Rachmaninov’s lost pupil just turned 96

Rachmaninov’s lost pupil just turned 96

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norman lebrecht

February 04, 2021

If the name Ruth Slenczynska rings no bells, it’s not because you’re suffering memory loss. The American pianist had a brutal upbringing and a patchy career. Her father, Josef, had her pounding the ivories at four years old and put her on the Berlin stage at six. She played her first concerto in Paris a year later. Her teachers included Schnabel, Cortot and Rachmaninov. She played four-hand with Harry Truman

In the mid-20th century she made recordings for DG and American Decca. Last month, ahead of a reissue of her life’s recordings, she gave a fascinating interview to Andrew Ford in Australia, which you can listen to here.

I have just begun to work my way through the box set, revelling in a naturalness of expression and simplicity of technique that predates the age of celebrity. If I had a golden wish it would be to make Lang Lang listen to this set.

 

Comments

  • David K. Nelson says:

    The portion of Renee B. Fisher’s book, “Musical Prodigies,” devoted to Ruth Slenczynska is horrifying in its details. The instruction began at age 2 by the way; her first complete program played from memory was age 4. Mistakes were punished with slaps in the face, or being violently shoved from the piano bench. Serious mistakes resulted in food being withheld. Extreme verbal abuse resulted from a poor showing at sight reading chamber music. He called her an idiot, an imbecile. She was not permitted to have toys or dolls and she was not permitted to socialize with other children

    Her work with Rachmaninoff is mentioned, but Rachmaninoff disapproved of her giving public concerts at her age. Fisher says Egon Petri was among her teachers.

    Not surprisingly, her father was a failed and frustrated musician himself.

    • EmilGilels says:

      Actually, there are some fairly strong parallels between the early lives of Ruth Slenczynska and Lang Lang. Both were prodigies who had strict disciplinarian fathers who were amateur (failed?) musicians who transferred their hopes for success (financial as well as artistic) onto their talented offspring. Both grew up in emotionally and physically abusive environments, under huge amounts of pressure to succeed. Both wrote biographies at fairly young ages that detailed the difficult and abusive upbringings that they’d endured. Both also studied at Curtis, interestingly enough.
      Perhaps in these two cases there was a difference of degree (Slenczynska’s experiences being the more abusive of the two), but not of kind.

  • violinist says:

    Lang Lang is not about music but about Lang Lang and his market…….

  • Fliszt says:

    Slenczynska’s autobiography “Forbidden Childhood” (written at age 32!) is a fascinating read. From age 6 to age 14, she toured the world, earning high fees, and was mercilessly exploited by her insane father. A nervous breakdown in her mid-teens curtailed her prodigy career, but in her mid-20’s she made a come-back – never reaching the heights of her prodigy career, but a durable career none the less (essentially driven by her childhood fame), combining pedagogy with performance. Her father claimed to be her only teacher – when in fact she had lessons with just about everybody – Hoffman, Cortot, Rachmaninoff, Vengerova, Petri, Schnabel, etc. While many pianists were able to fill concert halls with their students, it was said that Slenczynska could fill Carnegie hall with her teachers.

  • Nijinsky says:

    She plays just like Rachmaninoff, same as him making a cat and mouse game out of Chopin’s B-flat minor sonata. This is something that predates celebrity? Well that’s a damn shame, she would have been great opposite any Soprano that Mario Lanza had to deal with.

  • Jack says:

    Here she is interviewed about her time with Rachmaninoff and Hofmann
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5OskB5lXUmo

  • We don’t hear much about Lili Kraus these days either. I bring it up because my mentor Alix B. Williamson was personal rep to both Slenczynska and Kraus….great ladies of the piano.

    • Edgar Self says:

      Lili Kraus was indeed a marvelous player of Bartok, Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven. Not forgotten here. I’m relishing this discussion and fliszt’s last line.

      • Greg Bottini says:

        I’m right with you, Edgar.
        And isn’t the “Liszt” of Slenczynska’s teachers (Hoffman, Cortot, Rachmaninoff, Vengerova, Petri, Schnabel) that Fliszt posted just marvelous? Piano masters all. As is RS herself!
        (I hope you’re doing well….)

  • microview says:

    Thanks for this. The name was familiar but I’d never actually heard her LPs. You can sample this bargain set at Presto Classical – very tempting and a wider span of repertoire than just Chopin.

  • christopher storey says:

    Thank you so much for introducing me to this fascinating pianist . I started , discouragingly, with her performances of the Rach E flat minor and B flat preludes which were rather dry and in the Bflat hammered unmercifully. Then I found her very poetic E flat Prelude, and then Chopin which in several studies and the G minor Ballade mixed poetry and passion in equal measure. An extraordinary mixture, and an extraordinary talent !

    • David K. Nelson says:

      Remember that while doing your listening you are evaluating not only Slenczynska but also American Decca, a firm which in spite of an impressive roster of artists (surely chief among them Segovia) always had a rather grudging relationship with its classical division, basically a one man shop with the well regarded Israel Horowitz in charge. What clout Horowitz had in getting suitable studios, pianos, piano technicians, and sound engineers who understood that recording a piano is not the same as recording a pop group, I do not know. What I do know is that violinists Erica Morini and Ruggiero Ricci sounded rather different on their American Decca releases than they did in contemporaneous releases on labels with a more established classical pedigree. And that was true back to the 78 rpm era when Heifetz recorded for American Decca.

  • KANANPOIKA says:

    Played both Chopin concertos with Slencyznska on the same concert, March, 1978. Fantastic experience!

  • Nathaniel Rosen says:

    Dear Ms. Slenczynska, I am the proud owner of a beautiful gold medal with your likeness engraved on it. I received it for winning the Kimber Award in 1967, the last time it was given. In that year it was a cello competition at Stanford University
    and Mr. Kimber, who was inspired by your playing, had been holding his annual competition for many years. He quit after that, for reasons unknown, but I am grateful to him and to you. The $5,000 prize that went with the gold medal bought me a beautiful Italian cello, a wonderful thing for an 18-year-old cellist. I hope to meet you one day.
    Sincerely, Nathaniel Rosen

  • Greg Bottini says:

    A fabulous pianist! I’ve enjoyed her many Chopin recordings greatly over the years.
    But I wouldn’t refer to her as “LOST”. Perhaps Slenczynska’s name is not very familiar to casual classical listeners, but piano connoisseurs have always been well aware of her.
    My wife will kill me for getting more CDs, but now that I’m aware of that new American Decca set, I’m going to have to risk it.

    • christopher storey says:

      It may be that she was known in the USA , but I will guarantee that not 1 in 100 piano enthusiasts in Europe will have heard of her

  • Joseph Patrych says:

    Ruth is a wonderful lady whose painful adolescence has not resulted in a vindictive, bitter person. I think she understands the issues that drove her father, and she is definitely past them. I am proud that she is a friend of mine!

  • JussiB says:

    Olga Kern is the best Rachmaninoff pianist today. She studied with her grandmother who knew Rachmaninoff.

  • David says:

    She was the guest artist for the Wyoming Piano Teacher’s Annual Meeting in 1979 (maybe 1980). She gave a master class to select students, including me! I played some Bach, she was so patient with my underdeveloped music and let’s admit; it was Wyoming not a hotbed of musical prodigy. Her recital that evening was terrific!

    What a lovely person

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