Though born in Italy, Aldo Ciccolini owes his reputation to France. It was a joint win at the 1949 Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud competition in Paris that put the pianist on the map, and, as his countless recordings showed, he had a flair for French repertoire. He became a French citizen that same year and from 1970-89 taught at the Paris Conservatoire.
Born in 1925 in Naples, Ciccolini studied the piano with a pupil of Busoni, Paolo Denza. He also composed, taking lessons from Achille Longo, and he conducted his own oratorio Saint Catherine of Siena when he was just 15. Despite aristocractic roots, his family found itself in poverty after the Second World War and Ciccolini played the piano in bars to help support them.
After his competition win in 1949, Ciccolini remained in Paris and studied with Alfred Cortot and Marguerite Long. He developed a reputation as an interpreter of French music: not only the well-known works of Debussy and Ravel, but also Satie and Chabrier and less-familiar names such as Déodat de Sévérac and Alexis de Castillon. Yet he was also a great interpreter of the Austro-German greats such as Schubert and Mozart. Indeed, in his 85th year he recorded three Mozart Sonatas, saying ‘I understand Mozart now’.
Ciccolini’s career spanned more than 60 years. His recording of waltzes by an assortment of composers was released just last year, by La Dolce Volta. ‘Ciccolini produces playing so refined, beautiful and downright perfect that he could shame pianists half his age,’ wrote critic Jessica Duchen in BBC Music Magazine. ‘[It’s] mostly slowish, yet exquisitely honed and balanced.’
Ciccolini’s pupils included Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Artur Pizarro, Nicholas Angelich and Mark Bebbington, who fondly recalled his teacher’s exacting standards, brilliant understanding of colour and dynamics, and love of literature. ‘Imagination was everything to him. He always said that the most important sound was the sound he heard in his head before he actually created contact with the keyboard,’ writes Bebbington, ‘So lessons with him were almost philosophical in nature.’
In the video below Aldo Ciccolini performs Elgar‘s Salut d’Amour.