Tag Archives: Clara Haskil

A Letter to a friend.

Dear  M,

The last time we spoke I mentioned a certain piece of music I had recently heard on a recording and you immediately responded in what I took to be a rather flat voice, ” Daniel Barenboim’s 50th anniversary concert”. [1.]  From the tone of your voice I gathered, perhaps incorrectly, that you  were not enamored with this recording. I can understand your reservations. But as we were speaking long-long distance, we had tno time to explore musical subtitles and as well, we had children and grandchildren to Moo about.

Recently I’ve had time to ruminate on Barenboim’s recording and other great artists recorded in front of live audiences. These ruminations and a long silence between us, are the reasons for this letter.

From the beginning, Barenboim’s interpretations ranged from interesting and sublime to  overwrought, sometimes beyond the pale of performances typically heard today. My first reaction to this recording was that Barenboim, appearing in triumph before a home town crowd as a prodigal son, had decided to unleash his impromtu passion and willingness to take chances, to create joy, as only an interpretive genius can.  His heart on his sleeve, he just took flight. Perhaps it was this flight that unsettled you.

The  Mozart Sonata K 330,  was played with the traditional rubatos, but others were added. Overall, they were larger, surprising and delightful. I prefer over all the 1957 Clara Haskil live recording.[2.]  Barenboim plays the second movement slower, giving it more gravitas.  The Beethoven, Op. 57, ‘Appassionata’ really sets out the difference between romantic  Barenboim and the classic Clara Haskil. Barenboim’s use of the sustain pedal blurred many of the lines I so love to hear in this sonata. If you wish to hear the clarity of Horowitz, hear every note virtuosity at any speed, check out the live  Vienna piano recital of Lang Lang.[3.]

Remember, this is only an assumption on my part, I could agree with your lack of enthusiasm for Barenboim’s recording. Some of the following shorter pieces lack luster, with one exception being the second Scarlatti Sonata. But I beg you to seriously consider his performances beginning with the Chopin  Nocturne, Op. 27, No. 2., Db Major. When I first heard this I was stunned. Here was something definitive. A clarity of emotion, a direct path to the heart, that one rarely experiences either in person or on recordings. There is no room here for a contrived thought. This is fingers improvising without touching. Barenboim must have been outside himself, I certainly was.

For lovers of the sublime, Chopin’s Nocturne begins the final  and most thrilling part of Barenboim’s recital. His performances of José Resta’s Bailesito, Ginastera’s  Danza de la moza donosa and Villa-Lobos’ Polichiinelle are visceral. Ginastera’s  Danza reminds me very much of the Chopin nocturne with its gentle left-hand opening, nostalgia in the melody, the grandiose middle and the return with its unexpected yet perfect strokes.

Well dear  M. I’ll bring this message to an end by saying how much I am enjoying music history. As a student I started working forward somewhere around J. S. Bach and ended up playing Takemitsu. Now I’m going backwards.  Some of my findings have been discussed in earlier postings.  My latest discovery, some scholars refer to him as the West’s first composer, is Guillaume Machaut. As a friend  recently pointed out, the quality of performances of early music has increased considerably since David Munrow began his crusades in the early to late 60s.  The CD [4.] is titled Mon Chant Vous Envoy and there are seven performers, singers and instrumentalists. His music requires a revaluation of what is old and what is new.  Midway through this elegantly package and wonderfully performed CD, there appeared a work that stopped me in my tracks.

One more piece of music I feel compelled to mention, I’m sure you know it, is another sublime work in the Chopin, Ginastera, Machaut realm.  Schubert’s Die Nacht for male chorus. My version was conducted by Robert Shaw and recorded in France by Telarc. It is the first of six songs under the heading Evensong. If I should die before I wake  .  .  .

Please give my love to R and R, T, A and all the young ones, Gute Nacht.


r[1.]  Daniel Barenboim, live from the Teatro Carlo, July 19, 2000. E M I Classics.

[2.]  Clara Haskil live recording, August 8,1957, Salzburger Festspiele Mozarteum.

[3.] Lang Lang, Live in Vienna, February 27-March 1, 2010.

[4.] Mon Chant Vous Envoy, 2012-13, Elequentia.


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The Perfect Clara Haskil , continued.

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.

Clara Haskil

The outbreak of World War II once again halted Haskil’s career. Caught in occupied Paris, she escaped to the free zone in the south with a group of musicians from the Orchestre National de France, as recounted by the conductor, Désiré Inghelbrecht: We left Paris at night from the Gare Montparnasse, which was plunged into murky darkness, and before dawn we left the train at Angoulême. Our luggage had gone ahead of us, since, as we expected to have to do a lot of walking, we did not want to be heavily laden. In the sinister railway station, cold and dark, we huddled together, speaking in hushed tones; then we met the guide who was to lead us through fields and woods to the free zone.

A taxi drove us to the edge of a forest, where we listened to the scarcely reassuring advice of our guide. He was obviously frightened and told us that the prisons in the neighbourhood were full of people like us who had been caught. One road was especially dangerous; we had to crawl across it for, not very far away, as we could see, was a German police station. It was the end of march. The wind was cold but spring had come; there were violets in the woods and birds were singing, but we were not in a mood to enjoy that particular morning walk. On every signpost was a skull and crossbones and a menacing warning to anyone who ventured into this forbidden zone. Our guide wheeled his bicycle ahead of us and we followed in a single file.

Le Guillard carried his viola and Clara’s suitcase since she, after a night without sleep, was physically and emotionally exhausted. Each of us wore several overcoats and my wife carried our cat in its basket. Our hearts beat wildly; at last we had crossed that terrible road. I remember the exact moment that our cat started miaowing our guide showed us the road we should take to rejoin the railway; he claimed his fee, mounted his bicycle and rode off as fast as he could.

Relieved and reassured at having survived this disagreeable experience we soon found a farm whose hospitable owners were used to groups of people in our situation and gave us something to eat. We slept at Limoges and reached Marseilles the next day. Clara, during the whole of this adventure, showed great courage and reserves of energy, which enabled her to overcome her exhaustion in spite of the precarious state of her health. (The Journal of the British Institute of Recorded Sound, July-October, 1976)

In Marseilles in 1941 Haskil began to suffer from double vision accompanied by severe headaches, which turned out to be a tumour pressing on the optic nerve. A doctor was smuggled out of Paris to perform an operation, which against all odds worked. When news came that the Germans were about to occupy to Switzerland with the help of admirers.

Clara Haskil’s first performance in England took place in 1926 with Sir Hamilton Harty and the Hallé Orchestra. Her next appearance on those shores was 20 years later in 1946 at the Wigmore Hall to great acclaim. Sir Thomas Beecham heard some of her six recitals for the B.B.C. the same year and immediately engaged her to play several Mozart concertos with him. Six years elapsed before she appeared in London again, this time with the London Mozart Players conducted by Harry Blech, followed by many other performances there. Particularly noteworthy were the four concerts she gave with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the 1958-59 season, conducted by Colin Davis and Carlo Maria Giulini.

In the last ten years of her life Haskil performed the world over with leading conductors at the most prestigious music festivals. At the Casals Prades Festival in 1950 she met Eugene Istomin, a young American pianist, who convinced her to tour the United States. Haskil had already visited America and Canada in the 1920s and 30s, where she played under Leopold Stokowski and took all the Beethoven piano and violin sonatas on tour with Ysaÿe. Her return visit surpassed all expectations. A series of concerts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Munch and an appearance at Carnegie Hall created a sensation and were reported in Time magazine. Rudolf Eli wrote in the Boston Herald, “One of those most magical revelations that occurs in music once in a generation … the most beautiful performance of Beethoven’s Third Concerto I have ever heard or expect to hear again.”

Clara made her only appearances at the Edinburgh Festival in 1957, giving one recital and two orchestral concertos under Eugen Jochum and John Barbirolli respectively. Later that year Christopher Grier wrote in Musical Events that“Clara Haskil made other excellent pianists sound like mere beginners.” The French government appointed her a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. Bemused by all the attention, she would ask, “Why does everyone want to hear me suddenly? I don’t seem to play differently from before.” I could imagine her adding modestly, “In fact, not as well.”

After hearing her at the 1954 Salzburg Festival, Hans Keller wrote: “Haskil played Mozart’s great A major K. 488 without showing off either her virtuosity or her lack of exhibitionism: the rarest of achievements in a solo artist.” When she performed the same concerto in 1958 at the Royal Festival Hall in London, the Times critic observed that“she simply expunged from the concerto what was eternal.” Those who heard Clara Haskil perform will never forget the audience hush to a silence as she bowed and approached the platform with almost a floating step, then crouched over the keyboard to coax sounds of unearthly beauty from the instrument. It is a miracle that this frail woman, despite so much suffering and so many setbacks, reached the pinnacle that she did.

Clara Haskil never taught and often insisted that she would not know how. In the few times she heard me, I learned more from her than from any other teacher before or since. On one occasion I had difficulty starting the Mozart G Major Concerto K. 453 and was never satisfied with the Eingang. She impatiently pushed me from the chair, and said, “But it doesn’t start … .” As she sat down the music materialized as if from nowhere. Her arm seemed to glide over the keyboard without any 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.

On another occasion I played the first movement of the Schubert B flat major Sonata, D. 960 for her. Throughout the movement the chord above the bass trill ends in an eighth note, the same value as in the bass. However, five bars from the end Schubert writes a quarter note in the right hand while retaining the eighth in the left. Almost every pianist ignores this subtle change and releases the right hand with the left, but not Clara Haskil. “You played the chord an eighth too short,” she exclaimed. “So” I replied. “After all, it’s only an eighth.” “Ja, aber ein Achtel Ewigkeit …” (“Yes, but an eighth of eternity …”).

Clara’s playing was intriguing to watch. Her very large hands, white as alabaster, skimmed over the keyboard with consummate ease. I have never seen a thumb as long as hers; some of her colleagues nicknamed it “the fastest thumb in the West.” She could easily strike a 13th simultaneously or a 12th with 5-2. On one occasion Dinu Lipatti listened to Clara read through the slow movement of Schubert’s A Minor Sonata, D. 784, which has several large chords, including 13ths, that Schubert asks to be arpeggiated. Lipatti said he couldn’t understand how she arranged the chords so as not to have to spread them. She replied, “But I don’t arrange them. I take all the notes with the left hand,” whereupon Lipatti exclaimed, “Clara, your hand is larger than any man’s.” She was so embarrassed from thereafter she always arpeggiated the chords.

Even though stories of Clara Haskil’s phenomenal memory came from such famous conductors as Hermann Scherchen, Hans Rosbaud, and Herbert von Karajan, I often thought they must be exaggerated. However, a personal experience convinced me that all these stories were true. In the summer of 1957 she was to come to my home in London to practice at 11:00 in the morning. I sat at the piano playing through the first four pages of a new composition of mine, adding a few touches here an there, when a silhouette appeared against the window. It was 10:40, so I thought it could not yet be Clara. However, when I peeped through the lace curtains to see the intruder, it was Clara, looking lost. She apologized for being so early – her hotel was closer to my house than she had realized, and she arrived early.

She had agreed to the visit on the condition that no one else would be in the house except a young artist, Michael Garady, whose drawing of her was her favourite. I’d agreed to her stipulation, although many of my pianist friends would have given anything to stand outside the door and listen to her practice. “What were you playing?” she asked. I told her it was the beginning of a new composition. “It sounds interesting,” she commented. “Show it to me when it’s finished.”

She came to my house two years later and asked, “By the way, whatever happened to the piece you were composing a few years back?” With that she sat down and performed those first four pages with every detail and nuance as I had played it, not knowing, of course, of the few changes I had made since. I couldn’t believe my ears. Later, other pianists took months to learn this complex piece in an Eastern idiom. Clara could not have seen the music because I had removed it from the piano before the first visit. The piece was completed and published only after the second visit.

Haskil traveled to Brussels with her sister, Lili, in December 1960 to begin a concert tour with the Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux, arriving a few days after a triumphant concert with him in Paris. She lost her grip and tumbled down a steep concrete stairway at the railway station. Rushed to the Clinique Longchamps, Clara was unconscious.

Doctors fought to save her life; she came around briefly and spoke to Lili and her younger sister, Jeanne, who had been quickly summoned from Paris. She asked them to tell Grumiaux how sorry she was not to be able to play with him the next day. Holding up her hands weakly, she whispered with smile, “At least I didn’t damage these.” In the early hours of December 7, 1960, exactly one month before her 66th birthday, Clara Haskil died.


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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