Jose Iturbi’s father built and tuned pianos as a hobby so the young José had access to an instrument from a very early age. He was one of four children and his sister Amparo (1899–1969) also had a career as a pianist. At the age of eleven Iturbi was studying piano at the Valencia Conservatory with Joaquín Malats, a friend of Albéniz. The Spanish composer heard Iturbi and gave him part of his new work Iberia to play. When Iturbi was fifteen, the people of his home-town collected money to send him to study at the Paris Conservatoire with Victor Staub. He obtained a premier prix in 1913 and after World War I received a professorship at the Geneva Conservatory. During the 1920s he led the life of a touring virtuoso, travelling across Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, Russia and South America. He made his US debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski playing Beethoven’s G major Piano Concerto Op. 58. However, Iturbi was as interested in conducting as in being a pianist. His debut as a conductor in Mexico started a career in which he conducted many of the world’s greatest orchestras including the Philadelphia, New York Philharmonic, London Symphony, La Scala Milan and Concertgebouw. He was appointed conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic in 1936.
There is no doubt that the height of Iturbi’s career was the 1930s and that his future relationship with Hollywood, although providing vast exposure and publicity, was in the end deleterious to his pianism. From the mid 1940s onward much of his playing became earthbound and less inspired. Iturbi courted controversy throughout his career and acquired a reputation for publicly making provocative remarks, whilst his volatile temper caused problems with collaborators and promoters. He could refuse to perform in a concert that contained both popular and classical repertoire on the grounds that though both were acceptable, they should not be on the same programme. The public he attracted after working in Hollywood did not want to hear Schumann’s Études Symphoniques Op. 13 or Brahms’s Variations on a theme by Paganini Op. 35, but expected Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Clair de lune, Für Elise or Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 Op. 23. Oscar Levant, another pianist who flirted with Hollywood, had the same problem. Iturbi also suffered much tragedy in his personal life. His wife died after apparently mistakenly taking poison for cough medicine, and he was at odds with his daughter, against whom he brought a lawsuit in the California courts, claiming that she was an unfit mother to his grandchildren. Although not long after this he bought a house for her and the children in Beverly Hills, his daughter subsequently committed suicide.
Iturbi recorded for many labels during his career. For RCA he recorded encore pieces such as Scarlatti sonatas and a poetic Andante favori of Beethoven in the early 1930s; these reveal both sensitivity and a scintillating technique, but it is in the Spanish repertoire that Iturbi excels. His pre-war Granados and Albéniz recordings have an authority and understanding that he retained in this repertoire throughout his career. His recordings of Mozart include the Concerto for Two Pianos in E flat made with his sister Amparo in 1940. The LP era saw many issues of ‘recitals’ consisting of popular classics and encore pieces by Beethoven, Debussy and Liszt made for RCA, but during the 1950s Iturbi made a number of LPs for Columbia of varied repertoire. One disc couples two Mozart sonatas with Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, whilst another is a combination of Debussy and Ravel. There is an exciting L’Isle joyeuse, Feux d’artifice and a well-defined and humorous Children’s Corner Suite. Iturbi also has the delicacy if not the subtlety for Ravel’s Sonatine and Jeux d’eau although occasionally he could play with a disturbing violence. Perhaps Iturbi’s best LP disc is another he made for Columbia entitled Spanish Piano Music published in 1960. An excellent Allegro di concierto in C sharp major by Granados and three of his Danzas españolas are an absolute delight as are the Albéniz works. These recordings were recently issued on compact disc by French EMI in their Les Rarissimes Series. At the end of his career Iturbi made an LP for a company named Turia which, although it has old favourites like Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat Op. 53 and Albéniz’s Malagueña, also includes a performance of Mozart’s Sonata in D major K. 311. Iturbi as composer can be heard on an RCA disc from 1955 in which he conducts the Valencia Symphony Orchestra in his Seguidillas for orchestra, an effective piece, excellently orchestrated.
Iturbi’s concerto recordings were generally made with him as both soloist and conductor. While this is practicable in Mozart concertos it can certainly cause problems in works such as Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 Op. 23, which he recorded for Columbia with the Orchestre de l’Association des Concerts Colonne. This performance, of a work Iturbi no doubt was asked to play frequently, sounds superficial and rhythmically four-square.
The problem with José Iturbi is that he is not taken seriously as a pianist because he appeared in Hollywood films. Other great pianists have done the same, Arthur Rubinstein, even Paderewski; but the difference is that Iturbi played jazz and boogie-woogie, albeit in an urbane and dapper fashion. It is unfair to dismiss Iturbi for this reason, as he was a gifted pianist and musician who evidently had a successful career both as conductor and pianist. He also gave first performances of a number of pieces, including Stravinsky’s Piano Rag Music.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Non-Classical Artist