Grant Johannesen

Mormon pianist who specialised in Fauré
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The Independent Online

'If you're a pianist who doesn't comprehend painting or poetry, you can only be halfway there. Conservatory students need to experience more than music to be truly inventive and creative." Thus the pianist Grant Johannesen, whose life illustrated his own beliefs: he was not so much "a pianist" as a deeply cultured intellectual who happened to play the piano superlatively.

Grant Johannesen, pianist: born Salt Lake City, Utah 30 July 1912; married first Helen Taylor (died 1950; one son), second 1963 Zara Nelsova (marriage dissolved 1973); died 27 March 2005.

'If you're a pianist who doesn't comprehend painting or poetry, you can only be halfway there. Conservatory students need to experience more than music to be truly inventive and creative." Thus the pianist Grant Johannesen, whose life illustrated his own beliefs: he was not so much "a pianist" as a deeply cultured intellectual who happened to play the piano superlatively.

Johannesen was born into the Mormon Church, in Salt Lake City in 1912, and, although he was largely based in New York, he kept in contact with his roots. His musicality was discovered when he was five: he could play by ear what he had overheard of his neighbour's piano lessons.

In 1939 his playing impressed the French pianist-composer Robert Casadesus (in Salt Lake City to give a recital) enough to elicit an invitation to Princeton to study. Johannesen's other principal teachers were no less distinguished. He further studied piano with Egon Petri, now based at Cornell University. Roger Sessions taught him composition in New York. And he went to Fontainebleau to attend Nadia Boulanger's conservatory. His New York début took place in 1944, and in 1949 he first appeared with the New York Philharmonic - the beginning of a long collaboration with Georg Szell, one of the most demanding of all conductors. In the same year Johannesen kick-started an international reputation with first prize in the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium competition and a tour with Szell and the NYPO. A later tour with Szell, in 1965 with his Cleveland Orchestra, struck a Cold War blow for détente when it took them to the Soviet Union.

It was 1949, too, that brought another landmark in Johannesen's career, when he met Francis Poulenc at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, rehearsing his Piano Concerto with him. "I always found him to be like his music, so witty and amusing yet painfully profound," Johannesen recalled.

Johannesen's engagement with living French music encompassed the music of Darius Milhaud; indeed, he had been planning to record the piano concertos with the composer conducting when Milhaud's death in 1974 brought the project to a premature end. But it is for his involvement with the music of Gabriel Fauré that Johannesen will best be remembered. He was the first pianist to record Fauré's piano music in its integrity. He expressed his admiration unequivocally:

Fauré is one of the greatest of composers for me. His quicksilvery harmony could lead you into so many directions and then lands on its feet. Nothing happens that is not musical. It's the hardest music to memorise because it's constantly elusive; at the same time it's irresistible harmonically.

He stood up for American composers, too. A broadcast of the Gershwin Concerto early in Johannesen's career drew a telegram from Duke Ellington, congratulating him on the best Gershwin playing Ellington had heard. Other contemporary American composers he championed included Aaron Copland, Wallingford Rieger, Samuel Barber, Norman Dello Joio, Roy Harris and Peter Mennin.

Nor did he neglect the composers of his native Utah, among them his first wife, Helen Taylor, who died in a car accident in 1950. (His second marriage was to the cellist Zara Nelsova.) He championed the five-movement piano concerto Pentameron by Crawford Gates, calling it "the Finlandia of Utah". And shortly before his death he edited and recorded Mormoniana, a suite by 16 different composers who shared his Mormon background.

Martin Anderson



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