Claudio Arrau Talks to Alan Blyth (Gramophone, February 1972)
‘When I woke up I was a pianist’ was how Arrau described to me the start of his life. ‘I had this urge to play at four and from then on it was the only thing I wanted to do’. At that incredibly early age he was already able to play Beethoven sonatas and a year later he was giving his first recital in Santiago in Chile, his home country. When he was seven, he went to Berlin with his mother who ‘never pushed me or held me back’ and he began to study with Martin Krause, ‘who taught me that playing must be part of Weltanschauung (a world view). He chose my reading and gave me an all-round education – a real guide and mentor.
‘I had quite a career as a child prodigy. Then, when I was 15 and my teacher died, I reached a crisis. I felt deserted and thought that if I went to any other teacher it would spoil what I had learnt from Krause. Yet I knew there was so much still lacking in what I played. Up to then I had been playing intuitively. Now I began to think, to ask myself questions. Doubts clouded my mind and every problem had to be solved anew. My mother tried to help me without interfering; so did several friends who gave me intellectual and spiritual sustenance, yet for a while I more-or-less gave up my career.
‘When I felt able to resume playing, I had to fight the idea that prodigies never mature. It was vital for me to counter this prejudice and eventually I did overcome it. Managers and conductors began to realise that I was to be taken seriously as an artist. I gave various cycles in Berlin. First I undertook a Bach one – on the grand piano which I would never do today. Then Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert series followed. I was much influenced at this time by Schnabel, who was the god in Berlin’.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, Arrau felt that ‘he was so nonsensical that he couldn’t last. I was wrong and in 1935 I left Germany and went back to South America, first to Argentina, then to Chile’. Just before the war Arrau went to the United States and he dates his international career from his success at a recital in Carnegie Hall, New York, in 1941. He still remembers the programme: Schurnann’s Carnaval, Beethoven’s Op 31 No 3, Mozart’s A minor Rondo, and some Debussy or Chopin. From then on his future was assured.
Today he tries to keep his engagements down to just over a 100 a year. ‘Every concert must be an event, never become routine’. But he doesn’t mind playing the same work several times on tour. When we met he was just off to Israel to play Chopin’s First Piano Concerto 12 times. ‘There’s so much poetry in the piece I never get tired of it’. On an extended tour he usually takes three programmes with him, ‘each with a basis in the classical repertory. I used to play more Romantic music and I still like the Liszt concertos, Weber’s Konzerstuck and his E flat Concerto. Then there are some works I would love to revive, particularly Henselt’s concerto, which Busoni and D’Albert liked. Of more recent pieces I like the first two Bartok concertos, the Chavez concerto and the one by Hermann Goetz. The Chavez is a beautiful work but very difficult to play – there is a huge cadenza’.
Arrau made his first records in the 1920s for Telefunken and Parlophone. ‘I remember Islamey, some Liszt, Busoni’s Elegies and the piano Petrushka. I get these out occasionally and still find things in them I like’.
When he went to the USA. he was signed up by RCA and he remembers Weber’s C major Sonata and Beethoven’s Eroica Variations which he made for them. Then he went to American Columbia, American Decca, EMI and finally to Philips. ‘I suppose I like best my record of Schumann’s Humoresque’. He looks on records as documents. ‘Live performances are, of course, more spontaneous, and they change from day to day. Out of all these experiences you try in the studio to distill the essence and this gives you a great sense of responsibility. Of course, it worries me not having an audience but I like recording none the less. You have to pull yourself together to present something that may be valid for a long time.’
In addition to all his playing engagements, Arrau has recently found time to prepare a new edition of the Beethoven sonatas. ‘I’ve always wanted to put down my ideas about interpretation so when Peters asked me if I would like to do this edition, I quickly accepted. I have once again gone back to the manuscripts. Even the so-called Urtexts have mistakes in them. I’ve made suggestions for tempi, basing myself on Czerny and my own metronome markings. Where there are no original phrase-markings – and only then – I’ve suggested my own and the same applies to dynamics.
‘In my introductory comments, I’ve spoken about the general character of the works and more particularly about the relation of movements to each other within each sonata. This I think has been neglected. There are two volumes, the first going up to Opus 28. Another very important point: I’ve always kept Beethoven’s notation, even when it seems impossible as in the first movement of Op 2 No 2. The original fingering leaves no doubt that many passages often spread these days between two hands should be played by the right alone. This intentional difficulty is part of the expressive value of the movement and it shouldn’t be made easier. This is a very instructive example of not ironing away difficulties.’
Arrau hopes next to turn his attention to the Beethoven concertos, then to Chopin’s works. ‘There are the Henle and so-called Paderewski editions of Chopin respectively, but there is still room for another. These are purely Urtexts. I would like to prepare an interpretative one. Schubert and Debussy could also do with new editions. We must see.’
Away from music, he has an enormous range of interests, among them art, history, politics. sociology and psychology. ‘When I get interested in a subject, I make a point of getting to know everything about it.’ At home. which is in I.ong Island, he has a discerning collection of Chinese porcelain and pre-Columbian and African sculpture. He divides his time, when he is in the States, between this home and his other one in Vermont.
When we had virtually finished our ‘official’ interview, another abiding interest of Arrau’s emerged – opera, which he discusses with an authority that comes of deep knowledge and love. ‘I’m particularly interested in the relation between gesture and music of which Callas is the supreme exponent.’ His experience of the art goes back to his days in Berlin in the 1920s and before. ‘I particularly remember the great sopranos there at that time: Barbara Kemp, Claire Dux – the best Countess I’ve ever seen – Mafalda Salvatini. and Helene Wildbrunn, a wonderful Brunnhilde. Then what conductors we had – Blech (what a Carmen he directed), Erich Kleiber, Walter and Klemperer whose Don Giovanni – very modern for its time – was unforgettable’.
But Arrau doesn’t live in or dote on the past. ‘I remember seeing Battistini in Rigoletto. The singing was marvellous, of course, but as a histrionic performance it hardly existed. Today singers are much more conscious of the meaning and dramatic significance of the operas.’ He also keeps up with all the modern trends bestowing special praise on Tippett’s King Priam and Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten. ‘I think there has been a similar change of fashion in piano interpretations. I heard Paderewski, Godowsky, Hofmann, all wonderful virtuosos but belonging to a different tradition. I remember, too, hearing Saint-Saëns. He played his African Fantasy and Wedding Cake, a terrible piece. His technique was terrific but he was ice-cold. I think the pianists I most enjoyed from that time were Teresa Carrerio and Busoni.
‘Then there was Sophie Menter, Liszt’s pupil and a friend of my teacher, Krause. I recall this tremendously romantic woman tackling Liszt’s Second Concerto. She lived in Munich and she told us, with extraordinary extravagance, about playing to the nobility in old Russia and how the grand dukes threw jewels on stage for her. It is a forgotten and never-to-return era. Today we have compensations. Audiences are much more musical and attentive. Some German towns are indifferent but go to play in the university town of Tubingen and you find them understanding the most abstruse late Beethoven.’
Soft-spoken and urbane, Arrau is the typical cosmopolitan, able to converse in five languages – ‘a good few less than Rubinstein’. His wife was a singer in smaller opera houses in the Frankfurt area before they married in 1937. ‘She had reached roles such as Cherubino before we met and was about to attempt Carmen, but she felt that one performer in the household was enough. I suppose she is right but it perhaps has been a waste of a good voice’.