Gary Graffman’s father was the violinist Vladimir Graffman, who had studied with Leopold Auer at the St Petersburg Conservatory, and his mother was from Kiev. His parents left Russia in 1917 and ten years later their only child was born in New York. Graffman was prepared for entrance to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia by Cosby Dansby Morris, and at the age of seven began tuition with Isabella Vengerova, remaining at the Curtis Institute for ten years. A prodigy, Graffman first performed in public at the age of eight with the Philadelphia Symphonette and Fabien Sevitzky. He was not exploited however, and gave a recital at New York’s Carnegie Chamber Music Hall in 1940 at the age of eleven. Having graduated at eighteen from the Curtis Institute, Graffman spent the following year at Columbia University. He won a special award as a runner-up in a competition organised by the Rachmaninov Fund, and this led to his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy, playing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18. Winning the Leventritt Award enabled Graffman to appear with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Leonard Bernstein in Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor Op. 15; and the award of a Fulbright Scholarship meant a year in Europe, after which Graffman returned to the United States.
During the early 1950s Graffman received tuition from Vladimir Horowitz in New York and Rudolf Serkin at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. He toured America extensively with a programme of five piano concertos and in the mid 1950s he embarked on his first foreign tour (of South America), made his first recording for RCA Victor, and made his first European tour. At his London recital debut at the Wigmore Hall he played Haydn, Brahms and Schubert, but it was his performance of three of Liszt’s ‘Paganini’ Études that led The Times’s critic to write, ‘…his prestidigitation here was beyond belief.’
In 1958 Graffman made his first world tour, and from then on he toured extensively, often for ten months of the year, giving up to one hundred concerts per season. During the 1970s he began to play chamber music, particularly with the Guarneri and Juilliard String Quartets, as well as with cellist Leonard Rose and violinist Henryk Szeryng. At the height of his career, Graffman’s repertoire was of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He excelled in powerhouse performances of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18 and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 Op. 26. By the time he celebrated his twenty-fifth anniversary at Carnegie Hall he had become the only pianist ever to have recorded with all six major American symphony orchestras, to have played with twenty-two American orchestras, and to have made thirty-eight appearances with orchestra in a single season. With such an extensive workload, it is not surprising to find that by 1979 Graffman had developed severe problems with his right hand, although he believed that these stemmed from playing an unresponsive piano in Berlin in 1967.
With his right hand incapacitated, in 1980 Graffman began a second career as a performer of works for the left hand alone, not only playing recognised works such as concertos by Maurice Ravel and Sergei Prokofiev, but also less frequently-heard works by Erich Korngold and the Piano Concerto No. 4 by Ned Rorem, which was written for Graffman. His restricted career allowed him time to teach at the Curtis Institute, later becoming its director, yet he still performs regularly. A performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in B flat Op. 53 in Washington in September 2004 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra prompted Tim Page to write, ‘More so, perhaps, than any other American pianist of his generation Graffman has his own inimitable sound, hard and pure, and there could be no mistaking his work…even in his diminished condition.’ In 1993 Graffman gave the première of Ned Rorem’s Piano Concerto No. 4 for Left Hand with André Previn and the Curtis Institute’s Symphony Orchestra, recording it in February of that year. In April 1996 he and Leon Fleisher gave the world première of William Bolcom’s Gaea with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Graffman recorded for RCA Victor from 1956 to 1961. With the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Charles Munch he recorded a lithe and eloquent version of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor Op. 11, Mendelssohn’s Capriccio Brillant Op. 22 and Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor Op. 15. With the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Walter Hendl, he recorded Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op. 37. Graffman’s debut recital disc was of Schubert’s Fantasy in C major D. 760 ‘Wanderer’ with Prokofiev’s Piano Sonatas Nos 2 and 3, and he also recorded a Schumann recital including highly virtuosic accounts of the Études Symphoniques Op. 13 and the Piano Sonata No. 2 in G minor Op. 22. Graffman recorded more Prokofiev with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Enrique Jorda in the form of the Piano Concerto No. 3 Op. 26. A disc of Liszt included the complete ‘Paganini’Études, whilst a disc of Chopin contained the complete ballades and Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Op. 22. With violinist Berl Senofsky Graffman recorded violin sonatas by Debussy and Fauré. To date, none of Graffman’s many splendid RCA recordings seems to have appeared on compact disc in Europe or America. From 1962 Graffman recorded for Columbia. One of his first discs was of the Prokofiev Piano Sonatas Nos 2 and 3 that he had recorded for RCA, but for Columbia, they were coupled with a group of seven pieces by Rachmaninov. He also recorded again Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy D. 760 ten years after his RCA recording. Graffman’s recordings of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18 and Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini Op. 43 made in 1965 with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Leonard Bernstein are brimming with passion and excitement, whilst his rendering of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 with the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell from 1969 has become a classic reading of this much-recorded work. These are versions in glorious full colour with Graffman in control of a thoroughbred technique (almost always) at the service of the music. His recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 44 and the incomplete Piano Concerto No. 3 Op. 75 with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy are less successful, but a disc of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major Op. 26 and Piano Concerto No. 1 in D flat major Op. 10 with the Cleveland Orchestra and Szell are as thrilling as the Tchaikovsky concerto he recorded with the same forces. In the Concerto No. 3, Graffman’s choice of tempi is perfect for the relationship between the sections, particularly of the second movement. In 1973, to celebrate his twenty-fifth anniversary season, Columbia issued an LP of popular works by Chopin.
In 1994 New World Records issued Graffman’s recording of Ned Rorem’s Piano Concerto for Left Hand and Orchestra where he was joined by André Previn, who also conducted him and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in November 1995 for a Deutsche Grammophon recording of the Parergon for piano left hand and orchestra Op. 73 by Richard Strauss. In 2002 Bridge Records issued a live concert from March 1975 of Graffman and violinist Berl Senofsky playing Brahms and Prokofiev.
One of the great American pianists of the post-war period, Graffman will be remembered for his great concerto recordings from the 1960s, his work at the Curtis Institute of Music, and his promotion of works for the left hand from the second phase of his career. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania awarded Graffman their Governor’s Arts Award in recognition of his work as Director of the Curtis Institute, and he has honorary doctorates from the University of Pennsylvania and Juilliard School of
Music. His memoir I Really Should Be Practising was published in 1981.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).