Obituary: Sergio Fiorentino

Alan M. Watkins
Monday 31 August 1998 23:02

THE PIANIST Sergio Fiorentino was an extraordinary artist who turned his back on the concert platform at the peak of his powers to concentrate on teaching and returned two decades later with formidable technique and musicality undiminished to an acclaim that most artists only dream of.

A critic wrote recently that Fiorentino's life appeared to consist of a hard luck history "that nearly outshines Shine", but that is true only insofar that Fiorentino was badly hurt in an air crash in 1954 which put a temporary end to illustrious engagements throughout Europe and America at a time when he was being described as the most promising pianist of his generation.

His later decision to remove himself entirely from public performance until the end of his life, while complex, was entirely his own and one he did not appear to regret.

A scholarship personally awarded by the Minister of Education took Fiorentino to the San Pietro Majella Conservatory in 1938, and although his teachers were among the most distinguished of their time he was fond of saying that his influences came from watching Alfred Cortot, Walter Gieseking and Edwin Fischer, or from listening to recordings, principally those of Rachmaninov playing his own music. Fiorentino had a special affinity with the music of the Russian master and it played an important and significant part in his repertoire throughout his life.

From 1947, the young virtuoso, small, slim and totally undemonstrative at the keyboard, began to be noticed in Europe. He was awarded first prize of the Concorso Rossomandi in Naples and the International Competition of his Academia Musicale Internazionale in Genoa. The leading agents sought him out and by 1953 he had made his American debut in the Carnegie Hall. All seemed set for the predicted glittering career, but the following year while on tour in South America the aircraft carrying him crashed. He sustained a severe spinal injury and, for some time, paralysis. He could not physically play for some years and once told me that when he was able to return to the instrument he had to relearn some of his technique.

By the late 1950s he decided to set about re-establishing himself and embarked on a series of recordings in Britain, principally for Saga, Fidelity, Summit and their regularly reincarnated successors which often offered intriguing budget-priced repertoire at five shillings (25p) a time, but sometimes let down by playing surfaces which appeared to have been prepared from a mixture of vinyl with fine road grit. Most were never reviewed as a result.

Through all this shone some magnificent playing: memorable recordings of the complete Rachmaninov preludes, a Brahms Handel Variations in which the opening mimicry of harpsichord appears never to have been equalled, and some Liszt recitals with deeply musical virtuosity. Added to this was a virtually complete survey of Chopin and performances of Bach- Busoni that alone would have set him apart as a performer.

Quite why he decided in 1974 to give up playing concerts and return to a professional role at the Conservatory where he had studied is not entirely clear, but one suspects it was a combination of events allied to his self- effacing and non-combative temperament. He disliked the publicity machine that often went with concerts and although completely confident of his own ability at the keyboard was so modest that the tendency of promoters and record companies to compete for the "greatest pianist" accolade or to make comparisons genuinely appalled him. Quiet and unassuming, he felt ill at ease on the cocktail circuit simply because he could not see the purpose of it.

All these things, together with the generally unattractive life of an itinerant musician, led him to withdraw to the comparative obscurity of a teaching role. This public loss was the gain of generations of pupils and many making their careers before the public today are proud to name him as a teacher and influence. His return to the platform, after his retirement from the Conservatory in 1993, must be one of the rare examples of an enthusiast persuading a professional artist to think again.

Ernst Lumpe, a German record collector and a long-time admirer of the pianist through the 30 or so London recordings, had begun a friendship that led to an invitation to play publicly again in Germany. These engagements were in small local halls with a tiny audience and perhaps that is why Florentino responded to the idea. Whatever initial reservations he might have had were quickly dispelled both by enthusiasm of Lumpe (whose achievements cannot be overrated) and of audiences thrilled to discover this master pianist in their midst. Bach-Busoni, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Tausig and some forgotten whirlwind transcriptions of Die Fledermaus and the Strauss waltzes were hurled at audiences who quickly realised they were in the presence of someone quite exceptional.

When the knowledgeable Bryan Crimp, founder of APE Recordings and one of the best judges of the great pianists of this century, made a live tape of one of those performances and issued it to general acclamation, it marked the renaissance of Fiorentino and his return to the recording studio after a 30-year absence.

Everything began to happen for him. He was invited to China to give concerts and master classes and began to appear on the adjudication panels of various competitions as well as fitting in concerts at prestigious European events. What became annual appearances at the Newport Festival, where he was booked "for life", led to the sort of critical adulation that is rarely seen today. He was dubbed a pianist of the Golden Age and was lauded wherever he went.

Recording plans were laid into the new millennium but his death, at home suddenly and without suffering, means they will not be fulfilled. The deep musical insights which he used to turn the most familiar repertoire into a revelation and his understanding of composers from Bach to Scriabin will ensure that his name and stature remain at the forefront wherever great piano playing is appreciated.

Sergio Fiorentino, pianist: born Naples, Italy 22 December 1927; married; died Naples 22 August 1998.

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