Haskil’s parents were cultivated Sephardic Jews, and her aunt (her mother’s sister) had gained a first prize in piano at the Bucharest Conservatory at the age of eighteen, but died from tuberculosis at twenty. Clara too, one of three musical daughters, suffered from ill health all her life. A precociously gifted child who could play back by ear works she had heard her sisters playing, Clara received her first piano lesson from her mother at the age of three in 1899. Her father died that same year, and two years later at the age of six, she entered the Bucharest Conservatory. A year later, aged only seven, the young child was taken to Vienna by her uncle Avram Moscuna where she played for pianist Anton Door who was so impressed he published an article about her. Haskil began to study with Richard Robert (the teacher of Rudolf Serkin and George Szell) and spent much of her time at the Roberts’ home. At her public debut the eight-year-old played Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major K. 488 accompanied by a second piano. After she had spent three years with Robert, Haskil’s uncle decided that she should go to the Paris Conservatoire to study. Having already been uprooted from her mother and sisters at the age of seven, she thus, after a happy period with the Roberts, now had to leave them as well.
Perhaps because of her extreme youth, Haskil had to endure two years of the elementary class at the Conservatoire before she began studies with Alfred Cortot in 1907. At this time Cortot had a very busy career and was rarely at the Conservatoire, so much of Haskil’s tuition came from Lazare Lévy or Madame Giraud-Letarse. At the age of fifteen Haskil obtained the premier prix from the Conservatoire whose jury included Gabriel Fauré, Moritz Moszkowski, Raoul Pugno and Ricardo Viñes. The following year she gave concerts in Vienna, Paris, Bucharest and Milan, and a concert she gave in Zürich was attended by Ferruccio Busoni. Haskil had played his arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne and her playing impressed him so much that he invited her to study with him. However, because of Clara’s youth her mother and uncle were against this idea, so to Haskil’s lifelong regret she never studied with the great man.
Haskil continued to give successful concerts in Europe, but by 1913 her health began to fail with the onset of scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. She had to spend four years in hospital during which she could only rarely play the piano, but after some time recuperating in Switzerland, she returned to Paris to resume her career. She continued to give a relatively small number of concerts in Europe and it was not until 1924 that she made her debut in America with a concert at Aeolian Hall followed by some more appearances in Boston. Two years later her British debut was made in Manchester with the Hallé Orchestra and Hamilton Harty and at the end of 1926 she was back in America performing the Schumann Piano Concerto Op. 54 with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski.
From 1927 Haskil lived in a Paris apartment with her uncle. She continued to tour Europe, but after her uncle’s death in 1934 Haskil was, for the first time in her life, on her own. Her violinist sister Jeanne was a member of the newly formed Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française and Clara often played with this orchestra; when they performed Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat Op. 83 she apparently learnt the work in two days. Many stories abound of her extraordinary sight-reading abilities: it has already been noted that as a child she could hear and play back music as well as transpose it into any key. When she was due to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto in B flat K. 595 with Hermann Scherchen, the orchestral parts for K. 466 were inadvertently sent, a work Haskil had not played in two years. This was only discovered at the rehearsal, the evening before the performance, but Haskil played K. 466 perfectly.
Haskil was fortunate in being supported by many wealthy patrons, and it was at the home of one of these, the Princesse de Polignac, that she met Dinu Lipatti with whom she became devoted friends. By 1940 it was apparent that Haskil had to flee France before the Nazi invasion. She travelled with her sister and some members of the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française to Marseilles and stayed with the Countess Pastré, but here Haskil began to experience severe headaches and problems with her vision. In May of 1942 she had a tumour removed from her optic nerve and a few months later she and her sister managed to escape to Switzerland where Clara took citizenship in 1949. With World War II over, Haskil returned to Paris and not long afterward in December 1946 (not 1951 as erroneously stated in some sources) travelled to London where she gave a recital at the Wigmore Hall and six short broadcasts for the BBC predominantly of Scarlatti sonatas, but she also played Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 111, some Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Bach including the English Suite in G minor.
It was in 1949 that a series of concerts and radio broadcasts was organised in Holland by a Dutch impresario, and these helped build Haskil’s reputation to the extent that by the early 1950s she could support herself from her concert work without having to rely on the generosity of benefactors. During the 1950s she played with the world’s greatest orchestras and conductors in Europe and America as well as with some of the finest chamber musicians of the day. A particularly successful partnership was with the violinist Arthur Grumiaux. Fame came late to Haskil and she was already in her mid to late fifties by this time. Her poor health meant that she was often in pain and her scoliosis was compounded by severe pneumonia which she contracted in late 1957 and which left her with a serious heart condition. In December of 1960 Haskil was in Paris giving a recital with Grumiaux and a few days later travelled to Brussels for another concert. However, when she arrived at the railway station she stumbled and fell down a flight of stairs. Although she was taken to hospital, an operation was unsuccessful and she died on 7 December 1960.
An extremely reserved and shy person, Haskil was the antithesis of the Romantic virtuoso. Her repertoire was based around Mozart, Schumann and Beethoven, but she also excelled in Scarlatti and certain works by Debussy and Ravel. Works requiring great profundity such as Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B flat D. 960 and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C minor Op. 111 were also suited to Haskil’s ultra-fine sensibilities. Although her life spanned the history of sound recording, Haskil did not make many discs until the height of her fame in the 1950s, and although nervous in front of an audience, she preferred playing in public to playing for the microphone.
The earliest surviving recording of Haskil was made at the end of the 1920s and is of Liszt’s étude de concert La Leggierezza. According to her sister, Clara had this record, which may in fact date from 1936, made at her own expense. Although the last few bars are missing, it is one of the most extraordinary recorded performances of this étude for its combination of lightness, finesse, virtuosity and velocity. Similar private recordings exist of Liszt’s étude de concert Gnomenreigen and a violin work of Ferdinand David arranged for piano by Liszt.
Haskil’s first commercial discs were made in Paris for Polydor in 1934. Two rarely heard eighteenth-century sonatas by Pescetti and Soler were recorded along with Haydn’s Variations in F minor. Four years later in Paris Haskil recorded two more sides, of Schumann’s Abegg Variations Op. 1. Haskil’s next recording session took place when she was in London in 1946; not only was it her first concerto recording, it was her first recording for the Decca company. It was of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major Op. 58 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by pianist and Busoni pupil Carlo Zecchi. It is a sublime performance, beautifully fluid and controlled, where Haskil seems perfectly at ease. Four months later she recorded Schumann’s Waldszenen Op. 82 for Decca. In September and October of 1950 Haskil recorded material for three LPs issued on the Westminster label. One of these, a recital of eleven Scarlatti sonatas, is a classic of the gramophone, and one to which any other recordings are invariably compared. The other two LPs were recordings of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 Op. 37, and Mozart’s Piano Concertos K. 459 and K. 466 with the Winterthur Symphony Orchestra conducted by Henry Swoboda.
In 1950 Haskil made one recording for the Concert Hall label of Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F minor Op. 34 with the Winterthur Quartet whose first violinist also appears on surviving recordings of broadcasts with Haskil of Mozart and Busoni.
It was in 1951 that Haskil began to record for Philips and these recordings from 1951 to 1960 were issued on twelve compact discs in 1995. Of the concerto repertoire her Schumann Piano Concerto Op. 54 from 1951 is superlative, as are recordings made in October and November of 1960, a month before she died. From these last sessions come a poetic Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 21 by Chopin and the Piano Concertos K. 466 and K. 491 by Mozart. Haskil’s Chopin is chaste and controlled; she does not wear her heart on her sleeve even though she chose to use her friend Alfred Cortot’s orchestral arrangement.
Haskil also recorded for Deutsche Grammophon and her Mozart Piano Concertos K. 459 and K. 595 with Ferenc Fricsay are fastidious and exquisite. Also for Deutsche Grammophon Haskil recorded the Piano Concerto K. 415 with Rudolf Baumgartner, plus a sonata and some variations of Mozart.
Many live performances of Haskil have appeared on compact disc. One of the best, published by Music & Arts, is a recital from the Ludwigsburg Festival in 1953 where Haskil plays Beethoven’s last Piano Sonata Op. 111 and Bach’s Toccata in E minor BWV 914 in addition to some Scarlatti sonatas, Debussy études and Ravel’s Sonatine. The programme gives a good overall impression of Haskil in varied works. A recital from the Besançon Festival of 1956 includes Schumann’s Kinderszenen Op. 15, Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A minor D. 845 and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E flat Op. 31 No. 3; whilst a reissue by Music & Arts includes three of Mozart’s piano concertos and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Munch, and Mozart’s Concerto in D minor K. 466 with Otto Klemperer and the Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra.
The record label Tahra has produced two handsome two-disc sets of Haskil, lavishly illustrated and annotated. The first, Hommage à Clara Haskil et Dinu Lipatti consists of private and broadcast recordings by the two artists including Liszt’s La Leggierezza and works by Brahms, Scriabin and Rachmaninov, composers not usually associated with Haskil. The second set, Inédits Haskil, is of broadcasts of Mozart and Beethoven concertos and some Scarlatti sonatas, apparently from a BBC broadcast of 1946. It also includes a comprehensive discography. Tahra continues to release Haskil material from European radio archives.
Physically frail, but with a strong artistic core, Haskil is one of those pianists who has a great following of devoted admirers. She combines grace, artistry and musicianship of the highest order with a self-doubting vulnerability that endears her to musicians and the public alike.