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Erzsébet Szőnyi, who celebrated her 90th birthday in 2014, is a Hungarian pianist, educator and composer known to English readers for her Musical Reading and Writing series of pedagogical workbooks, Sergei Rachmaninoff: His Life and Music and Kodály’s Principles in Practice. Szőnyi is a former protégée of Kodály, who was himself deeply involved with child development through music. This biographical tribute implies that such concerns may derive from one’s own earliest memories of piano-related experiences. Szőnyi recalls that her mother and grandmother played the piano ‘very well’, with the former often running through Grieg’s Papillon Op 43 No 1: ‘Still today I have the sound of my mother’s piano playing in my ear.’ Szőnyi took her first lessons on the family’s Bösendorfer grand: ‘I still have this piano with me today because I felt it was part of my body and I could not get along without it.’ At 13, she began composing works for the piano and continued until recently, although her Piano Pieces for Children on Spanish Folksongs (1986), Jerusalem Pictures for two pianos (1988, available on Hungaroton HCD 3246) and Piano Quintet (1999) are rarely performed. Carrying on through the Second World War, she distracted herself from the bombing of Budapest by improvising fugues on Bach Inventions. Still passing along her knowledge and insights, Szőnyi has remained silent about the recent rise of fascism, anti-Semitism and concomitant evils in her homeland, although well-practiced discretion during Communist regimes may have taught her a key survival strategy.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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