works."
By Thomas F. Johnson, in MUSICAL AMERICA, March, 1963.
Return to home page.