Pianist  Abbey  Simon
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Abbey Simon (born January 8, 1922) has been hailed as a super-virtuoso whose appearances in the concert halls of the world are eagerly anticipated not only by music lovers, but also by professional musicians who come to hear him spin his own particular magic. He is recognized as one of the grand masters of the piano.

Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer wrote, “Simon’s recital offered more than a glimpse into the fabled golden age of piano playing…His virtuosity is marked not only by speed, power, lightness and accuracy but also by intricate interplay of voices and lambent colors.” And critic Scott MacClelland reported from the West coast “when they’ve written the final chapter on great pianists of the 20th century, the name Abbey Simon will be included. Indeed, that name might well mark the first chapter on 21st-Century pianists as well.”

Through the years, critics have hailed Simon’s mastery and noted that his playing has its roots in the great pianists of the past. Improvising at the piano at the age of three, he had natural perfect pitch and began taking lessons at the age of five. After studying with David Saperton, the son-in-law of celebrated pianist Leopold Godowsky, Saperton took him to play for the great pianist Josef Hofmann. At the age of eight, Simon was accepted by Hofmann as a scholarship student at the Curtis Institute where he trained with fellow classmates Jorge Bolet and Sidney Foster, among others.

Upon graduation from Curtis, Simon went on to win numerous awards. He made his official debut in New York’s Town Hall as winner of the prestigious Naumburg Award. Following this success he performed at Carnegie Hall a number of times before his debut tour to Europe. His success in Europe was so great that he did not return to the U.S. for some 12 years.

He has been the recipient of the Federation of Music Clubs Award, the National Orchestral Association Award, and a Ford Foundation Award. Following his debut in Europe, he received the Harriet Cohen Medal and the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Award.

Simon’s recordings for Philips, EMI, HMV, and Vox make him one of the most recorded classical artists of all time. He has recorded all the concertos of Rachmaninoff, the complete works of Ravel, and Schumann’s Carnaval and Fantasy. His Chopin collection encompasses some 20 disks.

Abbey Simon has served on the faculties of such noted schools as Indiana University and the Juilliard School. Simon currently holds a Cullen Distinguished Professorship at the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music, where he has been a member of the faculty since 1977. Recently, Abbey Simon was presented in recital on the “Naumburg Looks Back” series in Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall.

In February of 1988, during one of his regular visits to the Windy City, I had a wonderful conversation with Abbey Simon at his hotel a couple days before his appearance.  As befitted an artist of his age and reputation, he was dapper and charming, and responded to my questions with the knowledge and vision of one who had been at his career for a long and satisfying time.  He remarked just a bit about the nuisances of constant travel, then we settled down for a discussion of music in our time.  Here is that chat . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    How do you divide your time amongst solo recitals, chamber concerts, orchestral performances and the teaching and adjudicating?

Abbey Simon:    I don’t think there’s any actual division.  Whatever comes along, comes along, and that’s it.  It’s not as if I say I will only play orchestral performances for the next three weeks, or only play recitals, or something like that.  Whichever way it works out, it works out.  It’s unplanned in any special way.

simon BD:    Do you have any preference for playing with orchestra or playing solo?

AS:    No.  I enjoy them both.  I think I probably enjoy a recital more, because you have an hour and a half to play.  It’s also more interesting in a certain way, going to different styles of music.  But I love them both; I certainly love playing the concerti.

BD:    You feel you’re more in control of the music when you are the only performer to rely on?

AS:    No, it’s not so much that.  It’s just a question of having a whole variety of music to play.  You’re stuck with one piece when you play a piano concerto, whether it’s a Beethoven concerto, a Rachmaninoff concerto, a Mozart concerto, and it goes by rather fast.  In a recital, one has seventy-five or eighty minutes to do as one wishes, which is a marvelous thing to be able to do!  Unfortunately, everybody writes these terrible things that nobody’s interested in recitals.  I think they’re all mad, of course.  I don’t believe a word of it.  The recital is the true test of an artist, and in point of fact, there are very few great recitalists floating around at the moment.

BD:    Are you a great recitalist?

AS:    I haven’t any idea.  I like to think so.  [Laughs]

BD:    Who is the ultimate judge of that?  Is it the public, the critics, your peers?

AS:    I couldn’t begin to say.  The ultimate judge is when you come back to your hotel room at night and you know what you’ve done.  There’s absolutely nothing to say about that.  You either feel that you’ve done something that was worth all the work that you’ve put in for a lifetime
which is a very nice feelingor else you feel that you haven’t.  I think most artists only remember what went bad in a concert.  My memories of concerts are almost uniquely about mistakes.  I can tell you what wrong notes I played in 1944.

BD:    Let me turn the question around.  What do you expect of the public that comes to hear you in a recital?

AS:    I don’t know if we expect anything of the public.  We’re delighted that they’re there!  They obviously want to take part in the concert, otherwise they wouldn’t be there.  And they participate; don’t fool yourself.   A theater is a place where the audience participates with the performers, and in coming to a concert, they want to hear something.  They want to be amused; they want to be touched; they want themselves stimulated in one fashion or another.  That’s why I go to a concert, so I think that’s all one can ask from an audience.

BD:    Are the publics different from city to city, or country to country?

AS:    No, not any longer.  It may have been when I was a boy, but there are no longer any provincial cities.  There’s too much TV, there’s too much live TV, Live from Avery Fisher Hall, or Live from Orchestra Hall.  There are too many concerts and there’s too many good music stations throughout the country.  Every university has performer faculty, whether it’s a big university or a small university, and most of them have radio stations.  The result is that there isn’t any such thing as a provincial audience any longer.

BD:    Has the standard of music-making continued to rise throughout the last twenty, thirty, forty years?

AS:    Oh, of course.  I should say so!  The rising is a peculiar thing.  At least to my mind, what’s happened is that there’s a category of accomplishment of a certain kind of excellence which has many, many people in it at this point because of the fact that there are so many good schools available to everybody.  If you live in California, one doesn’t have to travel three thousand miles to study with a good teacher in New York City.  There are fine teachers every place in the United States, whether you’re in Alabama or in Montana, or any place you could think of.  The result is all of these teachers are very sophisticated.  You also find that all the universities have very good composers.  They are well aware of the latest movements in contemporary music, so they’re turning out masses of very accomplished musicians.

BD:    Are they turning out, perhaps, too many?

AS:    There’s no such thing as too many.  Perhaps there are not enough of a certain category of very great interpreters, which will always be very limited and very small, but that’s something else.

BD:    What are some of the characteristics that contribute to making a great interpretation?

AS:    An ability to see what is on the printed page and transform it by yourself to give it your personal quality.  I don
’t like that term; it’s sort of a nebulous thing.  It’s not a good answer, but that’s what it comes down to, basically.  Everybody goes to high school and learns the great soliloquies of the Shakespearean plays, ‘the quality of mercy,’  ‘to be or not to be,’ etcetera, etcetera.  They’re always the same words, but what about when a great Shakespearean actor suddenly takes these very same words?  They’re not the same thing.  It’s that particular ability to see what really exists in the music, to see it in your own way and say, “This is what is in this piece of music.”  That is what stamps the great artist, I think.  You can disagree with that interpretation or with that performance, but for everybody that you will say was a wonderful artist or is a wonderful artist, I can find you dozens of people who will say, “Oh, I think he’s dreadful!”  That’s what sets music apart as the most fascinating of all of the arts.

BD:    We’ve been talking about the artists.  What sets apart a great piece of music, and does that change with each individual artist?

simon AS:    What sets apart a great piece of music is a very debatable thing.  Think of all of the great pieces of music that were destroyed on their early hearings or on their first performances.  Carmen comes to my mind just at the moment, or many of the great piano works which were not played for many, many years.  Think of the passion that we now have and that we now enjoy for all the Schubert sonatas.  When I was a student, nobody played Schubert sonatas.  The first one to play Schubert sonatas that I ever heard was Schnabel.  I never heard Joseph Hoffmann play a Schubert sonata, or Joseph Levine, or Rachmaninoff, or Vladimir Horowitz, or Rubenstein.  Rubenstein learned one very late in life!  What makes a great piece of music is public acclaim, first of all; it can also ruin a piece of music.

BD:    How so? 

AS:    For example, people love to run down Puccini because it’s such a pleasant thing to listen to.  I think Puccini is marvelous.  I saw Turandot the other night.  A couple of weeks ago I was in a place where they were performing it.  I’ve seen it many times, and it was wonderful.  I can’t see any reason for running down Puccini, any more than a reason for running down George Gershwin.  George Gershwin was a colossally gifted man, and in his own way, an American Schubert.  He was a man with a gift for writing marvelous melodies and making them memorable.  The fact remains that we all remember the Gershwin tunes; even the present day generation, which is a rock generation, still knows the Gershwin tunes.  So, it’s had a great effect on us.  I wouldn’t begin to say what makes a great piece of music.

BD:    Where is the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?

AS:    Oh, I don’t think the entertainment value gets into it at all.  That’s for you to decide, whether it’s entertaining.  It has nothing to do with me.

BD:    You don’t strive to make it at all entertaining?

AS:    I should say not!  I don’t believe anybody does.  How would you try to be entertaining?  What would you expect me to do to entertain you?  I could try with rabbits out of a hat.

BD:    Do you feel that music should be entertaining at all?

AS:    Entertaining is too loose a term.  Music should absorb you; you should be absorbed by it; you should be taken by it; you should be enthralled by it, and that’s all that counts.  There’s no tragedy if you don’t like a particular piece, because there again, for everybody that will tell you they love a particular piece of music, I could find you dozens of people who think, “Oh, no.  It’s not for me.”  That goes for performers as well as just listeners.

BD:    Are we still getting great pieces of piano music being written today?

AS:    You’d have to ask that to a much younger pianist.

BD:    At what point have you stopped exploring the new music?

AS:    The new music just isn’t pianistic enough for me.  I am in essence a nineteenth century artist.  I play a great deal of Prokofiev; I play Sam Barber, but they’re really nineteenth century composers.  They are virtuoso composers; they are melodic composers; they are fascinating in their harmonies and their orchestration.  But the way present-day composers use the piano, it’s just not for me.  I wouldn’t know where to begin with it.

BD:    Then what advice do you have for someone who is writing music for the piano?

AS:    I must tell you, I was present at a very moving occasion.  Some years ago Rubinstein came to the Julliard School of Music to talk to the students.  He was well into his eighties and already blind, but it was probably the greatest stage performance I have ever seen in my life, because he was absolutely the world’s greatest entertainer.  At the end of the whole thing he had a question period, and some young, bearded composer in blue jeans said, “Mr. Rubinstein, why haven’t you ever taken an important position where contemporary music is concerned?”  He looked at him and said, “My dear young man, if you look at the music of DeFalla, Granados, Albéniz, you’ll find most of it dedicated to me.  If you look at the music of Ravel, you’ll find a great many pieces dedicated to me.  If you look at the piano version of Petrushka, it is dedicated and commissioned by me.  Igor never wrote a note without being paid in advance.  I can only say to you, young man, you find your champions the way they found me.”  That was one of the greatest curtain lines I have ever heard in my life, and coming off the top of a head of a man in his eighties, that really sums it up.  As far as I am concerned, you can’t expect me to get involved with electronic music when there are young people who are mad for it. 

BD:    [With gentleness]  I’m just asking you about people who compose for your instrument.

AS:    I can’t think of a work that is composed in the present day idiom that suits pianists.  They’re not pianistic.  They utilize the instrument more as a percussion instrument.  So, you’d have to ask somebody who is much closer to the contemporary scene, somebody who plays the Boulez piano sonatas, though they may be considered fairly old stuff at this point.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You have at your command this vast literature for the piano.  How do you decide which works you will study, and which works you will set aside for later, or not at all?

AS:    I don’t know.  That’s also very hard to say.  There are works that I always wanted to learn, and I learn them.  There are works that I haven’t learned.

simon BD:    Are you still learning new works all the time?

AS:    Oh, yes.  I’m playing the Rachmaninoff Corelli variations here in Chicago, and I learned it just last summer.  That was a new piece for me.  I always wanted to get around to learn it, and never had the time to.

BD:    Of the pieces that you play over and over again, are you always discovering new things in them?

AS:    Oh, absolutely.  It’s much harder, as any artist will tell you, to re-learn a piece of music that you haven’t played in a number of years than to learn a new one.

BD:    Why?

AS:    Because in learning a new one, you have to form your opinion of it.  You’re busy learning it, learning the notes, mastering it from a musical vantage that is a disadvantage.  You’re learning the piece, you see.  Once you have learned it and have performed it, you’ve performed it well or you’ve performed it badly and decided, “I don’t want to play it for a while.”   Lo and behold a few years later you think, “I haven’t played that in ages.  I really must play it again.”  You’re faced with a whole different set of problems because now you don’t have to hunt and fish for the notes, and a certain amount of minimal practicing brings it back to your fingers.  But suddenly you’re unhappy with what you thought about it before.  Maybe you can’t even figure out why you’re unhappy with what you thought about it before.  I’m sure every artist has had this happen...  I was playing something when I was in my twenties and I thought, “I remember how wonderfully I used to play this piece when I was at school.  Why
can’t I play it like that now?  I used to play it so beautifully.”  Then rummaging around the house, I happened to find some old records of a performance I’d given, and there is that piece, and believe me, I played it much better later on!  [Both laugh]

BD:    So the memory plays tricks on you?

AS:    Memory is a totally unreliable thing.  I always get rather annoyed when someone will say, “I remember how Rachmaninoff played this.”  That’s useless.

BD:    Since we’re venturing into the subject of records, do you play differently for the microphone than you do for the public?

AS:    You try to, but I don’t, certainly.  You sit down and make that first take.  There’s enthusiasm and everything, and a few missed notes here and a blurred note or something or other, so the producer inevitably says, “That was a gorgeous performance!  Let’s try it again.”  That ‘let’s try it again’ is the worst sentence in the English language.

BD:    Would you rather just let it go with the one take?

AS:    We can’t do that anymore.  Wrong notes are not permitted in records.  Let’s be logical about it, it just doesn’t go.  So you try it again, only this time you’re just a little bit inhibited by the whole thing.  You’re a little closer to it, but it begins to be a little smaller in scope, and the more you try, the smaller it gets — at least this is with me.  I don’t know how it is with other people’s recording sessions.  I’ve never gone to someone else’s recording sessions, and I certainly don’t like anybody coming to mine!  So that’s the only thing I say.  Whether you like it or not, it’s a compromise somewhere along the line.  A wrong note in a performance, a missed passage in a performance, is gone; it’s forever in the records.

BD:    Do you feel that this changes the public’s expectations, having listened to the records and then coming to concerts?

AS:    Oh, absolutely!  I think it’s absolutely ridiculous!

BD:    Do you feel you’re competing against your own records?

AS:    No.  I don’t think I’m competing against the records, but let’s face it.  There are eighty-eight black and white keys on the piano, and it’s not possible to play for ninety minutes without expecting to hit a few extra ones along the line!  The odds are just against you.  I must ask a mathematician to work out the odds of that sort of thing happening.

BD:    Then let’s ask an experienced pianist.  You’ve been giving concerts for many years.  Has there ever been a time that you felt, “Ahh.  I got everything right tonight?”

AS:    Everything right?  No.  There have been a few concerts where I thought, “Tonight I did something that was worthwhile.”  It has happened, but not very often.  That’s not out of any false modesty; there’s always something that leaves you unhappy, but there again, maybe memory plays it false because you think, “I remember I played it so much better at such-and-such a time.”  But maybe you didn’t.  [Laughs]  I have found very often on the nights when I thought I played the best concerts of my life, the public or the critics didn’t think so.  There’s a sort of a hysteria.  Maybe
hysteria is not the right word, but there is an effort when you are playing perhaps not so well, and this effort transmits itself to the public.  It involves them much more than when you’re the utter master of the evening and everything is going perfectly and they can count on you all the way.

BD:    They become complacent?

AS:    Yes, they become complacent.

BD:    Is the public different, perhaps, on a Monday night from a Saturday night, or the middle of the week or in an afternoon?

AS:    No, I don’t think so.  I don’t think so at all.  I really don’t find any difference between publics any longer, whether it’s in a small city or a large city, or in Europe or Australia or South America.  There are those people who love music and go.  There are some places where there are more people going to concerts than there are in other places.  I think the biggest music public in the world is in Buenos Aires.  People just flock like mad to recitals.

simon BD:    I know they have a great opera house down there.

AS:    Yes, and it’s just as packed for the recitals as it is for the opera.

BD:    Is that where you play, in the Colón?

AS:    Yes, I’ve played many times in the Colón.

BD:    Are the acoustics as good as everyone says?

AS:    Excellent, yes, but they use a lot of theaters for concerts down there.  They do things very cleverly.  Instead of having a performance of a movie, during that period a piano recital will take place.  They try never to have two things on at the same time, so you can have a recital at five o’clock in one movie house, and across the street a recital at another movie house at seven o’clock or eight o’clock.  They will move something around.

BD:    Do you travel with your own piano?

AS:    No.

BD:    Never?

AS:    I tried it once or twice.  It left me broke.  [Both laugh]  It’s very expensive, and it’s useless to travel with your own piano if you don’t have your own technician.  What good does it do if you travel with your own piano and you don’t have somebody really competent to do what you want done to the piano when you arrive, or who understands what you want with the piano?  [See my Interview with technician Franz Mohr.]

BD:    Tell me some of the joys and sorrows of playing on a thousand different pianos in a year.

AS:    There are many, yes.  In my particular case, the company whose piano I play knows exactly what I like, and they will telephone or send their chief technician from New York to regulate.  So I play more or less the same piano every place because they are regulated to my peculiar specifications.

BD:     This can only happen in the major centers?

AS:    Not necessarily.  There will always be a technician, so it will always be pretty close to what I want.

BD:    No matter what piano you’re playing, the technician comes?

AS:    The technician has been there and regulated it to my particular specifications.

BD:    What do you like that’s different about your piano than Rubinstein or Horowitz or anyone else?

AS:    It’s not a question of being different.  I just don’t like the keyboard to be too deep.  I don’t like to have the white keys going too far down.

BD:    So that’s an adjustment in the action?

AS:    It’s an adjustment, and it’s mostly mechanical.  I like a certain type of voicing, but that’s easily done for the competent man.  But you don’t find too many people going into that particular craft today.

BD:    Is it a dying art?

AS:    I hope not.

BD:    With the enormous amount of pianists we’re turning out, should we also be turning out an enormous amount of technicians?

AS:    Yes.  I don’t know what we’re doing there, but there should be more floating around.  I think the trouble is the great and the very good technicians all flock to the big cities.

BD:    There’s more work there.

AS:    That’s right, so that’s the point.  It’s not that we’re not turning out too many of them.  I can think of some tuners I wouldn’t use in New York City because I’ve never enjoyed their work.  There’s plenty of incompetence in the big places, too, but basically the really gifted, the really skilled craftsman tends to go to the big city.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you play any differently in a small, intimate recital hall as opposed to a large theater?

AS:    No.

BD:    You don
’t use more strength in the forearms or anything like that?

simon AS:    I don’t think that comes into it.  You have to realize you don’t play a musical instrument with your fingers.  A musical instrument is played by the ears.  My own theory is that what sets apart the great artist from the competent one is that he hears differently.  When people say, “The sound of Rubinstein,” Rubenstein played the same old piano that everybody else played.  It was that he had a different conception of sound.  The miracle of Horowitz is not the octaves.  Conservatories are churning out people who can play octaves even faster than Horowitz can play them.  The miracle of Horowitz is the color, the ability to change color.  It’s all of those things, and those are things that are governed by the hearing.  The wonderful sound that Heifitz had is because Heifitz heard differently.  In addition to that brilliant ability, he heard things differently.  All of these great artists hear things.  They have an extra talent, an extra technique, and it’s the hearing technique because in the most elementary way our ears tell us we played a wrong note.  We have to practice so that we don’t play a wrong note.  From then on, it’s a constant refinement.  The ears demand refinement
play faster, play louder, play softer, do this or that; you didn’t phrase that nicely.  Some people’s ears become more sensitive and more demanding, and they’re the ones who are the great artists. 

BD:    There’s an accusation today that the orchestras are sounding much more alike.  Is that same...

AS:    [Interrupting]  That goes for the pianists, too!  I wouldn’t know about the orchestras; they are so good today.

BD:    Are the pianists losing their individuality?

AS:    Yes.  We’re losing individuality, I’m certain.

BD:    When you’re judging a competition, what do you look for in a young pianist?

AS:    Oh, God.  What I look for is not to judge them anymore, quite frankly.  [Both laugh]  One looks for an artist, but instead one picks the most competent, and it’s always a compromise because the juries are very large.  Frankly, I would like to judge a contest by myself.  I think the big international contests — and I have really judged most of them — have huge bands of juries.  A jury of twelve or fifteen must inevitably come down to a compromise, so it generally works out to be the least offensive and the most efficient.

BD:    That’s a horrible thing to say about an artist.

AS:    Well, that’s exactly what we’re talking about.

BD:    Then what advice do you have?  A young pianist comes to you and says, “Mr. Simon, I want to have a career as an international pianist.  What advice do you have for me?”

AS:    I must tell you the truth
there is no way of telling how someone can have a career today.  Life would be very simple if you could say, “You do this and this and this and this, and you will have a brilliant career as a pianist.”  There are no two careers that have run in the same way.  Some of our most celebrated artists never bothered with competitions.  Isaac Stern never played in a competition.  [See my Interview with Isaac Stern.]  Menuhin never played in a competition.  [See my Interview with Yehudi Menuhin.]  Some people won competitions at early ages and didn’t make a career until late in life.

BD:    Do some win competitions and never go anywhere?

AS:    Some never go anywhere, yes indeed.  It was different when I was young.  We had one major competition in the United States, the Naumburg.  Then there were two, the Naumburg and the National Federation.  Now there are I don’t know how many.  There is an international society, a society of international piano competitions which is under the aegis of UNESCO.  There are approximately a hundred members.  That doesn’t mean they’re all pianists or that they all take place every year, but there are at least twenty or twenty-five every year, and they don’t produce just one winner
— they produce five or six or eight prize winners.  So if you have twenty contests, you’re launching a hundred and fifty to two hundred people every year.  There’s no way the concert field can do that.  It’s lucky enough if they can launch one.

BD:    I am glad you were successfully launched, and that you have continued for so many years.  After all this time, is being a concert virtuoso fun?

AS:    If it weren’t, I wouldn’t be doing it.  Oh, absolutely, it’s fun!  Fun is a loose term.  I was once asked to define what a playboy is.  A playboy is not just going to nightclubs; a playboy is somebody who does exactly what he wishes to do.  At least that’s my idea.  It was either Edison or Alexander Graham Bell who forgot that he’d gotten married in the afternoon and worked all night in his laboratory.  That, to me, is the be-all and end-all of playboy-ism!

BD:    Are you a playboy of the piano?

AS:    You better believe it!  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is there a maximum number of concerts you play per year?

AS:    As many as I can get.  [Laughs]

BD:    You’d play three hundred concerts a year???

simon AS:    If I had them, certainly.  That reminds me of a great story.  Years ago we had a critic in New York by the name of Eddie O’Gorman.  He went to Curtis and was a clarinetist and a student of Fritz Reiner.  When Reiner came to New York to conduct, O’Gorman interviewed him and he said, “Mr. Reiner, you’re considered one of the world’s great opera conductors.  Why have you never conducted at the Met?”  He replied, “They never asked me.”  [Both laugh]

BD:    I have interviewed many opera singers, and they have to be careful of singing too much.

AS:    I would say that there’s no such thing as playing a few concerts.  Either you play a lot, or you don’t play at all.

BD:    Twenty concerts a year just won’t make it?

AS:    Everybody’s dream is just to play twenty concerts
the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony.  Just those, but it never works out like that!  It doesn’t work out like that at all.

BD:    Are you pleased with the way your career has gone?

AS:    Yes and no.  That’s a hard thing to say.  I don’t know anybody who’s pleased with their career.  It’s a complicated career.

BD:    Too complicated?

AS:    It’s a very complicated career, yes.  There are many things that have not pleased me, but that’s the way it goes.

BD:    Is it completely overbalanced, though, by the things that have pleased you?

AS:    Oh yes, absolutely!  Quite honestly, one of the things that hasn’t pleased me is that I am recorded, but not by a major label.  This has been a great hindrance to me.   My company, which adores me and I can record as much as I wish, never has huge photos of me in the stores wherever I play, never does a big publicity in the newspapers where I play, so that’s been a source of great frustration to me.

BD:    But at least you have been recorded.  There are probably thousands of pianists who would love to be recorded by any label.

AS:    Oh, yes.  There are very few American pianists that have as many records as I have with this company.  I had recorded for Phillips and for RCA and for His Master’s Voice, but they’re out of print now.

BD:    With the advent of the CD, probably a lot of them will come back.

AS:    Yes, I understand some of them are.  Somebody told me something the other day that I really couldn’t quite believe, that he heard a CD of the Chopin Concerti which I did with Sir Eugene Goossens and the Royal Philharmonic in England.  It was a good thirty years ago, and I can’t believe that it’s out now.  Everything I have is more or less out of the catalog, but it’s gradually coming back in the catalog on CD.  I think the CD is nonsense.

BD:    [Genuinely shocked]  Really???  Why?

AS:    Because they are so complicated to make. The manufacture of CDs is very complicated and very expensive, and I think DAT is going to kill them.

BD:    You don’t feel it will be another revolution like the LP or stereo?

AS:    When the long-playing record hit the market, CBS marketed a turntable with three LP’s for twelve dollars.  The compact disc is not a twelve dollar affair.  As a matter of fact, it’s rather hard to find one compact disc for twelve dollars, let alone a player.  They’ve come down, of course, but I remember when the first one came out in Geneva, it was fifteen hundred francs, which was about a thousand dollars.  They were about that high here also, and they’re down to about one hundred and fifty now, or something like that.  But I think that the digital audio tape is going to be the thing.  I just have a feeling that’s going to be so much cheaper for the average listener.

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BD:    Will you be back in Chicago again soon?

simon AS:    I hope so.  I have no idea at the moment, but I certainly hope so.  I love playing in Chicago; I’ve played here for forty years.  I think everybody loves Chicago.

BD:    It’s a compliment to us, then.

AS:    I think you’d find that from everybody who’s ever been here.

BD:    What all is on your recital this time? 

AS:    I have an early Beethoven sonata which is not played very often, then some Songs Without Words of Mendelssohn and the big Funeral March Sonata of Chopin.  After intermission the Rachmaninoff Corelli Variations, and three pieces from the Miroirs of Ravel, Noctuelles, Oiseaux Tristes and Alborada del Gracioso.

BD:    Do you have some encores prepared?

AS:    I never really prepare them.  I just do what I feel like doing at the moment.

BD:    Do you always grant encores?

AS:    It depends; most of the time.  I enjoy playing encores.  I remember when Josef Hofman used to play twenty.  He used to give a recital in Carnegie Hall which was two-thirty in the afternoon, and they’d have to clear the hall at seven o’clock in the evening because there’d be another concert at eight-thirty.  When he finished the recital, the whole public ran down to the stage and would stand there.  It was very exciting back then.

BD:    Is there any hope for music these days?

AS:    Are you kidding?  Don’t you tell me you’re one of these people who goes around saying it should be in a museum.

BD:    [Laughs]  Of course not!

AS:    That’s nonsense.  There will always be music, and there will always be people who love it.  Look at all the people in the schools!

BD:    I feel that way, but I like to hear you say that.

AS:    Actually, I get infuriated.  One of the writers of The New York Times wrote an article a couple of weeks ago
and Lenny Bernstein said the same thing about ten years agothat it should all be in a museum and available for those who want to go and see it.  I don’t believe that at all.  You may as well say everything should be in a museum.

BD:    I’m glad you’re not in a museum.

AS:    Well, if I play there, I enjoy it!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Thank you very much for speaking with me.  I appreciate it.

AS:    It’s been a pleasure.

Abbey  Simon

"In the front rank of the younger generation of pianists" has been a frequent comment by music critics in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and the major cities of Europe, when speaking of the concert appearances or the brilliant American pianist, Abbey Simon. Leading conductors have given high praise to Mr. Simon, who is recognised as an important figure on the musical scene.

A New Yorker by birth, Abbey Simon received part of his academic education and his major musical training at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he was accepted by Joseph Hofmann when he was eleven years old. Shortly after his graduation from Curtis, he won the coveted Walter W. Naumberg award, which carries with it a Town Hall debut in New York City. The debut recital was followed by recitals in new York’s Carnegie Hall and extensive tours throughout the United States and Canada, which were interrupted only for enlistment in the United States army during the war.

After an audition, Dimitri Mitropoulos was moved to write of Abbey’s playing :

“I confess that rarely has a young artist given me such deep musical satisfaction and brilliant technique at the same time. The boy, for me, has tremendous possibilities to compete with the most outstanding musical personalities of America, because I believe that he possesses not only pianistic abilities, but he also has a musical mind and soul of the first rank.”

This glowing endorsement led to appearances with America’s major orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, The Boston Philharmonic, the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington D.C., the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra, among others.

Mr Simon’s first New York recital in Carnegie Hall was deemed of such unusual merit and received such critical acclaim that he was awarded and appearance with the National orchestral Association, under the leadership of Leon Barzin, for having given the most outstanding piano recital of the year in New York by an artist under the age of 30!

In his first tour of the major music centres of Europe, which included Rome, the Hague, Amsterdam, Paris and London, Mr. Simon was enthusiastically acclaimed by near-capacity audiences and by the European press. One critic summed it up thus :

“One can try to describe the masterly playing of Abbey Simon, thereby having to exhaust all existing superlatives, but the mysterious beauty of his playing cannot be described by words. We have heard much music in that very hall, but one has to think back twenty years until Horowitz’s debut, to remember an equal event.”

Another critic wrote : “A pianist giant… especially, the name of Abbey Simon has to be remembered.”

In Scandinavia, Mr. Simon was hailed by the press and the finest American pianist to have played in that part of Europe.

In London, Mr. Simon received another accolade when he was awarded the Elisabeth Sprague Coolidge Medal for having given the best performance in London by any artist on any instrument that year.

On his first tour of South America, Mr Simon had one of the most phenomenal successes by any artist, playing five recitals in Caracas, four in Lima, five in Buenos Aires, three in Montevideo, plus numerous provincial concerts and orchestral arrangements, resulting in immediate re-engagements for the following season in all places where he had played. He has since toured South America nine times!

Abbey Simon has been heard with most of the great orchestras of Europe under such eminent conductors as Sir John Barbirolli, Joseph Krips, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Walter Susskind, Colin Davis, Antal Dorati, Rafael Kubelik, George Szell, Wilhelm von Otterloo, Dean Dixon, Massimo Freccia, Eduard van Beinum, Carlo Maria Giulini, Seiji Ozawa, Zubin Mehta, Erich Leinsdorf.

Mr. Simon has recorded under Phillips and HMV labels, and is now under exclusive contract to Vox Records for whom he has recorded the complete works of Ravel, as well as some of the piano repertoire of Schumann and Chopin. Of Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, Stereo Review has written :

“Pianist Abbey Simon has achieved in this recording, performances or the piano music of Ravel which I can only describe as being among the best I have ever heard (and I have heard some good ones!). What makes these remarkable even by comparison with the other 'greats' is Simon’s immensely authoritative feeling for the rhythmic structuring, which, when it is fully felt and expressed in Ravel, takes the music over into another dimension of meaning……These are as close to ideal performances as I ever expect to hear, and the recorded sound is well-nigh perfect.”

© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at the Congress Hotel in Chicago, on February 19, 1988.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB three days later, and again in 1990 and 1997.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2012.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.