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A Personal Remembrance of Classical Pianist Claude Frank

Claude Frank, who died on December 27 at age 89, was one of the last surviving pupils of the legendary Austrian Jewish pianist Artur Schnabel. In a reprint from Music & Arts of Frank’s set of complete Beethoven sonatas, originally released in 1970 for the composer’s bicentenary, the music is allowed to speak directly and candidly, seemingly without interpretive interference. This egoless quality is also audible in the 2-CD set, “Claude Frank: 85th Birthday Celebration,” recorded in New York in 2008-2009. Frank studied with Schnabel from age 15 to 25 after earlier working with other Schnabel students. Like his master, Frank spent a lifetime devoting himself to music which is “better than can be played”: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, and Mendelssohn.

Also like Schnabel, an anti-careerist to some extent, Frank was long professionally modest. In 1959, his pianistic contemporaries and friends Gary Graffman, Leon Fleisher, and Eugene Istomin felt impelled to band together to get Frank, then in his early 30s, signed by Columbia Artists Management and launch his concert career. On a 2011 visit to Frank’s apartment in the vertigo-inducing heights of the Upper West Side, I got a sense of how he achieved artistic success despite such otherworldly reticence.

I entered a small, cluttered West End Avenue apartment with seemingly random décor of bright Chagall lithographs, bookshelves laden with titles on music history and world literature as well as a reproduction of a pencil portrait of a middle-aged Thomas Mann. Frank, who was frail but witty and alert, settled down on a sofa next to a garish yellow pillow in the shape of a floppy tarantula which a student must have brought long ago as a travel souvenir. Despite his stringent artistic standards, Frank was a genial, jovially accepting man with a live-and-let-live attitude. Uncompromising on art, he was a smiling, laughing presence in social matters. Surely this was a vital element in the admiration and good will which he inspired for many decades in the oft-contentious piano world. Asked if he had a special interest in the writings of Thomas Mann, considering the portrait on the wall, he demurred: “It’s a nice picture. I can stand to look at him. I’m not a particular admirer of his writings.”

Frank’s mother, an amateur contralto who gave birth to him in Nuremberg in December, 1925, was an undisputed fan of the composer Johannes Brahms and named her baby Claus Johannes to prove it. Did anyone ever call him Claus after his family fled Germany as refugees in 1938? “Everybody does, even now,” he explained: “People who know me call me Claus or nothing at all.” His mother was a lieder singer who rehearsed at home, so as a little boy he heard lieder constantly. Might this have unconsciously influenced the singing quality of his playing later on? Frank agrees: “Yes, we didn’t discuss it, I was too small, but I knew it was there.”

Little Claus began piano lessons at age six, the earliest age at which he was permitted to enter the family living room where the piano was located. By 1937 he was taken to play for Schnabel at his villa in the Italian town of Tremezzo on Lake Como. Schnabel found the boy’s talent “totally serious” but suggested that given his youth, he study first with Schnabel pupils either in Paris or Berlin and later receive lessons directly from the master.

Soon the war arrived, causing the family to flee to Spain in hopes of reaching America by way of Portugal. Claude practiced on a Madrid department store piano for four hours daily while his family found solace in the Prado Museum from paintings by Velázquez and El Greco. Asked about his family’s religious faith in art, Frank replied quietly: “I suppose it was. It’s rare as a quality.”

After playing a 1938 recital in Madrid, Frank was offered – along with his family – visas to Brazil and the United States, and chose the latter. Around 1939, waiting in Lisbon for a boat to the USA, he first saw his future wife Lilian Kallir, playing the piano in an adjacent practice room. Born in 1931, she was a youngster, but as Frank recalls in a still-unpublished 2008 memoir co-written with Ellen Hawley Roddick, “The Music That Saved My Life,” she was “unusually pretty.” The pianist Rudolf Serkin, of Russian Jewish origin, first saw his future wife Irene when she was three years old. Does something in piano tradition encourage these Dante and Beatrice-type encounters? “Maybe there is,” acknowledged Frank: “We didn’t talk about it but it was there.”

Finally reaching America in 1941, Frank went to see Schnabel and began to know him better, as someone whose intellectual views were based on reading reviews of books rather than the books themselves. Once when Frank gave Schnabel a book as a gift, the teacher promised to have his wife Therese read it for him. Yet Frank added: “He wasn’t a poseur. The music itself was the source of his profundity. It was a non-verbal profundity.” By contrast, Frank always urged his students to read literature, including the fantastical works of E.T.A. Hoffmann, to better understand the Romantic spirit.

In the late 1940s, a friend arranged for Frank to play once for Vladimir Horowitz in the hopes of getting some advice on technical matters. All Horowitz said was “Very nice. You don’t need technical work. Just practice more.” Frank confessed: “He was right. I wasn’t practicing enough at the time.” A more lastingly significant encounter occurred at Tanglewood in 1947, when Frank met Lilian Kallir again. He told the 16-year-old Kallir that one of his upcoming recital programs would include music by Prokofiev. She objected strongly, and it turned out that Frank and Kallir shared a dislike for this music. Frank added, “I didn’t, and still don’t, think [Prokofiev’s] music is great. It’s superficial, amusing and one laughs about it a lot, but it’s not great.”

Despite these stringent standards, Frank had an empathetically humane approach to music. Frank’s long-standing reticence yielded somewhat since the 2004 death from ovarian cancer of Kallir, who had been suffering since the early 1990s from atypical posterior cortical atrophy, a form of Alzheimer’s disease. Although “A Chopin Collection,” a Helicon CD by Kallir remains a fine tribute, a CD transfer is overdue of the couple’s Brahms “Liebeslieder Walzer” recorded in 1966. In 2004, Frank popped up at Switzerland’s Verbier Festival, joining colleagues in a rip-roaring performance of an arrangement for eight pianos of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” In 2008, Frank participated in an otherwise crassly overblown Beijing Olympics concert where his rendition of Mozart’s sonata K 330 was “the only good piece of music” heard that night, in the pianist’s own words.

A long career as a musician and teacher (his pupils included America’s Richard Goode, England’s Ian Hobson, and Taiwan’s Pei-Yao Wang) did not made Frank set in his ways. On the contrary, his deepest lifelong convictions seemed ever-ready to be revised in the light of new developments.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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