Lili Kraus was born into an environment of near-poverty. Her Czech father made a poor living sharpening knives and scissors whilst her mother, a Hungarian, was a singer denied a career as it was thought inappropriate at that time for a woman. Lili, encouraged by her mother, began piano lessons at the age of six, and two years later enrolled at the Budapest Academy of Music. At nine she began piano studies with Arnold Székely, composition with Zoltán Kodály and chamber music with Leo Weiner. At seventeen Kraus graduated from the Budapest Academy and went to Vienna to continue her studies with Severin Eisenberger and Edward Steuermann. She also returned to Budapest after graduating to receive piano lessons from Béla Bartók.
During her studies Kraus made her debut in Amsterdam with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Willem Mengelberg, and the following year began teaching at the Vienna Academy. A year later she was made a full professor, teaching for six years at the Academy. During the early 1920s she appeared with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and also played for Wilhelm Furtwängler, who suggested she study with Artur Schnabel. Kraus and her husband moved to Berlin so that Kraus could attend Schnabel’s master-classes for four years.
During the early 1930s Kraus toured Europe, the Far East, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It was at this time that she formed a famous partnership with violinist Szymon Goldberg. Although she was in England at the time World War II began, Kraus decided to embark on a major tour beginning in Djakarta, Indonesia. Obvious problems arose when the Japanese occupied the area and travel became impossible. Kraus and her family stayed in Bandung where she played on Djakarta radio and at Japanese prison camps; but in March 1942 Kraus herself was falsely arrested and imprisoned in a labour camp for two years. Although she was then reunited with her family, it was not until October 1945 that she was finally freed. At the end of the war, Kraus and her family went to Australia. Here, although sick and malnourished after her time in the camp, she began to recover her health and weight, to practise and prepare for a tour of Australia and New Zealand in which she played 120 concerts in eighteen months. From Australia Kraus went to South Africa where she toured in 1948 and served as head of the piano department of Cape Town University.
Kraus made her American debut at New York’s Town Hall. However, at this stage in her life she was exhausted from her wartime experiences and the demands of touring. The critic of the New York Times found her playing ‘…invariably eccentric, capricious, and filled with dynamic exaggerations’. At this time Kraus had to support her family as her husband was too ill to work. In the early 1950s the family lived in Paris and then Vienna, eventually settling in the south of France for Kraus’s husband’s health. He died in 1956.
The indefatigable Kraus then moved to London and in the early 1960s, after acquiring a new manager, played and recorded a cycle of twenty-five of Mozart’s piano concertos in New York, and the following season played all the piano sonatas. Her success in New York led Kraus to move to America in 1967, becoming artist in residence at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth where she was also instrumental in the creation of the Van Cliburn Piano Competition. Her final years were blighted by arthritis but she still managed to teach master-classes into the early 1980s.
Kraus’s recordings have appeared on many labels including Vox, Vanguard, Les Discophiles Français, Ducretet-Thomson, Concert Hall, Educo, Selmer and Parlophone. Her most important recordings were made for EMI and Columbia in the 1950s and 1960s, but there are some fine performances amongst the Parlophone recordings from 1938 and 1939 which have been reissued on compact disc by Pearl. Along with works by Bartók, Chopin, Haydn and Schubert Kraus gives an excellent performance of one of her repertoire mainstays, Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Variations Op. 35. It is full-blooded and robust, bursting with Kraus’s exuberance and vitality. Also in the 1930s, with violinist Szymon Goldberg, Kraus recorded some of the sonatas for violin and piano by Mozart, the composer with whom she is most associated. She recorded the violin sonatas complete between 1954 and 1957 for EMI with Willi Boskovsky as well as the piano trios with cellist Nikolaus Hübner.
At the time of her New York performances of Mozart concertos and complete piano sonatas, Columbia recorded Kraus in this repertoire. Twenty-five of the concertos were recorded with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Stephen Simon, and the complete piano sonatas were recorded in 1967–1968. This version is preferable to an earlier recording made for the Haydn Society in 1954, and reissued on compact disc by Music & Arts in 1997. For Vanguard Kraus recorded discs of Bartók and Schubert sonatas, whilst for Educo she recorded discs of Bach, Beethoven, Bartók and Schubert. For Ducretet-Thomson she recorded some Brahms in 1957 and a delightful Sonata in A flat by Haydn for Les Discophiles Français the year before, both issued on compact disc by EMI in 2004, but the remainder of her discography is mainly of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn.
Lili Kraus was a pianist with a strong personality that infused all the music she played. She described herself as ‘…terribly passionate, irrational, and the most undiplomatic person God ever made’. Thankfully, these elements of her personality live on through her recordings.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Artist