IN REMEMBRANCE OF NICOLAS ECONOMOU
Eighteen years ago the Munich college of music experienced an
unforgettable performance: the stage was empty, apart from an open
grand piano: a cleaning lady appeared: going up to the piano she
began to try out the keys with inquisitive fingers, and started to
dust them. Her dusting gradually began to produce music. With the
duster still on the keys the old lady played and her notes became
increasingly recognizable as the ‘Ballet of the Chicks in their
Shells’ from Mussorgsky's ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’: after a truly
frenzied show of virtuosity the old lady gave as her grand finale a
rendering of the fivefold fortissimo in the ‘Great Gate at Kiev’.
The pianist in question was a certain Nicolas Economou. The
performance which he gave in fancy-dress at this concert at the
‘College of Music’ during ‘Fasching’ or carnival time combined both
a maximum of virtuosity and a tremendous sense of fun.
Completely taken aback by this event, Dietmar Polaczek, the music
critic made the following comment in the "Süddeutsche Zeitung": "The
joke made by Nicolas Economou was on two levels: Economou is, I
gather, a young pianist who apparently turned up only recently in
Munich: I do not even know whether his name is a pseudonym, but what
l do know is that his dexterity is phenomenal and his musicality and
intelligence quite exceptional".
This performance was typical by Economou in many ways: he was a
highly talented piano virtuoso, an inspired musical entertainer and
someone who, nevertheless, never really wanted to take on a popular
role in the music industry. Economou was born in Nicosia, Cyprus in
1953 and experienced - or rather suffered - the career of an infant
prodigy. He took up piano studies at the age of 5 with George
Arvanitakis. Then, like so many other talented artists from
Aphrodite’s island, such as pop musician Cat Stevens or the pianist
Cyprien Katsaris, for example, he too felt the urge to widen his
sphere of activity beyond that of an insular existence. The wonder
boy's first move was to Athens, coinciding with the first prize in
the 1964 ‘Pan-Hellenic Piano Competition’. In 1965 he won the highly
sought-after scholarship granted by the Russian government enabling
him to study at the Moscow Conservatory after a preparatory period
at the ‘Central School in Moscow’. The next seven years were spent
in Moscow under the tutelage of Nina Emilianova and Rima Hananina.
The formative influence of this period of his life was unmatched by
any other. He spoke Russian without any trace of an accent and
Russian music was his greatest passion. All those who have had
occasion to hear him interpret Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov,
Prokofiev or Scriabin will have recognized his deep understanding of
the Russian soul and his ability to profound melancholy of ‘Autumn’
in Tchaikovsky's suite ‘The Seasons’.
(First musical excerpt: Autumn’ by Tchaikovsky)
Similarly, he was able to summer up with religious images from
orthodox liturgy, arousing the awesomeness of eternity in the ‘Catacombae’,
or transforming the frenzied ‘Ride of the Witch Baba Yaga’ into the
embodiment of speed and allowing the entire wealth and majesty of
the ancient Russian Empire to unfold in the image of the ‘Great gate
at Kiev’ - never before had this piece been heard in an
interpretation as ‘Russian’ or as orchestral.
(Second musical excerpt: ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ by Mussorgsky
from ‘Catacombae’ to ’the Great Gate')
Economou left Russia in 1973 and turned up in Germany and England.
He never adequately explained his sudden departure from his beloved
Moscow. Certain remarks would imply that he was severely
disappointed by the outcome of the ‘Tchaikovsky Competition’: his
prospects of winning were probably reduced by his Cypriot origins,
although in terms of the actual level of musical proficiency
attained, he in fact stood far better in his chances of winning.
One of his earliest performances in Germany was given in the spring
of 1973 in Cologne. This was a sensational appearance reported on by
the "Kölner Stadtanzeiger" as follows:
,,Economou's stupendously polished technique is never an
eye-catcher, but a starting point combining both spiritual and
musical perception of the texture, it is the mark of a practice
method which has no parallel in Europe. His touch delicately
articulated the sombre yet sweet melancholy of Tchaikovsky, and
transformed the superficial artistry of Prokofiev's ‘Preludes’ into
new depths of meaning: he characterized each individual scene in
Mussorgsky's ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ with a touch that
corresponded unfailingly in the mood and expression. When he came to
the end of the suite, finishing with a dramatic and highly powerful
rendering of ‘The great Gate at Kiev’, the audience broke out in a
storm of applause that barely subsided after several encores.”
Economou's performance at the 1974 ‘English Bach Festival’ even
motivated Andrew Porter, the dreaded music critic of the ‘Financial
Times’, to write the following words in his praise, generous indeed
by British standards:
"He is an accomplished performer. No slips, no faltering or
hesitation. Nor does he thump the keys; his playing has range,
richness and even."
Friendship was important to Nicolas Economou. One of his friends in
Germany was the British diplomat Mike Reynolds and his wife who
lived in Düsseldorf. Economou began work on a song cycle with
Reynolds as songwriter, to which he was to return in later life.
Economou then came to Munich on a DAAD scholarship. At the college
of music he studied piano with Ludwig Hoffmann and composition with
William Killmayer. Although there was an atmosphere of mutual
respect Economou was actually reluctant to return to the student
role. The dry practice routines of Hoffmann's young female students
from Japan were too far removed from Economou's passionate,
overpowering emotional temperament as a musician; equally there was
a vast distance between Killmeyer’s approach to contemporary German
music and Nicolas’ own personal exploration of Russia and Byzantine
traditions, which had only just begun.
Economou took no part in the musical life of Munich, he set about
creating his own by holding a form of musical salon, together with
his new American-Greek wife Maritsa. The first of these meetings
were held in their extremely unassuming flat in the
Schlotthauer-Strasse in the Au, a part of town in which Karl
Valentin had also lived. Later on they moved to a spacious flat in
the Lindwurm-Strasse near Sendlinger-Tor-Platz. At that time I
myself became one of Economou's closes friends, after our first
meeting at a private concert in Rome. Other close friends were the
journalist and feature writer Gottfried Knapp, Andreas Elsner,
expert on the history of music and Ulrike and Klaus Voswinckel,
author and film-maker. Other close friends were those from the
Bayerischer Rundfunk and members of the large Furtwangler family.
Later on the Circle of friends expanded to include Margarethe von
Trotta and Volker Schlöndorff from the film industry, and the writer
and producer Philipp Kreuzer, to name a few. Through Maximilian
Schell Economou then gained the close friendship of Friedrich
Dürrenmatt and collaborated with him on a project for setting the
‘Minotaur’ to music. Due to Dürrenmatts death this project never
came to fruition.
It was at Furtwanglers that Economou was also first introduced to
Joachim Kaiser, who as piano connoisseur enjoyed the absolute
position of a ‘Pontifex Maximus’. The story goes that when Kaiser
heard Economou producing a perfect Bach fugue, and a Mozart,
Beethoven, Brahms and Prokofiev sonata without the slightest
hesitation from a casual tune he leapt out of his seat and embraced
(Third musical excerpt fictitious Mozart sonata by Economou.
Taken from a music quiz broadcast by Gerhard Haffner)
Kaiser however was never entirely satisfied with Economou's public
performance at any of the concerts he gave in Munich, although he
certainly judged Economou by higher standards that most other
Economou's debut in the ‘Herkulessaal’ of the ‘Munich Residenz’ in
1974 was organized for him by friends, and the event was clearly so
well managed that Karl Schumann, the music critic, made the
following sarcastic comments in the ‘Süddeutsche Zeitung’ under the
headline: "A fresh wind from Cyprus":
"The latest trend is for pianists to begin with a crowd of devoted
followers. Before even one note is played, the fans are there. In
the case of the 23 year-old Cypriot pianist Nicolas Economou, making
his debut in the Herkulessaal, Public Relations did a thorough job -
plainly speaking; making a big noise is part of the business. They
didn't leave out anybody in their campaign to publicize the return
of the 'Weltgeist’ for it's latest revelation on the shiny black
high-alter of the concert grand In restrained pieces Economou
overwhelmed, revealing himself as a highly lyrical pianist bordering
on sentimentality. Thus Scrjabin's ‘Preludes’, Schumann's
‘Arabesque’ and a Tchaikovsky encore were punctuated by loud cheers,
hearty applause, more encores. Economou, who moved to Munich
recently, has announced that he will be performing a Beethoven next
spring. Even at this stage interest is guaranteed"
The Beethoven concert quoted by Schumann which Economou later gave
was completely out of line with conventional programs. He performed
both bagatelle cycles with a serenity of conception and
philosophical absorption that demonstrated clearly the high level of
perfection he had already reached at the age of only twenty-three.
(Fourth musical excerpt Beethoven ‘Bagatelles’: the last 2 from the
His deep sense of the tragic might well have been something to fear,
if Economou not had another side of his nature, namely that of the
irrepressible musical entertainer: another - far more powerful -
Victor Borge. Economou was able to send every guest in the pub into
raptures within seconds, whether playing the piano or singing. The
songs he sang were compositions of his own in Greek, Beatles songs
in English and Russian folk songs. The place to which he preferred
to go for these delightful evenings amongst friends was Vassili's
Greek Tavern in the Au.
Munich had therefore become Economou's domain. He gave solo recitals
in all the ‘Konzerthaus’, founded his own ‘Soloists-ensemble’ and
took the group on tour, performing in concert halls or circus tents.
In 1979 Economou was presented with the celebrated ‘Sponsor's award
for interpreting arts’ by the Bavarian capital Munich. (The
‘Förderpreis der Landeshauptstadt München fur Interpretierende Kunst’).
Concert performances by Economou were by no means numerous, but
always sensational, as in London's Queen Elizabeth Hall. This
concert received outstanding reviews by the critics. One of piano
music's great moments occurred at a concert in the ‘Goldener Saal’.
(Fifth musical excerpt the ‘Mephisto’ waltz by Liszt, final part)
Economou was increasingly embittered by the fact that none of the
Munich Concert agencies wished to take him under contract, in spite
of the fact that he was an artist capable of such sensational
performances as these. He began to construct his own ideas, and was
one of the founders of the Munich Piano Festival. The idea was
preceded by Economou's momentous encounter with the jazz pianist
Chick Corea at the Loft studio in Haidausen. Both musicians
improvised with unrestrained energy on the borderline between
classical music and jazz. A short time later they appeared together
on the podium of the ‘Kongresshalle’ in the ‘Deutsches Museum’.
Their piano dialogue sowed the seeds of the first Munich
‘Klaviersommer’ which took place in 1982. Economou was initiator of
this event and the main protagonist. He played with Chick Corea,
persuaded Martha Argerich and her friends Nelson Freire and
Alexander Ravinovitch to perform and gave a recital with Martha
Argerich; Karlheinz and Renate Hein, who were the official
organizers succeeded in persuading Friedrich Gulda, the grand
seigneur of ‘borderless’ piano recitals, to give a concert as well.
A series of legendary concert performances followed, in varied
combinations - a summit conference and a form of fusion for the
piano-playing elite. Fortunately these concerts were recorded on
sound and screen and broadcast all over the world, under the laconic
titles ‘The Meeting’. On one unforgettable occasion Gulda, while
improvising a piece with Economou and Corea, suddenly sprang up in
ecstasy, calling out to the audience: "This is pure alchemy".
(Sixth musical excerpt: Chick Corea and Nicolas Economou, ‘On Two
This was the moment when the record industry moved in: at about this
time the Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft brought out a record
entitled 'On Two Pianos', which was based on a live recording of the
Munich 'Klaviersommer' with Corea and Economou. We have just heard
an excerpt from this recording. Deutsche Grammophon also brought out
a recording of Rachmaninov's 'Symphonic Dances' with Argerich and
Economou on two pianos, a documentation of their collaboration, and
a recording of Economou's brilliant transcription of Tchaikovsky's
'Nutcracker Suite' for two pianos.
(Seventh musical excerpt: Argerich Economou, 'The Nutcracker Suite')
The success of the 1982 Munich 'Klaviersommer' did not have a direct
follow-up for Economou. Although he took over Argerich's part when
she failed to appear in 1983 and had the courage to perform the
'Nutcracker Suite' on his own, there was no dispelling the
audience's disappointment at Argerich's absence.
Economou, who had brought together so many artists and friends in
the context of this festival, for example the composer and pianist
Rodion Shchredin and his wife Maya Plissetskaja the 'prima ballerina
assoluta' both who were from Moscow, retired from public life after
1986 and gave only one further recital in 1992, with Leonid Chichik.
Logically therefore, the 'Klaviersommer' gradually developed into a
jazz festival, there being no other way for the event, which was not
subsidized, to break even. However, it is all the more painful to
experience the symptomatic institutionalization of a cultural event
like this, when considering the fact that Baldur Bockhoff, the very
person who, from the beginning, witnessed with immense enthusiasm
the birth of this unusual model of cooperation, omitted in the 1991
program to mention Economou's key role in the creation of the 'Klaviersommer'
in his tribute on the occasion of it's 10th anniversary.
In the mid-eighties Economou turned more and more towards
composition. He wrote the score for Margarethe von Trotta's film
'Die bleierme Zeit', which won the ‘Golden Lion’ at the ‘Venice Film
Festival’, and a score for the film 'Rosa Luxemburg'. The score for
Maximillian Schell's film 'Marlene - a Portrait' was also composed
by Economou, who enjoyed playing duets with Schell.
Economou's versatility was virtually inexhaustible - whether as
concert pianist, composer, improviser, conductor, entertainer or
arranger - and for this, the commercial music industry had no use.
Economou was simply unmarketable.
This point was openly confirmed by one of Deutsche Grammophon's
leading figures in Hamburg. When it was time to decide whether
Nicolas Economou or Ivo Pogorelich should be given worldwide
promotion, it was Pogorelich who was chosen; not because he was a
better pianist, but because he had a readily marketable image as
dandy, popular with both sexes.
Deutsche Grammophon did, nevertheless, offer Economou a contract for
a solo CD. This production included the two pieces that had hitherto
accompanied him through life in a unique fashion. One was
Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition', and the other 'Kreisleriana'
by Robert Schumann, which had already lent its name to a 60-minute
television portrait of Economou broadcast by Bavarian television in
1982. Economou felt bond with the demented figure of the musician
Kreisler, a grotesque artistic failure of demonic character. The
text Economou wrote to accompany this CD illustrates his
understanding of German Romanticism. One of the most moving musical
moments he ever created is to be heard in his interpretation of this
piece, as we experience the unfolding of this great artistic epos,
and at the end, its dissolution into diffuse. In order to express
his gratitude to Economou for his interpretation of 'Kreisleriana'
Friedrich Dürrenmatt dedicated a drawing to him, showing the figures
of Economou and Kreisler as they merge into one.
(Eighth musical excerpt: Robert Schumann 'Kreisleriana'
From the late 1980's onwards Nicolas Economou spent a number of
years away from Munich, living mainly in Italy and France. He
visited Canada, Sweden and Japan on concert tours. At the same time
he worked on an opera entitled 'The Tower'; a piece which was
intended to give pop- and rock music the forms and musical gestures
of classical music. The piece, which is unfinished, contains a cycle
of melodies which are yet unknown, but have all the potential of
popular hits comparable with the tunes of the Beatles or musicals by
Andrew Lloyd Webber, in his best moments.
In 1992 Nicolas Economou was elected a member of the European
academy of Arts and Sciences in Salzburg. This was an honour which
gave him particular pleasure as, unlike most of us, he united many
different European identities within his own person - the Dionysian,
being a Cypriot, the Asiatic, being a Byzantine, the Orthodox and at
the same time the Revolutionary, being a Russian, and in addition,
that of an English speaking cosmopolitan, a German Romantic and, if
he was in a particular good mood, an easy-going Bavarian.
Very few people knew that Nicolas Economou was extremely widely read
in world literature. He read quantities of material every day and
enjoyed reading verses, for example poems by Kafavis, to his
friends. He worked regularly on a roman a clef. Only his publisher,
Klaus Piper, to whom he had entrusted the project confidentially,
will be able to disclose how far the work had progressed.
It was between Christmas and New Year last year, that Nicholas
Economou had a car accident, while returning at night to his
parent's house in Limassol from the music studio in Nicosia where he
was completing work on his opera 'The Tower' with his friend and
fellow composer Savvas Savva. He hit an obstacle while driving in
thick fog and was thrown from the car.
The obituary composed for Economou by his closest friends consists
of the final fading lines of music from 'Kreisleriana'; the only
obituary, which he received from the music world, came from Joachim
Kaiser, bearing the beautiful heading:
During one of the last serious discussions which I had with Nicolas
in Venice where he was organizing a new piano festival at the 'La
Fenice' opera with Martha Argerich, Nelson Freire and Afanassiev,
and his latest discovery, the Viennese pianist Ingeborg Baldasti, he
spoke above all of the music of Mozart as a superior divine
principle and of the dying Mozart as an individual burnt out after
wasting himself on the divine.
In the archives some of Economou's most magnificent interpretations
still lie dormant; these are the 1988 recordings of works by
Beethoven, Schumann and Mozart. In making treasures like these
available for the judgement of posterity, justice would be done to
an artist who frequently went unrecognized during his lifetime.
Let us end this reflection with an example taken from the same group
of unpublished recordings, a piece by Mozart.
(Ninth musical excerpt: Mozart tape, S.B., 2nd piece.)
Elmar Zorn, 1994