Ruth Laredo

'America's First Lady of the piano'

Ruth Laredo was the kind of pianist who drew excited and colourful language from the critics. The New York Daily News baptised her "America's First Lady of the piano". The Washington Post found her pianism "marked with a special blend of intensity and rare kind of introspective poetry". The New York Times hailed her as a "technical wizard" who could "hold her own with any pianist alive".

Ruth Meckler, pianist: born Detroit 20 November 1937; married 1960 Jaime Laredo (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1974); died New York 25 May 2005.

Ruth Laredo was the kind of pianist who drew excited and colourful language from the critics. The New York Daily News baptised her "America's First Lady of the piano". The Washington Post found her pianism "marked with a special blend of intensity and rare kind of introspective poetry". The New York Times hailed her as a "technical wizard" who could "hold her own with any pianist alive".

Although her repertoire was broad, beginning with Beethoven and ranging into living composers, Laredo specialised in the kind of big-boned Romantic music that came alive with her forceful and lively keyboard manner. Inspired by the powerful virtuosity of Vladimir Horowitz's approach to Scriabin, whose music was then relatively little played, she attracted international attention in the 1970s with the first complete set of the 10 Scriabin piano sonatas for the Connoisseur label (one reviewer wrote that her "sensuous, beautifully controlled playing caught its mad and slightly evil quality").

And she received credit for what was later considered the first recording of the complete piano music of Rachmaninov, for CBS (in fact, Michael Ponti beat her to the draw), earning herself the first of three Grammy nominations. She tackled the complete Scriabin preludes, too.

Russian music continued to be a favourite stamping-ground: one of her most recent recordings was a two-piano disc for Gasparo, with James Tocco, of the two-piano version of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Rachmaninov's Second Suite. Her last concert, on 6 May - part of the "Concerts with Commentary" series she had presented at the Museum of Metropolitan Art in New York for the past 17 years - was one of three entitled "The Russian Spirit", featuring the music of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Shostakovich.

She was born Ruth Meckler, a native of Detroit, and studied with Rudolf Serkin at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He looked askance on her enthusiasm for Rachmaninov and made sure her pianism was grounded in classical mainstream. In 1960, the year of her graduation, she married the Bolivian violinist Jaime Laredo, forming a duo soon recognised as one of the finest in the profession; they were divorced in 1974.

Ruth Laredo's concerto début came in 1962, in Carnegie Hall, with the American Symphony Orchestra conducted by the veteran Leopold Stokowski - who always had an eye for pretty female soloists. But it was to be 12 years before she appeared with the New York Philharmonic, and 1981 before her first solo recital in Carnegie Hall. By that time her recordings had already made her one of America's best-known pianists.

Other concerto appearances took her to such orchestras as the Philadelphia, the Boston and Detroit Symphonies, and the Orchestra of St Luke's. She played at the White House and Library of Congress. Also an enthusiastic chamber musician, she performed regularly with the Tokyo String Quartet, her other partner quartets including the Emerson, Guarnieri, Muir, St Lawrence and Vermeer; her most recent recording, of the Brahms Piano Quartets (for Arabesque), featured the Shanghai String Quartet.

She may have reached her widest audience in the cinema, though. In a scene in Woody Allen's film Small Time Crooks (2000), Hugh Grant tries to impress Tracey Ullman by taking her to a piano recital - Ruth Laredo playing Rachmaninov.

Martin Anderson

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