Much-recorded US pianist dies in Germany

Much-recorded US pianist dies in Germany


norman lebrecht

October 18, 2022

The widely admired American pianist Michael Ponti died yesterday in Garmisch-Partenkirchen at the age of 84.

Raised in Washington DC but active mostly in Europe. Ponti made more tha 80 recordings for commercial release.

They included the major works of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, as well as obscurities by Alkan, Moscheles and Clara Schumann that he retrieved from oblivion.




  • Greg Bottini says:

    One of the true pianistic greats.
    His Scriabin recordings are absolutely brilliant.
    Back in the day, his records were often played on the local SF Bay Area FM classical stations – there were three of them at the time.
    Requiescat in Pace.

    • zeno north says:

      I agree about the brilliance of the recordings, but OH – that nasty, deadly piano! Would be curious to know if any SD readers know: was this the piano Ponti wanted or could Vox just do no better for this set?

  • Deniz Uz says:

    A heroic figure in the annals of pianism and a model of industriousness and integrity. May his contributions be remembered by posterity. Vale, Maestro.

  • Herbie G says:

    A very sad loss. I collected all the Vox recordings of rare piano concertos and other works that he made in the 1970s. Most of them were real discoveries. He had a phenomenal technique and nothing was a challenge to him; his boundless enthusiasm made these works sparkle.

    His recording of the Tchaikovsky Third Piano Concerto (in the completed three-movement version) is incandescent. The Moszkowski is a delight in his hands. Concertos by Rubinstein, Henselt, Thalberg, Moscheles and many more were exhumed and given the benefit of his phenomenal and faultless dexterity. His recordings were the forerunners of the Hyperion Romantic Piano Concerto series.

    Rest in peace Michael – and thanks for all the pleasure you have brought us.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    He died in the same place as Richard Strauss.

  • J Barcelo says:

    Actually, he recorded the complete solo piano works as well as the concertos of Tchaikovsky. I still have that old Murray Hill box of LPs. He was also a very nice, pleasant chap. Some 40 years ago he was playing in the Flagstaff Summer Music Festival. After one rehearsal it was raining hard and was starting to walk back to his hotel since he didn’t have a car. I offered a ride which he gladly accepted. Here was a world-class classical pianist riding in my Chevy pickup with a shotgun in the gun rack. He invited me into the hotel bar and we had a drink and some interesting talk about the Siloti edition of the Tchaikovsky 2nd. RIP, Dr. Ponti. Your legacy is intact.

    • Carmen Desiree Ponti says:

      I am his elder daughter, Desiree Ponti. I love that you offered Papi a ride. These gestures matter.
      Human contact matters. Even as I mourn his passing, know that you made a huge impact in his life and mine upon learning of this delightful meeting. Blessings.

  • Michael Cattermole says:

    His recording of Medtner’s 3rd Piano Concerto still haunts me after all these years – a spellbinding performance of a richly satisfying, though still sadly neglected, masterwork.

  • Alceste des Hautes Combrailles says:

    …. and in this year of the bicentenary of César Franck’s birth, let us remember with what sparkling brilliance and spirit Michael Ponti revived in Cologne the second piano concerto of the young boy who was still in short pants before becoming the earnest Pater Seraphicus. He also gave a memorable performance of this rare concerto at Radio France Paris under the direction of Michael Tilson-Thomas…. Memories to be preserved, as well as the live recordings collected by the now defunct Dante label, in which one will also find the testimonies of the Trio he formed with Robert Zimanski and Jan Polasek, magnificent Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Dvorak and Mendelssohn…. What a sad end for this giant after his cardio-vascular accident, which kept him away from the stage for more than twenty years, to which Severin von Eckarsdtein could still testify. RIP Michael.

  • William Osborne says:

    Physically, Garmisch is a lovely town nestled at the base of Germany’s highest peak, the Zugspitz. It’s very picturesque. The 1936 winter Olympics had been held there and the stadium was like a blight on the town, and worse, after the war, the region south of Munich became something like a national redoubt for old Nazis.

    I remember listening to the US Armed Forces Network (AFN) in the 1980s. The US military had a base near Garmisch for training mountain troops. AFN reported that on the night of Hitler’s 100th birthday, which was in 1989 (if I remember the occasion correctly,) a huge flaming swastika made of large piles of logs appeared on the mountain side overlooking Garmisch. It burned for several hours through the night before all the logs were incinerated.

    The military announcer on the radio was obviously disturbed, but the US military always tried to keep good relations with Germany and so the commentary was restrained. The announcer said the military made enquiries and was told the huge flaming swastika on Hitler’s centennial was “just a joke.” Even more astounding is that I didn’t see anything about it the German media. That AFN report remains one of my most vivid memories of the 13 years I lived in Munich. Given how creepy Garmisch in the 1980s always seemed to me, I could have never lived there.

    Another creepy thing south of Munich was an organization for SS veterans based in Wolfratshausen. It was called Stille Hilfe. It was very secretive and I only learned about it years later, though I always sensed something terribly wrong about the town.

    Stille Hilfe gave its support to those who worked in the death camps like Hildegard Lächert (“bloody Brygida”,) and others who committed atrocities like Klaus Barbie, Erich Priebke ,and Josef Schwammberger. One of Stille Hilfe’s most important supporters was Gudrun Burwitz, the daughter of Heinrich Himmler. Burwitz sometimes spoke at Nazi rallies after the war and was an idol for Stille Hilfe and related organizations.

    Fortunately, by the early 2000s most of the old Nazis had died off and it created a sort of sea change in Germany. People no longer had to worry about what old grandpa or uncle so-and-so thought or did. The Olympic stadium in Garmisch was torn down. The ghosts of the past vanished into the dark nights, like the one when that giant swastika burned for hours on a hill overlooking Garmisch.

  • william osborne says:

    A correction to my previous post: The 1936 Olympic Stadium in Garmisch was not torn down, only its most prominent feature, a huge ski jump which was torn down and replaced in 2007.

  • Herbie G says:

    Glad you mentioned the Tchaikovsky piano works JB – I recently managed to get the complete set by Ponti on 5 CDs from Amazon. As I write I am listening to the C sharp minor sonata. Typically, he takes this obscure early work, which hardly anyone bothers with, and plays it as if his life depends on it – wonderfully nuanced (especially in the second movement) and then he lets rip in the scherzo and finale.

    There’s also the Vox/Ponti complete works for piano and orchestra on CD; I bought the third piano concerto on LP when it came out and I was stunned by it – and I bought the box just for that.

    Lucky for you that you were able to meet him – and good to know he was a pleasant guy. I’d love to hear what he said about the Siloti version of the PC No. 2!

    I have now got to the Scherzo a la Russe, op 1. Phenomenal virtuosity!

    On a more general point, it’s a real shame that the Vox catalogue has now been largely consigned to the archives. I believe Naxos currently owns them. Yes, quite a few of the Vox and Turnabout releases have been re-issued on CD but I always dream of a complete edition; I guess that I’d get a hernia lifting it! The recordings were technically excellent and the artists top rate – the Kohon Quartet, early Brendel, Pauk, Klien, Pauk, Frankl, Rosand and many more.

    • Alceste des Hautes Combrailles says:

      I totally agree. We could add Friedrich Wührer, Vlado Perlemuter and so on… The whole Vox catalogue needs to be reissued in good restored sound. Only some records have been reissued through various labels. It’s a great pity.

  • Mark Mortimer says:

    RIP-A very brilliant pianist with a huge virtuoso technique & discography. I never heard him live (just some of his remarkable recordings which display sensitivity along with fast fingers)- don’t think he played in the UK much. There’s an interesting interview with David Dubal on You Tube- where he talks of his voracious appetite for performing & recording- maybe a bit too much so. Pure speculation- but maybe his subsequent stroke & inability to perform for the last 30 years of life- may have been as a result of a performing schedule (sometimes 3 concertos in one night) which put him under immense strain & way beyond the physical/mental constraints of even the toughest artist. But nevertheless- a great pianist & courageous individual.

  • Bert Fangler says:

    I would like to know more about Mr Ponti. I remember as a schoolboy listening frequently to his Liszt/Brahms Paganini Etudes/Variations and being surprised to hear a page turn, still the only one I have ever heard on a recording, then later reading rumours of him recording sight-readings on an upright which he also slept under. Fabulous technique! Facts please…

  • Robert says:

    I did hear Ponti live (at the Sydney Opera House with the eponymous symphony orchestra, 1976). His golden pianissimo tone in the middle movement of Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto proved what a fine chamber musician he would have been in other circumstances. I don’t think that the Vox recordings by him which have come my way ever succeeded in conveying the delicacy of his soft playing.

    The other thing which I remember about him is how apoplectic his face looked. A herald of his subsequent stroke, I fear. Anyhow, I’m very glad to have heard him live. What an artist.

  • Piano Lover says:

    I had Scriabine’s first encounter with his LP featuring the Concerto OP 20.
    Many years ago.
    Good memories!

  • Paul Carlile says:

    Michael Ponti was one who accompanied my early listening experiences on Vox LPs: Scriabin, Tchaikovsky…certainly, but also Alkan, Moscheles, Clara Schumann(!), Scharwenka, Medtner….and many others. There was often blazing brilliance and demonaic daring (along with some thrills & spills!), occasionally some surprisingly routine-sounding playing (possibly with scratchy provincial orchestras…), but my life would have been notably poorer without his stunning advocacy of unusual noises!

    I heard him live at last; (posters on Hampstead trees advertose: “Ten pianists in one!” and “The Horowitz of his generation!”) Scarlatti, Liszt and Chopin (“Don Juan”s), Iain Hamilton (devilishly complicote), and Rachmaninoff Chopin Variations plus encores, a titanic programme played to the hilt, at certain moments i thunk the piano would explode and the pianist with it!

    I was sad to hear of his cardio-vascular accident and that we’d not be hearing him again. A unique and courageous artist of his time. RIP, most generous of pianists.