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Rosalyn Tureck, 88; Pianist Helped Create New Interest in Bach

July 22, 2003|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

Rosalyn Tureck, the pianist and celebrated Bach specialist who helped feed the revival of his music in the 1930s and '40s, died Thursday at her home in New York City. She was 88. No cause of death was announced.

Defying conventional wisdom that Bach should be played only on a harpsichord, Tureck created a stir in the music world by playing his works on the modern grand piano. She generated the same kind of interest that Glen Gould did with his unique interpretations a generation later. Indeed, Gould acknowledged her as an influence.

"He did notice some things that I did," Tureck told London Guardian writer Rob Cowan in 2000, "but he had no idea of my reasons for doing them."

Born in Chicago, Tureck was the third of three daughters of a cantor from Kiev and a Turkish mother. She taught herself piano by imitating the lessons she overheard her sister taking.

She began her own lessons in 1925 with Sophia Brilliant-Liven, a former teaching assistant to Anton Rubinstein, and continued studies with Bach-specialist Jan Chiapusso. Later she studied with Olga Samaroff at the Juilliard School, from which she graduated in 1935.

Early in her career, she performed the standard romantic repertory, making her debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy in the Brahms Second Concerto and touring with Dmitri Mitropoulos and the Minneapolis Orchestra, playing Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, both in 1936.

Tureck also had a vivid interest in contemporary music, giving first performances of William Schuman's concerto and of David Diamond's first sonata, which was written for her.

She had been fascinated with electronic instruments as early as 10, when she heard Leon Theremin's new invention in which sounds were produced by moving one's hands through the space between two metal poles. In fact, she made her Carnegie Hall debut playing a Bach concerto on the Theremin. In 1951, she founded Composers of Today, a society for the performance of major contemporary music, which sponsored a 1952 concert by Vladimir Ussaschevsky, said to have been the first tape and electronic music concert played in the United States.

But in the late '50s, she decided to give up everything else and focus exclusively on Bach.

One of her celebrated feats was to play Bach's "Goldberg Variations" first on the harpsichord and then on the piano. "I wanted to prove what I say, that it is the music that matters, not the instrument," she said.

Indeed, on occasion, she would also play the clavichord, organ, electronic piano or the Moog Synthesizer.

"Performing on period instruments does not prevent the intrusion of anachronisms," she wrote in 1999. "The medium is not the message. Great musical art is infinitely more complex."

Tureck's approach to Bach had emerged from a kind of mystical revelation. A week before her 17th birthday, while playing a Bach fugue, she fell into what she later described as a trance in which she had a "sudden blinding insight" about a new method of playing Bach. The new method meant abandoning the notion of right-hand/left-hand opposition and melody versus harmony.

"It took me three days to do four lines," she said later. "But as my fingers absorbed my mission, it gradually got faster. Each finger had to be absolutely independent, to bring out all the parts evenly without a trace of muddiness. Bach should not be thought of in linear terms: The connections are vertical and diagonal."

Her playing was distinguished by clarity of line, sharply defined rhythms and intensity of feeling. Reviews were almost consistently good.

Composer Virgil Thomson wrote in the New York Times in 1945: "The secret of her work at its best seems to be that her passionate nature finds its completest expression in works that demand by their own nature an objective approach."

Almost a decade later, in 1954, a critic of the London Times lauded her: "The encomiums she has received are not exaggerated; she plays the piano beautifully and Bach authentically. She demolishes our cherished purism and proves the piano a better instrument than a harpsichord, and better for Bach."

Generally, she found greater and more responsive audiences in Europe than in America, and she chose to live in Oxford, England, in the 1960s to be closer to her friends Bertrand Russell, Isaiah Berlin and Robert Oppenheimer. There she founded the Tureck Bach Players, the International Bach Society and later, the Tureck Bach Institute.

An active teacher through much of her career, Tureck taught at the Mannes School of Music in New York, 1940-44; at the Juilliard School, 1943-55; at Columbia University, 1944-55; and at UC San Diego, 1966-72. Her publications include "Introduction to the Performance of Bach," a series of essays in three volumes, and her own edition of some of Bach's music.

She retired from the concert stage in 1999.

Married twice, she is survived by a sister, Sonya Goldsmith of Pittsburgh.

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