Rosalyn Tureck

Pianist celebrated for her interpretations of Bach
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Rosalyn Tureck, pianist, conductor, writer and teacher: born Chicago, Illinois 14 December 1914; Professor of Music, University of California, San Diego 1966-72; Professor of Music, University of Maryland 1981-85; Professor of Music, Yale University 1991-93; married 1964 George Wallingford Downs (died 1964); died New York 17 July 2003.

Rosalyn Tureck was one of the most striking pianists of the second half of the 20th century. She was celebrated, above all, for her inspiring, if controversial, interpretations of Bach, most of whose major keyboard works - excluding organ music - she recorded at one time or another. "A professional artist must have individuality of style and focus", she once said.

In recent years, the equally provocative recordings of the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould have become much more readily available in Britain than Tureck's, but Gould himself acknowledged her playing as an inspiration; she was the only pianist, he considered, whose approach to Bach made sense on modern instruments. Tureck herself also played the clavichord, harpsichord and organ - sometimes in the same recital - and her career was more than usually diverse; she taught a great deal, holding several academic posts in the United States, published many articles, and she also conducted. She was the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic.

Born of Russian émigré parents in Chicago in 1914, Tureck taught herself the piano, according to her own account, between the ages of four and eight. When she was nine she began lessons with Sophia Brilliant-Liven, who had been a pupil and assistant of the great Anton Rubinstein in St Petersburg. Tureck's next teacher was Jan Chiapusso, a former pupil of Leschetizky. Chiapusso recognised her particular sympathy for Bach and introduced her to the instruments of Bach's own day as well as broadening her interests in philosophy and art.

Although Tureck stayed with Chiapusso for only two years, she said much later that he remained the greatest musical influence in her life. When she was 16 she won a fellowship to the Juilliard School of Music in New York, where her teacher was Olga Samaroff. Within three months Tureck experienced a revelation, a sort of Pauline conversion, after she had blacked out in the middle of playing a Bach fugue. She compared the experience to going through a small door and finding a whole new universe; it convinced her that she had to rethink her technique completely if she was to convey the structure of Bach's music.

Instead of learning three Preludes and Fugues in one week, as usual, she found she could only learn four lines. Her teacher thought that while Tureck played those four lines impressively, she would hardly be able to continue in the same way. Yet she did. She also enlarged the rest of her repertoire, and when she was just 22 she made her Carnegie Hall début with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy in Brahms's Second Piano Concerto, following it with a recital at Town Hall, New York, in which her programme included Bach's own transcription of a violin sonata, Brahms's Handel Variations, six Studies and the G minor Ballade by Chopin, as well as pieces by Albeniz, Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky.

For several years Tureck played mixed recitals and a number of concertos, including Beethoven's "Emperor" and Rachmaninov's Second. The "Emperor" was particularly suited to her commanding personality, and Shura Cherkassky referred to her performance with a sense of awe. But in 1937 she had already given her first series of Bach recitals - six programmes at Town Hall - the success of which encouraged her increasingly to specialise.

She never excluded other music altogether, and she played a good many contemporary works. She was proud of having publicly played the Theremin, an early electronic instrument whose eerie wailing contributed atmosphere to many movie thrillers as well as the Beach Boys' hit "Good Vibrations". Tureck even started her own society called "Composers of Today" and gave the first performances of William Schuman's Piano Concerto, Wallingford Riegger's Concerto for Piano and Winds and David Diamond's First Sonata. She introduced Aaron Copland's Piano Sonata to England.

Tureck first played in Europe in 1947 and formed close ties with Britain through her teaching. In 1955-56 she gave lectures at London University, in 1974 she was a Visiting Fellow at St Hilda's College, Oxford, where later she was made an Honorary Life Fellow, and for three years she was a Visiting Fellow at Wolfson College. She also formed and conducted the Tureck Bach Players here. In March 1995, she let her flat in New York and moved back to Oxford for a while, where she concentrated on the work of the Tureck Bach Research Foundation.

In the summer of 1995 she gave an all-Bach recital in St Petersburg which was released on CD, but her last London recital was in May 1992, when she gave a magnificent performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations at the Wigmore Hall. These she recorded in March, 1998, for Deutsche Grammophon - her first studio recording for many years, which showed her mastery undiminished, her part-playing vivid with subtle details of articulation and adjustments of balance, and the whole work sustained with intense concentration.

To mark the 250th anniversary of Bach's death in 2000 Tureck was invited to perform 12 of the 48 Preludes and Fugues on BBC Television but although she was very keen to do it, she had to withdraw on medical advice. The BBC has recently reissued commercial CDs of the complete 48 Preludes and Fugues which Tureck recorded for radio in the mid-1970s.

Tureck's style of playing combined intensity and clarity. It had nothing to do with romantic feeling. Instead, it was analytical - at times, some would say, pedantic - and every note had a sharply defined purpose, as if carved in stone. Yet it was never cold, and it was projected so powerfully and with such authority that it could not be taken for granted. Tureck's playing was exhilarating, even when, as in the first movement of Bach's D minor Concerto, she adopted an unusally deliberate tempo. Glenn Gould observed of her performances that the relationship between the parts, both architectural and linear, was so well thought-out that tempo became a relative, essentially unimportant matter.

Although Tureck said that she did not use the same technique in Bach as in other composers, she made the piano sound different from any other player, no matter what the music was. In a recital she gave in Buenos Aires in 1993, also recorded and released on CD, she included Brahms's Handel Variations and short pieces by Mendelssohn and Schubert, subjecting them to the same intellectual scrutiny as she brought to Bach.

Rosalyn Tureck's publications include Introduction to the Performance of Bach (1960), a series of essays in three volumes, and her own edition of some of Bach's music.

Adrian Jack