ARTUR BALSAM was a man of prodigious musical gifts, as at home in the solo repertoire as in chamber music. His distinguished recording career spanned half a century and covered an astonishingly wide repertoire.
Balsam worked with some of the greatest string players of the time, including Adolf Busch, the young Yehudi Menuhin, Nathan Milstein and many others. He also performed frequently on the BBC Third Programme, and again the breadth of his repertoire was notable. The Rachmaninov Cello Sonata, the Brahms Violin Sonatas, the Beethoven/Diabelli Variations, the Mozart Piano Concerto K491, the Berlioz/Liszt Symphonie Fantastique: these constitute but a small part of an impressive output. Ravel, Respighi, Milhaud and Stravinsky all formed part of his repertoire and he was not above confections by Kreisler or Moszkowski. In later years he concentrated more on the strictly classical repertoire with which ultimately he had the greatest affinity. His 1983 recording of the complete Mozart Violin and Piano Sonatas with Oscar Shumsky encapsulate his musical identity, his sense of style, colour and humour.
Balsam was born in Warsaw in 1906, went to school in Lodz, where he made his debut at the age of 12, and attended university in Warsaw, the Lodz conservatory and the Akademie Hochschule fur Musik, in Berlin. He won the Mendelssohn Prize in 1930 and toured the United States with Menuhin in 1932. With the rise of the Nazis in Europe he settled in the United States. Besides his concert and recording career, he taught privately, at summer schools and at the Eastman School of Music, in New York, and at the Manhattan School of Music.
In September 1978, Balsam approached me at the Leeds International Piano Competition. I had managed to reach the second stage and was nervous and ill at ease, awaiting the results of the round in a rather grand room filled with musical luminaries. It was comforting to meet this genial man, who made time to speak to one, offering hope and encouragement.
Balsam had a great sense of humour. He delighted in telling the story of when, in Jamaica, he was opening a concert with a hastily prepared version of the National Anthem. William Kroll, the violinist, learnt it hurriedly in the green room using a practice mute. He needn't have bothered. The crashing timpani roll on the piano and subsequent stentorian chords completely drowned out the violin's frail whisper. Kroll had forgotten to remove the mute.
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