Jörg Demus, exponent of piano repertory's heart, dies at 90

Jörg Demus, an Austrian pianist widely respected for the refinement and expressivity of his playing, who made more than 350 recordings and accompanied major singers like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elly Ameling in song recitals and on classic recordings, died April 16 in Vienna. He was 90.

Jörg Demus, exponent of piano repertory's heart, dies at 90

Though many critics and music-lovers were won over by the sensitivity and vitality of Demus’ playing, others found him lacking the virtuosic technique and temperament deemed essential to a major touring career. Reviewing his New York recital debut at Town Hall in 1955 in The New York Times, Harold C. Schonberg described him as a “conscientious musician” and “certainly a well-qualified pianist.” But, he added, “it cannot be said that his interpretations gave any great indication of personality.”

Yet, the integrity and adaptability that Demus showed from his earliest years made him an ideal partner for singers, including Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Peter Schreier, and instrumentalists, including violinist Josef Suk.

Among Fischer-Dieskau’s seven commercial recordings of Schubert’s towering “Winterreise” song cycle, the one he made for Deutsche Grammophon in 1966 with Demus at the piano has risen steadily in critical estimation.

Reviewing a recital Fischer-Dieskau gave with Demus at Carnegie Hall in 1976, a program devoted to Hugo Wolf settings of Goethe poems, Andrew Porter of The New Yorker wrote that “one felt wrung, exhausted” after their “overwhelming performance” of Wolf’s “Prometheus.”

Demus also had a long, productive collaboration with his fellow Austrian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda, with whom he championed the four-hand and piano duo works of Mozart, Schubert and other composers, bringing much of this repertory to wider attention through concerts and popular recordings.

Throughout a seven-decade career, Demus also performed extensively as a soloist and, starting in his early 20s, made dozens of recordings of a vast, if traditional, repertory, especially Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, as well as complete surveys of the solo works of Schumann and Debussy.

Jörg Demus was born on Dec. 2, 1928, in St. Pölten, Austria. His father, Otto Demus, a prominent art historian, and his mother, a violinist, encouraged their son’s precocious talent. He began piano studies at 6 and at 11 entered the Vienna Music Academy, where in addition to piano he studied conducting and composition. He composed a considerable number of works written in a fairly conservative style.

At 14, in 1943, Jörg made his debut as a concert pianist at the intimate Brahms-Saal in the Musikverein concert hall in Vienna. After graduating in 1945, he took lessons in the early 1950s with French pianist Yves Nat in Paris and attended master classes of French-born German pianist Walter Gieseking at the Saarbrucken Conservatory in Germany. In 1956, the bicentennial year of Mozart’s birth, Demus won the prestigious Busoni International Piano Competition in Bolzano, Italy.

It was as a performer of the Viennese Classical repertory and the works of Schumann that Demus gained increasing attention as he played in Vienna and other European cities. American critics, too, warmed to the self-effacing beauties of Demus’ artistry.

Reviewing the pianist’s performance at a Mostly Mozart Festival concert in New York in 1974, where he played solo works of Mozart and Schumann as well as Mozart’s Concerto No. 21 in C (K. 467), John Rockwell of The New York Times praised his “calm mastery” of the repertory, adding that he had “the secret of bending and shaping the music in a way that fills it with recreative character, yet always sounds true to the composer’s intentions.”

Demus was a pioneer in the period instrument movement, playing and recording on fortepianos and pianos of the early 19th century. He acquired a large personal collection of historic instruments, which he maintained at his own museum until the collection was sold in 2004.

Demus was an active teacher mostly based in Vienna.

Complete information on his survivors was not immediately available.

In a 2015 interview, Demus challenged the very notion of a career. “I do not have a career,” he said. “I’m a person who had a life to live. I am leaving ‘careers’ to other people. A career is like a racetrack for horses — I’m neither a horse nor am I running on a racetrack.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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