1922 – 2006
“The first lady of the piano in Israel” and “She is considered the first Israel-born pianist to achieve international fame”—these and similar phrases color many writings about Pnina Salzman, who received the Israel Prize in 2006 for her contribution to the country’s musical life. She was the first renowned Israeli pianist to conquer concert stages in Europe and Asia in the early 1940s, even before the establishment of the State of Israel. She has also been considered one of Israel’s most cherished cultural ambassadors over the last fifty years. Most importantly, she was the only pianist who crossed the mark of two hundred performances with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Salzman was born in Tel Aviv on February 24, 1922 to an accountant, Schmuel Salzman, and a kindergarten teacher, Lea Salzman (née Kostelanetz), who owned a piano at a time when pianos in Palestine were very rare. She began playing “as soon as [she] learned to walk” and studied with Pnina (Lina) Hopenko at the Shulamit Conservatory in Tel Aviv. In 1929, during his tour in Palestine, the world-renowned French pianist Alfred Cortot (1877–1962) heard her playing at the conservatory and invited the child prodigy to study with him at the Paris École Normale de Musique, which he chaired at the time—an unprecedented case, as she was the only child he taught. Her mother and brother accompanied her move to Paris, under the patronage of the Baron Édouard de Rothschild (1868–1949, father of Bethsabée), in September 1931, when she was nine years old. During the long summer months, she also studied there with Wanda Landowska (1897–1959) and Lazare-Lévy (1882–1964). Moreover, with her mother assertively navigating her early career, she received lessons from many other well known Parisian and visiting pianists, among them a session with Artur Schnabel (1882–1951). She graduated from the École Normale in June 1935 as a student of Cortot. Her graduation recital, entitled Concert des Licenciés, provided her with the diploma and credentials to teach and perform at the age of thirteen. That year she began her studies in the Paris Conservatory with Magda Tagliaferro, and between 1935 and 1937 she also studied with Arthur Rubinstein (1887–1982)—an act she had to keep secret from Tagliaferro, her official teacher during the Conservatory years. In June 1938 Salzman won the Premier Prix de Piano at the annual competition of the Conservatory.
On her return to Palestine in 1939 Salzman was invited to perform with the Palestine Orchestra (PO, after 1948 Israel Philharmonic Orchestra), following a warm recommendation by its founder, Bronislaw Huberman (1882–1947). (In that concert, as in previous concerts in Paris, her name appeared in its French spelling, Zaltzman.) At her debut with the PO on August 2, 1939 she played three piano concerti: Liszt’s E flat major (no. 1), and Chopin’s E minor and F minor (op. 11 and 21)—an astounding feat which she would repeat during her career. During World War II, she regularly performed, as did the PO, in Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine; she also gave recitals in South Africa (1944) and Australia (1945). During a six-month period in 1944, for example, her concert tours included sixty-five solo and orchestral appearances, for which she gained outstanding reviews:
Only once more in my life has a young artist inspired me to such an exultant enthusiasm: Yehudi Menuhin. … Thus Pnina Salzman. … I have to say it after all: Pnina Salzman must be declared a pianistic genius. She can already today be counted as one of the five greatest pianists of our time, and surely as the very best, the most perfect, the most sincere, the profoundest, and most dexterous (technically) and the most clever (intellectually) of all living female pianists.
Thus wrote Cornet di Falsetto (presumably a pseudonym) in the Johannesburg Trek, March 21, 1944, after hearing her fourth concert there. A year later, the well-known British critic Neville Cardus, who followed her career in Sydney and later in London, wrote: “The future of this gifted artist must be jealously watched. She must never be allowed to become a routine performer to uncritical audiences. But I fancy an innate sensibility and vitality of musical mind and feeling will preserve her from all that.” (The Sydney Morning Herald, June 1, 1945.)
The year 1947 marked her marriage to Igal Weissman; her only daughter, Yaira, was born in 1953. (Yaira was named after Salzman’s brother, Yair, a distinguished violinist who returned from his studies in Paris to fight in the War of Independence and was killed in 1948.)
Salzman made her New York debut in 1960 under the conductor Carlo Maria Giulini, as the chosen soloist of an eighty-day world tour of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra that also went through France, Canada and Japan. In 1963 she had the honor of being the first Israeli pianist to perform publicly in the Soviet Union.
Salzman also found fame in Israel as a distinguished piano teacher. Since 1969 she has taught at the Samuel Rubin Academy of Music at Tel Aviv University, where she became a professor and chair of the piano department. In the last few decades (following an arguably dubious change in policy of the IPO which, since the 1950s, has invited almost exclusively internationally known soloists and relied far less on local artists) she has been active in the field of chamber music, playing with some of the most distinguished Israeli performers. In 1940, she joined her first chamber group, the Bergman-Salzman trio (with Rudolph Bergman, violin, and Theo Salzman [not a relative], cello). In the 1960s, she joined a trio with Yona Ettlinger, clarinet, and Uzi Wiesel, cello. She also frequently performed with the Tel Aviv Quartet, which in 1994 was invited for a concert in China—the first time that Israeli musicians appeared in that country. The two trios and the quintet were widely considered Israel’s top chamber ensembles.
Following more than sixty years of concert appearances, she performed chamber music at the Chamber Music Festival of the Upper Galilee at Kefar Blum in July 2003. In August of that year, she taught at the Tel Hai International Summer Piano Course—as she frequently did throughout her life, At present, in early 2005, she still maintains a busy schedule of teaching and performing. Salzman has served on the jury of some fifteen of the most prestigious piano competitions. She has been on the jury of the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition since its first event in 1974; she has also been appointed to fulfill that role in the 2005 competition. Other such competitions are the Clara Haskil International Piano Competitions (2001 and 2003), those in Santander and “Iturbi” in Valencia (Spain); Leeds (England); Seoul; Dublin; Munich and Dortmund (Germany); Beijing; Sydney; Pretoria; “Marguerite Long” (Paris); and the Tchaikovsky Competition (Moscow). Among her awards were the Frank Pelleg Prize in 1999, the Honorary Citizen Award (Yakir Tel Aviv) of the Tel Aviv Municipality in 2000, and a special honorary mention from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 2003.
Salzman’s approach to interpretation of the classical canon was shaped, first and foremost, by Alfred Cortot. She belongs to a lost generation of performers who exhibited individuality of style, such as Cortot, Magda Tagliaferro, Artur Schnabel, Myra Hess, Vladimir Horowitz and Dinu Lipatti. She stresses the idea that the spirit and the caractère of a specific piece determine its interpretation; she believes that there is no single technique but rather many kinds of techniques and that each composer should be played with a “different hand”: a horizontal approach for Beethoven, wrist work and vertical motion for romantic composers, and half staccato for Scarlatti or Bach. The caractère can be achieved by depicting an image behind the notes through words, which became crucial in the master-classes she gave internationally. Commenting on Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata, for instance, Salzman said (in 1995): “I do not play the ‘Waldstein’; I play the Aurora (sunrise).” On the second movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in G major she contends: “I am now convinced that it is actually lonely and lost instead of crying.” And on the second phrase in the adagio of Chopin’s Fantasie she notes: “Now I have to go to heaven.” (Meir, 140ff.)
By placing her music above career considerations and insisting on living in Israel only, Salzman has not gained the international recognition that she has truly deserved, to judge by reviews from many critics such as the aforementioned Johannesburg one. Neither has she issued many commercial recordings on LPs or CDs, mainly because of limited opportunities for recordings in Israel. Following two early RCA and CBS vinyl recordings, the first international CD recordings of her music were issued in 2003 in the United States: these were two CDs of Legendary Treasures, a series of masters of the past. In Legendary Treasures she was finally placed among performers such as Jascha Heifetz, Sviatoslav Richter and Yehudi Menuhin. (She was not mentioned, however, by Nathan Dunevich in his 500-page book on the major world-renowned pianists of the twentieth century [the only such book published in Hebrew, in 2000]—which says no less about local reception and Dunevich’s—and our—cultural inferiority complex than about Salzman). A solo CD that she recorded in 1992–1993 (issued in 1996, commissioned by Israel Music Institute) included a superb performance of some of the best Israeli piano pieces. For this debut CD, Salzman chose pieces by Joachim Stutschewsky (1891–1982), Menahem Avidom (1908–1995), Paul Ben-Haim (1897–1984), Mordecai Seter (1916–1994), Yehezkel Braun (b. 1922) and Tzvi Avni (b. 1927).
Salzman contributed to the Israeli classical music scene not only through setting high standards in her performances, but also through local premières of pieces such as the Concerto by Aram Khachaturian and César Franck’s Variations Symphonique. She also enriched the local music scene with her premières of Israeli composers, who wrote for her knowing that their work would receive superb interpretation. She premiered the Capriccio Op. 60 (with the IPO, 1960) and widely performed the Concerto for Piano Op. 41 by Ben-Haim—“a composer who has the sense of beauty, love, and poetry,” noted Salzman. She also premiered the Piano Concerto No. 1 op. 201 by Marc Lavry (1903–1967). Mordecai Seter dedicated to her two of his works, which she also premiered: Monodrama (for clarinet and piano, 1970) and Soliloquio (piano, 1972). Their appreciation was mutual, initiated at the time when Seter helped her with her French and with her harmony homework that they both shared in Georges Dandelot’s class in Paris in the mid-1930s. Salzman: “Seter reaches the great truth, pure spirituality. His music has no body, only soul and thought. I played all of his chamber music with piano; it was hard, musically, not technically, but most rewarding” (interview with the author, August 2000).
The Israel Broadcasting Authority holds over 130 recordings of Salzman’s live concerts. Playing for a relatively small audience like that in Israel caused her to constantly broaden her repertoire. She played many chamber music pieces and over forty concerti—an uncommonly large number compared with that of other performing pianists, who usually focus on a smaller number of pieces which they then recycle for concerts of large audiences. As an artist who lives for her art, this purely artistic achievement was more important to her than international fame. As if following Cardus’s prophecy, she indeed has never “become a routine performer to uncritical audiences”; by consistently expanding her repertory, Salzman achieved artistic heights usually denied to international stars who were compelled to repeat favorites.
Unlike other locally-educated musicians such as Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zuckerman and Daniel Barenboim, Salzman, a devout Zionist, early in her life made the decision not to leave Israel for any career reason that required her to live elsewhere. In an interview in May 2003, she said:
If you live in Israel, give all you can, ask for little, and expect nothing. This is my rule. And I am fully content with this attitude. It is hard to play here. Unlike former Israelis who came back to play in Heikhal ha-Tarbut [the concert hall of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv] at times of war and were received as heroes with ample media coverage—I gave concerts in the front lines. The few weeks just before the Six Day War in 1967 were awful. My husband was in the military, in El-Arish; my young daughter at home, alone at night. “In case the siren goes off, just go to the shelter,” I told her. And I went to the Galilee, to the Syrian front line to play there for soldiers [perhaps in memory of her beloved fallen brother]. My reward was a box of fruit from one of the kibbutzim in the north—which was more important for me than all of the reviews in the world. Such are my inner ethics and values.”
Pnina Salzman [plays] Brahms Trio Op. 114, Sonatas Op. 120. DOREMI, DHR 7830, 2003.
This CD, with top Israeli performers Yona Ettlinger, clarinet, and Uzi Wiesel, cello, was recorded in Jerusalem, April 1975. A part of the Legendary Treasures, a series of re-issues of old masters. www.doremi.com
Pnina Salzman. DOREMI, DHR 7828/9, in two volumes, 2003.
This CD includes a selection of her solo performances with orchestra between 1960 and 1985. The conductors are Carlo Maria Giulini, Anatole Fistoulari, David Shallon, and Mendi Rodan. She plays three Mozart concerti (K. 456, 491, 478), works by Scarlatti, Franck, Khachaturian, and the Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra by Paul Ben-Haim.
Pnina Salzman Plays Mediterranean Piano Music. Music in Israel, Helicon, MII-CD–19, 1996.
The CD includes notes on the pieces and the pianist, edited by Yuval Shaked. Produced by Paul Landau, with collaboration of Israel Music Institute, Tel Aviv.
Johannes Brahms. Sonates pour Clarinette et Piano. Yona Ettlinger and Pnina Salzman, RCA FRL 10131. LP phonograph record.
Pnina Salzman: My Favourite Encores. CBS S-72960. LP phonograph recording of Chopin, De Falla, Liszt, and Schumann.
Pnina Salzman. “Pnina Salzman as a Student of Alfred Cortot.” Interview by David Chen, Israel Broadcast Authority, item no. 21768, 1973.
Pnina Salzman died on December 16, 2006.
Meir, Baruch Ishay. Pnina Salzman: Her Career and Interpretive Art. Doctoral Dissertation (DMA), Arizona State University, 2000.
The only extensive work on Salzman, this thesis includes wealth of archival information, interviews, and discussions on Salzman’s view of interpretation of pieces by Schumann, Chopin, Debussy, Ravel, Mozart and others. Also includes an extensive list of concert reviews.
Lev, Tomer. The Samuel Rubin Israel Academy of Music, The First Fifty Years: Studies in the History of Higher Music Education in Israel 1945–1995 (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1998.
Elias, William Y. “Salzman, Pnina.” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie, vol. 16, 445. London, New York: 1980.
Cardus, Neville. Full Score. London: 1970.
Cardus, a well-known British music critic, wrote several critiques about her in Australia, where he lived for a few years, and in London. He also referred to her several times in this book.
Salzman, Pnina. “My Tour in the USSR” (Hebrew). Yedi’ot Aharonot (Tel Aviv), December 20, 1963, December 28, 1963, January 3, 1964.
Interviews by Ronit Seter of Pnina Salzman in August 2001, March 2003, and January 2004.
Pnina Salzman died on December 16, 2006.