Pianist praised by Rubinstein
Friday 03 February 2006
Constance Keene, pianist: born New York 9 February 1921; married first 1949 Abram Chasins (died 1987), second Milton Kean; died New York 24 December 2005.
Some musicians have the fortune to earn the kind of review at the start of their careers which can adorn their publicity for the rest of their lives. Constance Keene was luckier yet: the encomium she earned for her Rachmaninov came from no mere critic but from Artur Rubinstein, then at the peak of his own fame and a friend of the composer.
"I was flabbergasted by the fantastic color, sweep and imagination and, last but not least, by the incredible technique," he wrote - and then went further: "I cannot imagine anybody, including Rachmaninoff, playing the piano so beautifully." Rubinstein even put his money, and his trust, where his mouth was: when his own children were old enough for piano lessons, he sent them to Keene.
Erica Worth, Editor of Pianist magazine and a former student of Keene's, found her physical presence and her musicianship at apparent odds, her recording of the Rachmaninov Preludes "as huge and fiery as her personality - quite remarkable for someone so fragile and petite". The small stature was deceptive: Keene was "a dainty figure but a huge personality with an immense sparkle of determination in her eyes".
Brooklyn-born, Constance Keene began to play the piano when she was four, and she completed her high-school education at 15, attending neither college nor conservatoire. She had found something more important: in 1934, at 13, she had begun to study with the pianist, composer and writer Abram Chasins, born in New York in 1903. Chasins was to become the major presence in Keene's life. She was his student until 1949, in which year they married, and their subsequent duo partnership lasted until Chasins's death in 1987. For the conductor Jonathan Sternberg, who knew the "kind, charming" Keene for over 60 years, they were
an inseparable couple . . . though his name was better known than hers due to his exceptionally popular daily music commentary broadcasts on WQXR, the radio station of the NY Times . . . She knew everybody and had a perpetual, youthful smile.
Before her personal and professional partnership with Chasins, Keene had made her own way to public prominence. She won first prize in the Naumburg competition in 1943, and contributed to the war effort by touring US bases and playing for the troops. At one Mississippi camp, where she performed eight concerts in three days, she was heard by 65,000 soldiers. The mass audiences must have been a useful training when, in 1946, she stood in for Vladimir Horowitz (a friend of her husband's) at a concert in Massachusetts before a crowd of 4,000.
Her concert career blossomed early. Her first professional tour took place in 1945. She toured also with Benny Goodman, playing the solo part in Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. At home she appeared with New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia, the Chicago Symphony orchestras. Abroad, she was booked by the Hallé and the Berlin Philharmonic. Her first British concerts, in 1958, were followed three years later by a recital at the Wigmore Hall where her Chopin excited critical enthusiasm. Keene also enjoyed some prestigious chamber-music engagements - playing with Yehudi Menuhin at the Gstaad Festival, for example.
But her interests were turning away from public performance towards teaching and, to a lesser extent, writing (she contributed a number of articles to Clavier magazine). In 1969, after a period as the vice-chairman of the Harlem School of the Arts (Wanda Horowitz, the pianist's wife, was the chair), she joined the staff of the Manhattan School of Music, and remained a member of the faculty there for the rest of her life.
For Erica Worth, who spent three years studying with Keene at the Manhattan School, she was "a source of continual inspiration", though for some students the going was harder:
She was determined to get the best out of each and every one of her pupils and in some cases might have scared and upset some of them. After all, she was no quiet lady. But I hit it off with her and thrived on our times together. She even acted as a kind of mother figure to me, as I was a newcomer to New York and often needed advice on how to get by in the city. She taught me a lot about the big Romantic repertoire and allowed me to find my own voice in the works I studied with her.
Keene's kindness even extended to letting Worth use the swimming pool in her Broadway apartment block before piano lessons, for which her teacher would be "elegant in red from head to toe (she wore red and nothing else)".
Constance Keene made a number of acclaimed recordings: as well as those Rachmaninov Preludes and other mainstream works by Bach, Beethoven, Handel and Schumann, she also stood up for some American composers, not least Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Edward MacDowell and, of course, her first husband, Abram Chasins. Two early Romantic cycles were especially well received: the complete piano sonatas of Weber and Hummel. The New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini described the Hummel as "scintillatingly performed" and found himself
listening to them constantly. Ms Keene brings suppleness, pearly tone, textural clarity and brilliance, touched by grace to her performances.
Harold C. Schonberg, the doyen of American writers on piano-playing, had described her in The New York Times as "a natural pianist with a deceptively easy approach to the keyboard" and now reviewed her Hummel for the American Record Guide in words that capture her playing in general:
Her fleet and accurate passagework exactly suits the writing, her textures are always clear, her scale work a delight and her musicianship is beyond reproach.
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