Moura Lympany was born Mary Gertrude Johnstone. Her father, Captain John Johnstone, would appear to have been accurate when he told his wife that he would not make a good husband; at any rate it was she who had to support the family (two sons were born after Moura) and who single-handedly guided her daughter’s early career. An intelligent and cultivated woman, Beatrice Limpenny had been a tutor to the children of a banker in St Petersburg, Russia, but returned to England in 1915 during World War I. Wanting her daughter to receive the best education and to learn languages, Beatrice sent Moura to a convent in Belgium when she was barely seven years old. Young Moura could already speak French, and when the nuns noticed her talent for music and the piano in particular, they arranged for her to have lessons at the Liège Conservatory. By the age of nine Moura was practising five hours a day and playing Bach’s Das wohltemperierte Klavier in its entirety.
Moura returned to London where she began piano lessons with Ambrose Coviello, a professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London, who suggested that she apply for the Ada Lewis Scholarship to the Academy. Lympany duly won this, and meanwhile she had asked to play for conductor Basil Cameron who immediately hired the twelve-year-old to play Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor Op. 25. Entering the Royal Academy of Music at thirteen, Lympany continued her piano studies with Coviello, graduating in 1932 and winning both the Challen Gold Medal for piano and the Hine Prize for composition. That year she played Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16 with the Academy Orchestra conducted by Henry Wood.
Lympany then travelled to Vienna for nine months where she studied piano with Paul Weingarten (1886–1948) and in the following year she entered the Liszt Competition in Budapest but was not placed (it was the year that Annie Fischer won first prize). She returned to England and continued her studies with Coviello; but perhaps because Lympany had had the same teacher for a length of time, her mother decided that she should have some lessons from Mathilde Verne (1868–1936) who had studied with Clara Schumann. Under Verne’s tutelage, Lympany made her Wigmore Hall debut in May 1935, and also played Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 54 with Thomas Beecham. Lympany studied with Verne for a year, and upon Verne’s death, she began studies with Tobias Matthay (1858–1945) who was one of her greatest influences. After two years of the ten she studied with him, he suggested she enter the Ysaÿe Piano Competition where she won second place to Emil Gilels, the outright winner. Jury member Arthur Rubinstein had his agent arrange a tour of Europe for Lympany in the year preceding World War II.
The war slowed her career, but she played in Britain to help the war effort. In 1940 she was asked to give the first performance in Britain of the Piano Concerto by Khachaturian. She learnt it in a month and played it at the Queen’s Hall in April 1940 and again in January 1941. With this concerto Lympany caused a sensation in Britain comparable with that engendered by William Kapell with the same work in America. She played it all over the country and recorded it for Decca, later giving first performances of it in Paris, Milan, Brussels and Australia. Along with ‘modern’ Russian music, Lympany was also getting a reputation for playing British music including the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Alan Rawsthorne and the Piano Concerto by John Ireland. During her career she championed such British composers as Benjamin Britten, Richard Arnell, Frederick Delius, and Malcolm Williamson. In 1945 Lympany and Adrian Boult were the first British musicians to perform in Paris after the liberation and the following year Lympany represented Britain at the Prague Music Festival.
With her recordings preceding her, Lympany made her recital debut at New York’s Town Hall in November 1948. In the early 1950s she divorced her husband of ten years and married an American, Bennet Korn, and during this time gave fewer concerts; some in America and Britain, and in 1956 a short tour of Russia and Czechoslovakia as soloist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. She also took some lessons from Edward Steuermann at this time. After a five-week tour of Australia in 1960, her second marriage ended and she returned to London to recommence her career, but did not find this an easy task. After a Royal Festival Hall performance in 1969 of the Piano Concerto by Cyril Scott and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 4 Op. 53 Lympany was dissatisfied with her performance, so she sought out assistance with her playing from Ilona Kabós. Fortified by Kabós’s help, Lympany gave a recital at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in January 1972 where she played Haydn’s Piano Sonata in E minor, Schumann’s Piano Sonata in F sharp minor Op. 11, and Chopin’s préludes.
In 1973 Lympany first visited Rasiguères, a village near Perpignan in Southern France. She was sent there on health grounds, but quickly fell in love with the village and bought a house and vineyard there, dividing her time between it and her other home in Monte Carlo. In 1980 she inaugurated a music festival in Rasiguères and in 1986 another in Guidel, Brittany. 1989 saw her again at London’s Festival Hall, this time celebrating the 60th anniversary of her debut. The Chopin recital she gave received excellent reviews.
At the age of seventy-eight Lympany was still giving concerts. In Boston she played a programme that included Book II of Brahms’s Variations on a theme of Paganini Op. 35 and Liszt’s Polonaise in E major. On the occasion of her eightieth birthday Lympany was awarded Portugal’s highest honour, the Medal and Cross of Prince Henry the Navigator. It was at this time that she decided to play the piano no longer.
One of the finest of British pianists, Lympany had a repertoire that was based on the Romantics. She came to prominence with the Piano Concerto by Khachaturian and Rachmaninov’s Concertos Nos 2 and 3, but played at least sixty works for piano and orchestra, with a solo repertoire running from Mozart to Schoenberg.
Lympany recorded for Decca from the early 1940s. She recorded virtuoso works such as Dohnányi’s Capriccio in F minor in 1943, and Balakirev’s Islamey in 1947. She was asked to record the complete préludes of Rachmaninov, and when long-playing records appeared, she recorded them again. A third recording was made for Erato in 1993. By the mid-1950s Decca had recordings of Lympany in concertos by Khachaturian, Rachmaninov and Saint-Saëns in their long-playing catalogue. The Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30 by Rachmaninov is particularly good for its clarity of both piano and orchestral playing, and it was reissued on compact disc by Olympia along with EMI concerto recordings from the mid-1950s of works by Rachmaninov (his Concertos Nos 1 and 2) and Prokofiev (Concertos Nos 1 and 3). Other EMI recordings from the late 1940s and early 1950s include a sparkling Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor Op. 25. Lympany’s effortless technique in the last movement is breathtaking. That work, and Litolff’s famous Scherzo from his Concerto Symphonique No. 4 Op. 102 were recorded again in the mid-1960s by Reader’s Digest and reissued on compact disc by Ivory Classics with Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major and Falla’s Noches en los jardines de España. The period when Lympany’s private and professional life was under strain produced some acceptable but musically detached recordings such as the complete nocturnes of Chopin, recorded for EMI in September 1960, and the complete waltzes recorded in New York in 1958.
In January 1988 Moura Lympany recorded a disc of popular piano favourites for EMI. This disc, and a companion second volume recorded in March 1990, is the most delightful of recordings. They encapsulate Lympany’s talent, displaying a depth of musicality and tone that seem to have matured with age. Three years later she recorded a disc of Debussy for EMI and at the same time, whilst she was at Abbey Road Studios, she recorded for Erato Rachmaninov’s complete préludes for the third time. Lympany kept up her technique (she gave a bravura performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 18 at the Proms in 1994) and this version of the préludes has as much to offer as the Decca LP version. Her last recording was made in 1995 for Erato, when she was nearly eighty. Undaunted by technical challenges, Lympany recorded Chopin’s complete Préludes Op. 28 and a selection of seven of his études.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).