Ruth Slenczynska is a former child prodigy and will be releasing a new album when she turns 97.

By Mark Savage
BBC Music Correspondent

Image source, Meredith Truax
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Ruth Slenczynska was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s last pupil.

Ruth Slenczynska, a former child prodigy and artist of the year, will release a new album in 1997 after she signed a contract with Decca.

After giving her fourth recital at age four, the pianist recorded My Life In Music, which featured music by Frederic Chopin and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

She called it “unbelievable” and added, “Whoever has ever heard of another album being made by a pianist at my age?”

Slenczynska will turn 97 this Saturday. Her album is due 18 March.

Her performing career began in the 1920s when she was called one of the best child prodigies ever since Mozart.

After one concert in which she was “electrifying,” the New York Times wrote that her concerts had been “an electrifying event”, and “something nature produced in one of its most bounteous states”.

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At six years old, she made her Berlin debut and at seven in Paris. She is also known as Rachmaninoff’s last pupil. He often gave her a Faberge egg pendant.

She also had legendary teachers: Josef Hoffman and Alfred Cortot; Artur Schnabel studied with Samuel Barber. They both heard his famous Adagio for Strings from the classroom before its name was even given.

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With President Harry S Truman she played a Mozart four-hand duet. She performed the act at President John F Kennedy’s Inauguration. Ronald Reagan honoured her for being the first American woman to have a 50 year concert career.

Forbidden childhood

Josef Slenczynski (born in Sacramento California) was Slenczynska’s father. Before being injured during World War One, he was a prominent violinist.

His daughter was born in America and, within hours, he had decided to make his American dream a reality.

At three years old, she knew basic musical theory, harmony, and was proficient in practice and touring. Her father’s punishing schedule caused her great emotional stress and she quit performing at the tender age of 15.

Slenczynska, in her 1957 autobiography Forbidden Childhood, revealed how strict her father had been.

It was very simple, she explained. Father made me practice for nine hours every day.

Father would do his best to make me feel like an average little girl. He’d bring down his pail with ice water and tell me to stop wanting to be anything but a child. Your not a child. You’re a musician. Avoid those children and their silly games. You’re wasting your time. “You have to behave like a mature young woman.”

After rejecting her music career, she decided to cut ties with her father and enroll at University of California for psychology. She then eloped from a fellow student.

However, she didn’t stop playing and returned to concert in 1951. She performed at Carmel Bach Festival.

She toured for the Boston Pops orchestra four years later, where she enjoyed an on-stage competition with Arthur Fiedler.

In 1999, she said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “At first Mr Fiedler got standing-ovations. I didn’t.” By the third year I had started to get them. How to communicate with an audience.

Slenczynska was also praised at Fiedler’s expense during a Chicago concert.

She later commented, “After that I wasn’t renewed.” There was only room for one star on this tour.

‘Sustained excellence’

She was determined to continue recording 10 sparkling Decca albums, showing her talent for rhythmic control and drama, in particular when she plays Chopin’s works.

Her 1961 textbook, Music at Your Fingertips : Aspects in Pianoforte Technique, was published. She later joined Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville first as an artist and then as faculty.

She is a fluid, lyrical musician to this day. In celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, she uploaded her home recordings to YouTube during the Covid-19 lockdown 2020.

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Slenczynska, who is also celebrating her 97th birth, will perform a recital at Lebanon Valley College (Pennsylvania) on the 6 February

Laura Monks (co-presidents Decca Label Group) said that it was remarkable to consider Ruth’s concert debut in front of colour movie births.

It is remarkable that she remains at the top of her field ninety years later. “It’s hard to imagine anyone in any profession who can sustain such an extended period of excellence.”

Dominic Fyfe (Decca Classics label director) said that it was a privilege to record Ruth for Decca once again after recording for them in New York some 66 decades ago.

“One her earliest producers, Thomas Frost was, and we were pleased to unite Thomas with David, Thomas’s multi Grammy-winning producer for this new album.”

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