Happy Birthday, Glorious Gina!

Gina Bachauer, pianist

Gina Bachauer (1910 – 1976)

According to most biographical sources, the ‘valkyrie’, the ‘dynamo’ of a pianist, Gina Bachauer, would have celebrated her 100th Birthday today. On Wikipedia, only the Greek version correctly states her birthday as 21 May 1910. The much-quoted birth date of 1913 is incorrect, but reasons enough to remember one of the great personalities in the piano world of the 20th century, especially someone who for many is no longer a household name.

Born to an Austrian father and an Italian mother in Athens, where the family had settled in the 1870s, she soon showed a talent for music. Her father didn’t believe a woman could make it as a concert pianist and only let her have part-time piano instruction. Her teacher, however, was Woldemar Freeman, a Polish-born Russian-trained pupil of Busoni. Freeman was friends with Rachmaninov, often played concerts on two pianos with him and introduced her to the great composer. She claimed to have studied with Rachmaninov, but this is the source of controversy:

In his book ‘The Pleasure of Their Company’, Howard Taubman, then the music editor for The New York Times, describes how he had asked the music critic Harold Schonberg to interview Bachauer for the Sunday paper. “We were interested in discovering her musical background. Harold reported that she said she had studied with Rachmaninoff. I got an indignant call from the Russian pianist’s family and agreed to receive a visit from Rachmaninoff’s widow and his daughter. They came to complain in Harold’s presence that Rachmaninoff had never taught Bachauer. We listened to their protest and promised to publish a few lines carrying their denial. … They left content with the promise of a correction. I never heard from the Rachmaninoff family again.” (Ely Haimowitz)

She did in any case study three years with Alfred Cortot in Paris and won the Medaille d’honneur at the Vienna Competition for Piano and Song in 1933. Athens saw her debut in 1935 with the Tchaikovsky B minor concerto under Mitropoulos and Paris in 1937 under Monteux. During the Second World War she performed more than 600 concerts for the Allied Forces in Egypt.

New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg described her as

one of today’s pianistic originals. That means her technique and her interpretations are sui generis. One does not have to see her to recognize her playing. Ten measures would be enough for any trained listener to put his finger on what constitutes a Gina Bachauer performance. Certain traits are immediately apparent. There is the enormous technical solidity, including a bravura, when necessary, that is hair-raising. She makes piano playing sound very easy. There is the curiously penetrating tone… so well manufactured, weighted, and measured that it sounds enormous.

There is an amusing video recording of “Das Dreyblatt” for piano six-hand by W.F.E. Bach (1759 – 1845) at the Royal Festival Hall in December 1974 for the International Piano Library Benefit Concert, where Gina Bachauer and Alicia de Larrocha are dressed up as piano pupils and Garrick Ohlsson as the loving instructor:

 

‘Glorious Gina’ (Barbirolli) passed away 1976 from a heart attack, but her audience remembers her for her gripping accounts of the romantic powerhouses (the thundering basses in Brahms 2 with Dorati and the LSO!) as well as for her charismatic personality and magnetic stage presence. On a particularly rainy day, she once turned to the audience and said she was very happy to see so many people come to her recital on such an occasion when the weather was so bad that “I would not have crossed the road to hear God and Liszt play four-hands!”.

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