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Nikita Magaloff

Nikita Magaloff

Nikita Magaloff

*21 II 1912 Petersburg, †26 XII 1992 Vevey

Nikita Magaloff (Magalashvili) was born in a Georgian-Russian family; his mother and uncle were amateur pianists, and family friends included Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, and especially Alexander Siloti. In 1918 Magaloff moved with his parents to Finland, and to
Paris in 1922, where he studied at the Paris Conservatoire in the class of Isidore Philipp. He graduated in 1929, obtaining the Premier Prix. In 1938 he participated in the Ysaÿe Competition in Brussels but failed to place. He began a concert career, initially in Germany and France. He often appeared with violinists József Szigeti (whose daughter he married) and Arthur Grumiaux, and cellist Pierre Fournier. During his period, he also befriended Artur Schnabel, Walter Gieseking, as well as Ravel and Stravinsky (Magaloff was the first performer on disc of Stravinsky's Concerto for piano and winds). In 1949, he took the piano class at the Geneva Conservatoire over from the late Dinu Lipatti, where he lectured until 1960. He sat in the juries of the Chopin Competitions of 1965 and 1980; protesting against the elimination of Ivo Pogorelić during the latter, he left the jury alongside Martha Argerich. In subsequent years, he held piano classes and masterclasses in Paris, Siena, Taormina and Montreux, where he was chairman of the Clara Haskil competition between 1965 and 1989. His pupils include Jean-Marc Luisada, Maria Tipo, Sergio Calligaris and Michel Dalberto; he also gave some private lessons to Martha Argerich.

Magaloff was also active as a composer; his output includes a virtuoso Toccata and cadenzas to the concertos of Mozart.

Magaloff's style was characterised by economy and a classical sense of proportion. He sparingly used forte, emphasising the melodic line and a precise execution of the musical text. He remained influenced by the French piano school, but also looked to Germany and its 'objectivist' trends, especially that of Artur Schnabel, as shown by Magaloff's selection of manuscript versions of some Chopin and Scriabin works. Less obvious were his links to the Russian tradition. In his wide and eclectic repertoire, Russian composers (especially Scriabin) dominated alongside French music and Mozart (sonatas, concertos and chamber works). He is also valued for his interpretations of Mendelssohn and Schubert; in his youth, he was considered a prominent Liszt pianist.

Magaloff occupies an important place in the history of Chopin recordings. He was the first pianist in Europe (after Alexander Brailowsky in the US) to play Chopin's complete works on stage. In 1954-58, he made the first recording of Chopin's complete œuvre for Decca (and repeated the exploit for Philips in the 1970s). He even included Chopin's more obscure works such as the Sonata in C minor Op. 4 and the Variations in B flat Op. 12.

Stylistically, Magaloff's interpretations are ambiguous. In his piano technique (lightness of touch, tone shading) he came close to French pianists, but entirely avoided the emphasis and Romantic expression of e.g. Cortot; his restrained, at times almost austere style came close to that Wilhelm Backhaus and Robert Casadesus. From Magaloff's Chopin recordings, of special interest are the Sonata in B minor, Concerto in E minor (several versions, including with the Radio Sinfonieorchester Basel under Serge Baudo, and the Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux under Roberto Benzi), mazurkas, and Chopin's songs recorded with Turkish soprano (of Polish descent) Leyla Gencer.

Magaloff disliked studio recordings and left a limited legacy on disc. Apart from the 13-CD Chopin set (now delisted) we have the complete etudes of Scriabin (Valois/Naïve), Granados' Goyescas of 1954 (Decca), a Mendelssohn CD (including Variations sérieuses, Rondo capriccioso, a selection of the Songs Without Words, and the Sonata Op. 106), a live recital from the Salzburg Festival in August 1969 (including Dallapiccola's Sonatina canonica and Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit), and a 2-CD edition on Philips (in the Great Pianists of the 20th Century series) with Magaloff's famous rendition of Liszt's Études d'après Paganini, a sonata by Haydn, Chopin's Sonata in C minor, Bolero Op. 19, nocturnes and mazurkas. Many Magaloff recordings have been published on collector's labels (e.g. Orfeo). 

Wojciech Bońkowski

February 2007 

Franca Cella, Nikita Magaloff. Con la collaborazione di Irène Magaloff, Nuova Edizioni, Milan 1995


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