Claudio Arrau was born on 6 February 1903 in Chillán, Chile. He was five when he first played in public in his home town; needless to say, this was on the piano, not the sports ground. At 11 he was already appearing in Berlin.
In the intervening years Arrau had grown into a « child of Chile », such a shining example of talent in eyes of all his countrymen, event that age, that the boy received a long-term state scholarship not from some music college or conservatoire but, quite uniquely, from the Chilean Parliament. L
Like a musical ambassador in short trousers, the lad was sent over to Europe for tuition and advanced studies on the piano. Arrau became (as the still is) a European pianist, albeit of Chilean extraction.
Already Albéniz, Granados and Falla were some way behind the host of Central European Classical and Romantic works in Arrau’s programmes, although even today promoters and audiences still expect and assume that young pianists from South America will make their way in Europe playing works by Spanish composers.
Instead there was Bach - Johann Sebastian - and in quantity, indeed to all intents and purposes complete. In 12 concerts given in 1935-36 at the « Meistersaal » in Berlin, Arrau played virtually the entire cycle of the great man’s keyboard music, creating a sensation with a tour de force of musicianship, concentrated pianism and polyphonic lucidity.
The small, intimate « Meistersaal », seating about 500, was the favourite Berlin venue for aspiring artists and adventurous programmes and had a loyal, devoted audience. It was here that Arrau won himself his musical spurs with his Bach cycle.
In spite of all the reserve and self-doubt that comes out when he speaks of those years (as reported by Joseph Horowitz), Arrau has long been regarded by the public as a majestic, authoritative pianist on whose interpretations people rely with unshakeable confidence. He made a name for himself. He was sailing with the wind. People flocked to see him. Wherever he appeared, his artistry clearly invited serious and grateful attention.
Sated with his later triumphs, Arrau possibly underrates his early successes when he looks back over the start of his carrer. Everyone who heard him then in musical Germany (and perhaps elsewhere) had long since placed him firmly in the top rank of pianists performing in that country.
He was assimilated as an artist. While he was still in Germany he was already palpably on the threshold of fame. Backhaus, Edwin Fischer and indeed Kempff, being 19, 17 and even just eight years older, belonged to a previous generation of distinguished pianists who were already much admired (and Arrau himself never concealed his admiration for them. Arrau had time on his side, and he has extended it magnificently into the final decade of the declining century. After so long, he himself is happily still astonishingly young for an old man (or vice versa).
It was, moreover, during his apprenticeship in Berlin that Arrau laid the foundations of his staggeringly wide repertoire, which would previously have required a combination of several different talents and personalities in order to cover the same scope.
Did Backhaus have the same consummate expertise in Debussy as he had in Beethoven ? Or Edwin Fischer in Liszt as well as Brahms ? Only Arrau was completely qualified to perform the whole range of piano music to the highest standards throughout; as a quick change artist at the piano, he is unrivalled by anyone on his artistic level. Arrau himself actually compared himself and his playing to an actor, with the actor’s exemplary versatility, enabling him continually to embark on new artistic challenges without losing himself in the process.
That is the secret of Arrau’s art - he gives himself wholly to it without giving himself away. By now mature and fully equipped as an artist, Arrau left Germany and Europe some time after the war broke out.
He set about the musical conquest of new continents. He had to convert them to his rigorous artistry, renouncing the kind of tinkling instrumental glitter which is often musically out of place, or the sort of performance which seeks merely to please the listener with tear-jerking and cajoling pianistic effects.
For all that, Arrau was and still is a true-born virtuoso, the technical equal of any of the bombastic keyboard gladiators. His artistry had simply taken a different direction; eschewing instrumental glamour, he strove for uncompromising musicianship, striking a blow for truth with the most delicate touch - if we can speak of striking blows at all when it comes to piano playing, which is certainly not the case with Arrau.
Arrau insists on fidelity to the text, on intellectual and therefore stylistic fidelity. Not hiding the light of his art under a bushel, he became a master of musical enlightenment, an encyclopaedist of the piano. Texte : Klaus Geitel