Fresh From Recording Studio, A Pianist At 97 Recalls Prodigious Life

Ruth Slenczynska, whose career spans nearly a century, can be heard on a new solo album from Decca Classics. (Photo by Meredith Truax)

PERSPECTIVE — In 1931, a California pianist of Polish descent gives a farewell concert before leaving the United States to embark on a European career. The pianist makes her European debut in Berlin a year later. Two years later, the pianist makes her orchestral debut with the Philharmonie de Paris. You might say that the story is an unremarkable one. Even if you judge the progression by the standards of our day, you could agree that the narrative is next to normal. Until you realize that the pianist we are talking about — Ruth Slenczynska — was just five years old when she left the United States, and her Paris debut under Alfred Cortot took place when she was seven.

Slenczynska’s life does not understand the word ordinary. For all the very best and some of the most troubling reasons for a life lived, her passageway has been remarkable, resilient, and resolute. 

But 91 years later, there is no need to use the past tense. While most 97-year-old performers have closed the lid of their piano decades earlier, Slenczynska’s career as a performer and teacher continues to rebound and flourish.

In March, Decca Classics releases Slenczynska’s new solo album entitled My Life in Music. The pianist returns almost 60 years later to the recording company that first signed her in the 1950s as part of Decca Gold. And in a moment where her past and her future meet, the producer of My Life in Music is David Frost, a multi-GRAMMY award-winner who happens to be the son of one of Slenczynska’s first producers at Decca, Thomas Frost.

The nine-track album celebrates composers and musicians who were formative in Slenczynska’s career, which communed with some of the most influential performers, composers, and teachers of the last century. The last living pupil of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Slenczynska was coached by Artur Schnabel and Alfred Cortot. She was a great friend and colleague of Samuel Barber, and her coterie of admirers included Vladimir Horowitz.

The repertoire choices of the album – etudes, preludes, and dances by Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Barber, Debussy, Grieg, and Bach – mirror Slenczynska’s career dating from her first lessons with her father to her recording successes in Chopin. And while it may be easy to surmise that Slenczynska’s album is a biography of compositions, when I connect with the petite, effusive, and ebullient woman, I discover what lies deeper than the repertoire choices.

Where there is music, there is a life lived, and My Life in Music stands as a musical biography of Slenczynska’s personal hopes and fears, her relationships, and her lessons; ultimately, it stands as a statement of vindication. 

We begin the conversation with the title. What does a life in music mean?

Slenczynska pauses.

“Ah, a life in music is a life of imagination,” she says. “Nothing in the world was created without imagination. Everyone has the power to be imaginative. Everything in the world has to be imagined before it can be accomplished. If people do not use their imaginations, they will not grow. Our role is to take people on a journey to live in our image.”

The pianist recorded for American Decca in the 1950s.

Slenczynska has relied on this imagination and the lessons it offers to sustain her throughout a life punctuated by fear.

We do not speak about the past, and I do not seek to ask. The accounts of Slenczynska’s debilitating childhood are well documented in her biography, Forbidden Childhood, published in 1957 and peppered through the many press articles.

Slenczynska’s precocious life as a child prodigy entertaining the crowned heads of Europe and American presidents, including Herbert Hoover and John F. Kennedy, was darkly shadowed by a life of abuse at the hands of a tyrannical father, a violinist who, in his self-assigned role as her teacher, began his psychological and physical torments when she was just three years old, demanding that she practice nine hours a day or rehearse all of the Chopin Preludes before breakfast.

Slenczynska also understood fear through her experiences during the Cold War. She recalls sheltering in a bunker in Paris.

Ruth Slenczynska practicing under the watchful eye of her father.

In a less threatening way, she experienced a different kind of fear through her punitive piano technique lessons at the Curtis Institute of Music with Isabelle Venegerova. It was at these classes of high expectations and four-octave scales with both hands in thirds and sixths that Ruth met her lifelong friend Samuel Barber. It was also through these classes and her mentoring from Barber that Slenczynska would gain, as she describes, “the digital knowledge of scales to perform any piece of the European repertoire” and earn her accolades not for technical acuity but for expressivity. She learned the latter from Barber: “Above all else, it is the beauty of the music that matters.”

The attention to beauty and hope through the care and love offered by her musical friends, and the joy of her marriage to political scientist James Kerr, brings us to the fear experienced by the people of Ukraine. Slenczynska’s ebullience and humanity resurfaces when I ask her what piece she would perform for the Ukrainians. Without hesitation, she offers Rachmaninoff’s Daisies, Op. 38, No. 3 — the composer’s own transcription of his song with the same name. 

Why this piece? She explains, “When Rachmaninoff was 14 years old, he spent time with his cousins at his grandmother’s home where, perched on large hill, a field of daisies appeared. Here the grandchildren would play, create daisy chains, and fill their sunfilled days with these yellow flowers. The piece begins with a D-flat major chord, and from that the piece moves forward. We too must always look forward and envision the daisies on the hill.”

The seven-year-old Ruth Slenczynska performing with the Philharmonie de Paris under Alfred Cortot.

Daisies is on the new album, and it is easy to understand the choice. There is a lightness and airiness, redolent of a sprightly spring morning that radiates throughout the album — a feeling of gossamer.

And then there is the choice of the final offering: Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C-sharp minor, BWV 848 (Book 1). This is Slenczynska’s moment of vindication. “The C-sharp minor prelude is one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire. My father forced me to play it when I was too young, and I was not absorbing it the way that he wished, and there were consequences. The piece made no sense to me as a child. Well, here now, here it is.”