Commentary Magazine


Topic: cellist

The Legacy of Arthur Rubinstein

Earlier this month, The Juilliard School announced that the family of the pianist Arthur Rubinstein (1887–1982) donated 71 music manuscripts and other documents that had been seized by the Nazis from Rubinstein’s Paris apartment in 1940, and restored to his family by the German government only last year. This collection includes hand-written scores by Villa-Lobos, George Antheil, and other composers. The Dutch musicologist Willem de Vries’s 1996 study, Sonderstab Musik: Music Confiscations by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg under the Nazi Occupation of Western Europe, details how in 1940, Nazi official Alfred Rosenberg founded the “Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg” (ERR, or Operations Staff of Reich Director Rosenberg) in order to accomplish what de Vries terms the “greatest systematic theft of art and culture in history.”

Renowned German musicologists Wolfgang Boetticher and Karl Gustav Fellerer helped to identify Jewish collections to be looted in Nazi-occupied Europe, and among those plundered were world-famous artists, forced to flee to America because of their Jewish origins, like the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, and composer Darius Milhaud. Most of the collections involved are still lost, or perhaps more frustrating, in Russia, where some were shipped after 1945 as Soviet war booty. In an exceptional move, Rubinstein’s 71 items were sent back to East Berlin around 1958, as a Soviet gesture to repatriate so-called “German cultural assets.” More of Rubinstein’s property still remains in Russia, but in 2002, the Russian parliament voted to block any further such restitutions.

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Earlier this month, The Juilliard School announced that the family of the pianist Arthur Rubinstein (1887–1982) donated 71 music manuscripts and other documents that had been seized by the Nazis from Rubinstein’s Paris apartment in 1940, and restored to his family by the German government only last year. This collection includes hand-written scores by Villa-Lobos, George Antheil, and other composers. The Dutch musicologist Willem de Vries’s 1996 study, Sonderstab Musik: Music Confiscations by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg under the Nazi Occupation of Western Europe, details how in 1940, Nazi official Alfred Rosenberg founded the “Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg” (ERR, or Operations Staff of Reich Director Rosenberg) in order to accomplish what de Vries terms the “greatest systematic theft of art and culture in history.”

Renowned German musicologists Wolfgang Boetticher and Karl Gustav Fellerer helped to identify Jewish collections to be looted in Nazi-occupied Europe, and among those plundered were world-famous artists, forced to flee to America because of their Jewish origins, like the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, and composer Darius Milhaud. Most of the collections involved are still lost, or perhaps more frustrating, in Russia, where some were shipped after 1945 as Soviet war booty. In an exceptional move, Rubinstein’s 71 items were sent back to East Berlin around 1958, as a Soviet gesture to repatriate so-called “German cultural assets.” More of Rubinstein’s property still remains in Russia, but in 2002, the Russian parliament voted to block any further such restitutions.

That Juilliard should have wound up with anything at all may be ascribed at least in part to Rubinstein’s amazing luck and talent for survival. Rather than feeling bitter that the majority of his collection probably never will be restituted, Rubinstein himself would doubtless have rejoiced at his family’s beneficence to Juilliard. The quintessential glass-half-full personality, Rubinstein sometimes put off some listeners with his strenuously expressed “love of life” credo (the delightful 1969 French documentary Arthur Rubinstein: L’Amour de la vie is long overdue for DVD transfer).

The French author Roland Barthes dismissed Rubinstein’s hearty sense of psychological well-being, preferring an overtly neurotic pianist like Glenn Gould, although Gould himself worshiped Arthur Rubinstein. I well recall attending Rubinstein’s Carnegie Hall farewell recital in 1976 (70 years after his New York debut in 1906) when, after a full program and three encores, in the final piece—Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53—descending octaves were played with such force that the balcony floor shook, as the 89-year-old pianist’s aureole of white hair glowed brightly.

A recently available DVD from Deutsche Grammophon filmed in 1975 captures Rubinstein near that time, playing concertos by Grieg, Saint-Saëns, and Chopin with verve and panache. The magnificent complete Sony/BMG Rubinstein edition on CD fortunately still is available, including live concerts with music by his friend Villa-Lobos as well as music from Spain; France; and even Norway. These lasting delights remind us of the international range of this performer, whose musical legacy triumphs over the injustices he suffered during the Nazi regime.

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Hitler’s Record Collection?

It is ironic that just as the death of the distinguished Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg is announced, the media here and abroad should broadcast news of the rediscovery of Hitler’s presumed “record collection.” Der Spiegel reported that the daughter of Lev Bezymensky (1920-2007), a World War II Soviet military intelligence officer, revealed some 100 records, which her father reportedly stole from the Berlin Reich chancellery in 1945, after the Red Army invasion. Readers may remember that the same Lev Bezymensky (his name transliterated as Bezymenski) authored the 1968 book The Death of Adolf Hitler: Unknown Documents from Soviet Archives, in which Bezymensky claimed to have been present at Hitler’s autopsy. Bezymensky himself later admitted the claim was a lie. Toeing the line of the notorious Soviet counter-intelligence organization SMERSH, Bezymensky’s memoir of the autopsy was persuasively exposed as fraud in Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil.

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It is ironic that just as the death of the distinguished Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg is announced, the media here and abroad should broadcast news of the rediscovery of Hitler’s presumed “record collection.” Der Spiegel reported that the daughter of Lev Bezymensky (1920-2007), a World War II Soviet military intelligence officer, revealed some 100 records, which her father reportedly stole from the Berlin Reich chancellery in 1945, after the Red Army invasion. Readers may remember that the same Lev Bezymensky (his name transliterated as Bezymenski) authored the 1968 book The Death of Adolf Hitler: Unknown Documents from Soviet Archives, in which Bezymensky claimed to have been present at Hitler’s autopsy. Bezymensky himself later admitted the claim was a lie. Toeing the line of the notorious Soviet counter-intelligence organization SMERSH, Bezymensky’s memoir of the autopsy was persuasively exposed as fraud in Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil.

The London Times trumpeted the story about Hitler’s record collection with headlines like “Hitler’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ turn up in a dead Russian soldier’s attic” and “A cultivated taste that went for very best,” lauding the dictator’s musical acumen. This praise was based on information that the collection includes recordings by the Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin singing Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, the violinist Bronislaw Huberman, a Polish Jew, playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, and pianist Artur Schnabel, an Austrian Jew, performing a Mozart sonata. These recordings are available on CD from Naxos, Pearl, and Music & Arts Records respectively; they are exceptional performances from a time when the choice of major musical repertory on disc was limited.

The London Times goes so far as to praise Hitler as a recordings connoisseur: “Hitler appeared to enjoy a good tune.” This sentiment echoes such mock kudos from Mel Brooks’s The Producers as “Hitler was a better dancer than Churchill.” Other media reports managed to find a moral to the story. A headline in the Australian proclaimed that “Hitler relaxed to music of Jews”; the article that followed suggested he was guilty of hypocrisy. The cellist Steven Isserlis claims in the Guardian that “racial rules could be stretched where the glory and comfort of supermen were concerned.”

Do we really need new reasons to despise Hitler? The hoopla surrounding this record collection rates as the most frivolous innovation in Third Reich studies since Lothar Machtan’s 2001 The Hidden Hitler claimed that Hitler was gay (an idea also advanced by The Producers). Even during the slow news days of summer, the media would do well to maintain a sense of the ridiculous, as well as a healthy suspicion of reports originating from deceased Soviet intelligence officers.

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Huddled Masses (of Musicians)

By-now familiar moans about “agonizing” visa delays for foreign musicians hired to perform in the U.S. inspired the superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma to testify last year on Capitol Hill. Such plaints echoed again recently when Erik Schumann, a visa-less 25-year-old German violinist, forfeited a July engagement as soloist in the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra in its summer season at Vail, Colorado. In May, Italian pianist Cristina Barbuti could not obtain a visa in time to perform in a scheduled duo concert at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y. Last year, the Manchester, England-based Hallé Orchestra scuppered a planned 2007 U.S. tour because of the extra cost of obtaining 100 U. S. work visas for its players.

Such delays and difficulties are widely attributed to a current backlog at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Some nonetheless consider the delays to be (as Ma alleged in his testimony before the House Committee on Government Reform) affronts to musicians’ “dignity.” But Ma raised an interesting question: should musicians (as inherently “dignified” beings) be given instant visas regardless of current security concerns?

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By-now familiar moans about “agonizing” visa delays for foreign musicians hired to perform in the U.S. inspired the superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma to testify last year on Capitol Hill. Such plaints echoed again recently when Erik Schumann, a visa-less 25-year-old German violinist, forfeited a July engagement as soloist in the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra in its summer season at Vail, Colorado. In May, Italian pianist Cristina Barbuti could not obtain a visa in time to perform in a scheduled duo concert at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y. Last year, the Manchester, England-based Hallé Orchestra scuppered a planned 2007 U.S. tour because of the extra cost of obtaining 100 U. S. work visas for its players.

Such delays and difficulties are widely attributed to a current backlog at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Some nonetheless consider the delays to be (as Ma alleged in his testimony before the House Committee on Government Reform) affronts to musicians’ “dignity.” But Ma raised an interesting question: should musicians (as inherently “dignified” beings) be given instant visas regardless of current security concerns?

That question can be answered in two words: Papa Wemba. Papa Wemba was the stage name of Jules Kikumba, a renowned Congolese musician who was jailed in France in 2003 for helping to smuggle hundreds of illegal immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo into Europe. French prosecutors charged that would-be immigrants paid up to $4,500 for documents stating that they belonged to Papa Wemba’s band. Suspicions were raised when around 200 Congolese “musicians” arrived in France in 2000, none carrying any musical instruments. (Most turned out to be goat herders and fishermen.)

Some classical music snobs might assert that highbrow performers are more trustworthy than stars of world music or pop. Blair Tindall’s Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music—which provides a fascinating account of drug use and debauchery among classical musicians—should disabuse anyone of the notion that classical musicians are better behaved than their pop counterparts. If our Citizenship and Immigration Services are dancing as fast as they can, traveling performers (and the artistic managers who hire them) should grin and bear it. After all, Johann Sebastian Bach never left Germany once, and his musical development did not suffer as a result.

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Getting to Know Grieg

Some composers, such as Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) or Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), suffer from overexposure. Music lovers feel that they “get” these composers because of their obvious lyricism, and conclude that their works possess no further mystery. In fact, both Chopin and Grieg are profound composers: the more we study their music, the more it reveals. Since 1991, the Grieg Society of New York has done stalwart work on behalf of its namesake, with extra effort put into this year’s events commemorating the centenary of Grieg’s death in 1907.

On September 23 at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, the cellist Darrett Adkins will perform Grieg’s Cello Sonata as part of a program of Norwegian cello music. On October 26, the Norwegian violinist Ole Böhn will play Grieg’s complete violin sonatas at New York’s American-Scandinavian Foundation. And on December 9 at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, the society’s founder and president Per Brevig will conduct members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic in a concert featuring Grieg’s beloved Holberg Suite.

Norwegian-born maestro Brevig is an apt representative of the diversity of Grieg’s musical legacy. After a legendary career from 1968 to 1994 as principal trombonist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Brevig became a conductor, currently serving as music director of the East Texas Symphony Orchestra, although his lyric grasp of the orchestral and operatic repertory should have led to invitations to the Met and New York City Opera years ago. (Fortunately, Norwegians seem to be gifted with a Lutheran sense of patience and stoicism.)

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Some composers, such as Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) or Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), suffer from overexposure. Music lovers feel that they “get” these composers because of their obvious lyricism, and conclude that their works possess no further mystery. In fact, both Chopin and Grieg are profound composers: the more we study their music, the more it reveals. Since 1991, the Grieg Society of New York has done stalwart work on behalf of its namesake, with extra effort put into this year’s events commemorating the centenary of Grieg’s death in 1907.

On September 23 at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, the cellist Darrett Adkins will perform Grieg’s Cello Sonata as part of a program of Norwegian cello music. On October 26, the Norwegian violinist Ole Böhn will play Grieg’s complete violin sonatas at New York’s American-Scandinavian Foundation. And on December 9 at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, the society’s founder and president Per Brevig will conduct members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic in a concert featuring Grieg’s beloved Holberg Suite.

Norwegian-born maestro Brevig is an apt representative of the diversity of Grieg’s musical legacy. After a legendary career from 1968 to 1994 as principal trombonist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Brevig became a conductor, currently serving as music director of the East Texas Symphony Orchestra, although his lyric grasp of the orchestral and operatic repertory should have led to invitations to the Met and New York City Opera years ago. (Fortunately, Norwegians seem to be gifted with a Lutheran sense of patience and stoicism.)

The same is true of the scholars meticulously studying Grieg in this anniversary year. Tone N. Slotsvik, a graduate student in history at the University of Bergen, observes that Grieg was rightly acclaimed for his outrage at the persecution of Captain Alfred Dreyfus—even refusing an invitation to perform in Paris in 1899. When Dreyfus was unjustly convicted a second time by an anti-Semitic cabal, Grieg wrote to his French hosts, “I am so upset by the disdain of justice demonstrated in France that I don’t feel it possible to be in contact with the French public.” Loads of hate mail from France and elsewhere deluged Grieg, who did not waver in his beliefs. (Yet, as Slotsvik notes, Grieg was no philo-Semite either, repeatedly using the word “Jewish” in his correspondence in a pejorative sense.)

Grieg’s complexities and contradictions are fully expressed in his music, as some of the best available CD’s reveal. Grieg’s Lyric Pieces are played with spiky philosophical grace by the Norwegian pianist Haakon Austbö on a 3-CD set from Brilliant Classics. Glenn Gould gives a fresh viewpoint to Grieg’s Piano Sonata in E minor, Op. 7 on SONY. Listeners who feel overfamiliar with Grieg’s Piano Concerto might sample the freewheeling, dynamic 1927 recording by Grieg’s friend the pianist Arthur De Greef on Pearl and Simax. Grieg himself made magical records in 1903, also reprinted on Simax, though marred by a good deal of surface noise.

Other must-hear interpreters of the Concerto include Benno Moiseiwitsch on Testament, as well as Dinu Lipatti, Sviatoslav Richter, and Leif Ove Andsnes on EMI. (Nothing played by musicians of this caliber seems hackneyed.) Likewise, Iona Brown’s conducting of Grieg’s Holberg Suite on Virgin Classics makes the work sound as vivacious as it doubtless will prove to be under Per Brevig’s baton at Zankel Hall in December.

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The Case of Cho-Liang Lin

Suppose the music world had a violinist with the elegance and eloquence of the legendary Arthur Grumiaux (1921–1986), yet all too few listeners seemed to care? This unlikely scenario is apparently the case for the Taiwan-born Cho-Liang Lin (b. 1960), long a New York City resident. Lin made a series of resplendent recordings of concertos by Jean Sibelius, Carl Nielsen, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Prokofiev, all conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen—plus Camille Saint-Saëns’s Concerto No.3 led by Michael Tilson Thomas, and a French chamber music program with pianist Paul Crossley.

Lin’s tone is sunny and life-enhancing (like that of his idol, the late French violinist Zino Francescatti) in this series of CD’s made for Sony, which has since dropped Lin and allowed many of his CD’s to languish out of print. This is surely in part because Lin refuses to dabble in “crossover” music (unlike his friend the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who remains a Sony headliner). Lin told me a few years ago with characteristic modesty: “I’d be thrilled to play jazz, blues, and bluegrass with ease, but it’s not in my blood, I’m afraid.” What is in his blood is classical music; Lin concertizes constantly and runs music festivals in Taipei and La Jolla, the latter a chamber-music extravaganza.

New Yorkers most recently heard Lin on May 22 under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the concerts of which have been exiled during Alice Tully Hall’s renovation to the garage-like acoustics—totally inappropriate for chamber music—of the Time Warner Center’s chilly Rose Theater, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Even so, alongside the accomplished violist Paul Neubauer and others in works by Ernö Dohnányi and Antonín Dvořák, Lin’s qualities of crystalline clarity and passionate involvement shone through.

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Suppose the music world had a violinist with the elegance and eloquence of the legendary Arthur Grumiaux (1921–1986), yet all too few listeners seemed to care? This unlikely scenario is apparently the case for the Taiwan-born Cho-Liang Lin (b. 1960), long a New York City resident. Lin made a series of resplendent recordings of concertos by Jean Sibelius, Carl Nielsen, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Prokofiev, all conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen—plus Camille Saint-Saëns’s Concerto No.3 led by Michael Tilson Thomas, and a French chamber music program with pianist Paul Crossley.

Lin’s tone is sunny and life-enhancing (like that of his idol, the late French violinist Zino Francescatti) in this series of CD’s made for Sony, which has since dropped Lin and allowed many of his CD’s to languish out of print. This is surely in part because Lin refuses to dabble in “crossover” music (unlike his friend the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who remains a Sony headliner). Lin told me a few years ago with characteristic modesty: “I’d be thrilled to play jazz, blues, and bluegrass with ease, but it’s not in my blood, I’m afraid.” What is in his blood is classical music; Lin concertizes constantly and runs music festivals in Taipei and La Jolla, the latter a chamber-music extravaganza.

New Yorkers most recently heard Lin on May 22 under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the concerts of which have been exiled during Alice Tully Hall’s renovation to the garage-like acoustics—totally inappropriate for chamber music—of the Time Warner Center’s chilly Rose Theater, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Even so, alongside the accomplished violist Paul Neubauer and others in works by Ernö Dohnányi and Antonín Dvořák, Lin’s qualities of crystalline clarity and passionate involvement shone through.

The same is true of his recordings, of late limited to new or offbeat works for smaller labels. Lin has just released a CD on Naxos featuring the violin sonata of Georg Tintner (1917–1999), a conductor best known as an interpreter of Bruckner, and who wrote music most charitably described as the obiter dicta of a masterful interpreter. Other recent recordings for Ondine include the bombastic violin concerto by the Baltimore-born composer Christopher Rouse (b. 1949) as well as the tedious Maoist folklore of Tan Dun’s Out of Peking opera. Doubtless the best of Lin’s forays into new or rare music is his CD on BIS of the music of Chen Yi (b. 1953), an extremely refined composer of quality, currently teaching at the University of Missouri–Kansas City Conservatory of Music.

Why has Lin not recorded the solo works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Schubert’s chamber works, and other standard repertory pieces which would suit him perfectly? Lin did recently release a CD on Naxos of Vivaldi’s familiar Four Seasons, but unfortunately the conductor was the fussy and fidgety Anthony Newman. It is imperative, for the sake of music-lovers in general and especially violin fans, that some record label with taste (EMI? Philips?) take Lin’s recording schedule in hand and produce the CD’s that this brilliant talent deserves. Even in our distinctly unclassical age, a classical artist of this soaring brilliance must be given his due.

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Slava’s Real Legacy

The much-deserved tributes to the late cellist Mstislav “Slava” Rostropovich (1927–2007) stopped short of examining the future of the instrument that he loved so well. Rostropovich was so determined that the cello should flourish as a solo instrument that he commissioned (and inspired) literally hundreds of new works, many of permanent value, by major composers like Witold Lutosławski (1913–1994), Henri Dutilleux (b. 1916), and Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953), among many others.

The cellist who will, for good or ill, inherit Rostropovich’s public mantle is Yo-Yo Ma, a technically adroit and charming artist and a fixture in the popular imagination. A young cellist pointed out to me recently that a cello soloist is required for about 120 symphony orchestra concerts per year in America; of these, almost 100 are performed by Ma. Although Ma is a highly accomplished musician, this situation is clearly inequitable.

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The much-deserved tributes to the late cellist Mstislav “Slava” Rostropovich (1927–2007) stopped short of examining the future of the instrument that he loved so well. Rostropovich was so determined that the cello should flourish as a solo instrument that he commissioned (and inspired) literally hundreds of new works, many of permanent value, by major composers like Witold Lutosławski (1913–1994), Henri Dutilleux (b. 1916), and Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953), among many others.

The cellist who will, for good or ill, inherit Rostropovich’s public mantle is Yo-Yo Ma, a technically adroit and charming artist and a fixture in the popular imagination. A young cellist pointed out to me recently that a cello soloist is required for about 120 symphony orchestra concerts per year in America; of these, almost 100 are performed by Ma. Although Ma is a highly accomplished musician, this situation is clearly inequitable.

Rostropovich taught his audiences to beware of such monopolies: he knew that the cello sings in many voices, expressing many different viewpoints. This vision was reflected in his being an inspirational—if only intermittently available—teacher. His real legacy lives on not in Ma’s ascent, but in brilliant cellists who are young or in mid-career. These include the remarkable Hai-Ye Ni, who recorded a CD for Naxos of works by Schumann, Beethoven, and Schubert while playing with the New York Philharmonic. (She was snatched away by the Philadelphia Orchestra, where she currently serves as principal cellist.) Another outstanding talent is Canadian-born Shauna Rolston, whose emotive CD of concertos by Edward Elgar and Camille Saint-Saëns is on CBC Records. A third is Wendy Warner, who infuses passion into Paul Hindemith’s music for cello and piano on Bridge Records.

On the European scene, Slava’s heirs include the young Danish cellist Henrik Dam Thomsen, who has recorded with panache thorny solo works by Zoltan Kodály and Benjamin Britten for Chandos, and Germany’s elegant Alban Gerhardt, who has performed a varied program of Astor Piazzolla, Maurice Ravel, and others on EMI Classics. One of the most poetic of Slava’s musical inheritors is France’s Xavier Phillips, who has recorded on the Timpani label a work by the contemporary composer Jean-Louis Agobet in homage to the great cellist Emanuel Feuermann (1902-1942).

Like the magically deft Feuermann, Rostropovich’s historical place is secure beside his predecessors and near-contemporaries Pablo Casals, Pierre Fournier, Maurice Gendron, Antonio Janigro, Maurice Maréchal, Frank Miller, Aldo Parisot, Miklós Perényi, and János Starker (all must-hears for anyone even vaguely interested in the cello). Yet the forward-thinking Slava would surely also welcome the aforementioned newer talents as essential listening too.

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Free, First-Rate Manhattan Music

The cost of high culture in music has long troubled audiences. High ticket prices can discourage a much-needed spirit of adventure in concert programming by inducing managers to restrict performers to familiar, crowd-pleasing work. Music lovers sometimes feel themselves doomed to hear the same Beethoven cycles by the same arthritic pianists and string quartets, or the same Dvořák concerto by a cellist who played it better a quarter-century ago.

Happily, there is a splendid alternative awaiting anyone with a bit of time and an appetite for the unexpected: the free recitals and performances offered by students at conservatories like Juilliard, Mannes, and the Manhattan School of Music, as well as the CUNY Graduate Center. Many of these performers are top-level talents who, because of the vagaries of the classical music business, may disappear into a regional or foreign orchestra and rarely be heard again in solo recitals here; very few will have major recording careers. Failing to hear them now, at the peak of their training and youthful ambition, means possibly never hearing them again. So here are a choice few of these upcoming events, all free:

• On May 17 at Juilliard’s Morse Hall a concert will be given by the Manitoba-born cellist Victoria Bass, who specializes in music by modern masters such as György Ligeti and Witold Lutosławski, but also performs her own arrangements of Handel and Bach. She is a member of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, whose website announces that as a girl in Manitoba, Bass would “go out into the fields and tip over sleeping cows.” (Thanks to Juilliard, Bass’s concert is as free as her spirit.)

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The cost of high culture in music has long troubled audiences. High ticket prices can discourage a much-needed spirit of adventure in concert programming by inducing managers to restrict performers to familiar, crowd-pleasing work. Music lovers sometimes feel themselves doomed to hear the same Beethoven cycles by the same arthritic pianists and string quartets, or the same Dvořák concerto by a cellist who played it better a quarter-century ago.

Happily, there is a splendid alternative awaiting anyone with a bit of time and an appetite for the unexpected: the free recitals and performances offered by students at conservatories like Juilliard, Mannes, and the Manhattan School of Music, as well as the CUNY Graduate Center. Many of these performers are top-level talents who, because of the vagaries of the classical music business, may disappear into a regional or foreign orchestra and rarely be heard again in solo recitals here; very few will have major recording careers. Failing to hear them now, at the peak of their training and youthful ambition, means possibly never hearing them again. So here are a choice few of these upcoming events, all free:

• On May 17 at Juilliard’s Morse Hall a concert will be given by the Manitoba-born cellist Victoria Bass, who specializes in music by modern masters such as György Ligeti and Witold Lutosławski, but also performs her own arrangements of Handel and Bach. She is a member of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, whose website announces that as a girl in Manitoba, Bass would “go out into the fields and tip over sleeping cows.” (Thanks to Juilliard, Bass’s concert is as free as her spirit.)

• Juilliard also offers two programs, one from its pre-college orchestra and one from its pre-college symphony, played by high-school students and a smattering of gifted pre-teens. Among the Juilliard pre-college division’s wonders is the pianist and composer Conrad Tao, born in 1994, whose works and pianism, available on CD on his own website, are expressive and preternaturally accomplished.

• Juilliard is not the only place to experience music at a high level for free. The New School’s Mannes School of Music is presenting on May 19 a concert by the Mannes Philharmonic and Senior Chorus of music by Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky.

• The Manhattan School of Music is especially generous to its audience, presenting from May 17 to 19 free performances of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into The Woods by the school’s musical theatre ensemble, while on May 31, the CUNY Graduate Center will offer the soprano Brooke Bryant—a student of early music—in recital of the music of Baroque women composers.

If you like what you hear at these and other free concerts, and have the means, why not make a voluntary contribution to the particular school’s scholarship fund? That would be the best way to give thanks for these student performers and their generosity, which has become all-too-unexpected in the heavily commercialized climate of classical music.

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Auf Wiedersehen, Alban Berg Quartet!

Sign and Sight has translated a long article by Die Zeit‘s music critic Volker Hagedorn on the Alban Berg Quartet, one of the world’s pre-eminent string quartets. After a career spanning 40 years, the quartet will be retiring from the stage at the end of the next performance season.

Founded in 1967 by the Austrian violinist Günther Pichler and comprising Pichler, violinist Gerhard Schulz, cellist Valentin Erben, and violist Thomas Kakuska, the quartet made championing the work of 20th-century composers its fundamental principle. (Though the group did not, by any means, neglect the work of past masters, producing important recordings of Beethoven’s string quartets.) The quartet soon became one of the most widely heard and well-beloved in Europe.

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Sign and Sight has translated a long article by Die Zeit‘s music critic Volker Hagedorn on the Alban Berg Quartet, one of the world’s pre-eminent string quartets. After a career spanning 40 years, the quartet will be retiring from the stage at the end of the next performance season.

Founded in 1967 by the Austrian violinist Günther Pichler and comprising Pichler, violinist Gerhard Schulz, cellist Valentin Erben, and violist Thomas Kakuska, the quartet made championing the work of 20th-century composers its fundamental principle. (Though the group did not, by any means, neglect the work of past masters, producing important recordings of Beethoven’s string quartets.) The quartet soon became one of the most widely heard and well-beloved in Europe.

Hagedorn’s article is full of insight about their playing but also contains several interesting anecdotes. This one in particular should attest to the quartet’s early prowess and seriousness:

The very first modern composer to be included in their repertoire was not able to hear them anyway. Their namesake Alban Berg died in 1935. His widow, Helene, wanted to hear the four young musicians herself before giving the quartet her blessing. “We had to play the ‘Lyric Suite’ in the room where Berg composed it.” [says Pichler.] In this piece Berg gave musical expression to his despairing love for Hanna Fuchs, the married sister of Franz Werfel. Laden with symbolic motifs and a concealed subtext, which at one point breaks out quite openly in a quotation from Tristan and Isolde, it is one of the most passionate declarations of love in the string quartet repertoire. “That was really exciting for us,” says Pichler, relating how all the big names on the Vienna music scene came to hear them play. “Helene listened very intently and with great interest”—and she was taken with them.

The death of the quartet’s violist, Thomas Kakuska, in July 2005 was a major loss to the world of music. The group’s departure from public performance is another. Auf wiedersehen.

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One Eakins for Another

When the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts recently purchased The Gross Clinic (1875), Thomas Eakins’s masterpiece, they had less than half the $68 million price in hand. There was apprehension over how the financially strapped institutions would raise the rest—with good reason, it now turns out. The Academy has just sold another work of Eakins, The Cello Player (1896), to a private purchaser for an undisclosed sum to help raise the rest of the purchase price. It is a striking portrait of Rudolph Henning, the cellist who introduced Dvořák to American audiences. The Academy bought the painting from Eakins in 1897, one of the few he sold in his lifetime.

The sale of items from a museum collection is called “deaccessioning,” an unattractive word for an unattractive act. Museum ethics are quite strict about the process: one may sell objects to enhance a collection—trading up, as it were—but never to cover operating expenses or to pay for repairs. Such actions are looked on with horror in the art world, as the equivalent of burning furniture to heat the house for a few days.

From this perspective, the swap is relatively unobjectionable. Both paintings show Eakins at his best, observing his most characteristic subject, a titanic figure in a moment of intense concentration and action. And both works are in a sense autobiographical, showing the empathy Eakins reserved for those he regarded as fellow artists. Of the two paintings, however, The Gross Clinic is by far the finer, matching in originality and intensity of expression what Huckleberry Finn achieved in literature or Boston’s Trinity Church in architecture. One can sympathize with the Academy for making this difficult decision.

On the other hand, one need not endorse it. Museums that think boldly attract bold donors; and museums that think cautiously do not. When the original purchase was announced it seemed like a brilliant but risky chess gambit; in the light of this sale, it looks considerably less spectacular, like the sacrifice of a rook for a queen. If more works are sacrificed in the coming months, however, this daring gambit might begin to look like an ill-considered blunder.

When the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts recently purchased The Gross Clinic (1875), Thomas Eakins’s masterpiece, they had less than half the $68 million price in hand. There was apprehension over how the financially strapped institutions would raise the rest—with good reason, it now turns out. The Academy has just sold another work of Eakins, The Cello Player (1896), to a private purchaser for an undisclosed sum to help raise the rest of the purchase price. It is a striking portrait of Rudolph Henning, the cellist who introduced Dvořák to American audiences. The Academy bought the painting from Eakins in 1897, one of the few he sold in his lifetime.

The sale of items from a museum collection is called “deaccessioning,” an unattractive word for an unattractive act. Museum ethics are quite strict about the process: one may sell objects to enhance a collection—trading up, as it were—but never to cover operating expenses or to pay for repairs. Such actions are looked on with horror in the art world, as the equivalent of burning furniture to heat the house for a few days.

From this perspective, the swap is relatively unobjectionable. Both paintings show Eakins at his best, observing his most characteristic subject, a titanic figure in a moment of intense concentration and action. And both works are in a sense autobiographical, showing the empathy Eakins reserved for those he regarded as fellow artists. Of the two paintings, however, The Gross Clinic is by far the finer, matching in originality and intensity of expression what Huckleberry Finn achieved in literature or Boston’s Trinity Church in architecture. One can sympathize with the Academy for making this difficult decision.

On the other hand, one need not endorse it. Museums that think boldly attract bold donors; and museums that think cautiously do not. When the original purchase was announced it seemed like a brilliant but risky chess gambit; in the light of this sale, it looks considerably less spectacular, like the sacrifice of a rook for a queen. If more works are sacrificed in the coming months, however, this daring gambit might begin to look like an ill-considered blunder.

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