Clara Haskil and Arthur Grumiaux: The Elegance of Great Art.

22 May

During the nationally televised opening concerts for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s new hall, Yo-Yo Ma performed Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with his usual cohorts.  An overly enthusiastic Ma, writhing back and forth in his most ecstatic style, fell off the riser upon which he was sitting and landed flat on his back, chair askew, cello on his tummy. The performance did not stop. The concertmaster removed Ma’s cello and helped Ma regain his chair. Since his descent to stage floor level, I’ve seen him on television a half dozen times and noted with more then a little satisfaction, an absence of the gyrations which had plagued his past performances and brought him down so low. I believe he’s cured.

I grew up assuming the superiority of contemporary musicians over those of the past. Believe me, this was not a defensive mechanism designed to convince me of my being born at the right time or, perhaps the same thing, being in possession of the latest and best instruments and techniques. Innocently, I believed in the progress of Mankind. From Eve’s apple to my humble perch, every year, in every way, things got better and better.

Peter Schenkman (1937-2006), Toronto cellist and profuse collector of recorded music [1.], played me excerpts from his box set of the historic Chicago Symphony recordings. The Chicago Symphony was founded in 1891 and if memory does not fail me, I think some of the recordings predated the 20th century. But my point is that I was made to realize Chicago had possessed a great orchestra long before Fritz Reiner ascended its podium in 1953.

During subsequent listening sessions with Peter, I gained similar insights into the Boston Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. Considered the big five among orchestras in North America, all of them released box sets of historic recordings. The recordings prove their orchestra’s virtuosity and musicianship long before the arrival of the conductors usually associated by my generation with having built them into first rate contenders to their rivals across the pond; Chicago-Fritz Reiner (1953-62), Boston-Charles Münch (1943-62, Cleveland-George Szell (1946-70, Philadelphia [2.]-Eugene Ormandy (1938-82) and New York-Leonard Bernstein (1958-69).

Peter’s knowledge of music history and musicians encouraged me to look further and further afield. The discoveries I made were rewarding and great fun, second only to my earliest explorations in music.

Perhaps the next important discovery to change my ideas about the quality of performers and performances from the past, was the rediscovery of Clara Haskil (7 January 1895 – Bucharest, Romania, Died: December 7, 1960 – Brussels, Belgium). At age 15, Haskil graduated from the Paris Conservetoire  with Premiere Prix in both piano and violin. She was afflicted by illness and for many years lived in poverty. She began to receive public attention in the 1940s and her playing was renowned for the rest of her life. Her close friend Charlie Chaplin described her talent by saying “In my lifetime I have met three geniuses; Professor Einstein, Winston Churchill, and Clara Haskil. I am not a trained musician but I can only say that her touch was exquisite, her expression wonderful, and her technique extraordinary.” [3.]

I bought her recording of Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto on a long playing record during my sophomore year in high school. (Westminster Hi Fi, XWN 18379, the Winterthur Orchestra, conductor Henry Swoboda.).  I listened to it again, the first time in 55 years, and it made me seek out more of her recordings.

Haskil was famous for her interpretations of Mozart so my first digital purchase was a live recording of a recital she played in 1957. It contained sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. What glorious listening! I then purchased her recordings of all the Beethoven violin sonatas with the great Belgian violinist Artur Grumiaux (21 March 1921- Villers-Perwin, Belgium–16 October, 1986- Brussels). Grumiaux was known as a pianist and violinist. During concerts, he and Haskil would occasionally switch instruments.

The sound Grumiaux produced on the recording of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, another of my early LP purchases, has never left me.  Here was music making I’d not heard before; controlled and self-effacing, yet from beginning to end, exuding exquisitely beautiful phrasing and elegant passion. I’ve yet to hear another violinist match this recording’s slow movement. [4.]

Grumiaux and Haskil were classicists. Totally dedicated to the music, they approached their repertoire and their audiences with natural and unaffected playing. I sent the prominent Toronto violinist Marie Berard a newly released digital recording of one of Grumiaux’s performances and she e-mailed me to say, “Grumiaux and Oistrak were my heroes. I just love the way they played.”

For some players and audiences, the grand gestures so favored by Yo-Yo Ma  signifiy grand art. But, to quote John Cage, they were merely a Cheap Imitation. Recently, I heard the young Greek born violinist Leonidas Kavakos perform Korngold’s Concerto for Violin in D major with the Berlin Philharmonic. He played superbly. He, as did Haskil and Grumiaux, has the ability to disappear in the music with no need for histrionics.


Clara Haskil – Orfeo C 706 061 B, 8 August 1957 Live.
Mozart, Sonata in C Major, KV 30
Beethoven, Sonata in Eb Major, Opus31/3
Schubert, Sonata B Major,D960

Clara Haskill – Philips Classics, 464 718-2, 1961.
Mozart, Piano Concertos No.20 and 24
Igor Markevitch, Orchestre des Concerts Lamourieux.

Arthur Grumiaux – PenaTone Classics, PTC 5186 1200
Ludwig van Beethoven, Violin Concerto in D. (recorded 1974)
Max Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 in G mimor. (recorded 1973)
Colin Davis. Royal Concergebouw of Amsterdam
Heinz Wallberg, Philharmonia Orchestra

Clara Haskil and Arthur Grumiaux –  Philips Classics,1958, PHI 412253
Mozart 4 Sonatas for Piano and Violin.
No. 26, No. 21, No.24 and No.18.

Arthur Grumiaux and Clara Haskil –  Decca, 475 8460   Ludwig van Beethoven, The Violin Sonatas

Foot Notes:

[1.]  Obituary from The Herald of Randolph (Vermont)

Peter Q. Schenkman

TORONTO, CANADA-Peter Quarles Schenkman, 68, died Tuesday Feb. 21, 2006 in Toronto. He was born December 6, 1937 in New York City, the son of Edgar Roy and Marguerite Quarles Schenkman. As a teenager, he made the first orchestral appearances of his distinguished musical career with the Norfolk and Richmond Symphony Orchestras, under the baton of his father.

He attended the Curtis Institute of Music from 1955-59, where he studied cello with Leonard Rose. After graduation, he  was drafted by the US Army and spent three years in Washington D.C. as a member of the US Army band. Upon his discharge from the Army in 1962, he became the youngest member of the Boston Symphony and played with the BSO for three seasons. While in Boston he was very active in the local music scene, performing as a member of various contemporary chamber ensembles, including the Boston Opera Company, started by Sarah Caldwell. In 1965 he became principal cellist with the St. Louis Symphony, until 1967 when Seiji Ozawa invited him to become principal cellist with the Toronto Symphony, where he stayed until 1974.

For several years during the late 1970s, he hosted his own talk show, “The Art of the Collector,” on CBC Radio. As a freelance musician, he spent several summers at Marlboro, and many seasons as a member of the Casals Festival Orchestra, including three seasons as principal cellist. In Toronto, he was active in various concert and recording projects for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., including three years as a member of the CBC Toronto String Quartet.

As an educator, he was a member of the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto, the Royal Conservatory of Music, and the National Youth Orchestra of Canada. In addition to his playing career, he was active as a contractor and orchestra manager for many different musical activities. He contracted hundreds of jingles and recording sessions, and played with such diverse musical notables as Placido Domingo, Nana Maskouri, and Meat Loaf. He put together orchestras for many of the biggest film composers of the last 25 years, including Maurice Jarre, Jerry Fielding, John Barry, Georges-Delerue, and Howard Shore.  He managed the orchestra of the Canadian Opera Company, and for many years was the musical contractor for Toronto’s Royal Alexandra and Princess of Wales Theatres.

He played a significant role in assisting his late mother, Marguerite Schenkman, in founding the Rochester Chamber Music Society of Rochester, Vt., performing regularly in the RCMS summer concert series.

Survivors include his wife, Holde Gerlach of Toronto; sons Eric Schenkman of Picton, Canada; and Daniel Schenkman of Toronto; daughter, Jennifer Wells Schenkman of Toronto; grandson, Wyllie Schenkman of Toronto; brothers David Schenkman of Bryantown, Md.; and Joe Schenkman of Rochester; and sisters: Lucy Manson of Central, S.C.; and Sarah Schenkman of Savannah, Ga.

[2.]  Swiss Radio interview, 19 April 1961. Haskil’s death was the result of a fall on a Brussels train station stairway. She was to have played a recital the next evening with Grumiaux

[3.] The creator of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s “Sound” has long been debated. Was it Ormandy or, before him, Leopold Stokowski? Those in favor of Stoki, point to his independent bowing for string players, his charisma and his sometimes startling changes in scores, his innovative arrangements of classical works, some of which became as popular as the original versions and his enthusiastic embrace of film and recording technologies. Supporters of Ormandy point to his long tenure and large Columbia Recording Company catalogue.

[4.]  This recording featured the Royal Concergebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam conducted by Eduard van Beinum on vinyl for EPIC, LC 3420. The Sir Colin Davis performanc mentioned in the discography is similar to the van Beinum, though the van Beinum is warmer and a bit more broadly paced.


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