Born Solomon Cutner in London’s East End, the pianist used only his first name professionally. The seventh child born to tailors of German-Jewish and Polish-Jewish extraction, Solomon had musical parents and he began to play the family piano at the age of five. He received piano lessons from a local teacher and at eight was taken under the tutelage of Mathilde Verne, a pupil of Clara Schumann and head of her own Piano School in London. Verne made Solomon’s parents sign a contract giving her complete control over the boy for five years: recent investigation by biographer Bryan Crimp shows that Verne exploited the child for her own gain. His London debut, at the age of eight, was a great success and the following year Verne had the nine-year-old play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op. 37 and Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasy with the Queen’s Hall Orchestra and Henry Wood. Verne pushed the child to learn large works and his performances served as an advertisement for her teaching and her Piano School. At the age of twelve he played at six Prom Concerts, the repertoire being totally unsuitable for a child of his age, including as it did concertos by Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, and Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasy. The following year, 1915, the thirteen-year-old Solomon performed at least fifteen times with Wood, playing the concertos from the previous year and adding those by Schumann and Brahms, as well as arrangements for piano and orchestra by Liszt of Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy and Beethoven’s Die Ruinen von Athen.
When Verne’s contract expired in 1915 Solomon refused any further contact with her. Thereafter, he rarely mentioned her name and not until he was seventy did he state that his childhood with her was ‘awful, terrible’. However, he still continued to perform, giving nearly forty concerts in 1916. By now the boy was entering maturity and it is not surprising to read that between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one Solomon suffered from exhaustion, anxiety and stress, and had a nervous breakdown. It was Henry Wood who suggested that Solomon should give up music for a while; but by then he had been robbed of his childhood, something he could never regain.
It was fortunate that Soloman had friends and benefactors to help him though his ordeal; most particularly a pupil of Leschetizky, Simon Rumschinsky, who dismissed Verne’s teachings and made Solomon begin afresh. Solomon then decided to go to Paris, probably hoping for inspiration and a different outlook on music and life in general. He studied piano with Lazare Lévy and harmony and counterpoint with Marcel Dupré. By 1921 he felt able to return to the concert stage with a recital in Paris, followed by two in London; the next year he played in London twice again and then toured Germany, returning to London to restart his career.
Solomon made a successful debut in America at New York’s Town Hall and returned to the city in 1939 for a performance of the Piano Concerto by Arthur Bliss which was written expressly for him and the New York World’s Fair. However, in the late 1920s Solomon supplemented his income from public appearances with a heavy teaching schedule, to which was added a strenuous practice regime of eight or nine hours a day, something that may have been a legacy from his years with Verne. His career blossomed during the 1930s and all through World War II he entertained troops in Britain and abroad. He played for the forces in North Africa, Egypt, Palestine, India, Singapore and Bangkok, his efforts being rewarded with a CBE. After the war, Solomon regularly toured Europe and North America and played also in Australia and New Zealand, in South Africa in 1946, in South America in 1953 and in Japan in 1954. He continued to work hard and practise hard, but in December 1956 he suffered a stroke which paralyzed his right arm. He never again appeared in public although he lived for another thirty years.
Solomon’s repertoire was based on Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. He also played some Chopin, and concertos by Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Schumann and Bliss. He was about half way through recording the complete piano sonatas of Beethoven for EMI when he suffered his stroke; fortunately, he had recorded the last great works including the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata Op. 106.
Although revered by many for his insight and understanding of the music of Beethoven, Solomon did not want his own personality to come between the composer and the audience. Like Schnabel, he played music that was ‘better than it could be played’, yet where Schnabel’s interpretations had a character and substance, Solomon, particularly in the music of Chopin, sometimes seemed to strip away so much as to leave a work drained of its power to communicate. As beautiful as are his recordings of Chopin’s Berceuse Op. 57 and Nocturne in E flat Op. 9 No. 2, they appear as pale mezzotint images rather than feelings and emotions painted in colour.
Solomon made his first recordings between 1929 and 1934 for Columbia. He recorded works by Chopin and Liszt as well as an excellent version of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 with the Hallé Orchestra and Hamilton Harty. The twenty-seven-year-old Solomon gives a fresh, individual interpretation devoid of the excesses and posturings found on other recordings. Although his later reputation was built upon solid accounts of Beethoven piano sonatas, Solomon’s technique was well suited to Liszt’s études and rhapsodies. The Hungarian Rhapsody No. 15 is particularly powerful whilst his control in La Leggierezza makes this sound more of a poem than an étude. The playing has bravura, but not overt virtuosity. Solomon made no recordings between the end of 1934 and the middle of 1941.
HMV producer Walter Legge decided to place Solomon on the less expensive yet popular Plum label and he continued to record for the same company throughout his performing life. The first work Solomon recorded for HMV was Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a theme of Handel Op. 24. Other recordings of note made during World War II include Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op. 37 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Adrian Boult, the ‘Archduke’ Piano Trio Op. 97 with violinist Henry Holst and cellist Anthony Pini, and the Piano Concerto by Arthur Bliss with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Adrian Boult. Post-war recordings include the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat Op. 83 by Brahms and a wonderfully exciting recording of a work from his prodigy days, the Hungarian Fantasy for piano and orchestra by Liszt. It was at this time that Solomon began to record the complete piano sonatas of Beethoven, but when HMV introduced tape recording and LP issue in 1952 he began again. At a session in 1949, financed by the Maharajah of Mysore, Solomon recorded the Piano Concerto by Scriabin with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Issy Dobrowen. This was not released until 1991.
Between 1952 and 1956 Solomon made many recordings that were released on LP. In addition to the Beethoven sonatas, he recorded sonatas by Mozart, Haydn, Schubert and Brahms as well as Schumann’s Carnaval Op. 9. Solomon had made a new recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 in 1949 at the end of the 78rpm era but did not record it again. However, he recorded both concertos by Brahms, all five by Beethoven, those by Grieg and Schumann and some by Mozart. With cellist Gregor Piatigorsky Solomon recorded the cello sonatas of Beethoven. Some live recordings from radio broadcasts have survived, including two recitals for German radio from 1956, but it is unfortunate that recordings of the 1955 Edinburgh Festival, where Solomon played in a trio with violinist Zino Francescatti and cellist Pierre Fournier, do not appear to have survived.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).