Paul Badura-Skoda, Who Could Make a Piano Sing, Dies at 91

Paul Badura-Skoda, an Austrian pianist who was known for insightful interpretations of classical era repertory and who had one of largest discographies of any major pianist, more than 200 recordings, died on Sept. 25 in Vienna. He was 91.

His death was confirmed by his partner, Elisabeth Vilatte.

Though not a formidable technician, Mr. Badura-Skoda was admired for refined and elegant performances, especially of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. He was praised for the singing tone he drew from the piano, a quality he attributed to the influence of Edwin Fischer, the great Swiss pianist.

In a 1978 interview with The New York Times, he described Fischer as the “shining example” of a great pianist who could produce “the most gorgeous, powerful sounds” — and yet who taught his students that “the piano sound deteriorates when you go above a certain dynamic level.”

Though associated with the classical period masters, Mr. Badura-Skoda actually had an extensive repertory, including works by Chopin, Scriabin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Hindemith and the Swiss composer Frank Martin. Martin wrote his Second Piano Concerto, completed in 1969, for Mr. Badura-Skoda, who took the work on tour.

He grew up believing in the superiority of the modern piano over period instruments promoted by exponents of the authentic performance movement. He maintained a “prejudice,” as he said in a 2017 interview with the critic Laurence Vittes in Early Music America, that “old instruments were good for museums — or worse: to be used as heating material for your room in winter.”

That prejudice was shattered when, in his early 20s, he heard the Austrian harpsichordist and fortepianist Isolde Ahlgrimm perform, including in intimate concerts at her home. Her playing revealed to him, he said, the “beauty and originality” of these instruments.

He began buying fortepianos and early 19th-century pianos, his collection growing so large that he had to acquire a house next to his in Vienna to maintain them. He is thought to be the only pianist to have recorded complete surveys of the Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert piano sonatas on both period and modern pianos. His refined approach to playing allowed him to adjust to the lighter keyboard action and gentler yet pinging sound of fortepianos.

Paul Badura was born in Vienna on Oct. 6, 1927. His father, an engineer, died when Paul was 4 months old. After his mother married Anton Skoda, a furniture dealer, he added his stepfather’s surname to his own.

He began piano lessons at 6 and developed a lively curiosity about all kinds of music. He played his own transcriptions of Rossini overtures on the accordion, his stepfather’s passion. He went to concerts as often as possible. He would sneak into the standing-room section of the Vienna State Opera through an obscure entry he discovered.

Though drawn to mathematics and physics, he decided on a career in music around the age of 14, when he heard Fischer perform. He wanted to enter Vienna’s academy of music, he recalled, but by then, with World War II underway, the occupying Nazi government took steps to draft him into a labor corps. His stepfather intervened, however, falsely telling the head of the academy that a letter of recommendation from Hermann Göring was coming any day. In any case, Paul ended up on far-less onerous duty with a farmworker corps near Vienna, where he was able to study musical scores.

From 1945 to 1949 he studied at the Vienna Conservatory, graduating with distinction in both piano and conducting. Afterward he took master classes with Fischer in Lucerne, Switzerland, and continued to work with him for a decade.

Mr. Badura-Skoda’s international career was set in motion in 1949, when, at 22, he was chosen by the eminent conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler to perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 with the Vienna Philharmonic. That engagement was followed by another invitation to perform with the orchestra, this time with Herbert von Karajan conducting.

Mr. Badura-Skoda was already well known from numerous recordings on the then-popular and affordable Westminster label when he made his New York debut in 1953 at Town Hall, attracting a full house. Though he complained about the artificiality of the recording studio, he thrived in it; by the time he was 30 he had made more than 50 recordings.

In 1951 he recorded Bach’s six partitas in two sessions, one before marrying Eva Halfar, a German musicologist, and the other afterward. “So we had no honeymoon,” he said in 2017. “Our honeymoon was Bach.”

Mr. Badura-Skoda and his wife had four children, one of whom, Michael Badura-Skoda, a pianist, died in 2001. There was no information available on his survivors.

Mr. Badura-Skoda also did scholarly work with his wife, Eva Badura-Skoda, including jointly writing a well-received book, “Interpreting Mozart at the Keyboard,” and editing Mozart concertos. They both taught in the late 1960s and 1970s at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

He had a lifelong musical partnership with the Austrian pianist Jörg Demus, who died in May at 90, with whom he played and recorded four-hand and duo-piano repertory. Together they wrote the book “The Piano Sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven.”

While Mr. Badura-Skoda’s playing was generally respected for its integrity and taste, some critics found it lacking in sparkle and clarity, especially during his later years. To acknowledge his 90th birthday, Deutsche Grammophon in 2017 released a 20-CD box set, “The Paul Badura-Skoda Edition,” which includes many of his early Westminster recordings, among them Beethoven’s five piano concertos conducted by Hermann Scherchen. That year he also gave a Beethoven recital at the Musikverein concert hall in Vienna, a program including the last three sonatas.

When asked by Mr. Vittes, the critic, if he was ready for such a demanding program, Mr. Badura-Skoda replied: “Ninety is quite a good age. I’m very well prepared.”

Anthony Tommasini is the chief classical music critic. He writes about orchestras, opera and diverse styles of contemporary music, and he reports regularly from major international festivals. A pianist, he holds a Doctorate of Musical Arts from Boston University. @TommasiniNYT

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