Nicolas Economou was a wonderful pianist. His early death at 40 and the personal difficulties he experienced in his last years deprived the world of a strong-willed and vibrant musical personality, prodigiously talented in all cultural areas and gifted with a pianistic technique inferior to none. Whether as a composer, improviser, pianist or conductor, whether discussing Shostakovich, Stendhal, Plato or Lenin, he expressed himself with an uncompromising energy that was as infectious as it was direct. His talents charmed many of the great artistic personalities he encountered, leading to fascinating collaborations with musicians such as Martha Argerich, dancers such as Maya Plisetskaya and writers such as Arthur Miller and Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Known to British music lovers principally as one of many chamber music partners of Martha Argerich, he produced several solo discs with fine recordings of classical and romantic repertoire, live recordings of his improvisations on two pianos with Chick Corea and some video footage of various concerts from the piano festival he initiated in Munich. In the seventeen years since his death, his reputation has persevered not so much on the basis of his rarely found CDs as on the few recordings circulating around the internet and the fervent recommendations of those who remember him in the flesh. His native Cyprus remembers him with a charitable foundation in his name, occasional memorial concerts are held in places associated with him, but in view of his achievements it all seems too little. With the easy accessibility of so much music today, particularly through the Internet, it seems a good time to introduce him to those unfamiliar with him and to sponsor his case as a major pianist.
Born in Cyprus in 1953 his musical gifts were discovered early and he won the Pan-Hellenic Competition for young musicians when he was eleven. Following this he moved to Moscow, where he studied for the next seven years, first at the Central Music School, then at the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire. At a time when foreigners were few and far between in Moscow, and when the professors included some of the greatest names of pianistic education, this was already some achievement. Far from being stifled by the communist Soviet Union, he became a life long believer in the possibilities of socialism, and his enthusiasm for the writings of Trotsky, Isaac Deutscher and Lenin himself remained undimmed by his acceptance of the catastrophic reality of communism, even after its fall in 1989.
In 1972 he moved to Germany, where he soon settled in Munich and established himself as promising new talent. His career began in earnest when he founded the Munich Klaviersommer, an annual festival of piano music featuring pianists such as Sviatoslav Richter and Martha Argerich, as well as great figures from the jazz world such as Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck and Chick Corea. The festival flourished, not least because of the infectious informality of proceedings, where programmes were spontaneous and musicians dressed casually – unusual for the Bavarian capital, where dinner jackets and conservatism have always been highly valued. Economou, a prodigiously gifted improviser, often appeared together with other pianists, improvising in various styles on two or even three pianos; some of his performances with Chick Corea were later published on LP by no less than Deutsche Grammophon. There is currently a whole performance available on YouTube of Economou, Corea and the great Austrian pianist Friedrich Gulda improvising together, a wonderful display of humour, dexterity, responsiveness and tremendous energy. Economou was so adept at mimicking composer’s styles that once when recording an LP for Bavarian Radio he acquiesced to the producer’s demands and improvised four works: a three movement Sonata in the style of Mozart, a Chopin Waltz, a Schumann Novelette and a Liszt Rhapsody. These were all recorded and issued on LP themselves. Later in life, Economou collaborated with the great Russian prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, she improvising on the floor as he improvised at the piano. The resulting performance was recorded for Swiss television.
Some years previously, Economou had been introduced by Elisabeth Furtwängler to Martha Argerich, who had been very impressed by his playing. The two began performing together and eventually recorded a wonderful LP featuring Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and Economou’s own arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, which he had made as a gift to Argerich’s daughter Stephanie and his own daughter Semele. These recordings are still widely available today thanks to Argerich’s popularity. Sadly, the many other works the two performed together were never recorded, such as Liszt’s two piano version of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Milhaud’s Scaramouche or Ravel’s Ma mere l’oye. Many reviewers noted at the time that the duo was so successful precisely because the two pianists were so different, bringing out the best in each other and blending it all into a mesmerizing whole.
Soon after arriving in Munich, Economou had established connections to the film world, notably the German director Margarethe von Trotta. At the time Munich, with its Bavaria film studios, was the film centre of Germany. Economou became active composing film scores, several of which were awarded prizes. He also composed much for piano, amongst other works a collection of poetic pieces entitled “Children’s Etudes”, which he can be seen performing in one of the films recorded in the Munich Klaviersommer. Eclectic in style, they are charming, pianistically inventive and reveal the sheer pleasure Economou gained from making music. Economou was at home in any genre of music and derived as much satisfaction from Procul Harum as he did from Mikis Theodorakis. He was uninterested in stylistic distinctions, but very interested in artistic inspiration and the energy that can be derived from it.
As a conductor, Economou worked with several ensembles, including the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, but sadly only pirate recordings exist of few works. He also had strong literary interests and collaborated with the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt in a musical play about the Minotaur. He composed music for various plays in his native Cyprus, and wrote extensively himself, both poetry and prose.
With the support of Martha Argerich, Economou released a solo record for Deutsche Grammophon with Schumann’s Kreisleriana and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. It has since been rereleased by the Suoni e Colori label, along with a large number of other recordings he had made that had remained unreleased during his lifetime, including Beethoven’s Sonatas Op.26 and Op.101 and Schumann’s Fantasy Op.17. His solo recordings reveal a pianist of tremendous strength and clarity, at home in any period. Economou drew much inspiration from the art of ancient Greece, and perhaps the most obvious characteristic of his playing is a certain apollonian clarity, favouring strong lines, strong contrasts and eschewing anything that reeks of fuss or luxury. On occasions, this could lead to a certain ruthlessness in his performances, such as his recording of Mozart’s Sonata in C Minor, K. 457, which must belong to the most severe ever committed to disc. His Schumann recordings, however, have a directness that matches the poetic simplicity of the music, and particularly his Kreisleriana gains from the clarity of purpose he employs. Another great recording is his Papillons – always strong, but always poetic. He despised anything that seemed weak or false – in terms of ancient sculpture, his music corresponds to those older figures that betray no unnecessary movement, no vanity of the sculptor, no hint of mannerism.
Economou’s pianistic resources were immense, his hands being large and powerful, and he was able to negotiate fast passage work or octave runs at any volume with ease. The sparkle in his recording of the finale of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 26 is wonderful to hear, and no less successful than the towering mass of sound that is his Great Gate of Kiev in Mussorgsky’s Pictures. This is a recording worth hearing for the speed and strength of its characterisation, coupled with a poetic tenderness in the “Vecchio Castello” that is as much a result of what it doesn’t do as of what it does. In this respect, Economou seems related to Wilhelm Backhaus, also perhaps to Maurizio Pollini.
The recordings that have done more than any others to enhance Economou’s reputation are those he made of works by Liszt, including Gnomenreigen, the B Minor Sonata, and above all the First Mephisto Waltz. His virtuosity is complete here, although the live recording of the Sonata available on YouTube is by no means clinical. The listener never feels any doubt that Economou is in complete command, completely at the service of the music, utterly committed. Every aspect of the music seems fulfilled here, the poetic passages with their velvet tone, the languorous rubati of the slower sections, the warmth of expression, and the sheer cataclysm of the stretti. The finger strength is astonishing, and the speed and accuracy of the leaps in the Mephisto Waltz is a thing to behold and wonder at. These are recordings that should establish his credentials beyond any doubt. When one looks back at a musician of the past, it does not matter how talented someone was, only what they have achieved, and with these recordings at least, Economou can stand with the best.
Sadly, he was not able to sustain such a level of activity and achievement. During the late 1980s, Economou became increasingly troubled by alcohol and his career and playing suffered. He still performed occasionally, such as a memorable Mozart Concerto in C Minor in Finland in 1993, but struggled to find stability and became more and more depressed. In late December of that year he was killed in a car crash on a motorway in Cyprus.
If one were to write a novel about Economou, one might be tempted to describe him in the manner of Julien Sorel in Stendhal’s “Scarlet and Black” – a character with abundant talent, even achievement, but with insufficient psychological ability to rise over the price of greatness, a character distracted by the superficial rewards of success, perhaps a character estranged from his spiritual roots by the sheer enormity of his talent. There was definitely something of the hero from ancient Greece about him, a divine spark given by the gods, a tragic flaw that condemns him to disaster – and, one can only hope, a seat at the table of Zeus to reward his achievements. In a more prosaic world however we can only regret his early death and enjoy the few recordings he made, and the memories of his inspiring personality and huge pianistic talent. They certainly testify to the considerable achievements of a fascinating and colourful musician who deserves to be known more widely.
Nicolas Economou’s solo CDs are available to buy at www.suoniecolori.com , more information about him can be found at www.nicolaseconomou.com . There are several recordings, both audio and video, available to watch on YouTube.
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