Lilian Kallir

Pianist specialising in Mozart
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The Independent Online

"One of the most naturally musical people I've ever known", said the pianist Gary Graffman of his colleague Lilian Kallir. "Her central repertoire - Mozart, Schubert, Brahms - just flowed out of her absolutely convincingly." For the conductor Jonathan Sternberg, "Her playing displayed an interpretative approach that manifested a penetrating musical maturity and judgement flowered by many moments of poetry".

Lilian Kallir, pianist and teacher: born Prague 6 May 1931; married 1959 Claude Frank (one daughter); died New York 25 October 2004.

"One of the most naturally musical people I've ever known", said the pianist Gary Graffman of his colleague Lilian Kallir. "Her central repertoire - Mozart, Schubert, Brahms - just flowed out of her absolutely convincingly." For the conductor Jonathan Sternberg, "Her playing displayed an interpretative approach that manifested a penetrating musical maturity and judgement flowered by many moments of poetry".

Kallir - born in Prague, of Austrian parents, in 1931 - was an infant prodigy: her first public performance came at the age of four, in a radio broadcast. But the German occupation of Czechoslovakia turned her world upside down, and the family fled, first to Switzerland for a year, and then on to New York, where they settled in 1940.

Here she began her piano studies again, from 1946 to 1949 at the Mannes School of Music with the redoubtable Isabelle Vengerova - whose other students included Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber - and Herman de Grab. Her composition, theory and harmony lessons were entrusted to Hugo Kauder, another refugee from Nazism; Kallir later repaid the debt by performing his music. Her friendship with Graffman was born: when one of them was preparing a concerto, the other would play the orchestral part on a second piano. In 1975 Kallir joined the Mannes staff herself, becoming one of its best-loved teachers.

She was only 16 when she won the National Music League Award and the American Artists Award of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, but a year older when she made her début with the New York Philharmonic, and 18 when she gave her début recital in New York Town Hall. In 1949 she appeared in a concerto evening in Carnegie Hall: the Schumann, and the premiere of a new piece by Alan Hovhaness which required her to produce the sounds of the gamelan from her piano, using a timpani stick on the strings.

Kallir had met her husband-to-be, the pianist Claude Frank (and another former refugee from Nazism), in 1947 when they were students at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra - with whom she was later to be a favoured concerto soloist. It was 1959 before they were married; the best man was their fellow pianist Eugene Istomin. The wedding took place at Marlboro, Vermont: Frank was now assistant to Rudolf Serkin at the Marlboro Festival of Music. Their daughter, the violinist Pamela Frank, so impressed Serkin that he insisted on her being his duo partner - although she was in her mid-teens and he around 80. Pamela now regularly performs in a duo with Peter Serkin, Rudolf's pianist son.

From 1960 Kallir and Frank frequently appeared on stage together, but they were selective about the piano-duo repertoire, preferring to play individually before meeting in an occasional duo; they were happy, though, to make an exception for Mozart, whose two-piano works were a staple of their joint music-making.

Mozart, indeed, was the composer with whom Kallir identified most closely, and his music runs like a leitmotif through her career. She could make it sound surprisingly fresh, not through any wayward phrasing or similar idiosyncrasy but because of her concentration on purity of tone. She was a staple of the Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart festival from its early years. Her recording of the Mozart Piano Concerto No 17 in G major, K 543, made at the Midsummer Mozart festival in San Francisco, was nominated for a Grammy. Otherwise, she made surprisingly few recordings for a pianist of her importance; her most recent release, A Chopin Collection, appeared in 1999.

Her tastes did not stray very far into the 20th century, sallying no deeper than Bartók and Kodály. The composer Bohuslav Martinu, another exile from Czechoslovakia, was enthusiastic enough about her playing to urge Michael Steinberg, later chief music critic of The Boston Globe, to hitchhike to New York to hear her début recital.

Kallir toured widely, coast to coast in North America; she was a regular guest in London, appearing with Harry Blech and the London Mozart Players for the best part of two decades, from the 1960s onwards, and also visited Guildford for concertos with Vernon Handley and the Guildford Philharmonic.

Michael Steinberg remembered her as

always composed and contained, but never repressed. She was like that in her personal life, always formally dressed even on casual occasions. In her playing, she represented everything that is delicate, neat, and lyric without ever being miniature - there was something springloaded about her attack.

But the formality was only skin-deep. For Antony Haynes, chairman of the London Mozart Players during the time of her London visits, Lilian Kallir was "one of the warmest personalities I've ever met".

Martin Anderson



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