Abbey Simon, an American pianist celebrated for a style that harked back to an earlier, golden age of keyboard prowess, died on Wednesday at his home in Geneva. He was 99.
His death was announced by his son, Jonathan.
Mr. Simon, who had appeared on concert stages around the world since the early 1940s, was often called a pianist’s pianist — greatly admired by musicians and critics if not strictly a household name. Known in particular for his interpretations of the Romantic literature, he was lauded for the fleetness of his fingers, the lightness of his tone and the thoughtfulness of his interpretations.
“Poetry, musicianship and technique have characterized Abbey Simon’s piano playing since his debut nine years ago,” Ross Parmenter wrote in The New York Times in 1949, reviewing a concert by Mr. Simon of Bach, Brahms, Chopin and Ravel. “On the basis of his recital last night at Carnegie Hall, one would add a fourth attribute, mastery.”
Although some critics faulted Mr. Simon’s playing for being overly cerebral, most concurred that in his pianism and choice of repertoire he recalled late-19th and early-20th-century virtuosos like Josef Hofmann, who had been his teacher. The style of both men was breathtakingly pyrotechnic yet no less sensitive for it — in stark contrast to the more bombastic approach that came to be regarded as a hallmark of many younger pianists.
“I am in essence a 19th-century artist,” Mr. Simon told the music journalist Bruce Duffie in 1988. “I play a great deal of Prokofiev; I play Sam Barber, but they’re ‘19th-century’ composers. They are virtuoso composers; they are melodic composers; they are fascinating in their harmonies and their orchestration. But the way present-day composers use the piano, it’s just not for me.”
Mr. Simon was widely heard on recordings; as a soloist with orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra; and, in particular, on recital stages, including those of Carnegie and Town Halls in New York.
“I was brought up in the great tradition of the piano recital,” he told The Times in 1981. “Playing with an orchestra is an exciting experience, it’s a chance to make an impression and all that. But when all is said and done, we’re going to judge the artist not on the Rachmaninoff Third, or the Brahms D minor, or Beethoven’s ‘Emperor,’ but on how he plays in recital.”
The son of Solomon Simon, a dentist, and the former Vera Sheldin, Abbey Simon was born in New York on Jan. 8, 1920, and reared in the Bronx.
The family, teeming with doctors and dentists, was musical as well as medical: One uncle, besides being a dentist, was a semiprofessional jazz pianist; another, Mr. Simon recalled in a 2013 video interview, was “the Jascha Heifetz of the mandolin.”
At 3, Abbey could pick out perfectly on the piano any tune he heard on the radio; he began formal lessons at 5.
“I was a very lucky child, because who knows what they want to be when they are only 3 years old?” Mr. Simon said in a 2014 interview with The Daily Cougar, the campus newspaper of the University of Houston, where he taught for many years. “I had always known I was a pianist.”
At 10, he received a scholarship to Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Taking up the scholarship the next year, he moved to Philadelphia with his mother and studied there with Hofmann.
In 1940, Mr. Simon was a winner of the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation competition, a prestigious musical honor that carried a debut recital at Town Hall. After Army service in World War II he resumed his career, touring nationwide. Throughout much of the ’40s, he appeared annually in recital at Carnegie Hall.
After the success of his first European tour in 1949, Mr. Simon moved to Europe for more than a decade, living primarily in Switzerland.
“There ought to be a law,” Robert Sherman wrote in The Times in 1965, bemoaning the rarity of Mr. Simon’s appearances in the United States. “An artist of such technical prowess, exciting temperament and musical sensitivity should be heard again and again.”
But Mr. Simon’s long sojourn in Europe, whose musical climate appeared more tolerant of inspired imperfection, let him grow as he might not have done otherwise, he said.
“Getting away gave me the possibility of having thoughts of my own, of developing my own personality, a chance to find myself, even the chance to play badly!” he told The Times in 1960, on a rare visit to New York.
“I mean,” Mr. Simon elaborated, “the chance to play a piece a certain way to see if it will go, and then to find that it’s wrong and must be done in some other fashion. Here, that would be a disaster and one simply can’t take the chance. Over there one can be less inhibited musically.”
Mr. Simon, who also taught over the years at Indiana University and the Juilliard School, had homes in Houston and Geneva. His wife, the former Dina Levinson, died in 2014. In addition to his son, he is survived by two grandchildren.
If Mr. Simon, as The Times reported in 1988, sometimes bristled at the appellation “pianist’s pianist,” with its implied, if rarefied, marginalization, he was ultimately sanguine about his professional course.
“I have been busy all of my life,” he said. “I have had a fine career. In the meantime, a lot of pianists who made big noises have disappeared. I am still around.”
Michael Levenson contributed reporting.
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