Jakob Gimpel, Renowned L.A. Pianist, Dies at 82

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Times Staff Writer

Jakob Gimpel, an aristocratic pianist long considered one of Los Angeles’ most cherished cultural assets, died Sunday at his home in Westwood.

The veteran of hundreds of recitals around the world and a venerated academician who had retired a few years ago as Distinguished Professor in Residence at Cal State Northridge was 82.

His son, Peter, said he had suffered from arthritis and circulatory problems. His last recital was in 1987 at UCLA’s Royce Hall when he managed to complete a performance despite great shoulder pain.


Peter Gimpel said his father had suffered for years from arthritis “and continued to play very bravely.” He also had lost the sight in his right eye.

Gimpel was equally at home on the concert stage and in the classroom.

“Performing artists must have tenacity, endurance and courage,” he would tell his students. Often he would make that statement only hours after demonstrating those three qualities himself while seated at the piano in one of the many concert halls he had graced in a career that began in Vienna in 1923.

Born to musical parents and brother of the late violinist Bronislaw Gimpel, who in time was to become concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Jakob Gimpel began his piano studies at home.

He became proficient at an early age and by the time he was 8 “I was already playing in the pit of my grandfather’s theater,” he told The Times in a 1978 interview.

“I had my union card,” he said. “I played in a cabaret. Of a childhood, I had absolutely none. But all these experiences made me a better musician.”

He made his concert debut in 1923 and went on a highly successful tour performing as many as 80 concerts in a single country. Nearly all featured his Romantic specialties--Brahms, Beethoven and Chopin.


He and his wife, Mimi, came to the United States in 1938, and after recitals in New York, which he staged without help from major management, moved to Los Angeles.

He blamed the lack of that management for being typecast by the media as a “minor artist.”

“For years they sent only their second-string critics to review me. . . ,” he said.

In Los Angeles, Gimpel turned to film work to earn a living. He played with the MGM orchestra and with the exception of an occasional solo (Liszt’s E-Flat Concerto in the 1943 thriller “Above Suspicion”) labored in obscurity.

In 1949, he finally gained the recognition that had escaped him and was invited to participate in the New York segment of the Chopin centennial. After 11 years in this country he had attracted first-string reviewers. And they were favorable.

In 1954, he returned to concertize in Europe, particularly Germany. From then until his health began to fail, he was a regular in European concert halls.

Among his many honors was the Order of Merit, First Class, of the Federal Republic of Germany for his “great service as an interpreter of German Music” and “in recognition of his role in the resumption of German-American cultural relations after the war.”

Regardless of the piece he was performing, Gimpel came to be known for seeking out the individual characteristics of the composer, delineating each phrase as he imagined the composer would have wished, thus minimizing his own interpretations.


Through the 1960s and ‘70s he was heard more often in Europe than in his adopted city although his performances here, many of them at Ambassador Auditorium, were generally sold out.

He performed in the early 1940s at the Hollywood Bowl and in the late 1960s at the Music Center.

Gimpel’s career coincided with the end of the careers of several great pianists and he discharged his debt to them by mentioning them often in interviews.

Artur Schnabel was “the first pianist of substance to have a big career,” Gimpel said. Josef Hofmann “was a phenomenal technician but musically he had little to say.” Sergei Rachmaninoff was “dazzling. But he couldn’t play Beethoven.”

As recently as 1984, Gimpel was continuing to perform at the Ambassador, where a Times critic said his Brahms, Beethoven and Chopin recital “wrote whole chapters of human experience from mere notes.”

He also performed at Cal State Northridge, where his teachings drew from his own first trying days when he was without money and professional advice.


“Performing artists must have tenacity, endurance and courage. Theirs is the only career where you need publicity,” he would say.

“Huberman (Bronislaw Huberman, the violinist who was Gimpel’s mentor in the 1930s), used to say ‘We always compete with General Motors.’ ”

He is survived by his wife and son.