G. Johansen, piano virtuoso, composer, dies

May 28, 1991|By New York Times News Service

Gunnar Johansen, a Danish-born pianist of extraordinary energy and scope, died Saturday at his home in Blue Mounds, Wis. He was 85.

He died of liver cancer, said his wife, Lorraine Johnson Johansen.

Mr. Johansen was the first musician to be appointed artist in residence at an American university. He held that post at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, from 1939 to 1976, during which he taught at the school and performed several series of concerts on the radio.

Among these were traversals of the Schubert and Beethoven Sonatas and the complete keyboard works of Chopin and Mozart. In one notable series he traced the evolution of Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsodies" from their earliest versions to their finished form.

In the 1950s he shifted the focus of his performing activity from radio concerts to recording. He established his own label, Artist Direct, and produced a vast discography that includes 50 albums of Liszt works, 43 albums of Bach -- performed on the piano, harpsichord, virginals and a double-keyboard piano -- and seven recordings each of the piano music of Ferruccio Busoni and Ignaz Friedman.

He was also a prolific composer. A catalog of his works includes hundreds of solo piano pieces, with 31 sonatas, three concertos and several choral works. Among his recordings are some 400 sonatas he improvised before the microphones, compositions he called tape tapestries.

Mr. Johansen was born in Copenhagen on Jan. 21, 1906. Two years after beginning piano lessons at the age of 10, he undertook a tour of Scandinavia. In 1920 he went to Berlin, where he studied with Egon Petri and Frederic Lammond. During the late 1920s he toured in Europe, and in 1929 he moved to San Francisco, where he was engaged to play weekly radio recitals by NBC.

In the 1930s Mr. Johansen began touring with what he called the Historical Series, a dozen concerts that traced the history of keyboard music. After he played the series at the University of Wisconsin in 1937, he was invited to become the school's artist in residence.

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