Fou Ts'ong, Chinese-born pianist and interpreter of Chopin who made his name in the West – obituary

Fou Ts'ong on a visit to China in 2007 - Unioncom/VCG via Getty Images/Unioncom/VCG via Getty Images
Fou Ts'ong on a visit to China in 2007 - Unioncom/VCG via Getty Images/Unioncom/VCG via Getty Images

Fou Ts'ong, who has died from Covid-19 aged 86, was among the first Chinese-born pianists to achieve renown in the West, where he was known for his freshness of thought, spiritual interpretation and sensitivity of playing, notably in the music of Chopin; he also played cupid for the cellist Jacqueline du Pré and the pianist Daniel Barenboim, introducing them at a Christmas chamber music party at his home in December 1966.

British concertgoers found something exotic about this pianist who defected to London in 1958, though there was little in his playing to suggest that he was anything other than a product of the European musical tradition. His concerts drew large and appreciative audiences, while the critics praised his lightness of touch, fastidious attention to detail and acute ear for tonal balance.

Although the novelty of a Chinese pianist soon wore off, Fou remained unchanged. There was never any attempt to recapture the public imagination by indulging in cheap publicity stunts and his calling remained a higher one, to serve – some might say venerate – the music. He was a devotee of Alfred Cortot, the French pianist known for his long line and elegant phrasing. “Not that I have studied his method of playing or anything like that,” he told Gramophone magazine in 1979. “I simply admire the way he makes music.”

 Fou Ts'ong playing at a press reception in London in 1959 - Fred Ramage/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Fou Ts'ong playing at a press reception in London in 1959 - Fred Ramage/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Fou Ts’ong was born in Shanghai on March 10 1934, the son of Fu Lei, a translator on art and China’s foremost authority on French literature, and his wife Zhu Meifu, who Fou described as a “simple, traditional Chinese housewife”. His father had studied in France, concentrating on the works of Balzac, and on his return introduced his son to western classical music.

The youngster took to the piano, studying with Mario Paci, an Italian pianist and conductor who founded the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. He recalled how Paci insisted on placing coins on his hand, an obsolete Italian practice to ensure that he kept his wrists still. During the civil war (1945-49) the family lived in Kunming, during which time food was scarce and Fou never touched a piano.

Back in Shanghai at 17, Fou resumed his playing and in 1951 made his debut playing Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. Two years later was selected for a student competition in Bucharest, where he was placed third. He moved to Poland to continue his studies and in 1955 took part in the fifth Chopin competition in Warsaw, where he was nicknamed “Very, Very” because of the frequency with which he used those words. He again came third while also receiving the Polish Radio prize for his interpretation of Chopin’s mazurkas and a scholarship to study with Zbigniew Drzewiecki, whose teaching involved only hearing his students once a month to avoid influencing their individuality.

There were concerts in the eastern bloc, including a recital in Moscow with the violinist David Oistrakh, but Fou’s time in Communist Europe was running out. On Christmas Eve 1958 he flew from Warsaw to London saying that he “chose freedom” rather than returning to China, where “now intellectuals like everybody else are being asked to do manual work”. The following February he made his Royal Albert Hall debut with the London Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Gibson delivering a Mozart concerto before the interval and a Brahms one afterwards.

Fou Ts'ong recording Mozart's 'Concerto in E Flat Major for Two Pianos and Orchestra' in 1964 -  Erich Auerbach/Getty Images
Fou Ts'ong recording Mozart's 'Concerto in E Flat Major for Two Pianos and Orchestra' in 1964 - Erich Auerbach/Getty Images

That September he was heard at the Royal Festival Hall twice in one week, performing another Mozart concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in his first concert and delivering a recital of music by Chopin and Schubert in the second. Afterwards one critic commented that “his fleet fingerwork and beautifully soft-grained tone were a delight”.

Fou’s American debut was in 1960 with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and he also appeared with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. In Vancouver he was popular with concertgoers from the Chinese community, who flocked to his concerts in large numbers.

Yet back in China the Cultural Revolution was in full swing. In 1966 Fou’s parents, who were condemned as bourgeois, took their own lives rather than continue. “My anguish when I received the tragic news cannot be described,” he said. Since his departure for Poland almost a decade earlier they had written some 200 letters to their son, which were compiled in a powerful book published in 1981.

Record sleeve of Fou Ts'ong's interpretations of Chopin's Mazurkas
Record sleeve of Fou Ts'ong's interpretations of Chopin's Mazurkas

Having married Zamira Menuhin, daughter of the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, in 1960, Fou became a regular visitor to her father’s festival at Bath. In 1967 he covered for Jacqueline du Pré by giving a solo recital when, instead of their advertised joint recital, she played for Israeli troops involved in the Six-Day war. For some years the pair had a regular trio with the violinist Hugh Maguire, although after meeting Barenboim she sought them out less frequently.

Fou appeared at the First Night of the Proms in 1967 performing Grieg’s Piano Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Colin Davis. However, this somewhat shy pianist was uncomfortable playing under television lights in a crowded hall on a hot night and never returned to the Proms.

A slight figure who wore a beret and smoked a pipe, Fou did not visit China until 1979, after the Cultural Revolution had ended. Nevertheless, his affinity with Chinese art and culture remained undimmed, as it did after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. As the country embarked on economic reforms in the early 2000s, he made regular visits to perform and teach. His final appearance in Shanghai was for an 80th birthday concert in 2014 playing a Chopin programme.

Fou Ts'ong in 1970 - Archive Photos/Getty Images
Fou Ts'ong in 1970 - Archive Photos/Getty Images

Having survived the classical music competition circuit in his twenties, Fou became a regular juror although he saw such events as a necessary evil. “These competitions become like tennis tournaments,” he told The Independent. “You see the same players, professional competitors, all over the world. They might be brilliant at tossing off notes in a big showy piece. But give them a Mozart minuet and they’re sunk. They have technique but no imagination.”

There was an aura of old-world charm and courtesy about Fou, who would invite visitors to take tea in his gracious living room surrounded by books on eastern and western philosophy. Two grand pianos loomed, one at either end of the room. He was devoted to the Wigmore Hall, often joining the audience to encourage young artists. Only in the studio was he autocratic, refusing to allow anyone to touch his recordings. It stemmed, he said, from an experience of recording Chopin Nocturnes in which the magic of his performance had been lost during the editing up of some untidiness.

In the past three decades his recitals in Britain were rare events, not helped by tendinitis in both wrists for which he received treatment from a Chinese acupuncturist. One of his last appearances was at the Wigmore Hall in February 2004, playing music by Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, as well as Chopin’s “Funeral March” Sonata.

Fou Ts’ong’s marriage to Zamira Menuhin was dissolved in 1970 as was his second, from 1973 to 1976, to Hijong Hyun, the daughter of a South Korean diplomat. In 1987 he married the Chinese pianist Patsy Toh, who survives him with their son and a son from his first marriage.

Fou Ts’ong, born March 10 1934, died December 28 2020