Agi Jambor, 87, pianist from Hungary who fled Nazis

February 09, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

It's been more than 70 years since Agi Jambor thrilled concert audiences in Berlin with her dynamic piano performances.

What followed was a life worthy of a Hollywood feature film -- playing Mozart sonatas with Albert Einstein, escaping Nazi persecution, a brief marriage to actor Claude Raines -- and her discovery by a Baltimore physician and musician who found her living as a recluse in a Pennsylvania farmhouse in 1987.

Miss Jambor, acknowledged as one of the world's premier Bach players, was largely forgotten by the time her life ended Monday, the day before her 88th birthday. She died of cancer at Gilchrist Center of Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson.

"She said that the last eight years had been the happiest of her life," said Dr. Joseph H. Stephens, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School and highly regarded keyboard player. He found Miss Jambor in Radnor, Pa., and moved her to Baltimore.

She lived in the Beethoven Apartments in Bolton Hill, somewhat of a Norma Desmond character from the movie "Sunset Boulevard," surrounded by her silent grand piano, her books and diaries, and her memories. There she waited for the callers who ** never came.

"She told me she was so lonely at one point in her life that she used to dial weather just to hear a human voice," said Dr. Stephens, who in 1993 performed with her in a concert at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen -- her first public performance in 15 years.

She was born in 1909 in Budapest, Hungary, the half-Jewish daughter of a wealthy businessman and a prominent piano teacher. A piano prodigy, she was playing Mozart before she could read and at age 12 made her debut with a symphony orchestra.

In 1926, the great German pianist Edwin Fisher invited her to Berlin to be his student.

In Berlin, then a thriving international city where she moved freely among the intellectuals and artists, he met Albert Einstein through his mistress, Toni Mendel.

"She asked me what I wanted for my birthday, and I said, 'Einstein!' On my birthday, I opened the door and there he was," she told The Sun in 1994.

What followed was an evening of Mozart sonatas.

"He was like a child, so endearing," she said. "Except for the

wrong notes -- I don't think he ever practiced -- he was a very good violinist."

In the early 1930s, at the height of her popularity, she fled to Paris and into exile, preferring playing practice piano in a dance studio to performing on the concert stage.

"She said she was 'tired of being famous,' and it would be one of the first of her withdrawals," said Dr. Stephens, who met her in the early 1950s when she was on the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory.

In 1933, Miss Jambor married Imre Patai, a physicist and pianist. At his urging, she entered the 1937 Chopin competition in Warsaw and won the top prize.

Miss Jambor's playing has been described as extremely refined. She was a diminutive woman with small hands, which were considered a liability for a pianist.

"She said it was 'all a matter of creative cheating and the audience never knew the difference,' " Dr. Stephens said.

"She had incredible technical ability and extraordinary sensitivity, and she couldn't stand pianists who pounded the piano. Even [when she played piano] as a senile old woman, she was still communicating something and, like all great people, she really didn't know how she did it."

Trapped with her husband when the Nazis overran Holland, and unable to escape to the United States, she later returned to Hungary, which was still neutral. She had a baby, a son who died within two weeks. A picture of the infant would remain on her bedside table the rest of her life.

The Nazis invaded in 1944 and Miss Jambor participated in the Resistance, often dressed as a prostitute in seductive clothes and heavy makeup, calling herself Maryushka.

"These were the same people who had produced Bach and Beethoven, Goethe and Schiller. I still don't understand how a country with such culture could have killed so ruthlessly," she said.

She refused to return or perform in Germany again.

"She was traumatized by the Nazis and thereafter was forever running away from the world," Dr. Stephens said.

"She once sent me a box with a piece of shrapnel and a note that said, 'This piece of shrapnel came through the window and landed on the pillow between me and my husband.' It was an odd gift and still is an odd gift," he said.

The couple came to the United States in 1947. Her husband died two years later, his health destroyed by the war.

After leaving Baltimore for Philadelphia in 1957, she began performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra, where she became a favorite soloist of Eugene Ormandy and was acclaimed by conductor Bruno Walter. She also began teaching at Bryn Mawr College, which named her professor emeritus in 1974.

She received rave reviews and made 12 recordings for Capitol Records, none of which she had in her extensive collection of personal material, Dr. Stephens said.

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