When Nikita Magaloff was a child of six his parents fled Russia for Finland to escape the Revolution. The family stayed in Finland for four years, where Magaloff apparently had lessons from Alexander Siloti, then finally settled in Paris. Magaloff enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire where he studied piano with Isidor Philipp, graduating at the age of seventeen with a premier prix. Whilst in Paris he also received private lessons in composition from Sergei Prokofiev, who was a friend of the family, and high praise in the form of a testimonial from Ravel who wrote, ‘In Magaloff a great, a truly extraordinary musician is born.’
From 1930 Magaloff was violinist Joseph Szigeti’s accompanist. They appeared at the Wigmore Hall in London in May 1933 and at the London Palladium in February 1934. At a solo recital in London’s Wigmore Hall in September 1935 Magaloff (for some reason referred to as ‘Prince’ Nikita Magaloff ) played Weber’s Piano Sonata No. 4 in E minor, some Chopin and Scarlatti. Magaloff’s defining pianistic characteristics were noticed at the outset of his career by a critic of this concert, who commented on ‘…a limpid tone and a certain controlled impetuosity’.
At the outbreak of World War II Magaloff settled in Switzerland and his career, like those of many other musicians, was interrupted. Two years after the end of the war he made his first tour of the United States of America and also toured Europe, South America and South Africa. From 1949 Magaloff took over Dinu Lipatti’s master-classes at the Geneva Conservatory and after 1960 gave summer courses in Taormina, Sicily and at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena. Between 1965 and 1988 Magaloff presided over the Clara Haskil Piano Competition at the Montreux-Vevey Festival.
Magaloff’s London appearances during the 1950s and 1960s did not receive very favourable criticism, but perhaps, in playing works such as Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30 and Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat (which was remarkably described as containing ‘banging, splashing and meaningless rubato’) he was programming music uncongenial to him. However, in the autumn of 1972 Magaloff gave six recitals of the complete works of Chopin in London, the first pianist to do so since Alexander Brailowsky in the 1930s.
Magaloff claimed that his musicianship came ‘…from hearing and not from study’. He heard Rachmaninov play as often as he could. ‘I think I learnt more from him than from my teachers.’ He also admitted to being deeply influenced by hearing Walter Gieseking, and the revealing musicianship of Edwin Fischer and Artur Schnabel. ‘Refined virtuosity’ and ‘spontaneous lyricism’ are typical descriptions of Magaloff’s playing. His style was one of sophistication and taste, a sort of controlled bravura where one felt that Magaloff was listening intently to every note he played. He specialised in playing the complete works of Chopin and also all the piano works of Stravinsky. His repertoire was very wide with composers including Scarlatti, Soler, Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Scriabin, Stravinsky and Dallapiccola, but he will be remembered most for his performances and recordings of Chopin. Magaloff was also a composer of a violin sonatina, a piano toccata, songs, and cadenzas for some of Mozart’s piano concertos.
Magaloff’s first recordings were made with Joseph Szigeti between 1933 and 1937. Highlights from these sessions, which reveal much of the piano, include Szymanowski’s La Fontaine d’Aréthuse and Stravinsky’s Danse russe from Petrushka. Magaloff’s best recordings come from the early 1960s. For Philips he recorded an excellent account of Liszt’s six Grandes études d’après Paganini. This is a view of Liszt far removed from the high-octane accounts of today’s young pianists. Magaloff brings an unusual elegance to these works and in doing so makes them what they are: music, and not just technical studies. At the same time, he recorded Schumann’s Carnaval Op. 9, again in a performance of controlled bravura. Both of these performances were included in Philips’ Great Pianists Series. In the second half of the 1970s Magaloff set down his marathon cycle of the complete solo works of Chopin, plus those for piano duet and two pianos. These have been reissued on thirteen compact discs and contain some fine playing in a warm recorded sound. Magaloff’s recordings of works such as the Barcarolle Op. 60 are particularly effective due to his subtle tone quality and regal delivery. In 1955 Magaloff recorded Stravinsky’s Concerto for piano and wind instruments and Capriccio for piano and orchestra with Ernest Ansermet and the Suisse Romande Orchestra.
A good sample of Magaloff’s playing can be found in a live recital from the 1969 Salzburg Festival. This has been issued on compact disc by Orfeo and is an interesting programme of Mendelssohn’s rarely-heard Piano Sonata in B flat Op. 106, Dallapiccola’s Sonatina canonica sopra capricci di Niccolò Paganini, Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ Sonata Op. 57 and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. The Beethoven is given a somewhat uncharacteristically dramatic performance, the last movement thrilling as it rushes headlong to its conclusion, whilst the Ravel is one of the most interesting performances on disc. In Scarbo Magaloff may miss a few of the notes, but his palette of tone colours and many different touches is extraordinary and very refreshing to hear. New York Times critic Harold Schonberg thought this version of Gaspard de la nuit ‘…should go to the top of the list’.
Magaloff continued to play until the end of his life, and some of his later live performances have been issued on compact disc. An Italian broadcast from 1991 was issued by Ermitage and contains a sublime performance of Liszt’s Les cloches de Genève from the Années de pèlerinage, but Magaloff finds Au bord d’une source rather more taxing. More live material has been issued by Disques Montaigne. Most of the recordings come from the 1988 Montreux-Vevey Festival, but a disc of Scriabin was recorded in July 1992 shortly before Magaloff’s death.