Sunday, April 28, 2013

Antonin Bennewitz

Antonin Bennewitz (Antonin Benevic) was a Czech violinist, teacher, and conductor born (in Privrat, Bohemia) on March 26, 1833.  Johannes Brahms was born the same year, about a month later.  Bennewitz is one of those violinists who, despite significant achievements and the advantages that accrue to a very long life, somehow manage to get overlooked by historians.  He is mostly mentioned in connection with three or four famous pupils he had.  The most famous of these are probably Otakar Sevcik, Josef Suk, and Karl Halir.  From the age of 12, from 1846 to 1852, he studied at the Prague Conservatory with another obscure violinist, Moritz Mildner (teacher also – at about the same time - of Ferdinand Laub, one of Tchaikovsky’s favorite violinists.)  In 1852, he became concertmaster of the Estates Theatre orchestra.  He was 19 years old.  He stayed for nine years.  The Estates Theatre was a very important concert venue in Europe.  As part (since 1920) of the present-day Czech National Theatre, it still is.  Mozart’s Don Giovanni had its world premiere there in 1787.  Paganini gave concerts there.  Gustav Mahler and Karl Goldmark also conducted concerts there.  Bennewitz undertook short concert tours during his years at the Estates Theatre and subsequently played in orchestras in Stuttgart and Salzburg.  He participated in various premieres of chamber music and orchestral works by Czech composers, as violinist or conductor – Bedrich Smetana was one of them.  In 1866, he became violin teacher at the Prague Conservatory.  He was 33 years old.  He became first violinist of the Bennewitz String Quartet in 1876.  In 1882, he was made Director of the Prague Conservatory.  He remained for nineteen years – Antonin Dvorak took over in November of 1901.  After 1901, Bennewitz seems to have disappeared.  He died on May 29, 1926, at age 93.  Brahms was long dead by then and Richard Wagner, Claude Debussy, Jean Sibelius, Richard Strauss, and Igor Stravinsky had already revolutionized the musical landscape.  I am sure Bennewitz played a superlative violin, though I could not find a single source which mentioned any specific instrument.  The Bennewitz Quartet is alive and well, having been resurrected in 1998.  

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Nicolai Berezowsky

Nicolai Berezowsky (Nicolai Tikhonovich Berezowsky) was a Russian violinist, composer, and conductor born (in St Petersburg, Russia) on May 17, 1900.  It has been said that at one time he was more famous than Aaron Copland, the iconic American composer – today, Berezowsky is all but forgotten.  The 1953 edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music makes no mention of him.  He studied violin, piano, and singing at the Imperial Chapel in St Petersburg, graduating in 1916.  One source has him studying violin in Vienna as well with an obscure teacher named Robert Pollak (aka as Robert Pollack), an Austrian violinist who made his New York recital debut on December 18, 1913 and who taught at the Vienna Conservatory from 1919 to 1926.  Pollak is said to be one of Isaac Stern’s teachers, too.  After graduation from the Imperial Chapel, Berezowsky played violin with the opera or ballet orchestras in Saratov (1917-1919) and Moscow (1919-1920.)  According to one source, he left Russia in 1920 – other sources say 1922.  He arrived in the U.S. in 1922 and studied at Juilliard (New York) with Paul Kochanski for some time.  He also played for a while with the Capitol Theatre Orchestra of New York – the same orchestra which hired Eugene Ormandy as a violinist when he first arrived in the U.S. and it is quite possible they played in that orchestra at the same time.  From 1923 to 1929, Berezowsky played with the New York Philharmonic – actually, the New York Philharmonic Society merged with the New York Symphony in 1928 so it could have been with one or the other orchestra that he played; internet sources are not clear on that.  From 1932 to 1936 he was an assistant conductor at CBS.  From 1929 to about 1931 he must have been a freelance conductor and violinist playing and conducting for radio since it wasn’t until 1932 that he again had a steady job.  He played second violin in the Coolidge String Quartet with William Kroll (on first violin) from 1935 until 1940.  From 1941 to 1946 he again worked at CBS.  As far as composition, Serge Koussevitsky (the Boston Symphony conductor) was a great champion of his and gave the premieres of many of his major works.  His cello concerto was premiered by Gregor Piatigorsky and the Boston Symphony.  It seems not to have been terribly popular with the public since Piatigorsky played it only three times in quick succession – once in New York also - then never played it again.  The concerto was premiered in Boston on February 22, 1935, then repeated on February 23 and finally played in New York's Carnegie Hall on March 2, 1935.  (Thanks to Bridget Carr, archivist for the Boston Symphony, for these details.)  Nevertheless, Berezowsky’s other music was performed far and wide and enjoyed much success while he lived – Carl Flesch performed his violin concerto and William Primrose played his viola concerto.  Berezowsky began composing while still a teenager.  His Hebrew Suite was premiered by the New York Philharmonic on December 6, 1928 – Willem Mengelberg was the conductor.  Later on, the philharmonic played other works of his as well.  The last Berezowsky work to be performed by that orchestra was his Christmas Festival Overture back in December of 1953 so, for 60 years now, Berezowsky’s music has been absent from its programs.  Be that as it may, his music is still occasionally performed and some of it has been recorded.  Of all his compositions, the most popular is probably his children’s opera, Babar, the Elephant.  That was one of his last works.  He also wrote concertos for violin, cello, viola, and harp; an oratorio, two operas, four symphonies, various light orchestral pieces, and many chamber music works, including no fewer than 5 string quartets.  Columbia University and the New York Public Library have substantial archives on Berezowsky.  It would not be difficult to resurrect his music, if someone wanted to.  Here is a YouTube audio file featuring the Coolidge Quartet in 1938, playing a 1921 quartet by Paul Hindemith.  It is superb and Berezowsky’s magnificent, warm, clean violin playing can be distinguished from Kroll’s more austere sound.  Berezowsky also did some recording as an orchestral conductor.  Berezowsky’s first wife (Alice Newman) published a 1943 memoir which covered much of their life together, titled “Duets with Nicky.”  Berezowsky died (in New York City) on August 27, 1953, at age 53.  As was violinist Christian Ferras much later (in 1982), Berezowsky was a victim of suicide.   

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Isabelle Faust

Isabelle Faust is a German violinist and teacher born (in Esslingen, Germany – near Stuttgart) on March 19, 1972.  Faust is a supremely gifted artist known for her thorough involvement in both, the early music and contemporary styles of playing, possessed of a markedly identifiable sound who nevertheless maintains an unorthodox view of marketing – she just plays and lets the chips fall where they may.  As one writer puts it, she has an admirable and “refreshingly devil-may-care” attitude.  I do not usually exercise the privilege of writing subjectively on this blog but there are exceptions.  To quote further, Faust delights in “the pure process of producing what I think the composer wants to hear.”  She began her violin studies at age five.  By age 11, she was playing second violin in a string quartet she helped organize.  She kept playing in this quartet until age 15.  She had up to then been studying with Christoph Poppen.  During the summer she would study with Denes Zsigmondy, a Hungarian pedagogue who helped her navigate the (Bela) Bartok violin sonatas.  However, she gives most of the credit for her training to Poppen, with whom she studied between 1988 and 1994 at the Advanced School for Music in Detmold (Germany) (Musikhochschule Detmold.)  Detmold is located about 120 miles north of Frankfurt.   None other than Johannes Brahms spent time working there.  As do also many other modern concert violinists, Faust plays contemporary music – music which I consider sub-standard and (for the most part) intensely dislike - as often as she can. Many contemporary composers have written works for her or dedicated works to her – I won’t bother to list them since I don’t care for their work.  Faust’s technique is truly fabulous and not over-stated – her considerable technical prowess is not worn on her sleeve, so to speak. What intrigues me is her sound.  It has been written that rather than “merely mastering her instrument and its repertoire, experiencing and deeply exploring music [is what] lies at the heart of her work.”  The New York Times wrote that "her sound has passion, grit and electricity but also a disarming warmth and sweetness that can unveil the music’s hidden strains of lyricism."  Faust won the Leopold Mozart violin competition (Augsburg, Austria) in 1987 (at age 15) and the Paganini competition (Genoa, Italy) in 1993.  I have heard that the winner of the Paganini competition has the right to play a recital on Paganini’s famed Cannone Guarnerius violin but there is no mention of her doing that.  The Dvorak concerto was one of the first major concertos she recorded (2003.)  Her recording of the Beethoven concerto was released in 2007.  Faust has also recorded the violin sonatas of Bartok, Beethoven, Szymanowski, Janacek, and Bach.  She performs extensively at chamber music festivals around the world and, of course, has worked with almost all of the major orchestras and conductors.  She made her U.S. debut in 1995 with the Utah Symphony.  She was 23 years old.  Her first appearance with the New York Philharmonic did not take place until March 20, 2013 - she played both Bach concertos on that occasion.  Her current violin is the Sleeping Beauty Stradivarius of 1704.  As far as I could ascertain, before Faust obtained it, this Stradivarius had never been played by a concert violinist.  In fact, it is one of very few Stradivarius violins with its original neck intact.  Supposedly, it lay dormant in a bank vault, in its original violin case, for decades, and was named Sleeping Beauty for that very reason.  The original label reads 1720 or 1729 but violin "experts" have decided that the year of construction is closer to 1704.  Claude Lebet  - an obscure luthier - found it in 1991.  Faust has also played a JB Guadagnini of 1761.  She is shown here playing the Beethoven Triple Concerto with two of her colleagues and the Orchestra of the 18th Century (the Netherlands.)  It is a magnificent live performance from 2010.  This early music orchestra (founded in 1981) is very rare in that it does not audition its members.  Its conductor is Frans Bruggen.  If you prefer hearing a much shorter piece, she splendidly plays the Bach g minor concerto in this YouTube audio file.  

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Casimir von Blumenthal

Casimir von Blumenthal was a German violinist, conductor, composer, and teacher born (in Brussels, Belgium) on August 8, 1787.  His father was Baron Joseph von Blumenthal.  Unfortunately, some political turmoil which began in 1787 resulted in his losing most of his fortune.  His sons, including Casimir, instead of becoming titled nobles, became musicians.  In 1789, the family moved to Prague to avoid the short-lived revolution and subsequent violence.  Blumenthal began to study violin and composition with Georg Joseph Vogler.  Two sources state that Blumenthal studied with Vogler (aka Abbe Vogler) in Vienna.  Vogler is mainly known as an organist and teacher who traveled far and wide and did not stay put too long in one place so Blumenthal’s lessons could have taken place sporadically.  I am not certain of that but I’m not taking the trouble to precisely ascertain it one way or the other.  Be that as it may, Casimir and his two (older) brothers were all admitted into the Orchestra of the Theatre on the Banks of the Wien River (Theater an der Wien, in Vienna.)  This venue was brand new and became very famous in its day and still (for the most part) stands today.  It was the site selected for some of Beethoven’s most important premieres.  Casimir was 17 years old then.  Prior to 1811, the violinist Franz Clement was Director at the theatre but sometime after 1811, Blumenthal took his place.  Blumenthal later worked as a teacher and conductor in Czechoslovakia (Prague, Brno, and Bratislava.)  In 1821, he was appointed conductor of the Allgemeine Musik-Gesellschaft (aka the AMG - General Music Society or Universal Music Company) and settled in Zurich, Switzerland, where he married, founded a choral society, and joined a Masonic Lodge.  He was 34 years old and he never looked back.  Until the Tonhalle Orchestra came along in 1868, the AMG had the best orchestra in Switzerland, although it was composed of both amateur and professional musicians who would often not attend all rehearsals required for performances.  He was there for 25 years.  Blumenthal conducted the Swiss Music Society Festivals in Zurich in 1828 and 1838.  For the inaugural performance in the Aktientheater, on November 10, 1834, he composed an overture based on Swiss folk songs.  I’m guessing the piece is not nowadays available through a publisher.  The AMG library might have it.  With the reluctant blessing of the authorities, Blumenthal began to also conduct opera performances at that theatre.  Blumenthal retired from his post in 1846.  He died on July 22, 1849 (in Lausanne, Switzerland) at age 61.  Today, he is completely forgotten.