Webster’s father, who had the same name as his son, was the founder of the Pittsburgh Conservatory which was established in 1893; and it was he who gave the child his first piano lessons when his son was five years old. When Beveridge was thirteen, his father sold the Conservatory and moved to Paris, where the boy studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Isidor Philipp, winning a premier prix from his class, the first American to do so at the Paris Conservatoire. Webster also studied with Robert Casadesus and Nadia Boulanger at the American School at Fontainebleau from where he won a first prize at the age of fourteen.
Whilst in France, Webster became friends with Maurice Ravel and Debussy’s publisher Jacques Durand. He studied Ravel’s works with the composer between 1926 and 1932, and in 1924, when still only sixteen, he gave the world première in Paris of Ravel’s Tzigane with violinist Samuel Dushkin. He would often appear in concerts with Ravel, and also became a close associate of Igor Stravinsky. During the late 1920s Webster toured, giving many concerts in Paris and throughout Europe, and during the 1930s studied in Berlin with Artur Schnabel for a total of three years. At his debut in America in November 1934 he played Edward MacDowell’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor Op. 23 with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and three weeks later gave his recital debut at Carnegie Hall.
Throughout his life Webster combined a career of teaching and performing, often playing chamber music with established string quartets including the Juilliard, Curtis, Capet, Galimir, Kolisch, Pro Arte, and Fine Arts. He also collaborated with some of the finest conductors including Serge Koussevitzky, Artur Rodzinski, Pierre Monteux, Fritz Reiner, Eugene Ormandy, John Barbirolli and Otto Klemperer. After teaching at the New England Conservatory for six years, Webster joined the faculty of the Juilliard School of Music and remained there for nearly forty-five years. In the 1960s he was a performer and faculty member of the Aspen Music Festival and Music School and during his academic career was a visiting professor at many music schools, universities and colleges. Webster was also frequently to be found on the juries of many competitions throughout the world including those in Warsaw, Tokyo, Leeds, Munich, at the Van Cliburn, Naumburg and those at the Paris Conservatoire. He received an award from the National Association of American Composers and Conductors for his ‘outstanding services to music’.
Webster’s repertoire extended from Bach to the avant-garde composers of the twentieth century and he gave premières of works by many contemporary American composers including William Schuman, Roger Sessions, David Diamond and Elliot Carter. He also made first recordings of works by Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, and in 1968 performed the complete piano works of Debussy in three recitals in a number of American cities including New York.
Webster recorded for various labels including MGM, Dover, Columbia and Heliodor, but his most well known recordings are of the complete piano works of Debussy which he made for Desto in 1968. In 1964 Webster recorded an LP of works by Ravel which was issued by Dover. He gives authoritative accounts of Gaspard de la nuit, Le Tombeau de Couperin and Jeux d’eau, but is hindered by a close recording and a Baldwin piano that at times is unyielding. In music requiring a high level of virtuosity such as Scarbo from Gaspard de la nuit and the Toccata from Debussy’s Pour le Piano, Webster can occasionally become unstable in rhythm and technique. For Heliodor, Webster recorded a disc of Schubert, his Sonatas D. 958 and D. 568.
Of particular interest are Webster’s recordings of the music of Elliot Carter as he studied these works closely with the composer. His recording of Carter’s Piano Sonata, originally made for Desto, was issued on compact disc on the Phoenix label. Also for Desto Webster recorded Six Études for Piano by American composer Louise Talma, and for Composer’s Recordings Inc. recorded her Three Duologues, and, in 1974, works by Donald Martino and Verne Reynolds with his clarinettist son Michael.
A live performance from January 1937 exists, of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G major K. 453 and Stravinsky’s Capriccio, but does not appear as yet to have been issued commercially. In this performance the New York Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Igor Stravinsky.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).