The century-old Steinway piano waits, the house in silence. No one plays in the Pikesville home.

Robert Fiscella always invited young musicians to come and play the grand piano. There was always someone to tell about his late friend Agi Jambor.

She would not have wanted her piano to sit in his living room like a piece of art. To her, the music mattered more than the stage. She played in Carnegie Hall and West Baltimore rowhouses. She played — cold and battered, but alive — when Allied soldiers broke the occupation of Budapest. Starved, she played.

The last young concert pianist stopped visiting Fiscella in Pikesville more than a year ago. She moved away, and silence settled about the house. Last month, he posted an invitation online.

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“Although I love music, I don’t play, and my Steinway is silent. … If by chance anyone knows of a good pianist who would like to come over to practice or play, or even do a nice soiree with guests, please let me know. I am only interested in classical music. No jazz, no pop, no ragtime, God forbid.”

Maybe there’s magic to the beautiful black Steinway. There was to Agi Jambor, anyway.

Undated photo of Agi Jambor performing.
Undated photo of Agi Jambor performing. (Handout)

Her life was a journey from the greatest teachers of 1930s Berlin to the dance studios of Paris and the Budapest underground during the Nazi occupation. She survived to achieve a recording career in America, only to fade into obscurity and shut away the world like a hermit.

Picture her rediscovered in the end, a woman who played duets with Albert Einstein and married a Hollywood star, giving house concerts in 1990s Baltimore. Her reputation shadowed by a question:

Why did one of the world’s preeminent Bach pianists give up the stage?

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‘Lost to posterity’

The Berkeley, California, concert pianist Sarah Cahill was browsing a catalog of women composers a few years ago when she came upon an unfamiliar name.

The description of Jambor was brief, but intriguing: a child prodigy who played Mozart before she could read, a World War II refugee and U.S. college instructor, one of the world’s foremost interpreters of Bach.

Jambor recorded at least five classical albums for Capitol Records in the 1950s. YouTube offers some of her Bach recordings.

“It’s incredible, so clear and fresh and surprising,” Cahill said. “Nowadays, there’s this kind of cookie-cutter feeling by contemporary artists, where everything has to be note-perfect and polished and sterilized. But Agi Jambor came from this time when each pianist sounded very original, and it wasn’t a matter of getting everything right; it was more about the larger picture. So when she plays Bach, there’s this sense of the long line and all the details and all the little articulations. It’s technically brilliant, but also very expressive.

“She’s become pretty much lost to posterity,” Cahill went on. “Whether that has to do with her career being interrupted by the war and what happened in her life, it’s hard to know.”

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Jambor died of cancer in February 1997, while in hospice in Towson. Widow of the physicist Imre Patai, childless and all but forgotten except to her friends, she was just shy of her 88th birthday.

Her life comes into focus through interviews with a relative in London and Fiscella in Pikesville, her diaries, letters, press clippings and a short memoir of her war year — the book and the old, yellowed papers filling a cardboard box in Fiscella’s home.

It’s a story in bits and pieces, one of remarkable talent and tragedy, yet an indomitable spirit. Through it all, she had the music.

“The scores of Bach’s music could be always found in the hospital next to my bed at the night table,” she wrote in her diary. “The only friend since Imre’s death who never left me.”

Early recognition cut short by war

Born in 1909, her mother a Jewish piano teacher, Agi Jambor came of age during a blossoming of art in Budapest, the cultured Hungarian city known as the “Pearl of the Danube.” She trained in the royal academy as a young girl, though her teachers found her hands too small for a pianist.

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“If you are really a fanatic, you do not see the difficulties,” she told The Baltimore Sun in advance of a 1952 concert in Washington, D.C.

She adapted her finger techniques and debuted with a symphony orchestra at age 11 or 12 — the news accounts vary. In her teenage years, she trained in Berlin under the great pianist and conductor Edwin Fischer, and she grew close to the widow Toni Mendel, a friend to Einstein.

“She was like a second mother to me,” Jambor told The Sun later, in 1993. “When she asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I said, ‘Einstein!’ On my birthday, I opened the door and there he was.”

She would often recall playing duets with the amateur violinist.

“Except for the wrong notes — I don’t think he ever practiced — he was a very good violinist.”

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Undated photo of Agi Jambor.
An undated photo of Agi Jambor. (Handout)

Ever the searching artist, she canceled her concerts and left Germany to play jazz in a Paris dance studio. In 1933, she married the Jewish-Hungarian physicist and inventor Imre Patai.

“With longing do I dream about the time when he worked half the night in the basement of our house, his research on kidney stones and many other things, which are written in his diaries, and above the lab at the first floor was the music room, and I explored the mysteries of Bach and Chopin, and Imre worked below the music room on the solvation of mysteries in science. What blessed times,” she wrote in her diary.

Still, tragedy pursued her. They had a son who died soon after birth. She would always keep a photo of her baby close by.

The couple had moved to Holland when World War II reached them. Jambor played a radio concert in Hilversum and a man rushed on stage. German planes were overhead.

Undated photo of Agi Jambor, from her husband, Imre Patai's, diaries and albums.
Undated photo of Agi Jambor, from her husband, Imre Patai's, diaries and albums. (Courtesy United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

“Imre, listening on the radio, heard only that I suddenly stopped in the middle of the scherzo, and nothing more. He was terribly worried,” she wrote in her war-year memoirs, posthumously published as “Escaping Extermination” in 2020.

They fled the bombing and returned to Budapest, but German soldiers occupied the city. It was March 1944, and so began a desperate scramble to survive. The Germans branded them as Jews with yellow stars. They were assigned a yellow house and witnessed the Jewish families rounded up and boarded on trains, never to return.

The husband and wife crept from one apartment to another, relying on a network of artist friends and intellectuals, moving on when they aroused suspicions. Recruited by the Resistance, they scattered nails in the streets to foil German tanks. They hid from Nazi search parties and the murderous Hungarian fascists of the Arrow Cross. They bribed the Gestapo, forged papers and adopted disguises. Jambor wore roguish makeup and dyed her hair blonde to pass as a prostitute.

Months went by, with just the horrors of war. Imre carried a bottle of potassium cyanide in case they were discovered. They waited out the daylight in dark, crowded cellars, the cold water around their ankles. Jambor would be haunted by the voice of a mother, shot and wounded by Nazis, who sang to a baby.

Undated photo of Agi Jambor, from her husband, Imre Patai's, diaries and albums.
Undated photo of Agi Jambor, from her husband, Imre Patai's, diaries and albums. (Courtesy United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

In her memoirs, she writes of celebrating her wedding anniversary with a hidden jar of honey, of body lice and sleeping on wooden planks and sharing a pail for a toilet, of starving and eating a horse shot in the streets. She would forever avoid meat.

For 50 days, the Russians and their allies laid siege to German-occupied Budapest. Bombs fell everywhere, her ears ringing. The war, she writes, ruined her pitch. Historians estimate that 38,000 civilians died in the city, most of them from starvation. The Germans abandoned the city in rubble, with the streets carpeted by mines.

Now, they feared the violence of drunken Russian soldiers at night. The Russians put them to work. While washing clothes, she was approached by a soldier who asked her profession. He had played clarinet in the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra. Six months had passed since she played, but he found her a piano.

She played a chaconne by Bach in Busoni’s transcription for a few Russians. Mostly farm boys, she writes. Some didn’t know Bach; it didn’t matter. She played every night thereafter. The crowd grew to 50, then 100 soldiers. In the ruins of the city, she gave her coda to the war.

Agi Jambor playing the piano May 5, 1967.
Agi Jambor playing the piano May 5, 1967. (Handout)

Recognition in the U.S., and solitude

Two years later, in June 1947, she debuted in America at the Phillips art museum in D.C. with a concert of Bach, Schumann and Chopin. The war had burnished her reputation as one of the great pianists of Europe and a survivor of the Holocaust.

Imre found work at George Washington University, but his health never recovered. He endured the war only to die of a heart attack after 18 months in America. He was 54.

She would grieve for the rest of her life.

Still, she played. New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore. Critics praised her performances as works of art. She played for President Harry Truman with the National Symphony Orchestra.

“The president reserved his heartiest applause for Agi Jambor’s solo rendition of Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4 in G Major,” The New York Times reported in January 1950.

Agi Jambor press clippings.
Press clippings about Agi Jambor's performances. (Kirk McKoy/the Baltimore Banner)

She emerged as a favorite soloist of Eugene Ormandy, the celebrated conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University hired her in 1953 as a piano instructor. Three years later brought her recording debut, a double album of Bach’s partitas. The critics called her tireless.

“Most of her practicing is done mentally, a procedure she finds effective even for maintaining muscular control,” The Sun’s music critic wrote. “When preparing for her first recording, for example, she memorized several major Bach works last summer merely by studying the scores. A piano was not near.”

In May 1957, she bade farewell to Baltimore with a recital at the First Unitarian Church in Mount Vernon, then left for Pennsylvania to teach piano at Bryn Mawr College.

Undated Program page from Agi Jambor concert.
An undated program page from Agi Jambor concert. (Kirk McKoy/the Baltimore Banner)

Now in her late 40s, she was still searching. She studied percussion and sought music beyond the Western tradition; she would later take up the marimba. On campus, the young women worshiped her.

“She was brought to Bryn Mawr as a kind of, well, star pianist who played Bach,” said Frances Pinter, her relative in London who considered her a great aunt. Pinter published Jambor’s war memoir. “But she wanted to incorporate music from other cultures. … You don’t really appreciate how revolutionary that was, and there were people in Bryn Mawr who said, ‘This is not what we hired her for.’”

At a dinner party one night, she met the actor Claude Rains, famous as the French police captain Louis Renault in “Casablanca.”

“He was taken with the fact that she had no idea who he was,” an Associated Press reporter wrote in 1994, following an interview with Jambor.

Their marriage lasted about eight months. Rains’ fifth wife, she would blame his alcoholism.

Agi Jambor won fame in Europe as a young woman and one of the premier performers of Bach in her day. She had a harrowing life and escaped the Nazis to America and lived her final years in Baltimore. She died in 1997. Rob Fiscella, wants to keep her spirit alive by having new generations of aspiring concert pianists come to his home and play the piano. 
Actor Claude Rains and his new bride, the former Madam Agi Jambor, concert pianist and lecturer at Bryn Mawr College, are all smiles as they pose for a photo at home.  It was the fifth marriage for Rains, his first two ended in divorce. Mrs. Rains' first husband, Dr. Imre Patai, a radio and television scientist, died in January, 1949.Photo measures 8.5 x 6.5inches. Photo is dated 11-6-1959.
Actor Claude Rains and his new bride, the former Madam Agi Jambor, concert pianist and lecturer at Bryn Mawr College, are all smiles as they pose for a photo at home. It was the fifth marriage for Rains. Jambor's first husband, Dr. Imre Patai, a radio and television scientist, died in January, 1949. Photo is dated 11-6-1959. (Handout)

Jambor settled in a farmhouse in Radnor, Pennsylvania, and surrounded herself with instruments. In 1963, she was reported to have encephalitis, a swelling of the brain. For the first time in her life, she did not play.

Then came lost years, two decades, even — the blanks in a cinematic life. Retired, heavily medicated, alone but for her cat, she faded from public view. There came no more headlines of the celebrated pianist, war refugee and actor’s wife. She was forgotten — or almost.

In the late 1980s, Dr. Joseph Stephens, the late musician and Johns Hopkins psychiatrist, was studying Bach’s Fantasias and found Jambor’s recordings. Few other pianists had recorded the rather obscure pieces. Stephens had known of the great Agi Jambor at Peabody. Could she be alive?

A close-up of the Steinway once owned by Agi Jambor. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

He tried Bryn Mawr, but she had retired in 1977. When he called her house, she invited him to visit.

“She was a mess, living like a recluse in a house filled with garbage. She was in dreadful health — she had diabetes and Lord knows what else — and she was getting terrible medical attention from a doctor who was giving her shots of morphine,” he told The Sun, in October 1993.

Fiscella puts it like this today:

“It was almost like out of a movie. What was that famous movie? ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ You know, when a has-been actress lives alone in her dreams? Agi was pretty much bedridden. She had a quack doctor who would come once a week and give her injections of God-knows-what. She later told us she used to call the weather just to hear a human voice.”

Stephens returned to visit, again and again. He brought with him friends, even psychiatry patients who needed a trip out.

Upon his suggestion, she sold her farmhouse — it would be demolished — and he moved her into the Beethoven Apartments near his home in Bolton Hill. Now 80 years old, she showed signs of dementia and told strange but hilarious stories. Stephens assembled a network of caregivers.

For nearly two years, the artist Juan Fernando Bastos worked for her, preparing lunch and making sure she took her pills. They went shopping at Nordstrom; he cut her hair. On Thanksgiving, Stephens prepared fish; she still couldn’t eat meat. In a photograph from those days, she sits silver-haired and regal in a black dress and pearls.

Rob Fiscella is the owner of a Steinway piano that belonged to his late friend, Agi Jambor, a famous pianist from Europe and one of the premier players of Bach back in her day. He wishes for people to come play the piano.
A signed photo at the home of Rob Fiscella, the owner of a Steinway piano that belonged to his late friend, Agi Jambor. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

She returned to Bach, too. They had moved her grand Steinway to Baltimore. With Stephens playing beside her, she gave house recitals in Bolton Hill. She played dinner parties and soirees. Stephens, Bastos, Fiscella, everyone was there.

“By memory, she could play most of the major piano concerti, and all of the Bach concerti,” Fiscella said. “Except that she’d get stuck in a loop, and she’d play the same few measures over and over again. Everybody would wait, then it would click, and she would move on.”

Jambor made headlines again, in 1993, with two revival concerts at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in North Baltimore. Stephens accompanied her on a second piano.

That was four years before her death. She played Bach until the end, and her diaries are scattered with gratitude. “Joe, you saved my life.”

‘She turned her back on a great career’

How to understand those lost years? Jambor could still fill concert halls when she gave up the stage.

Pinter believes she withdrew because of her worsening health and the onset of dementia. Jambor relied on medication, writing once that she spent two months mainly taking sleeping pills.

Stephens had asked her doctor in Pennsylvania about the reports that she suffered encephalitis.

“He [Stephens] said that was just a cover story. She did not have encephalitis. It was all emotional, major depression, nervous breakdown,” Fiscella said. “She turned her back on a great career.”

Undated photo of Agi Jambor performing.
An undated photo of Agi Jambor performing. (Handout)

Her diaries reveal an artist agonized by the stage. She feared her fingers would seize up like cast in iron. And yet the music could make her feel transcendent.

“Don’t I feel sometimes when I play that I am unrelated to Earth and fly?” she wrote.

“Do I practice because I want perfection? Or do I play because I cannot live without sharing my music with the world? Success is a dirty word. I am always ashamed after the great applause, and yet — if I don’t get it, I am sad.”

Cahill, the concert pianist in Berkeley, performs a piano sonata that Jambor composed and dedicated to victims at Auschwitz, its dark, repetitive octave meant to represent the tanks rolling into Budapest. Beyond some musical fragments, the sonata’s believed to be Jambor’s only surviving composition. A box of her other works is presumed lost.

Now years pass, and her recognition fades. Of history’s great Bach pianists, she’s overshadowed by her brilliant and eccentric contemporary Glenn Gould. But there’s more to Agi Jambor than a handful of Bach albums.

“Her life didn’t end in a fairy tale. The ridiculous way her husband died was not a fairy tale,” Pinter said. “But she just got up and carried on. She was just so inspiring.”

In Pikesville, Fiscella had her antique Steinway restored: the hammers glued, felt replaced, keys sanded and polished. He affixed a brass nameplate:

“This piano belonged to MME. Agi Jambor. Finalist in the Third International Chopin Competition 1937.”

Rob Fiscella is the owner of a Steinway piano that belonged to his late friend, Agi Jambor, a famous pianist from Europe and one of the premier players of Bach back in her day. He wishes for people to come play the piano. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Now, alone, he wants to hear its music again. That’s why he posted the invitation online.

Come and hear the story of the great Agi Jambor. Fiscella may open a bottle of wine. No matter if the music isn’t Bach — that’s not the point.

But come to play her piano and hear how art can sustain us through tragedy, even bring us home when we are lost.

Correction: A photo caption for this story incorrectly described the marriage of Agi Jambor and actor Claude Rains. She was his fifth wife.

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