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A new biography usefully reminds us why George Szell (1897-1970), was one of the world’s most feared pianists and conductors, while also being admired as a musician.

Kraus, a Cleveland-based pianist and composer, recounts that at age two-and-a- half, Szell was already arrogant, slapping his mother’s wrist at the keyboard if she played a wrong note. At age six, he became a pupil of the Austrian pianist Richard Robert (1861-1924), who also taught Hans Gál, Clara Haskil and Rudolf Serkin. By age 14, according to Gál, Szell had begun ‘shirking piano practice, indulging in sadistic pranks and becoming physically violent with his teachers and the household servants’. Recognising his own creative limits must have been painful. To celebrate Szell’s 16th birthday, his classmate Serkin played one of the former’s piano compositions, to which Szell replied by asking, ‘Rudy, how can you play such trash?’ Still, Szell’s Piano Quintet in E major, Op 2 (1911), is lilting and euphonically Straussian, not mere juvenilia to be dismissed out of hand.

In later life, Szell’s pianism remained essential to his musical identity. He worked out orchestral scores by reducing them to keyboard versions and learning these by heart. As a soloist, in recordings from 1946 with members of the Budapest String Quartet and 1967 with the violinist Rafael Druian, Szell’s abiding pianistic identity shines forth. In the earlier recordings, his chilly, ultra-refined pianism cannot be called tender or heart-warming, especially in a heartless, albeit technically irreproachable, Schubert Trout Quintet.

Yet in later recordings of Mozart violin sonatas, Szell reveals a humorous and, dare one say, even humane side. In his relations with pianists, Kraus suggests, Szell could repel some, as he did Gould, or reject others outright, as he eventually did Leon Fleisher, who after a lengthy artistic collaboration began to experience digital difficulties. Yet others were warmly accepted by Szell, such as the Hungarian virtuoso Peter Frankl and the American Gary Graffman. Even so, Szell typically told Graffman’s wife one morning: ‘Today your hair looks like a toilet brush’.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2018 - ©Rhinegold Publishing