An enduring artist, Abbey Simon enjoyed a lengthy career as both concert pianist and teacher; although less well-known by the general public than more widely publicized performers, he made a strong showing on recordings, especially for the Vox label. He specialized in works of the Romantic and early 20th century periods, notably those by Chopin, Schumann, Rachmaninov, and Ravel. In addition to an active performing career, Simon distinguished himself as a pedagogue at several institutions and was the founder of a prestigious international piano competition.
Simon was born in New York on January 8, 1920. After private studies, he was awarded a scholarship to the Curtis Institute by the legendary pianist Josef Hofmann; he trained there from 1932 to 1940. Among his teachers were David Saperton (son-in-law of Leopold Godowsky), Harold Bauer (a pianist rooted in the Romantic tradition, but modern in his approach to questing after the essence of the printed score), and Dora Zaslavsky. In 1940, he won the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation Award, an honor that led to his New York recital debut at Town Hall. Simon played several Carnegie Hall recitals before undertaking his first European tour in 1949. There, as he put it, he "found himself" and initiated the process of refining his approach to the works he performed. Subsequent tours took him to many parts of the world, including South Africa, South America, Australia, and the Middle East.
A variety of honors followed, among them the National Orchestral Award, the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Award, and the Harriet Cohen Medal. Critics approved of his virtuosity and conscientious musicianship. The New York press routinely offered such comments as "Phenomenal! Control of near-miraculous order" and "One of the finest, most hypnotic virtuoso techniques of the day." Beginning in 1960, Simon held several academic posts and proved himself an effective and sensitive teacher. From 1960 to 1974, he was a faculty member at Indiana University, and then he held dual positions at Juilliard School of Music and the University of Houston, where he was a Cullen Distinguished Professor at the University's Moores School of Music. Simon established the International Piano Festival at the school, an event that offered recitals by prominent pianists, including Simon himself, master classes, and conversation lunches.
Simon's performances reflected, to a considerable degree, the balance between force and clarity learned under Bauer. While his was a generous, virtuosic technique, a thoughtful side kept in check any impulse toward excess or bombast. Reviewing Simon's all-Chopin Carnegie Hall recital in 1999, critic Allan Kozinn noted that the event served as a reminder that "there is also a coolly rational side to his pianism." An extensive discography, including such labels as EMI, Philips, and especially Vox, kept Simon's name before those of the public who may not have heard him in concert. The complete piano works of Ravel, complete recordings of works for piano and orchestra by Chopin and Rachmaninov, as well as numerous solo works by Schumann, Chopin, Saint-Saëns, Brahms, and Paganini. Simon died in Geneva on December 18, 2019.