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Lionized for Her Interpretation of Mozart : Stellar Pianist Lili Kraus, 83, Dies

November 08, 1986|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Lili Kraus, the concert pianist lionized by the musical cognoscenti for her interpretation of Mozart, has died in Asheville, N.C., not far from the 700-acre farm she had retired to in 1982.

The Hungarian-born Miss Kraus was 83 when she died at a hospital after intestinal surgery Thursday.

Although she did not appear in the United States until 1949, she had for years been regarded here and elsewhere as a leading interpreter of the Viennese classics.

Born in Budapest, she began studying piano at 6 and at 8 entered Budapest's Royal Academy of Music, where composers Zoltan Kodaly and Bela Bartok taught. At 17, she entered the Vienna Conservatory of Music, where one of her instructors was the famed pianist Artur Schnabel.

In the 1930s, she was a popular recitalist in Europe and often toured, sometimes appearing in partnership with violinist Szymon Goldberg. In 1930, she married Otto Mandl, head of a German timber trust who managed his wife's career. Before World War II, they moved to England, renouncing Austrian citizenship, and became naturalized British subjects. Mandl died in 1956.

While on a world tour in the Dutch East Indies in 1942, Miss Kraus was arrested by the Japanese and imprisoned for the duration of World War II. She was confined to a 4-foot-by-14-foot subterranean cell with 12 other women and subsisted on two cups of rice a day. She said later that she spent the time studying piano masterpieces in her head, seeking new insights.

At the war's end she felt that the long inactivity had diminished her performing ability and did not resume her career for nearly three years.

When she did, it was with a vengeance--120 concerts in 18 months.

She returned to the United States for the 1966-67 season, giving nine concerts in New York and playing all 25 of the Mozart piano concerts--a first in New York musical history.

'Like Baseball Fans'

Each of the Town Hall concerts was sold out and a Time magazine critic said the crowds "applauded like baseball fans who had just shared in winning the first game of the World Series."

Miss Kraus, whose life was the subject of two Public Broadcasting System television specials, made her last concert appearance at Swarthmore College in June, 1982. By that time, rheumatoid arthritis had made it painful for her to use her hands.

She built a home for herself and her daughter on a farm in the North Carolina mountains near Burnsville and lived there until poor health forced her into a nursing home in Asheville two years ago.

Although she performed the works of Bach, Haydn and Beethoven with dazzling facility, Mozart remained a lifelong idol.

'My Image of Mozart'

"When you ask me my image of Mozart," she said in 1981, "you might as well ask me about my image of life, because it is exactly that.

"I would never say I have chosen Mozart. I hope to God that he has chosen me to interpret Mozart's work and that Mozart agrees."

A memorial concert by Steven de Groote, Van Cliburn International Piano Competition winner, will be held today in Fort Worth, Tex. Miss Kraus was a member of that competition's jury from 1962 to 1981.

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