Edna Iles (1905-2003)

Edna Iles, pianist, was born in Kings Heath, Birmingham, on May 18, 1905.
She died in Solihull on January 29, 2003, aged 97

Edna Iles was one of a brilliant handful of British women pianists to achieve international renown before the Second World War. A player of phenomenal technical resource and prodigious memory, she was also a musician of profound integrity whose authoritative readings of 20th-century works earned her the admiration of composers such as Sir Arnold Bax, Ernest Bloch and Sir Malcolm Arnold.

As a gifted young player, she became at just 17 the first British pianist to perform Rachmaninov's fiendishly difficult Third Piano Concerto. But her most notable association was with the Russian composer Nicolas Medtner, who called her "the bravest and ablest besieger of my musical fortresses".

Private recordings made in the 1980s show that Iles took care to preserve much of her breathtaking refinement of technique into her eighties. Sadly, though, she was dogged by deteriorating health and showed little interest in music during her last years in a Solihull nursing home.

Edna Amy Iles was born in Birmingham and made her first appearance at the age of nine, as pianist and singer in a concert given in aid of the Belgian Relief Fund at the beginning of the First World War. Her professional debut came in February 1921, when at the age of 15 she performed the Liszt E flat Piano Concerto with the recently established City of Birmingham Orchestra (now the CBSO). A few months later she made a remarkable debut with a huge recital programme at the Wigmore Hall, the reviews praising the architectural strength of her playing. At around the same time she impressed the former music critic George Bernard Shaw, who heard her play at a private party in the Birmingham home of the theatre manager Sir Barry Jackson.

During the 1920s and 1930s Edna Iles rose to celebrity status as an international touring artist, playing as a concerto soloist under leading conductors including Willem Mengelberg, Sir Adrian Boult and Sir Thomas Beecham. She appeared as soloist all over Britain with the London Symphony Orchestra under Mengelberg in an international celebrity concert series alongside such legendary figures as Paderewski, the soprano Amelita Galli-Curci and the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler.

Recital tours took her to Paris, the Vienna Musikverein, Budapest, Oslo, Stockholm, Warsaw, Amsterdam and Berlin, where she achieved conspicuous public and critical success.

In 1928 Iles approached Nicolas Medtner. A Russian exile, he was a prolific composer and brilliant pianist, and a friend of Rachmaninov and Scriabin. She asked him to hear her play, and he obliged on his 1930 British tour. He expressed himself delighted and readily agreed to teach her. Edna Iles laced her recitals with increasingly strong doses of Medtner's music, and the composer perceived in the young British pianist an artistic integrity and breadth of vision which uncannily mirrored his own. Having settled in England in 1935, Medtner and his wife sought refuge from the London blitz at the Ileses' Warwickshire home, where they lived for two and a half years and where Medtner composed his Third Piano Concerto.

Medtner dedicated his Russian Round Dance for two pianos to Iles, and this they frequently played together at home. Medtner and Iles subsequently gave a private performance on two pianos of his Third Concerto at the home of the celebrated pianist Dame Myra Hess, with Dame Myra and the pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch acting as page-turners.

In 1946 Edna Iles appeared in three concerts at the Albert Hall, playing all three of Medtner's Piano Concertos with the London Symphony Orchestra. Her postwar activities included many broadcasts for the BBC and concerto performances with leading orchestras, not least at the Proms. She showed a burning commitment to Medtner's music and a strong interest in the works of living composers: she gave, for instance, the world premiere of the Variations, Nocturne and Finale on an English Sea Song by Alan Bush in 1958.

Iles' sense of mission on Medtner's behalf continued long after the composer's death in 1951 and extended to the writing of articles as well as frequent performances of her former master's piano works. She recorded her last recital for BBC Radio 3 in 1977 and in 1980 took part in a concert given to mark the centenary of Medtner's birth.

Her playing revealed a scrupulously honest and objective musical mind and a rigorous fidelity to the text. Her recorded readings of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Brahms are no less compelling than her Medtner performances. In 1955 the Swiss composer Ernest Bloch wrote to Iles after her performance of his Concerto Symphonique: "I was profoundly shaken by your extraordinary comprehension and realisation, as a musician and as a great pianist! My heart goes to you in full gratitude."

Similarly, Sir Malcolm Arnold paid tribute to her after her performance of his Variations on a Ukrainian Theme, which she recorded in 1957: "To take a new work like that, and play it like that, well, I don't know anyone else who could do it!"

Yet it is as a trailblazer for Medtner that Iles' most enduring legacy will lie. It is in no small measure testament to her zeal that his music is at last, after decades of neglect, being taken up with much greater frequency and that a host of commercial recordings of his piano music are beginning to appear.

Edna Iles never married.

Duncan Honeybourne

The Times, London, February 1st 2003