Obituary: Artur Balsam

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The Independent Online
Artur Balsam, pianist: born Warsaw 8 February 1906; married 1933 Ruth Miller; died New York City 1 September 1994.

ARTUR BALSAM was such a naturally gifted pianist that it was only in the final two years of his life that he felt the need to query and overcome certain pianistic problems which had never before bothered him during 75 years at the instrument, writes Diana Boyle. This sudden lack of confidence in his ability to operate solely on his highly developed mental plane was a source of frustration and bewilderment to him, though it made him more sympathetic to the struggle of other pianists for technical excellence.

Balsam never practised much, indeed he scarcely knew how to in the accepted sense. He thought long and hard about the music away from the piano, and then went to it, as though to a lover, and played. His intellectual understanding was profound, but at such a deep level that it was worn lightly. His instinctive feeling for the music was direct and spontaneous. These qualities, combined with a positively sensuous reference to the piano and an ear for acute subtleties in sound and voicing, enabled him to function at the highest level with seeming effortlessness for over 60 years.

His indifference to the commercial trappings of modern concert life kept his name out of the public eye in recent years. It is sad that young people were not more aware of his unique musical qualities. Extraordinary, too, that he did not play on a regular basis with today's great names in chamber music, having been linked in earlier years with Nathan Milstein, Zino Francescatti, Yehudi Menuhin and the Budapest Quartet.

His retiring personality was, however, ideally suited to the recording studio (where he made over 200 records) and, in later years, to teaching. He ran a chamber music summer school at Kneisel Hall, in Blue Hill, Maine, from the early 1950s until just two years ago. He opened the ears of many students to the possibility of greater subtleties in chamber music playing; with his attention to structure, balance and blending of sound, he could transform a gifted student group overnight.

I first got to know him in 1973, when I went to be his pupil in New York. Artur was a very gentle man, always warm and kind, with an old-world dignity and a very dry wit. He had a memory bank of anecdotes from the musical life of another age, and, prompted by his wife Ruth, would delight and tease his friends and students.

Beneath an austere exterior was a sunny personality, and the softest of smiles would light up his face when listening to music or playing some delicate passage in a way that only his fingers could do justice to. He was a man who adored music, and it showed.

(Photograph omitted)