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(1880 - 1948)

Not surprisingly, when she knew that her life would be before the public, Lucy Jane Olga Agnes Hickenlooper changed her name to Olga Samaroff. Her first lessons were with her grandmother, who had been a concert pianist, but as the child’s talent developed, her family decided to move to Paris. Olga, her brother George, their mother and grandmother set sail for Europe, the mother and brother staying for only part of the first year, and the father taking his leave at New York. Olga joined the class of Elie Delaborde at the Paris Conservatoire, the first American woman to enter this famous music school. Moving to Berlin in 1898 to continue her musical training she took private piano lessons with Ernst Jedliczka who had trained at the Moscow Conservatory under Anton and Nicolas Rubinstein.Whilst in Berlin she became acquainted with Richard Strauss, Felix Weingartner and Arthur Nikisch. During the autumn of 1900 she married Boris Loutzky in Berlin, abandoning thoughts of a career as a pianist to become the wife of a Russian naval attaché. However, the marriage did not last long; Olga realised she had made a mistake and in 1904 returned to America.

Her American debut in 1905 with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Walter Damrosch was with a programme that is unusual by today’s standards. She played two concertos (Liszt’s No. 1 in E flat and the Schumann) and some solos including Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat Op. 53. Having gained an agent she began a successful performing career and in 1906 or thereabouts she first met Leopold Stokowski. In April 1908 Samaroff embarked on a European tour, playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 with the London Symphony Orchestra and Nikisch and Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat with Alexander Mackenzie at the Albert Hall. In Paris she played the Grieg Piano Concerto under Édouard Colonne, using her new and considerable influence to support Stokowski, who had recently moved to Paris, in his quest to become a conductor. At his debut, Samaroff played the Tchaikovsky B flat minor Concerto, and whilst in Vienna she played it again, also giving a solo recital in the Bösendorfer Saal. As her career gained momentum, she was invited to perform at the White House and played a number of concerts with Gustav Mahler, the first in Connecticut in 1910; in Munich she attended rehearsals of his Symphony No. 8 with Bruno Walter and the composer himself, who later directed performances of the Grieg Piano Concerto with Samaroff. In April 1911 she announced her intention to marry Stokowski, who with her help had gained a position with the Cincinnati Orchestra. However, after World War I it became apparent that Samaroff’s second marriage would not withstand the twin pressures of her career and Stokowski’s philandering.

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth Samaroff learnt all thirty-two piano sonatas and performed them in eight concerts during the 1920–1921 season. Stokowski gave a lecture before each concert, but Samaroff’s inevitable divorce from him came in 1923. From the mid-1920s on, following an accident that damaged her arm, Samaroff expanded her career into that of critic and teacher, attaining a position at the forefront of musical education in America. She wrote musical criticism for the New York Evening Post and the Philadelphia Record, and taught at the Juilliard Graduate School and at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music. During the 1930s she gave master-classes and lectures in New York, and in 1936 she was asked by the State Department to serve as one of three delegates to the International Music Education Congress in Prague. During the same year she began to teach her most famous pupil, the fourteen-year-old William Kapell; other well known pupils include Augustin Anievas, Bruce Hungerford, Raymond Lewenthal, Eugene List, Rosalyn Tureck and Alexis Weissenberg.

Although she had a ten-year contract with Victor, Samaroff made only twenty-two sides, and most of these were recorded by the acoustic process. Her earliest discs, dating from 1921, are of encores and were recorded on an out-of-tune baby grand piano. For her sessions from 1923 she took her own piano to the Victor studios in Camden, New Jersey and there is a marked improvement in the sound quality of these discs, the acoustic horn capturing Debussy’s Clair de lune and Grieg’s Nocturne Op. 54 No. 4 with remarkable fidelity. She was also allowed to record more substantial works such as Chopin’s Ballade No. 3 in A flat, the last movement of his B minor Sonata, and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12. Samaroff was known for her programming of unusual repertoire and Victor permitted her to record works by Paul Juon, Lecuona and Griffes as well as her popular encore, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries in an arrangement for piano by Ernest Hutcheson, a work she had played at the White House. Only four sides were recorded by the electrical process, Samaroff’s own arrangement of Bach’s Fugue in G minor being particularly successful as it captures her sound, and shows her strength and control at the keyboard.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).

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