Pianist Gary Graffman turned 85 this month. In a musical career that has spanned seven of those 8 1/2 decades, Mr. Graffman has experienced everything from entering the prestigious Curtis Institute at the age of seven, the accidental, self-inflicted destruction of his right hand’s dexterity to becoming one of the most prominent educators in the US.
As he recently reminisced, he was likely the first pianist to have recorded extensive repertoire with the five most prominent American orchestras: New York, Cleveland, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. The so called OYAPs (Outstanding Young American Pianists) in the 1940s and ’50s, Gary Graffman and his pals Leon Fleisher, Eugene Istomin and Jacob Lateiner became the tidal wave of new US pianistic talent sweeping through the international concert halls.
In celebration of Mr. Graffman’s milestone birthday, Sony Classical has released a collection of all of his recordings in a limited-edition set. Together with 13 LPs, this 24-CD collection includes many recordings that have never before been on CD. Sony Classical has remastered the original analog tapes, and Mr. Graffman’s full prowess is on magnificent display. Notable are performances of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1964 with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic), Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto (1966 with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra), Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Prokofiev Piano Sonatas and one of the first recordings in the West of Tchaikovsky’s Second and Third Piano Concertos (with Ormandy). His solo recital repertoire is represented by a generous selection of Brahms (including the Paganini Variations), Chopin, Liszt and Schumann (Carnaval and the Symphonic Etudes). There is also a reissue of what may be Graffman’s most widely heard recorded performance Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (from the soundtrack of the 1979 Woody Allen movie Manhattan) which was one of the last times he used both hands at the keyboard.
Listen & Read
Gary Graffman in “For the Love of Music”
From the series of radio programs titled “For the Love of Music,” hosted by David Dubal on WNCN-FM, New York. Guest is pianist Gary Graffman. This program was originally broadcast on October 21, 1983.
Gary Graffman’s book (1982) I really Should Be Practicing
How a lousy piano in Berlin can cause focal dystonia
Mr. Graffman had studied with Horowitz and Serkin, won the Leventritt Competition, and had the musical world by the tail at the pinnacle of his career in the early 1970s. No one knew, maybe not even Gary himself, what he had been doing to his right hand ever since a 1967 concert with the Berlin Philharmonic where he was to play the Tchaikovsky B-flat Minor Piano Concerto. As Mr. Graffman remarked, the piano was lousy and had two particularly dead-sounding octaves above middle-C. He said that you could have hit it with a sledgehammer and the orchestra would have still covered it. There was no time to get another piano, so he soldiered on through the concert. Having to pummel the keys to get the sound and projection the Tchaikovsky demands, Graffman sprained his right-hand pinkie.
After surviving his way through the rest of that performance, he never sought medical treatment or took a break. He had concerts to do, so he altered his right-hand fingering patterns to ignore the injured finger. Ten years later, he noticed he was making mistakes where he never made them before. Two years after that, his right hand was useless, crippled by focal dystonia. Unless he wanted to play left-hand concertos, his playing career was over.
The left hand career
Mr. Graffman handled the crushing disappointment with dignity. With remarkable courage, Mr. Graffman also commissioned seven works for the left hand, which included Ned Rorem’s Piano Concerto No. 4 and one for two left-hand-only pianists that he performed with his lifelong friend Leon Fleisher (William Bolcom’s Gaea). In much the same way as his Mr. Fleisher did after his own diagnosis of focal dystonia, Mr. Graffman turned to teaching. He chose his alma mater, and has been at the Curtis Institute ever since. From 1980 to 1995, he was an instructor and was, until recently, the Institute’s president. Although he currently teaches six or seven students, he no longer runs the distinguished Philadelphia school. In a recent interview, he stated that he never would have joined Curtis had he continued concertizing. He also said that teaching others had been a real pleasure. Mr. Graffman counts Lang Lang, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, Yuja Wang and Haochen Chang among his former students.