Ivan Moravec’s father was a great lover of operatic and vocal music who had a large collection of gramophone records to which his young son loved to listen, particularly to those featuring Caruso. Moravec did not begin studying the piano until he was seven, when he took lessons from Erna Grünfeld (niece of pianist Alfred Grünfeld) at the Prague Conservatory. At sixteen Moravec made his debut on Prague radio and two years later won a first prize from the Conservatory. However, for the following six years, from ages eighteen to twenty-four, Moravec suffered severe pains caused by a previous skating accident. During his years away from the public stage he spent much time listening to recordings.
Returning to performing in 1954, Moravec toured Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Italy, and took part in Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s master-classes in Arezzo during 1957 and 1958. It was in May 1959 that he made his London debut at the Wigmore Hall. The review in The Times, hailing Moravec as playing like ‘…a master musician at the height of his intellectual maturity’ resulted in the Connoisseur Record Society offering him a visit to New York to make recordings. Between 1962 and 1969 he made around a dozen discs for this company. Within a week of his Wigmore Hall debut Moravec played Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 at the Royal Festival Hall.
In the early 1960s conductor George Szell heard some tapes of Moravec and decided to engage him as soloist for concerts in Cleveland and New York. However, Szell and Moravec did not get on as a result of the pianist’s refusal to alter his interpretation of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major Op. 58 to suit the conductor: Moravec’s New York debut cannot have been a comfortable occasion. He did not make his solo debut in New York until October 1968 and did not subsequently appear in the city for another ten years. His first performance with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra did not take place until 1989. This series of events points to two factors in Moravec’s make-up. Firstly, he is committed to his own musical convictions and will not be swayed by public or critical opinion. Secondly, he is not avidly in pursuit of a high profile career: he plays when and where he wants to, as frequently or infrequently as he chooses. Permanently based in Prague, Moravec has performed extensively throughout Europe and has played in Russia and Istanbul.
Moravec has appeared with many orchestras including the Czech Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic, the New Philharmonia, the Cleveland, the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Detroit Symphony and the Toronto Symphony, and with such conductors as Karel Ančerl, Zubin Mehta, Erich Leinsdorf and Simon Rattle. More recently Moravec has appeared in the United States every year and has made repeated tours of Japan and Australia.
Moravec has received the State Order of Merit for Culture, and Charles University of Prague awarded him its Charles IV International Prize. His love of recordings and of listening to other pianists is unusual for one in his profession. In a recent interview he said, ‘I’m tirelessly curious about other pianists and about musical variety in all its shapes and sizes. I’m particularly interested in pianists who are radically different to myself. Martha Argerich clearly operates in the realm of the fantastic, and I will recall to my dying day two recitals given here in Prague by Michelangeli.’
The labels Moravec has recorded for include Nonesuch, Vox, Supraphon, Dorian, Pro Arte and Quintessence. Moravec’s famous series of recordings for the Connoisseur Record Society in America have, since the original company’s demise, appeared on other labels. Most recently, in 2001, Supraphon issued an excellent four-disc set of Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven and French music. Most of the recordings are the Connoisseur Society recordings from the 1960s, but there are also some more recent Supraphon recordings included.
While it would not be easy to agree with some critics that Moravec’s recordings of the complete Chopin nocturnes from 1965 (and reissued by Nonesuch and Erato) are the best on disc, his recordings of the four ballades are certainly distinguished. The tone quality throughout the first ballade is exceptional, obviously based on the pianist’s love of vocal music. The fourth ballade is resolute, played with a resolve and iron-clad technique that is at all times deliberately obscured, allowing the music to flow forth in an unending stream of beauty and passion. Moravec applies the same love of bel canto style to a glowing performance of Chopin’s Barcarolle Op. 60. The French disc includes an extremely fine Sonatine by Ravel, a dramatic and darkly-hued Prélude, Choral et Fugue by César Franck as well as some Debussy préludes that rank among the finest on disc. Moravec’s subtle pedalling makes the sounds melt into one another.
In the early 1980s Moravec recorded Debussy and Chopin for Vox and a Janáček disc for Nonesuch. In the early 1990s some discs appeared on the Dorian label: a Chopin recital and Brahms and Schumann concertos with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. He recorded another Chopin recital for Vox in 2002, of which The Gramophone magazine wrote, ‘There is no blockbuster pianism. Nothing grabs you by the throat… He propounds.’ Also in 2003 Moravec recorded a disc for Supraphon of three works for piano and orchestra of which Edward Greenfield wrote, describing the performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, ‘Again, the shading of dynamic and tone are magical, in a reading which is at once unexaggerated yet fresh and resilient, often tenderly expressive.’
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).