Moura Lympany (Mary Gertrude Johnstone), pianist, born August 18 1916; died March 28 2005
Moura Lympany, who has died aged 88, was one of the most distinguished and certainly one of the most popular British pianists of her generation. She used the name of her mother's family, which came from Devon and Cornwall, and could trace ancestors back to Edward I.
Mary Gertrude Johnstone, as she was described on her birth certificate, was always called Moura because of her mother's love of Russia, where she had taught English before marrying Captain John Johnstone, Moura's father.
Moura was first taught the piano by her mother, who seems to have decided her daughter's career at an early stage. She also set her on course for a cosmopolitan way of life by sending her to school in Belgium for four years, until an uncle thought she was becoming more Belgian than English.
When Moura was 12 she went to her first symphony concert, conducted by Basil Cameron; she pleaded to play with an orchestra, so her mother wrote to Cameron asking for an audition. As a result, Moura made her debut, in Harrogate the same year, as soloist in Mendelssohn's G minor Concerto. At about the same time she won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music (RAM), where she was awarded the Challen Gold Medal at the end of her third year.
Meanwhile, she had pursued her flourishing concert career as a prodigy. After the RAM, she went to Vienna for a year and was taught by Paul Weingarten. In 1933, she entered the first Liszt Competition in Budapest; Annie Fischer, who was two years older than Lympany, took first prize.
Lympany then won another scholarship to the RAM and resumed lessons with her old teacher Ambrose Corviello; after two terms she started private lessons with Mathilde Verne, a pupil of Clara Schumann. Verne laid the foundations of Lympany's lifelong regimen of practice, two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon, preferably taken in hour-long stretches separated by intervals.
When Verne died, Lympany went to Tobias Matthay, whose long list of distinguished pupils included Myra Hess, Harriet Cohen, Irene Scharrer, Clifford Curzon and Eileen Joyce. The last was Lympany's main rival as a female soloist in the popular Romantic concertos for many years, until Joyce returned to her native Australia.
In 1938 Lympany entered her second big competition, the Ysaˇe Piano Competition in Brussels; no one was more surprised than she was at winning second prize to Emil Gilels's first. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli came seventh.
Lympany became a major artist in the early years of the second world war. She was soon identified as a Russian specialist and she herself said that the concertos by Rachmaninov and Khachaturian really established her reputation. Walter Legge, who produced some of her early recordings, including Mendelssohn's G minor Concerto and Litolff's Scherzo, urged her to record Chopin's Fantasy and Debussy's Preludes, but it was years before she took up his suggestion. (An all-Debussy disc she recorded in 1993 became a bestseller.)
She was the first pianist to record Rachmaninov's complete Preludes, which she did a total of three times at various stages in her career, most recently in 1993.
In the 1950s, with a distinguished career already long established, Lympany decided she was tired of being pigeon-holed as a virtuoso and went for lessons to Eduard Steuermann, a pupil of Schoenberg, who had given the first performances of nearly all the composer's works involving the piano.
With Steuermann, Lympany studied Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto and Schoenberg's Six Little Piano Pieces, Opus 19, which she continued to play in recitals all her life.
Although she was known as a strong pianist, who could do full justice to both Brahms concertos and Rachmaninov's Third, she was also a very lyrical player who never forced her tone. Mathilde Verne and Tobias Matthay had taught her the importance of restrained and disciplined interpretations, as well as relaxation and beauty of sound.
Lympany said that she always sang the music in her head, and her playing sang, too. Her interpretations were unpretentious: warm and graceful, without any straining after effect; her recordings for EMI of Brahms's last three sets of piano pieces and of Schumann's Piano Concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Constantin Silvestri are classics, a corrective to the many pianists who try to squeeze so much out of the music that they distort its character.
Yet if Lympany's public appearances and recordings centred on well-loved Romantic repertoire, she had a sense of responsibility to her contemporaries and she played concertos by Richard Arnell, Benjamin Britten, John Ireland, Alan Rawsthorne and Malcolm Williamson.
Lympany regretted not playing more chamber music, but in the early 1980s she started her own small festival of food and wine (it also included dance) in the village of RasiguËres in the south of France, where she had bought a house and a vineyard. A few years later, in 1986, she started another summer festival, timed to follow RasiguËres, in the village of Guidel on the coast of Brittany.
Lympany lived in many places, including London and New York, and from the early 1980s she settled in Monte Carlo, while keeping her house in RasiguËres. Settled is perhaps the wrong word, for she had always been something of a nomad.
Her first marriage, to a man 32 years her senior, lasted only a few years. Her second, to an American television executive, was dissolved after 10 years. Their first baby was stillborn, then twins died at birth, and after a third pregnancy, their son was born, but he died after 35 hours.
Lympany also had two operations for breast cancer. After the second, she decided not on retirement, but a critical reassessment of her own playing; she took advice from the great Hungarian teacher Ilona Kabos, whom she compared to a psychiatrist, and she picked up her concert career with renewed zest, giving recitals and playing concertos from Los Angeles to Tokyo.
In 1989, the sixtieth anniversary of her debut gave a boost to her public profile, and shortly after her 73rd birthday, she gave a recital at the Royal Festival Hall, consisting of Chopin's 24 Preludes and B minor Sonata, which was a model of stylistic integrity; her playing was also accurate, effortless and polished.
Having been awarded a CBE in 1979, Moura Lympany was made a Dame in 1992. She was also a Commander of the Order of the Crown, Belgium, and a Chevalier, Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France. She published her autobiography in 1991.