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Right at the end of this thoughtful and illuminating documentary, we hear the voice of Charlie Chaplin, friend and neighbour of the subject of this film. ‘I have known three geniuses in my life,’ he says. ‘One is Winston Churchill. Another is Albert Einstein. The other is Clara Haskil.’ It is quite a claim, even if made by someone who himself was a genius.

An immense amount of time and thought has gone into this project – and it shows in every aspect of its presentation. Its stated aim is to ask what makes a musician a great interpreter (the film’s title is oddly translated as: ‘The Performer’s Enigma’). During the course of the film and a supplementary DVD of bonus material, this question is addressed by many of the contributors. But really it is a chronological account of Clara Haskil’s career told through her own words (using her diaries and letters) and those who knew her. Co-directors Pierre-Olivier François, Prune Jaillet and the late Pascal Cling have assembled an enormous amount of visual material to tell the story, working with one disadvantage: there is no known film of their subject playing the piano (there is but one known recording of her speaking, which we shall come to later). For a musician of her eminence, this is quite extraordinary, yet the more we hear of her life and personality, the less surprising the omission becomes.

Haskil has achieved legendary status among her peers. She merited two volumes (four CDs) in Philips’ multi-label monumental Great Pianists of the 20th Century series and contributors to the film take delight in describing her unique gifts – the light touch, fabulous tone, exceptionally fluent technique, taste, intelligence and profundity. All regret that they were not recognised fully until late in her life. In reality, Clara Haskil tasted real success for little more than 10 years.

She was born in Bucharest in 1899. A child prodigy, she had her first lessons when she was three and made her public debut aged eight playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major K488 accompanied by a second piano. Lessons with Cortot, Lazare Lévy and Madame Giraud-Letarse followed in Paris, culminating in the premier prix from the Conservatoire aged 15. But her career never really took off, not helped by the scoliosis which led to her spending the entire period of the First World War in isolation. Throughout the 30s, when in some years she played fewer than a dozen concerts, she was supported financially by wealthy patrons, especially the Princesse de Polignac who, as the DVD’s booklet has it, ‘welcomed her to her brilliant musical soirées… While her talent was admired in this milieu, [Haskil] remained a pianist for the happy few, unrecognised by the larger public, and neglected by concert organisers.’

Haskil’s career difficulties, we learn, were partly of her own making. Reserved and shy, she suffered from stage fright, ‘exaggerated self-criticism’ and ‘ferocious self-doubt’, sometimes fleeing the concert hall to avoid speaking to anyone after recitals at which she felt she had not played well. She discouraged agents from representing her by refusing to accept commercial terms. Yet, when you hear any of her 33 studio recordings, whether it be in her adored Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven and Schumann, there is a special quality that not only bewitches but is completely emotionally involving.

Her memory is perpetuated by the Concours International de Piano Clara Haskil, founded in 1963 which takes place every two years in Vevey, Haskil’s home on Lake Geneva after 1942. Footage from the 2015 competition provides a framework for the film (unfortunately, this was one year in which no first prize was awarded, a somewhat deflating moment when announced.)

The DVD has a cornucopia of bonus film material including archive interviews with Haskil’s sister and Nikita Magaloff, Martha Argerich talking about Haskil in an informal post-concert interview, and with the two ladies responsible for the plaque at Brussel’s train station marking the spot where she met her end, falling down a flight of stairs in December 1960.

But there is more. A separate CD contains seven valuable unpublished Haskil performances: Chopin’s F minor concerto with Giulini from 1960, and a Columbia test pressing of Liszt’s Gnomenreigen. Most unexpected of all, an historic document unearthed by Chaplin’s son Eugène: Kinderszenen (minus no 3 ‘Haschemann’), Daquin’s Le coucou, two Scarlatti sonatas and the largo movement from Beethoven’s Sonata op 10/3 recorded in 1953 by Charlie Chaplin on a reel-to-reel recorder in his home. He sets up the microphone as Clara settles at the piano. ‘Will it hear my voice now?’ she asks.

Nearly 60 years after Haskil’s death, this release comes as a properly considered and loving celebration of a great artist.

JEREMY NICHOLAS Read the full review on Agora Classica

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