The American pianist and composer Noël Lee has died at the age of 88. Born in Nanjing, China, Lee studied at Harvard University in the US under Walter Piston, Irving Fine and Tillman Merritt, and at the New England Conservatory of Music. In 1948 he continued his education in Paris under Nadia Boulanger. He would go on to build a fine reputation, particularly in France, where he was living at the time of his death on July 15 this year.
Lee was a prolific recording artist, with over 200 LPs and CDs to his name, 14 of which received the Grand Prix du Disque. His catalogue comprises the complete Schubert piano sonatas, the entire piano works of Debussy and Ravel, and numerous works by Ives, Bartók, Stravinksy, Copland and Elliott Carter. He also made a number of albums devoted to four-hand and two-piano works in collaboration with Christian Ivaldi, and several of piano-violin duos with Gérard Poulet.
As a composer, Lee received a number of prizes, including an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1959 and second prize in the Arthur Honegger Composition Contest in 1986 for a set of piano etudes – losing out to György Ligeti. His works include completions of a number of unfinished Schubert piano sonatas (which he also recorded) alongside original orchestral, chamber, piano, vocal and film music works.
He was a visiting professor at Brandeis and Cornell Universities, and at Dartmouth College, and gave frequent workshops throughout Europe.
In 1998 the department of Cultural Affairs in the French government awarded Lee the Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres. In 1999 he received the Grand Prix de la Musique from the city of Paris and in 2004 the Grande Médaille.
Lee appeared frequently in the pages of Gramophone. In April 1973, Stephen Plaistow praised an Oryx reissue of his complete Debussy set (originally recorded for Valois in the 1960s) for its ‘sensitive projection of the movement and shape of the music, and for his acute perception of its harmonic balance and expressive weight’. Plaistow continued: ‘The attention to such fundamentals seems to me rewarding because the colour of the playing then appears to arise absolutely naturally, as a direct result.’