Magda Tagliaferro’s parents were French, of Alsatian and Bavarian stock. Her father, who had studied piano with Raoul Pugno, was a professor of singing and piano at São Paulo Conservatory, and he was young Magda’a first teacher. Tagliaferro played in public for the first time at the age of nine, and was heard by cellist Pablo Casals who encouraged her to continue her studies in France.
Tagliaferro enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire where she joined the class of Antoine Marmontel, receiving a premier prix eight months later at the age of fourteen. Camille Saint-Saëns presented the award, and Isaac Albéniz, who was also on the jury, wrote of her as an ‘…exceptionally gifted, remarkable technician, already an artist and one with an enviable future’. However, after winning this prize and making her adult debut at the Salle Érard in Paris, Tagliaferro became one of the first students of Alfred Cortot ‘for the rest of her days’. He was the most important pianistic influence on Tagliaferro and she became part of his circle, often playing with violinist Jacques Thibaud and cellist Pablo Casals, as well as with the Capet Quartet.
Having begun her concert career in 1908 at the age of fifteen with the aforementioned recital at the Salle Érard in Paris, not long afterwards Tagliaferro was selected by Fauré to tour with him, performing his works. She also performed with Edouard Risler in the early 1920s and regarded him as another teacher. During the 1920s and 1930s Tagliaferro championed the music of French composers whom she knew personally, including Vincent d’Indy, Maurice Ravel, Francis Poulenc and Gabriel Fauré. One of her closest associations was with composer Reynaldo Hahn, and she gave première performances of many of his works including his Piano Concerto in 1930. A year earlier her compatriot Heitor Villa-Lobos dedicated his Momoprecoce for piano and orchestra to her. Tagliaferro performed with many great conductors including Wilhelm Furtwängler, Ernest Ansermet, Charles Munch, Pierre Monteux, Felix Weingartner and Paul Paray.
In the years preceding World War II Tagliaferro taught at the Paris Conservatoire, but at the outbreak of the war was sent by the French government to New York on a mission of propaganda to promote French music abroad. She gave her debut at Carnegie Hall and continued on to Brazil, remaining there for nine years and founding schools in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. After returning to Paris from Brazil in 1949, Tagliaferro divided her time between the two cities. At a music school she opened in Paris in 1956, Tagliaferro would give master-classes for more than thirty years, and at this time she founded a competition bearing her name. She was also active on many juries of piano competitions, and between 1937 and 1965 served on the jury of the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, being vice-president of the jury in 1955. In 1979 Tagliaferro published a volume of memoirs entitled Quase Tudo, which is still awaiting a translation into English. Tagliaferro loved to perform and teach, and at the age of eighty-six, she returned to New York and gave a recital that included Schumann’s Carnaval Op. 9. New York Times critic Harold Schonberg wrote, ‘Not since the days of Rachmaninov and Friedman has this listener encountered such a basic understanding of, and feeling for, the composer’s mercurial moods. Everything made musical sense. But more to the point was the colour that Miss Tagliaferro employed: the weighting of chords, the introduction of inner voices when the sections were repeated, the solid bass underpinning in which key harmonies were reinforced… In its improvisatory quality, its infallible rhythm and perfect pacings, it was the essence of Schumann.’ At the age of ninety Tagliaferro was giving concerts in London, Paris and New York, and even in the year of her death when she was ninety-three she was still performing.
A strikingly beautiful woman with fire-red hair, Tagliaferro brought to her interpretations a vitality and excitement that is rare in pianists. Her repertoire was wide, but she was at her best in the music of Schumann and that of French and Spanish composers. As early as 1913 she was playing Goyescas, which composer Enrique Granados had introduced to Paris only two years before, and Manuel de Falla made an arrangement for piano of a dance from his La vida breve for her.
Tagliaferro’s recording career spanned more than fifty years, from 1928 to 1981. At both her first and last sessions she recorded Fauré’s Ballade for piano and orchestra Op. 19, which she had played with the composer on two pianos. In the 78rpm era Tagliaferro recorded for French HMV, French Decca, Ultraphone, and, from 1934, for Pathé. These early recordings capture Tagliaferro in her prime, whether in Fauré, Mompou or Debussy, but her disc of Albéniz’s Seguedillas Op. 232 No. 5 shows her extraordinary vitality and empathy with this style of music. Her fluent technique can be heard to great effect in Debussy’s Jardins sous la pluie and Toccata from Pour le Piano. With violinist Denise Soriano Tagliaferro recorded many short works, as well as sonatas by Fauré and Mozart in the 1930s, and in 1934, Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op. 26 in a vivid, colourful performance brimming with carnival atmosphere.
Two years later she recorded the Sonatine in C major by her friend Reynaldo Hahn and in 1937 recorded his Piano Concerto, which he had dedicated to her. It is a wonderfully warm work, and Tagliaferro gives a performance of passion, evidently enjoying the work completely; Hahn had previously conducted her in a recording of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D major K. 537 in.
Her next recordings were made for Ducretet-Thomson in France in 1951, some of which have been issued on compact disc by French EMI; these include her performance of Schumann’s Piano Sonata No. 1 in F sharp minor Op. 11. In the mid-1950s Tagliaferro made a series of recordings for Philips in France and Holland. These important recordings were issued by Philips in 1994 when nineteen previously unpublished titles were included. Most important from this series of recordings are a version of Schumann’s Carnaval Op. 9 which is recorded far too closely with an unflattering sound, and what is still one of the best recordings of the Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major Op. 103 by Saint-Saëns. However, she also recorded some Brahms including the Piano Sonata in F minor Op. 5, the Piano Sonata in A major D. 664 by Schubert, some Liszt and Chopin, Granados and Villa-Lobos, and a piece by Weber. More recordings for EMI include Momoprecoce, recorded in 1954 and conducted by the composer, and in 1960 Tagliaferro made recordings of her favourites, Albéniz, Falla, Granados and Villa-Lobos for EMI. Other commercial recordings include a recital disc for Erato from the early 1960s entitled Le piano français de Chabrier à Debussy, and a number of LPs recorded in Brazil in the early 1970s including a Chopin recital recorded for Brazilian EMI. Tagliaferro’s final commercial recording was made for CBS at the end of 1981 when she was eighty-eight years old. She plays two nocturnes by Fauré and works for four hands with her pupil Daniel Varsano.
Other recordings that have appeared in semi-private issues include part of Tagliaferro’s Town Hall debut recital in New York in 1940, a live recital from Sala Cecilia Meirelles in Rio de Janeiro in April 1970 and a disc entitled The Pianistic Art of Magda Tagliaferro which includes live performances and broadcasts of repertoire less associated with Tagliaferro including Chopin’s Ballade in F minor Op. 52 and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in F minor Op. 57 ‘Appassionata’, as well as Mozart’s Piano Sonata in D major K. 576 and Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 3 recorded at the Salle Pleyel in 1963. It is to be hoped that her Wigmore Hall recital of 16 January 1983 (broadcast by the BBC) which included César Franck’s Prélude, Choral et Fugue, will be issued in due course.
One of the most colourful personalities and pianists of the twentieth century, Tagliaferro wrote in her memoirs, ‘I’m going to offer myself up entire and with humility. My life has all been Love, in the widest sense of the word. Everything I have created within or around me has been created with Love. Which is better? To love or to be loved? Never one to be satisfied, I have always needed both!’
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).