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Born in 1903, the slight Claudio Arrau — not even 5'5" tall — was a contemporary of such piano greats as Solomon (b. 1902), Vladimir Horowitz (1903), Rudolf Serkin (1903), Clifford Curzon (1907) and Shura Cherkassky (1909). Semi-orphaned, he went to Berlin at age ten, where he was under the musical and familial tutelage of Martin Krause, himself one of the last students of Franz Liszt. After Krause died five years later, Arrau continued his studies autodidactically. In 1941 he moved to the United States, where he made New York his new home.
The Chilean, who would become one of the keyboard giants of the twentieth century, developed his reputation with a style of nobility and regal quiet, playing of depth and ardency. The power he wielded was never ostentatious, the immense talent he governed over never flashy. His trademarks were accuracy and precision embedded in seriousness.
from the Steinway Archives
In the glory days through the waning days of the LP, every recording of his was considered an event. This was much helped by the close and warm, glorious sound the Philips engineers gave him on his records, starting with the Beethoven cycle that laid the foundation of his discographic fame. When Claudio Arrau undertook his Beethoven cycle for Philips in 1962, there had only been four complete sets ever made. Arrau was also the first pianist to record the Goldberg Variations, back in 1941, but fate saw the release was delayed and apparently forgotten, until 1988.
Steinway artist Tzimon Barto remembers his exposures to Arrau: “I saw him live once, at Carnegie; an elegant, small man, stepping on stage to play Beethoven, [playing] piano like he sat at a backgammon board. Impetuous youth that I was, it didn’t impress me at all, mostly because I thought he was playing everything too slow. On record, too, but really, that was because I was playing everything too fast. More recently, though, I sought out to listen to as many recordings of Liszt’s Tre Sonetti di Petrarca as possible, and his were the most exquisite of them all: He played it with a real sense of bel canto and he gave it all the space it needed to develop.”
Claudio Arrau’s repertoire was catholic — all-encompassing and seemingly without any bias towards any given type of repertoire. It included most of Bach, all the Beethoven Sonatas, the complete piano music of Debussy, most Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Brahms, and Liszt. But it also included dozens of composers that were his contemporaries, both famous and now completely forgotten (think Adolf Jensen’s terrific Erotikon), as well as Scarlatti, Schoenberg, Handel, Haydn, Richard Strauss’ Burleske, Stravinsky’s Piano-Rag-Music, Albeniz, Tchaikovsky, Ravel, et cetera.
Indefatigable, Arrau kept a busy and tight schedule, before tight schedules were common place, regularly playing some one hundred fifty concerts annually, all over the world. His unimpeachable technique served him until the end of his career, which never saw his artistic powers dip. As pianist Rudolf Buchbinder told critic Klaus Kalchschmid: “I envision that my career continues somewhat like Claudio Arrau’s, with the highlight coming at the end.” Arrau stopped performing in 1989 after his second wife died. Two years later he died himself, at the age of eighty-eight. — Jens F. Laurson