Ruth Slenczynska: Rachmaninoff’s student still releases music at 97 | Classical music

The biggest lesson Ruth Slenczynska learned from Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff was that sounds have color.

Almost 90 years ago, nine-year-old Slenczynska was rehearsing one of Rachmaninoff’s preludes when he asked her to join him at the window. It was springtime in Paris, and the avenues were lined with mimosas laden with fluffy, golden flowers.

“He said, ‘Do you see that? That’s what you want to bring to your sound – gold.’ I said, ‘Show me.’ So he sat down at the piano and put color in his sound, he made it meaningful. And a little kid can copy anything,” she said.

Next month, Slenczynska, who just turned 97, will release her latest album after signing a worldwide record deal. Born in California to Polish parents, the pianist gave her first recital at the age of four and has been hailed as one of the greatest child prodigies since Mozart. She made her debut with a large orchestra in Paris at the age of seven.

Ruth Slenczynska on stage. Photography: Jon Brenneis/Getty Images

“Playing music is like taking a bus ride – you don’t have to let your passenger get off until they get to their destination,” she said. “Keep them interested in a nice way. I always try to do that.

Each piece of My Life in Music, published by Decca Classics, recalls a pianist or composer that Slenczynska knew personally. His friends and mentors have included a string of 20th-century classical music giants. Not only Rachmaninoff – she is considered his last living student and often wears a Fabergé egg necklace he gave her – but also Artur Schnabel, Josef Hofmann, Egon Petri, Alfred Cortot and Samuel Barber.

However, she is quick to point out that life as a child prodigy has not been easy. Slenczynska’s father, Joseph, a former director of the Warsaw Conservatory, was a tyrannical figure determined to make her a successful musician at all costs.

She remarked in her 1957 autobiography, Forbidden Childhood, about the emotional stress of having to practice nine hours a day with no room for error. “No one chooses to be a prodigy,” she says now. “I was pushed very hard by my father, who thought it was a way to make money. Really, I was never a child.

Slenczynska retired from performing at the age of 15 and eventually cut her father completely. She enrolled in a degree in psychology and did not return to the concert scene until 1951. Since then she has recorded 10 LPs for Decca Classics while holding a series of university teaching positions.

She performed for Michelle Obama and five US Presidents, including Herbert Hoover, John F Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, as well as a four-hand duet with Harry Truman.

Slenczynska was in Washington for a concert when she received a mysterious phone call asking if she could change her plans. The next morning, she was picked up “by a great car” and driven – to her surprise – to the White House.

“We came to a large double door, with a Marine on either side. I walked in and there was Mr. Truman, President of the United States. He shook my hand and said, ‘Do you want to duet with me?’ »

It turned out that the president had rehearsed a Mozart sonata and wanted to play with the best. “We sat together on the bench and it went really well. He played in a very musical and attractive way. Then everyone clapped. Then I was pulled and I said, ‘I didn’t even take a picture!’ »

Years later, after a concert in Kansas City, she had an unexpected visitor. “It was a bad cold evening with sleet falling. I was changing backstage, when there was a knock on the door. I thought it was the lady who had brought me in. I opened the door and Mr. Truman came in. “You played duet with me once, remember? he said. And we had the most wonderful conversation.”

Despite all the huge changes she has gone through since her childhood days, Slenczynska’s commitment to the art of music and performance has remained unwavering. During the first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, she uploaded home recordings of Beethoven sonatas to YouTube to celebrate her 250th birthday. His next recital, to mark his own, takes place in Pennsylvania on February 6.

Her age, she says, “kinda slipped her.” “All of a sudden you look back and say, ‘Oh my God, that happened 50 years ago.’ I always keep a picture of my lovely husband on my dresser And once in a while it comes to mind – he died in 2000. But I would marry him again if I could, he is still my lover .

Does she have any regrets? “No, she said, looking back is useless. Rejoice and make it as beautiful as possible.

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