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Category Archives: Composers

The New York Philharmonic, 8 May, 2014.

The last time I heard a concert in Avery Fisher Hall was in 1998 when principal percussionist Christopher Lamb played the premier performance of Tan Dun’s Water Concerto, a work commissioned for him by the New York Philharmonic. The hall is a cold, extremely oversized rectangle with dubious eye-appeal , ambiguous acoustics and the home of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

This Thursday evening we were to hear the great violinist Leonidas Kavakos play Alban Berg’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1935). We had first heard him via the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall. He is a binder of spells. The program started with Im Sommerwind (1904) by Anton Webern and after intermission Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony. All the works were conducted by Bernard Haitink.

The Webern and Berg sounded as if they’d just been touched in rehearsal. Haitink never got his head out of the scores and everything was uninterestingly pedantic. I felt sorry for Kavakos. My goodness what a waste. I hope his hotel accomodations were posh and he had access to a great Greek restaurant that delivered.

Of course everyone on stage knew Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony and it was given a not to be forgotten performance. Everything was shaped beautifully and passages had ample space in which to breath.  None of Toscanini’s inexorable rushess to the finish line in this performance. Those exciting and difficult 3rd movement section solos for horns were played with a brassy exhuberance. My goodness they were exciting and the horns received a very well deserved solo bow.

That’s about all that can be said for the concert. Except for Chris Lamb’s cymbal playing in the Webern and most particularly, near the end, two exquisitly soft triangle notes.  Both absolutely breathtaking.

 

 

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Jörg Widmann. Deja vu all over again.

During the 1960s and 70s, the good ole days(?), I was playing a great deal of contemporary music. Perhaps it was the best of times and the worst of times. After all, a revolution was in progress.

Many of the contemporary composers and performers who came to Toronto were experimenting with new techniques for instruments and forms of composition. This sometimes required local musicians to learn 3 or 4 new systems of notation for each concert and find their way through a veritable maze of unfamiliar manuscripts. It was a communal experience organized by Bob Aitken’s New Music Concerts.

The notation didn’t affect percussionists very much – we only had to deal with an enormous amount of instruments, but it certainly did affect oboists, trombonists and flutist’s. That was because of Holliger, Globokar and Nicolet the French teacher and flute virtuoso. Those were the beginning days of the so-called extended techniques. Usually the sounding of 2, 3, or 4 notes at once and making sounds they’d never heard a day earlier. The player not only had to hear differently, or hear different things, but had also to learn the new notation for these things. Multi-phonics and other techniques had entered our lives.

I grew tired of hearing our local players squeak and squawk as they tried to play these extended techniques in rehearsals. In fact, I actually feared the possibility of hearing them trying over and over again. I worked on developing a feigned nonchalance. Put simply, their struggles were not worthy.

These memories were revived when I went to hear Jörg Widmann  play and conduct his music on 18 April, 2014 in the Betty Oliphant theater. The most lengthy work was titled Dubairische Tanze in nine movements. Each movement concentrated on the sounds, extended techniques I’d heard Heinze and Vinko play 30 or 40 years ago, but then, only in moderation.

Jörg Widmann took all of those sounds, and more, and put them together into a complete language for his compositions. It was exciting stuff and he used many techniques our jobbers – people who played contemporary music together only a few times a year, could play convincingly. If memory serves, Widmann had written one very brief violin passage that could pass muster as a traditional melody. The work was terrific and the orchestration was exquisite. Those things I’d heard long ago had developed new expressions and new players in my absence.  It was akin to greeting someone you’d not seen for 40 years and perhaps had mixed feelings about.

During the 1970s Heinz Holliger and Vinko Globokar appeared in Toronto 3 or 4 times, Heinz playing his oboe and Vinko his trombone. Both of these men were at the forefront of music exploration. They were finding new ways to play their instruments and producing new sounds. Our comprehension was of a level so low, they often had to teach us their compositions by rote, note by note. Globokar was particularly good at this.[1.]  The venue of choice at the time was Walter Hall in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music.

I remember sitting in Walter Hall with Toru Takemitsu as Toronto harpist Erica Goodman played one of his solo works. During a short break Toru turned to me and said, “She’s a perfect harpist”. Toru had similalyy praised the playing of Heinz Holliger and Vinko Globokar.

After Widmann’s large work, he played one of his clarinet solos. He is after all a clarinetist of no mean reputation. The solo he chose to play on the 1st half was for B-flat clarinet and quite frankly I’ve not heard that kind of control and fluidity on any instrument in years. He began multi-phonics as smoothly as a common Bflat and slid from fortissimo to pianissimo as easy as pie. My goodness.

I’m sure if Toru had been sitting next to me in the Betty Oliphant Theatre a week ago he would’ve turned to me and said,” He’s a perfect clarinetist”.

[1.] In 1970, Lukas Foss (1920-2009) organised a concert involving all the performers and composers Toru Takemitsu had invited to the Space Theater at Expo 70 Osaka, Japan. Lukas paired us up and gave each of us  wrist bands with directions for an”improvisation” he had devised. I brought a large cow-bell, a mallet and a cello bow to this party and Vinko, his trombone. After a few minutes I had expended my repertoire of sounds and sat listening raptly to Vinko who was making sounds I had never associated with a trombone. He then begam dissassembling the trombone and playing even more facinating sounds. After all that, Vinko gestured  for me to give him my cello bow. He started bowing all the trombone parts ending with the bell, sometimes a most mellifluous sound, others screechingly dissonant. A few years later, Vinko came to Toronto with some of his chamber music compositions. He and I had stayed in touch during the interval and this time I was ready for him. Besides being a great trombonist, Vinko for some time was in charge of IRCAM in Paris.

 

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The Perfect Clara Haskil .

 

First published by Clavier® Volume 39, No. 7, September 2000, p. 25 f. (C) 2011 – Alle Rechte vorbehalten. The Perfect Clara Haskil

© by Peter Feuchtwanger.

As Clara sat down “the music materialized as if from nowhere. Her arm seemed to glide over the keyboard without preparation, just as a flat stone skims across the water. This was so typical of her playing; nothing seemed to start or end, and everything became timeless.”

Clara Haskil

Admiration and international fame came late in life for Clara Haskil, in a career beset by poor health and the adversities of a world war. Dinu Lipatti described her playing as “the sum of perfection on earth,” Wilhelm Backhaus called it “the most beautiful in the world,” Tatyana Nikoleyeva burst into tears when she first heard Haskil, and Rudolf Serkin nicknamed her “the perfect Clara.” Haskil’s close friend, Nikita Magaloff wrote, “I had the great privilege of hearing her, at her home and mine, thumbing through fingering, deciphering and running over the most diverse works, and that is why the Chromatic Study by Debussy, the Etude Tableau in E flat minor by Rachmaninoff, a passage from the Totentanz of Liszt or a Rondo of Chopin rest engraved in my memory as played so inimitably by her. Never, even amongst my most illustrious colleagues, have I met with that incredible and disconcerting facility and pianistic ease, which a spontaneous, uncalculated, natural flow of the music. That which others achieve by work, research, and reflection, seems to come to Clara from heaven without problems.” (The Journal of the British Institute of Recorded Sound, July-October, 1976)

I first heard Clara Haskil’s name mentioned by Dinu Lipatti after a recital he gave in Switzerland. When I congratulated him on his Mozart playing, Lipatti said, “In two weeks’ time you must hear Clara play Mozart. Then you will realize how far the rest of us are from the truth.” I was young at the time, but the name stuck in my mind. Who was this mysterious Clara? Five years later during another visit to Switzerland, the mystery was solved. At a concert in the Tonhalle in Zurich on September 7, 1952, Clara Haskil was the soloist in Mozart’s Concerto in E flat, K. 271.

The concert was well-nigh sold out, and the only tickets available were for the cheapest seats in the annex. Mine was behind a pillar, where I could hear well but not see. The concerto begins with a question from the orchestra that is answered by the soloist in the second bar. The question repeats, prompting the soloist to emphasize the answer. Haskil’s response aroused my curiosity and made me listen. Nothing, though, prepared me for what was to com. After the ensuing tutti, the B flat trill suddenly materialized, and I heard something akin to Mary Garden’s description of Nellie Melba’s top C at the end of the fist act of La Bohème.
The note came floating over the auditorium of Covent Garden: it left Melba’s throat, it left Melba’s Body, it left everything, and came over like a star and passed us in our box, and went out into the infinite. I have never heard anything like it in my life, not from any other singer, ever. It just rolled over the hall of Covent Garden. My God, how beautiful it was! Since then I always wait for that note when I hear the first act of La Bohème. (Mary Garden’s Story, Michael Joseph)

Likewise, I now wait for that B flat trill whenever I hear this concerto. Haskil recorded K. 271, but no recording can capture the consummate musical expression or magic of a great artist, which is something ineffable. Haskil’s performances in the concert hall were often miracles, and miracles simply cannot be reproduced. Her performance that night was greeted with stormy applause, so I seized the opportunity to look around the pillar to see who was responsible for such divine sounds. Grasping the conductor’s hand as if for reassurance and with a look of disbelief on her face, Clara Haskil acknowledged the audience’s enthusiasm.

I glimpsed at the pianist who one London critic described as playing “Mozart for the Gods.” In years to come I heard her many times, both publicly and privately. For theses experiences I remain eternally grateful. As I left the hall, a friend who knew Haskil offered to take me backstage. She seemed inconsolable and unhappy, excusing her poor performance to anyone who congratulated her. When introduced, I mumbled my admiration, and she asked whether I was a pianist. After hearing such playing, I did not want to talk about my own and said I was a composer. A few weeks later I saw Clara waiting at a tram stop, looking forlorn. “Ah, the young composer,” she exclaimed, and that’s how our friendship started.

Born in Bucharest on January 7, 1895 of Sephardic Jewish parents, Haskil’s musical talent was evident in early childhood. At the age of three she could pick out any tune that an older sister played on the piano. She was not yet five when a professor at the Bucharest Academy visited her parent’s home and played a Mozart sonata. When he finished she repeated the sonata perfectly, while simultaneously transposing it into another key, all without having had any musical instruction. After her father’s death, the girl’s uncle brought her to the attention of Anton Door, a celebrated piano teacher in Vienna who had known Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann, and Joseph Joachim.

Door described meeting the girl in the Neue Freie Presse in April 1902: Recently a doctor from Romania came to me, leading by the hand a little girl barely seven years of age. The child, whose mother is a widow, is unique. She has never had any music lessons beyond being shown the value and names of the notes. More did not seem necessary, for every piece of music that is played to her and which she can manage with her small hands she repeats by ear without mistake and in any key one asks. An easy movement from a Beethoven Sonata that I gave her she played at sight without difficulty. One is baffled, for this early maturity of a human brain strikes one as uncanny.

In 1903 Haskil began piano studies with Richard Robert, whose pupils included Rudolf Serkin and George Szell. He took a special interest in the young artist, and soon she created a stir in musical Vienna with a performance of Mozart’s Concerto in A Major, K. 488. Two years later at age ten, she gave her fist solo recital. In 1905 she entered the Paris Conservatoire, impressing the director, Gabriel Fauré, with her musical gifts. Joining Alfred Cortot’s class in 1907, she graduated at age 15 with the Premier Prix. Extensive concert tours to France, Switzerland, Italy, and Bucharest followed. In Switzerland Ferrucio Busoni, then at the height of his career, heard Haskil play his transcription of Bach’s D minor Chaconne and invited her to study with him in Berlin.

Clara’s mother declined the offer on the grounds that her daughter was too young. Instead, further concert tours were organized until the first of many severe physical setbacks brought Haskil’s concert career to an abrupt halt in 1913. In an attempt to delay the onset of scoliosis (curvature of the spine), she spent the next four years in a plaster cast. Though acclaimed in the later years as the foremost Mozart pianist of her generation, it was in such works as Islamey, The Great Gate of Kiev, Feux Follets, and the Brahms B flat Concerto – learned in two days – that she excelled in playing in those early years.

Haskil learned Feux Follets by hearing Vlado Perlemuter play the piece at a private function; then she performed the work a few days later and confessed afterwards that she had never seen the score. From early childhood Haskil was fond of the violin, especially the playing of Joseph Joachim, which nearly moved her to tears. Peter Rybar, the Swiss violinist, recalls an occasion in Winterthur in 1944 when she picked up a violin during a rehearsal break and began playing the fist movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Rybar could scarcely believe his ears: the playing was perfect, with impeccable phrasing and intonation, and an exquisite tone. She had hardly three years of violin study and practiced only on the day of her lesson.

Throughout her career Haskil performed with such great string players as Eugène Ysaÿe, Georges Enesco, Pablo Casals, Arthur Grumiaux, Pierre Fournier, Joseph Szigeti, Zino Francescatti, Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin, Henryk Szeryng, and her sister Jeanne.

 

Note from R.E.  I am extremely grateful to my friend and inveterate collector of important memorabilia, David Waterhouse for unearthing this inspiring article from his library of writings on music.

My introduction to the art of Clara Haskil is related in Clara Haskil and Arthur Grumiaux: The Elegance of Great Art.

 

 

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