Obituary: Nikita Magaloff

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Nikita Magaloff, pianist, born St Petersburg 21 February 1912, married Irene Szigeti (one daughter), died Vevey Switzerland 26 December 1992.

AS A VIRTUOSO pianist in the Russian romantic tradition, Nikita Magaloff travelled the world well into his sixties, keeping a technique and a sense of expressive character that was widely admired. In latter years his playing acquired a mature sense of proportion to control the warmth of heart that had long been a virtue of his performances, sometimes leading him into occasional extravagances of interpretation but more often than not with a breathtaking poetry that sprang from his feeling for rhythm. Magaloff always sought to communicate what the music he played meant to him in both style and emotion.

He was born at St Petersburg, where the composer Sergey Prokofiev was a family friend from whom the young Nikita derived his first interest in music. The boy was six years old when his parents left Russian for Finland in the wake of the 1917 revolution, and he began formal piano studies with Alexander Siloti, a pupil of Liszt and a cousin and teacher of Rachmaninov. Four years later the Magaloff family moved on to settle in Paris, where Nikita entered the Conservatoire to study with Isidor Philipp as well as having some independent lessons from Ravel, who gave him much encouragement.

When Magaloff graduated with a premier prix at the age of 17 in 1929, Ravel declared: 'A truly extraordinary musician is born.' The pianist ascribed to Ravel's teaching the qualities of scintillating tone and touch that brought him early success as a concert soloist, after first establishing an international reputation in recitals with the violinist Joseph Szigeti, whose daughter Irene became Magaloff's wife. While in Paris the pianist renewed his friendship with Prokofiev, and helped to champion his music, including the concertos, also giving the first Western performances of the Sonata No 7 (1942).

Magaloff was among the first musicians to resume public performance in Paris after the war ended in 1945, and in 1947 he made his first tour of the US. From 1949, on the recommendation of Dinu Lipatti, he took over Lipatti's post at the Geneva Conservatory, where he taught the virtuoso master-classes for 10 years and in due course made his home in Switzerland. He gave up teaching when the pressure of concert demands became too much for both, but sat on a number of international juries at competitions, including the Leeds International Piano Competition in Britain.

Throughout his career Magaloff was renowned for his playing of Chopin, whose major works he would sometimes perform as a cycle of six programmes. He also recorded these as an anthology on 16 LP records, first issued here in 1979 and recently transferred to CD. While some regret was expressed that the recordings were not made at a more youthful stage of his career, there is nevertheless a wealth of fine pianism to admire and enjoy, including little-known pieces, some posthumously published, that shed extra sidelights on the composer, while the set as a whole remains testimony to a maturely wrought perception of musical character.