Gimpel began his study of the piano with his father at the age of six and two years later he was playing in public. He enrolled at the Lwów Conservatory, graduating at the age of fifteen, and going on to Vienna where he studied piano with Edouard Steuermann and composition with Alban Berg. His recital debut in Vienna, made when he was only seventeen, astounded the critics as did his orchestral debut made three years later with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Pierre Monteux in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 18. In 1929 Gimpel took part in the first International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, but was not placed amongst the prize winners.
During the 1930s Gimpel toured with violinists Erica Morini, Nathan Milstein and Gimpel’s own younger brother Bronisław. In 1938 he and his wife emigrated to the United States; his parents, his older brother Karl, himself a pianist, and many other family members perished in the Holocaust. The cut and thrust of the commercial musical scene in New York was too much for Gimpel’s temperament, so he decided to settle on the west coast of America in Los Angeles.
However, Gimpel did not have the career that an artist of his stature deserved. Like Sergio Fiorentino and many others, Gimpel was an extremely gifted pianist with a technique and musical insight to match any on the highest levels of the performing circuit. It is impossible to say why some artists gain international recognition and fame whilst others do not. Gimpel’s concerts were successful, yet he did not become a major artist. He had a family to support, and so took work in the Hollywood film studios providing the soundtrack music for such films as Letters from an Unknown Woman, Gaslight and Mephisto Waltz. One of the most notable is the soundtrack to Johann Mouse, a hilarious Tom and Jerry cartoon in which Gimpel plays his own transcription of Strauss’s famous waltz An der schönen blauen Donau. (Incidentally, another of his brilliant transcriptions, Concert Paraphrase of ‘The Song of the Soldiers of the Sea’ from Offenbach’s opera Geneviève de Brabant has recently been recorded by Marc-André Hamelin.) Gimpel again had great success as a featured artist at a Chopin centennial concert at Carnegie Hall in 1949, but incredibly, had to finance his own concerts in New York.
By 1954 Gimpel was tired of America and Hollywood, so he went back to Europe to resume his performing career. Concerts in Hamburg and Berlin in 1957 were immensely successful and, due to forthcoming engagements, Gimpel resided at this time in London, Geneva, Rome and Basle. From 1957 onwards he refused to finance his New York concerts and parted company with his American management who had overlooked his career for the past ten years. After this, he had no representation in America and because of this he was unable to tour Soviet Russia in 1963 at the invitation of David Oistrakh. In 1961 Gimpel returned to Poland for the first time since World War II.
In 1965 a group of admirers in Los Angeles formed the Friends of Gimpel, underwriting a concert at Royce Hall. It was a great success and he played frequently in Los Angeles until his death. From 1971 Gimpel was Distinguished Professor in Residence at California State University at Northridge where he set up the Bronisław Gimpel Memorial Scholarship Fund.
Gimpel’s recording career was akin to his performance career. In the early 1940s he recorded a 78rpm disc for Columbia of two Debussy études and two of works by Szymanowski: the twelve Études Op. 33 and a pair of mazurkas. At the end of 1945 Gimpel was the first artist to record for the new company Vox, who released a number of albums on 78rpm discs. These include a set of études by Debussy, Rachmaninov, Chopin, Scriabin, Liszt, Mendelssohn and Toch; the Variations on a theme of Paganini Op. 35 by Brahms; a set of Rachmaninov which includes four préludes and the Oriental Sketch; and a group of Chopin works. As a result of his success in Germany, Gimpel made recordings for Electrola and Europaïscher Phonoklub (including Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4); and HMV released a ten-inch LP of Chopin solos. With the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Rudolf Kempe, he recorded Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto Op. 73 and Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 Op. 15. Unfortunately, Gimpel’s recordings for Electrola, which were available in Germany in the early 1960s, did not receive wide circulation. The repertoire recorded for Electrola includes some mazurkas, impromptus, nocturnes, waltzes, the complete préludes, the B minor Sonata and the Concerto in E minor by Chopin; Schumann’s Études Symphoniques Op. 13 and Davidsbündlertänze Op. 6; some Schubert impromptus and the B flat Sonata; and Beethoven’s ‘Les Adieux’ Sonata, G major Rondo and his ‘Eroica’ Variations.
A few radio broadcasts from London and Europe have survived, and fortunately Gimpel’s recitals at the Ambassador Auditorium in Los Angeles were professionally recorded. Two of these have been released on compact disc and they are, quite simply, stunning. From May 1978, when Gimpel was seventy-two years old, comes a Chopin recital which includes the Piano Sonata in B flat minor Op. 35, the Barcarolle Op. 60, the G minor Ballade Op. 23, mazurkas, an impromptu and a ferocious Étude in A minor Op. 25 No. 11, matched only in intensity by the Scherzo in B minor Op. 20. This is playing of the highest order. The other programme, again all Chopin, includes the B minor Sonata Op. 58, the F minor Fantaisie Op. 49 and the 24 Préludes Op. 28.
From listening to the Ambassador recitals, it is plainly evident that Gimpel was a great pianist who never received the public recognition he deserved.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Artist