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Obituary: Milosz Magin

DEATH SOMETIMES has an awful sense of timing: the heart attack that felled the Polish-French composer and pianist Milosz Magin, who was visiting Tahiti to give a recital, did so only the week before the seventh Milosz Magin International Piano Competition, a biennial event he founded in 1985.

That impulse was typical of Magin: he thought that the rash of piano competitions spreading over the face of music was generating an unhealthy obsession with technique, and so he simply founded his own event, with the contrasting aim of emphasising musicality - technique mattered, of course (and Magin's own technique was breathtaking), but it was second in importance to a natural sympathy with the music. And musicality was as manifest in his own playing as it is in the healthy corpus of music he has left behind.

Magin was born in Lodz in Poland in 1929. At the Warsaw Conservatory he studied piano under Margerita Trombini-Kasuro and took composition lessons from Jan Maklakiewicz and Kazimierz Sikorski, teacher of many of the leaders of the next generation of Polish composers - Grazyna Bacewicz, Andrzej Panufnik and Kazimierz Serocki were also Sikorski students. Magin graduated in 1957, with prizes in both piano and composition.

In spite of his local celebrity, Magin resented the restrictions placed on him by the Communists - most of his concertising was restricted to Poland and Russia. In the year of his graduation he entered the Vianna da Mota piano competition in Lisbon, where he carried off the laurels (as also from the Chopin Competition in Warsaw and the Concours Long-Thibaud in Paris).

That gave him the chance he was waiting for; his wife, Idalia Skonieczna, also a pianist, then likewise applied for permission to travel abroad. The authorities never normally let the two halves of a family out at the same time, but fortunately they failed to put two and two together, and the Magins, together with their infant daughter, were reunited in liberty (it was to be 17 years before they could visit Poland again).

After a year in Portugal, and sojourns with relatives in England and Germany, in 1960 they settled in Paris - it seemed a good base from which Magin could develop his career as a virtuoso of international standing.

But in 1963, driving home after a concert, he was severely injured in a car crash, fate adding a particularly cruel twist: his left wrist was broken and all feeling lost in one of his fingers. Nothing daunted - perhaps because he had once met a gypsy in Poland who told him he would recover from a serious accident - he fought his way back to fitness, encouraged by the mime Marcel Marceau. By 1968 Magin had so much regained his previous form that he was able to record, for Decca, the complete works of Chopin - a set that received considerable critical acclaim at the time and is now scheduled for reissue on CD. He was also a conductor, and competent performer on both violin and cello.

Magin's imposing, slightly formal exterior hid a ready sense of humour and a selfless concern for other musicians. He was especially preoccupied with the well-being - musical and personal - of younger players; to see the parade of eager, under-sized performers from Eastern Europe taking the stage at the Magin competitions was a heart-warming experience. Without the support he galvanised, these youngsters - some of them only eight or nine years old - would never have been able to afford the trip to Paris, and they plainly loved the experience.

Hardly surprisingly, he was a solicitous teacher. The French pianist Isabelle Oehmichen, for whom Magin wrote his Third Sonata, who studied with him for eight years and who has played more of his music than anyone else, describes his teaching thus:

You would play a work, right to the end, while he listened attentively. Then he paid you some extravagant compliments before the traditional little phrase, coloured with a Polish accent, "There are just one or two small things. . ." - followed by an hour of valuable advice! He never imposed his own view, respecting the view of the student even as he gave generous counsel on style, particularly in the music of Chopin.

Magin's music deserves much wider exposure than it has so far received. It is generally tonal, though freely admitting enough dissonance to give much of his output an invigorating, biting tang. But he was also capable of considerable dignity and depth, and a world that has taken the Gorecki Third Symphony to its heart should also respond to Magin's simple but moving Stabat Mater, for strings and timpani (a favourite Magin combination). His Musique des Morts of 1965 was a direct result of the car accident of two years earlier: he "wanted to recreate the musical visions I experienced during [my] ambulance ride to hospital" when he was "in an intermediate state between life and death" (his throat had been ripped open in the crash).

Not surprisingly, the piano features prominently in his catalogue: there are five works for piano and orchestra, including three concertos, and a healthy number of solo- piano pieces, not least four substantial sonatas (No 4 written only last year) and a number of suites: the Polish Triptych of 1967 - three dance movements, the last of which is a ferociously exciting "Oberek" - ought to be a part of the standard repertoire.

There are four other concertos, two for violin and one each for clarinet and cello, and further orchestral works include a Polish Rhapsody (1963), a ballet, Bazyliszek (1964), two symphonies, both scored for strings only (1969 and 1988), and an Adagio, again for strings and timpani.

Very little of this output is available on CD. There are two Polskie Nagrania discs, one recorded by Isabelle Oehmichen and the other by Magin himself, and the French label Marcal plans to record Oehmichen in the Second Concerto and Third Sonata.

Almost all of Magin's music underlines the importance to him of his Polish heritage. Exiled in Paris, Magin missed his home country no less than did Chopin in exactly the same position 150 years earlier, and the memory animates the music of both men. It is fitting, then, that Magin will be buried next to Chopin's tomb in Pere Lachaise. Magin should have been one of the big international virtuosi; with luck, his music will carry his name around the world for him.

Milosz Magin, composer and pianist: born Lodz, Poland 6 July 1929; married 1952 Idalia Skonieczna (two daughters); died Bora-Bora, Tahiti 4 March 1999.