Ask any pianist of a certain age – the more eminent the better – and the reply will come quick as a flash. Pierre-Laurent Aimard may be Brendel’s anointed successor, but if you ask who set him on the road, he’ll tell you with shining eyes that it was an Italian named Maria Curcio. Alfredo Perl, whose diamond-bright Beethoven is in a class of its own, describes Curcio as the teacher who ‘polished’ him. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s son Ignat was sent to her by Rostropovich, and spent three formative years under her roof. Barry Douglas attributes his singing tone to a very specific piece of muscle advice she once gave him. Few people outside the world of classical music had heard of 82-year-old Maria Curcio, but within that world she was a legend: as Artur Schnabel’s favourite pupil, as four-hand partner to Benjamin Britten, as the muse of Rafael Orozco and Radu Lupu, and as a tutelary goddess second to none. Now we must honour her memory.
My first sight of her was at a masterclass at London’s Royal Academy in 2001. After the massive reputation, the reality came as a shock: a tiny, birdlike woman who moved with care, as though her limbs might snap. It proved a fascinating three hours: to demonstrate her points, she sang along with her students in a quavery voice, and played in unison with them in the treble. Her most frequent injunction was not to rush; her advice to a Chinese girl playing a Schumann piece was to ‘open your arms and embrace the world’; a hot-headed Russian was told not to get carried away by his own warmth. But what marked this master-class out from the usual star turn was that there was no playing to the gallery.
Having persuaded her to do an interview, I was warned by her student minder that she was not well, and that she must carefully conserve her remaining strength. Her basement flat in Willesden turned out to be the prettiest sanctuary you could imagine, with flowers, paintings, embroideries, photographs of keyboard gods, and Artur Schnabel in pride of place on the piano. As I arrived she was finishing a lesson with her current protégé, and getting him to make a Chopin Mazurka dance as it should.
Born in 1919 in Naples, she was reared in cultivated affluence. Her Brazilian pianist mother began teaching her to play when she was three, and she soon showed signs of prodigious talent: at five she was a regular performer in house-concerts all round town. She was also strong-willed: invited at seven to play for Mussolini, she consented to make the journey to Rome, but when the time came to go from her hotel to the dictator’s apartment, she was suddenly nowhere to be found. ‘I had heard many conversations about Mussolini, about how he killed people, and I hated him. So on the morning when I was supposed to play, I got the waiters to hide me under the dining-room tablecloth.’
Being taken on as a pupil by Schnabel was, on the other hand, a phenomenal accolade: first he tutored her at his home on Lake Como, and then whenever their respective concert schedules landed them in the same city. Hitler put paid to her burgeoning career: instead she found herself following Schnabel’s young secretary – a Jewish Austrian called Peter Diamand, whom she later married – to his home in Amsterdam. And there, with the Nazi net tightening every day, she became breadwinner and protector to Diamand and his mother, who were forced to live in an Anne Frank-style attic.
The resulting stress and malnutrition brought Curcio down with tuberculosis. ‘My doctor told me that if I wanted to survive, I would have to spend a year in hospital, but I said “How could I do that, with people dying here?”’ By the end of the war she was semi-paralysed: goodbye to a pianistic career, and nearly goodbye to life. Diamand went north to run the Edinburgh Festival, and after several years’ hospitalisation Curcio started teaching in London.
And word got round. ‘Take lessons with Curcio’ became the solution to all pianistic problems, as one after another the bright young hopes beat a path to her door; she steered her best pupils towards becoming teachers in their turn. ‘I can spot immediately who is going to make a teacher, who has the talent and commitment.’ Her task, she said, ‘was to get them to liberate themselves.’ And her concerns went way beyond mere technique. ‘Schnabel used to say that if you can’t breathe a phrase, you cannot play it, because pianists have to take breaths as actors do. I tell my students to sing any phrase they are uneasy with, because then they will see how it should go.’
Her judgments were wonderfully acerbic; kindness prevents my repeating her damning view of some of today’s young stars in the pianistic firmament. Before I left, I persuaded her to play: Schumann’s ‘Fast zu ernst’ – ‘Almost too serious’ - which was one of the pieces she played when auditioning for Schnabel. In her hands this rather workaday little piece became pure poetry.