Pietro Scarpini’s mother was a pianist and his father an army officer. Scarpini studied in Rome at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, where his major teachers were Alfredo Casella for piano, Ottorino Respighi for composition, Alessandro Bustini for conducting, and Fernando Germani for organ. In June 1934 Scarpini was chosen to be the final performer in a recital by pianists from Casella’s piano perfection class. Although a student of music, Scarpini also studied at the University in Rome from which his father wanted him to graduate. In 1934, while still at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Scarpini married his fellow student Teresita Rimer.
At his graduation concert in 1937, Scarpini was to conduct the Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in the Teatro Adriano in Rome, but since the soloist was indisposed Scarpini himself became the pianist in a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in E flat major K. 271. It was a great success and led to an offer of three concerto performances with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at the Philharmonie in Berlin. The reviews referred to ‘an eminent pianist’ and ‘a new star in the international sky of pianists’. Thereafter began an international career, first taking Scarpini to Budapest, Berlin and Lübeck for recitals in 1938, when critics described him as ‘a soloist of the highest stature whose playing is exceptional’. During the war Scarpini was appointed to the Parma Conservatory on Casella’s recommendation but requested a transfer to the Cherubini Conservatory in Florence a year later. In 1938 in Florence, Scarpini played Mozart’s Piano Concerto in E flat K. 271 with the Maggio Musicale Orchestra conducted by Karl Böhm. Richard Strauss was in the audience and congratulated both the conductor and the soloist after the performance.
In the early 1930s Scarpini met Hindemith, with whom he had an important working relationship for some years, also giving concerts for viola and piano. Scarpini had a close friendship too throughout his life with composer Luigi Dallapiccola.
Before the war Scarpini’s programmes contained many staples of the repertoire: Beethoven, Liszt, Bach–Busoni, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Scarlatti, Brahms, Chopin, Schumann, Stravinsky, Poulenc and Hindemith. After the war his programmes reflected his interests in contemporary music and the music of Busoni, but he would also programme major works of Bach such as the ‘Goldberg’ Variations BWV 988, Die Kunst der Fuge BWV 1080 and both books of Das wohltemperierte Klavier.
In 1948 at the Salzburg Festival Scarpini programmed a work which he would champion throughout his career: Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. As both conductor and pianist of his specially-formed ensemble, he performed this work in most of the important cities of Europe. He also gave the first performance in Italy of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto, conducted by Franz André in 1948. The following year Scarpini played Pierrot Lunaire in London for the BBC: this was the twenty-first time he had performed the work publicly. Scarpini was becoming known as an interpreter of contemporary music, leading an Italian critic to write, ‘Scarpini’s extraordinary interpretation of contemporary music has risen to the level of international excellence and his recital of last night is a rare, and perhaps unique, example in the musical world of our time.’ By now Scarpini was playing many works by Busoni including his version of the Don Juan Fantasy.
In the early 1950s Scarpini obtained a copy of the manuscript score of Mahler’s incomplete Symphony No. 10 and prepared a performing edition for two pianos. In 1952 he met Bruno Walter to discuss the possibility of preparing an orchestral score, but this came to nothing. A performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in Geneva in 1950 prompted Alfred Cortot to write Scarpini a letter of appreciation, and when Furtwängler toured Italy in the years after the war, Scarpini had the opportunity of playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 Op. 58 with him in Rome in January 1952. In November of that year Scarpini was in Germany playing Pierrot Lunaire and Busoni’s Fantasia contrappuntistica at Darmstadt.
A meeting with conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos in Florence led to Scarpini being invited to perform in New York. With Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Scarpini gave three performances of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 16 at Carnegie Hall. Olin Downes, in the New York Times, called Scarpini ‘a pianist of prodigious capacities’. A year later in November 1955 Scarpini returned to New York to give three performances of Mozart’s Concerto in E flat K. 482, again with Mitropoulos. He then had further engagements with the orchestras of Montreal, Toronto, Baltimore and Dallas.
After an exhausting tour of America in 1956 Scarpini’s health began to fail when diabetes was diagnosed, but in January 1957 he was in San Francisco playing the Weber Konzertstück and Stravinsky’s Piano Concerto with Enrique Jordá conducting. Still looking for contemporary works, Scarpini was in Germany and Italy in April 1957 performing the new Piano Concerto of Roger Sessions and in 1959 the composer Roberto Gerard asked Scarpini to play his Concerto for Harpsichord, Strings and Percussion, but unfortunately Scarpini’s state of health prevented him from performing the work, both at the time of its completion and thereafter. During the late 1950s and early 1960s Scarpini performed Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge BWV 1080 at universities throughout Italy and performed Das wohltemperierte Klavier complete at the 1960 York Festival in Britain.
During the mid-1950s Scarpini began to be interested in the music of Scriabin. In 1963 at the International Festival of Contemporary Music in Venice he gave a memorable recital of Scriabin’s works, prompting one critic to write, ‘Although Scarpini is already known for his dedication to rediscovering a number of musicians, absorbing them into his innermost being before presenting them to the public, this occasion was an unparalleled revelation. The Scriabin we listened to was on a higher plane than the over-praised interpretations by Sviatoslav Richter, and with this performance Scarpini has joined the restricted circle of the greatest pianists of the century.’
In 1966 Scarpini was invited to America by George Szell to perform with the Cleveland Orchestra. As it was Busoni’s centenary year he played Busoni’s Piano Concerto Op. 39 in Cleveland and New York. During the centenary year he played a recital of Busoni (including the Fantasia contrappuntistica) at the Wigmore Hall and also performed the Indianische Fantasie with the New Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. From 1964, Scarpini played both harpsichord and piano in his recitals.
During his career Scarpini had performed with conductors such as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Pierre Monteux, Hans Rosbaud, Hermann Scherchen, Ferenc Fricsay and Karl Böhm. After his retirement from the concert platform in the late 1960s he continued to give master-classes; from the early 1950s the Fulbright Foundation had given scholarships for American pianists to study in Florence with Scarpini and he taught also in Siena and Darmstadt. After a heart attack in 1982 he had a triple by-pass, a new operation at the time. In 1988 he had a pacemaker fitted, and almost until the end he was still able to play the piano at home. He died in November 1997.
Scarpini was that rare combination: a highly intellectual pianist with a virtuoso technique. He was a dignified and solitary person with a serious approach to music, single-mindedly following the course of his artistic convictions without compromise.
Scarpini recorded at home, and these recordings and some of his live performances are to be issued by the Scarpini Foundation, for Scarpini made only one LP of Bartók and Stravinsky for the Durium label that was reissued in America on the Colosseum label when he was touring there. He did, however, also appear on one side of an LP made for Italian Columbia in 1973–1974 of works by his friend Dallapiccola, accompanying violinist Sandro Materassi in Tartiniana seconda and Due studi.
A private recording from the late 1930s of Liszt’s Étude d’exécution transcendante d’après Paganini (or ‘Paganini’ Étude) No. 2 in E flat shows that Scarpini had a tremendous technique. It is hoped that recordings both private and from radio broadcasts will be issued. These include Scarpini’s arrangement for two pianos of Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 with an overdubbed Scarpini playing both parts, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 16 from Scarpini’s New York debut, his performance of Busoni’s Piano Concerto with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, his Scriabin, and his Mozart with Mitropoulos. Meanwhile, Arbiter have issued the performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 Op. 58 with Furtwängler from 1952 and the Scarpini Association has issued a private home recording of Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge BWV 1080.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Artist