Dame Moura Lympany

Pianist dubbed 'a virtuoso of dreaming'

Moura Lympany's energy, determination and strength of character were the stuff of musical legend.

Mary Johnson (Moura Lympany), pianist: born Saltash, Cornwall 18 August 1916; CBE 1979, DBE 1992; married 1944 Lt-Col Colin Defries (marriage dissolved 1950), 1951 Bennet H. Korn (one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1961); died Menton, France 28 March 2005.

Moura Lympany's energy, determination and strength of character were the stuff of musical legend.

A pianist of world renown, she was born Mary Johnson in Cornwall to a feckless father and a mother whose business acumen was combined with a keen sense of adventure. Mary inherited her mother's rather than her father's nature and was unfazed when, at the age of six, she was sent to a convent school in Belgium. As a pianist she had been excellently prepared by her mother, and her talent was recognised by the nuns. For her, practice was a treat rather than a chore and, within a remarkably short time, she astonished her listeners with a prize-winning performance of Liszt's demanding E major Polonaise.

Returning to England, she made her concerto début in Harrogate aged 12, playing the Mendelssohn G minor Concerto, a mainstay of her repertoire throughout her career. And it was at this point that, on the advice of the conductor Basil Cameron, she changed her name from Mary Johnson to Moura Lympany, so combining her mother's love of all things Russian (Moura is a Russian diminutive for Mary) with her origins (Limpenny or Lympany is an old Cornish name).

Her studies continued with Mathilde Verne (Solomon's teacher and a pupil of Clara Schumann), Paul Weingarten, Eduard Steurmann, Ilona Kabos and last, but far from least, Tobias Matthay, who was to prove a key figure and a lifelong influence. His quiet authority was recommended to her by Clinton Gray-Fiske, a ferocious but perceptive critic who included Lympany on his very short list of favourite pianists.

Matthay's insistence on freedom and relaxed mastery (" la souplesse"), on phrasing lucidly and logically, and his maxim "Never play faster than you can think" remained with her as a reminder of the highest quality. Even in the autumn of her career, she would pause to wonder whether her playing would have won the approval of "dear Uncle Tobs". Impeccable in taste and execution, her performances reflected the work of a man of rare discernment and commitment while attaining over the years their own recognisable style.

A Concerto appearance (the Grieg) at the Queen's Hall in 1932 was followed by another in the same venue (this time the Delius Concerto and d'Indy's Symphony on a French Mountain Song). In 1938 she made a triumphant Wigmore Hall début, but it was her winning second prize in the Queen Elizabeth Competition that year which launched her international career.

The youngest of 78 competitors, she outpaced Jacob Flier (third prize) and a 17-year-old pianist called Arturo Michelangeli (seventh prize). First prize went to Emil Gilels, though Lympany's dazzle and refinement in Liszt's First Concerto were truly memorable. Her Proms début took place in the same year and in 1940 she gave the first performances in London, Brussels, Paris and Milan of Khachaturian's Piano Concerto, an exotic showpiece she made peculiarly her own, later recording it for Decca with Anatole Fistoulari.

Another milestone was the first complete recording (the first of three) of the 24 Rachmaninov Preludes, made for Decca in 1945 on nine 78rpm discs. This, and her second set of the Preludes, made a decade later (also for Decca) remain among her most enduring recorded triumphs, a model of musical tact, ardour and finesse.

Somewhat to her surprise (although remembering her mother's love of Russia), she was thought of as a Rachmaninov specialist, and the first three Concertos, the Paganini Rhapsody and Sonata No 2 (played,alas, in the second abriged version) became central to her immense repertoire. She was also a no less tireless ambassador for English music, performances and premieres of music by, among others, Benjamin Dale, Richard Arnell, Britten, Delius, Ireland, Rawsthorne and Cyril Scott appeared beside more standard fare. And, although she possessed a temperament as brilliant as it was natural, she clarified and refined her interpretations over the years, becoming, in the words of an American critic, "a virtuoso of dreaming".

Lympany's recordings for HMV, Decca and Erato (a number of them reissued on other labels) remain central to our musical education and happiness. I shall always cherish her second recording of the Rachmaninov Preludes, where every Slavic mood is so tellingly yet simply characterised, with no question of strenuous subnormal tempos or lurid bursts of speed more akin to hysteria than musicianship. As she herself put it, "I never was one for chichi phrasing or powdered rubatos."

These performances have recently appeared on CD on both Decca and Testament and we can also be grateful to smaller companies such as Olympia for their reissue of Rachmaninov's First, Second and Third and Saint-Saëns Second Concertos; and Dutton for complete cycles of the Chopin Nocturnes and Waltzes.

But there is also Franck's Symphonic Variations and much of APR's The Lympany Legend long ripe for CD reissue. Here are those effortless performances of such virtuoso teasers as the Brahms Paganini Variations (Book 2), Liszt's Feux Follets and Ravel's Toccata.

Resilience was the keynote of Lympany's life and career. Although beset with serious illness and personal unhappiness she considered the only possible solution was to move on rather than dwell on the past. Returning to the Wigmore Hall after a double mastectomy she regaled her audience with the story of how she had invited her music-loving surgeon to her Royal Festival Hall performance of Ravel's Left Hand Concerto only to receive an anxious letter asking her to confirm which part of her he had removed. Suitably, she began her recital with Mozart's B minor Adagio, a sombre remembrance, of things past before continuing with brighter, more optimistic music.

Never one to hold back, she exclaimed in wonder over the music on my answering machine, momentarily mistaking Gershwin for Chopin. She had called for advice on which pianists she should feature for her appearance on Desert Island Discs, and if her subsequent choice of her own rather than other people's recordings raised a few eyebrows (I had murmured hopefully about Rubinstein in Chopin, Gieseking in Debussy, Rachmaninov in Rachmaninov, etc), who is to argue with her candid assertion that "My records are damned good".

Moura Lympany was never tolerant (a doctor who explained, after her stroke some years ago, that her fingers had got tired after playing so many notes, received short shrift). Yet her warmth and sympathy were proverbial and she always showed the keenest interest in today's rising stars. Her autobiography, Moura Lympany: her autobiography (1991), may be more fluffy than substantial, but it opens with a short poem by Mendelssohn written in 1826 which concludes,

In whatever way he writes

He can't please every man

Therefore let the artist write

How he likes or can.

Replace "write" with "play" and this is most apposite.

Bryce Morrison

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