Claudio Arrau was born in 1903 in Chilian, Chile. He was a child prodigy and gave his first concert at the age of 5. He was offered a scholarship and moved to Berlin, where he studied with the last pupil of Liszt, Martin Krause. Arrau is a descendant of Beethoven, as Krause studied with Liszt, who was a pupil of Czerny, who studied with Beethoven.
Krause remained Arrau’s only teacher, apart from technique which seemed innate, he learnt from Krause that a pianist should be ready to play “any moment’and that he should always give the impression that he could play 10 times faster or louder.
After Krause’s death, Arrau started touring. His first US-tour was unsuccesful. He soon experienced the problem of “transition”from a prodigy to a mature pianist and suffered from a severe depression. He managed to solve his problem with the help of psychoanalysis. Later in his life, Arrau emphasized the importance of psychoanalysis.
In the 30’s, he began to build a steady career. He also built up a very broad repertoire, which culminated in a series of 12 recitals, during which Arrau performed the complete works for keyboard by Bach, followed by cycles of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.
In 1941, he moved to the USA and maintained a very busy concert schedule of approximately 150 concerts a year. From 1960, he recorded exclusively for Philips Classics until his death in 1991. He mainly concentrated on Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Schumann, Schubert, Liszt and Debussy. At the very end of his career, he returned to Bach, but unfortunately, he could only record 4 of the 6 Partitas.
His career is fascinating in the sense that he evolved from a barnstorming virtuoso (e.g. his early recordings of Islamey, Schumann’s Carnaval or Weber’s 1st Sonata) to a deeply thoughtful, serious musician, who was increasingly famous for his depth of tone and scrupulous fidelity to the composer’s intentions.
Arrau used the weight of the arm and shoulders while playing, which enabled to draw a majestic, very orchestral sound from the piano. I once saw him play the Emperor Concerto on television and when the big fortissimo chords in the 1st movement arrived, he literally raised his upper part of the body and threw himself in the keys, producing an unforgettably rich orchestral sound. Arrau’s technique was by no means inferior to Horowitz’s, although less “flashy”and spectacular. Arrau was known for his refusal to please audiences( for instance he never played encores, even after the most rapturous ovations) and said once music was “never humorous”. The eminent British critic Sir Neville Cardus called him “a pianist who was eternally searching”. This has probably been the reason that Arrau was much respected, but not really beloved.
He was both a highly authentic Beethoven and Liszt player. His Beethoven has always been extremely austere, yet very authoritatitve. He does full justice to the typical Beethoven sforzato style In the finale of the Waldstein sonata, he impresses by his superbly articulated (especially his left hand playing was always superbly clear) coda and the massive sound he drew from the instrument. And who has ever played such beautifully floating octave glissandi or such musical trills in opus 109 and 111?
His Liszst was also deeply serious and especially fascinating in the darker works like the 2nd Ballade or the B-minor Sonata. Who has played a more musical and impressive tremolo after the Presto stretta octave section? Or what a magnificent non percussive sound he drew from the instrument in the Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude. In his 70’s, Arrau recorded the complete Etudes d’excécution transcendante, which was a formidable achievement and where his technique only occasionally showed it’s age. He recorded the Concertos at the same time and they too offer various new insights. Arrau was a tireless advocate of Liszt who could even give dignity to some of the most “banal”pages.
Arrau was a man of great culture, a voracious reader and a great opera lover. Furthermore, a cosmopolitan and a wordly figure. Even at the end of his life, he expressed the desire to play Stockhausen, Boulez and Berio. All these components may be perceptible in his playing.
Joseph Horowitz’s book “Conversations with Arrau”offers fascinating insights into the musical life of Berlin in the 30’s, choices of repertoire (“The Schumann Concerto was considered as suicide in the 30’s), interesting anecdotes about legendary figures like Rachmaninov, Horowitz, Cortot, Furtwängler, Klemperer, Toscanini, etc.
Arrau played relatively little chamber music, but there is an early set of the complete Beethoven violin sonatas with Szigeti from the 40’s. In the 70’s, he rerecorded some with Grumiaux.
Recordings of his that are particularly recommended are his set of Beethoven sonatas (with magnificent Waldstein, les Adieux, Hammerklavier, opus 109, 110 and 111), Emperor Concerto with Sir Colin Davis (recorded at age 81), Brahms 1st Piano Concerto (with Giulini), Brahms 3rd Sonata and Paganini Variations (played with a typical non-ostentatious virtuosity), Liszt (virtually everything he has recorded).
Sometimes, Arrau may not have been a 1st reference, but the very least we can say is that he has changed our listening habitudes many times. Like the French magazine Diapason has pointed out, he has sometimes been demanding towards his listeners. Works where this is apparent are the Chopin Préludes and especially his Nocturnes (played at a rather slow pace), Debussy Préludes (where the typical French, gallic element is absent) and above all in Mozart Sonatas (played with a seriousness and a weight that seems a priori contradictory to Mozart’s universe, but that leave no doubt about his seriousness as an artist).