Claudio Arrau: a generalist in his diligent approach to playing all the masters APPRECIATION

June 10, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

With the death of Claudio Arrau yesterday, yet another nail has been driven into the coffin of 19th-century Romantic pianism. Like Rudolf Serkin and Wilhelm Kempff, who recently died, the 88-year-old Arrau had been trained in the early years of the century by men who were the intimates of, and had been trained themselves by, the likes of Brahms and Liszt.

Whenever a great pianist dies, one automatically thinks of what he or she played with singular excellence. With Rubinstein one remembered his Chopin, with Horowitz his Liszt, with Serkin his Beethoven. With the Chilean-born Arrau that kind of pigeon-holing is harder to do: He was the pianist who specialized in everything.

Claudio Arrau was a memory machine, a floppy disc in whom was encoded almost all the important piano music ever written. He was one of the 20th century's great prodigies -- the Chilean government sent him to Berlin to study at the age of 5 -- and before he was out of his 20s he had given cycles of Bach's complete keyboard works, the complete Mozart works for solo piano and the complete Beethoven piano sonatas. He also played nearly all the important works of Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, Ravel, Brahms and Schumann. Most pianists know 20 concertos -- rarely more. When Arrau was at his peak, there were almost 70 concertos in his fingers. With the exception of most Russian music -- he played everything.

He also played with a seriousness of purpose that could make other pianists seem like dilettantes and with a respect for the composer's score that bordered on veneration. Arrau had nothing but scorn for pianists who played the double chromatic scale at the end of Chopin's B Minor Scherzo in alternating

octaves because it was easier to impress the audience or who played the opening of Beethoven's Opus 111 with two hands instead of one because there were fewer risks. If something was technically difficult, Arrau assumed that the composer had written it that way because the difficulties had an expressive value that it was the interpreter's duty to find.

Arrau did not play everything well. His sometimes ponderous seriousness kept his Mozart from smiling and his lack of spontaneity made his Chopin sound labored. But in much of his repertory -- particularly Schumann, Liszt and the weightier works of Beethoven -- he could produce revelations. No one ever played Beethoven's Opus 111 better: He made the first movement sound like thunder that came ever closer and in the final movement, he played the chains of trills with such exquisite finish and expressive perfection that a listener felt that he had been transported to a higher realm.

Curiously, it took Arrau a long time to become established in the United States. His first concert tour in the 1920s was a disaster. And though he made this country his base in 1940, it took him almost 30 years before he was regarded as one of the world's greatest pianists -- long after he had achieved such status in Europe and Japan.

Perhaps Americans didn't know what to make of Arrau. He was a South American pianist who played the Germanic repertory in an echt-Teutonic manner and he was a Beethoven specialist who also specialized in Liszt.

Arrau also represented a different kind of German pianism than that of either Artur Schnabel or Rudolf Serkin who were also refugees from Nazism. Serkin and Schnabel may have read Schopenhauer or Nietzsche, but it didn't show in their playing. With Arrau it did -- as did Etruscan or pre-Columbian art, Jungian psychoanalysis or modern dance or anything else the pianist was interested in. If Serkin and Schnabel represented the kind of German art that was single-mindedly devoted to the text, Arrau's was the kind that believed that music must encompass everything. When Arrau was at his best, it did.

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