From a Child Prodigy to a Mature Musician

By Mrs.Shuku Iwasaki, pianist, professor of Toho Gakuen Graduate School

Encounter in Taiwan

On January 20, 2003 my younger brother Kou (cellist) and I were invited to the class reunion of the Juilliard School of Music in Taipei. We also joined the home concert in playing Piano Quintet ‘Trout’ by Schubert and other pieces.

“Today, we have a precious guest of pianist, Mrs. Slenczynska. Let’s request her to play upon the piano!” The announcement was made in the middle of the concert. A 150 cm tall elderly lady, who stood up among the audience, started performing Etude Op. 25-1 and Op. 25-12 by Chopin after she seated in front of the piano. We were completely overwhelmed with her powerful forte and irresistibly attracting musical touch. “Wonderful!” everyone stood up and heartily applauded. The seventy-eight-year pianist stayed in Taiwan at that time as an Associate Professor at Faculty of Music, Dong Wu University for one year. She said she learned from Jzabel Vangarova, from whom my former teacher also learned. We were much surprised at her wonderful technique, “Has she inherited it from Vangarova?”

Her first recital in Japan

Mr. Bunsho Mifune was deeply moved by her performance at the home concert in Taiwan. Mrs. Slenczynska was invited to the Liu Mifune Art Ensemble (a hall next to the Mifunes in Okayama) and her first recital in Japan was held on April 6, 2003.

In the morning of the recital I had a chance to listen to her rehearsal. Without using pedals, she started playing upon the piano with slow tempo alongside metronome, and the tempo gradually gets faster. Because this process is repeated thoroughly, it takes considerable time. I was truly amazed at her perseverance and diligence being loyal to the painstaking exercise method.

Prelude by Rachmaninov, Beethoven’s Sonata ‘Waldstein’, Visions Fugitives by Prokofiev, all of four Impromptu by Chopin, Ballade No. 1 and two Etudes by Chopin – these works were performed at the recital in the evening. Her wonderful technique makes us hard to believe in the fact that she is seventy-eight years old. Her powerful touches from her small build are beyond our imagination. Her musical expression in full of life, the parts in slow tempo calm down our mind, and the whole of her performance is continuously full of moving touches. At the lunch table before the recital I personally interviewed her and came to know that her teachers were great masters.

Encounters with masters, and her learning – Schnabel, Cortot, Backhaus and Rachmaninov

“I only compare with the best of myself in the past. When I accomplished something good today, it should be better tomorrow.” According to her words she must have done her very best efforts at every encounter with great masters.


Mrs. Slenczynska entered Curtis Institute of Music as she was five years old. Vangarova and Josef Hofmann were her teachers. At the age of six she moved to Berlin, and learned from Artur Schnabel and others. Schnabel attached the best importance to Beethoven’s fingering. “It is not always good that one can play upon the piano easily. The performance should be musical at any time,” commented Schnabel. As she stayed in Paris from seven to fourteen years old Alfred Cortot was her teacher. “If one could play on the piano rolling his wrists, every kind of piano sounds beautifully,” taught Cortot. Thus, Mrs. Slenczynska learned the technique how to control her wrists. Backhaus gave her lessons six times. However, Schnabel was Backhaus’ rival in those days and he refused to recognize Schnabel’s edition, which was why she was taught to perform according to the original edition of Beethoven.

She was nine years old when she played as a substitute for Rachmaninov, and the recital obtained great success. Having been surprised at her, Rachmaninov invited her and she had his lessons twice in Paris in the summer of her nine and ten years of age. “Your fingers are like too much boiled spaghetti,” mentioned Rachmaninov, and he advised her to exercise fingers eight hours a day. It is the shifting accent method. As for the accent, the first note, the second note and the third note – each time the accent will be shifted in order. At the beginning one should play slowly and each finger of both hands will be trained to play exactly. Thanks to this kind of training, each note can be performed substantially. It is very hard to go on with this exercise method. “It is the most important for a musician to be always loyal to one’s sense. You should not leave from the piano until you are able to play the sound in the way you want to express,” says Mrs. Slenczynska.

The friendship with Horowitz

She also forms enduring friendships with famous pianists. Vladimir Horowitz, for example, is older than her by twenty-one years. Nevertheless, a lasting friendship sprang up between them.

Once Mrs. Slenczynska was invited over to Horowitz’ rehearsal at Carnegie Hall. In those days Horowitz had interrupted his performance for twelve years. He went on his rehearsal for twelve days! A lot of friends of Horowitz’ were asked to sit on the chairs on the stage during the whole rehearsal. He also enjoyed card game after his exercise, while Mrs. Horowitz and Mrs. Slenczynska enjoyed looking at an Italian fashion magazine or their conversation was enlivened by cooking.

By the way, Mrs. Slenczynska was going to perform as a soloist for San Francisco Orchestra in 1962 under the baton of Khachaturian. However, it became inconvenient for him in the end. Suddenly Mr. Seiji Ozawa, who had just won the first prize at International Besancon Competition for Young Conductors (1959), was chosen to conduct. Mr. Ozawa made his debut as a conductor there. Mrs. Slenczynska highly praised his conducting.

Always look forward, march forward and enjoy wearing a smile

Thinking of her previous career, it is truly surprising enough that her recital has never been performed in Japan.

Mrs. Slenczynska is seventy-eight years old now; she has been in the pursuit of everything and yet she is quite simple and natural. The tyranny of her father in her childhood must have been unbearable. For instance, she could not have her breakfast until 24 Etudes by Chopin were played every morning or her father slapped her cheek for her mistakes. Therefore, there should have been her spiritual suffering in her task to be a pianist. As a matter of fact, she refused music or performing activities in her twenties. She again returned to the world of music at the second half of her twenties after having experienced glory and setback. However, she abolished her brilliant career once again at her second half of forties for the sake of pursuing her own art. “Do you mean what it is the most difficult thing? It is for me to love music evermore in any hard situations,” says Mrs. Slenczynska. These words have to be the key why she has been as an everlasting artist.

“Always look forward, march forward and enjoy with a smile!” This is her message for the youth. How precious it is!

– Musicanova monthly, July 2003 issue, rewritten by the author

translator Kiyoko Kruzliak

The Art of Ruth Slenczynska I

Recording CD1
Nov.5th and 8th, 2003 Liu Mifune Art Ensemble
Recording CD2
2003年11月7日 岡山シンフォニー・ホール
Steinway made in 1926 in Liu Mifune Art Ensemble
Ruth Slenczynska (Piano)

ピアノの音の概念を覆す幻の巨匠ルース・スレンチェンスカ 78歳にして初の日本公開演奏のライブ・レコーディング。ホロヴィッツが尊敬してやまないピアニスト、20世紀ピアノ(演奏史)の歴史の生きた証人スレンチェンスカが日本のクラシック・ファンに贈るピアノ音楽の真髄。

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Liu Mifune Art Ensemble Activities

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