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International Musicians Seminar

Steven Isserlis on Sándor Végh and IMS

Article Commissioned by Salzubrg Festival 2012, and reproduced with their kind permission

I was sixteen when I first attended the International Musicians’ Seminar at Prussia Cove, Cornwall, on the south-west tip of England. I had heard many stories about the seminar’s founder, the great Hungarian violinist and teacher (and later conductor) Sándor Végh – about his amazing musicianship, his fearsome temper and his extraordinary looks. But I was not prepared for the sight that met my bleary eyes when, early in the morning and far-from-fresh from the sleeper train, I was dropped off at my cottage: the first person I saw was Sándor Végh himself, ambling towards the bathroom in his pyjamas. I fled softly, hoping he hadn’t spotted me.

This inauspicious non-meeting behind me, though, I was captivated by the classes I attended over the following ten days. Végh used to say that he had inherited a great tradition, having studied with Hubay, who had played with Brahms. That was certainly true – but the joy of his musicianship was not merely a matter of tradition. His way of playing, of teaching, was radiantly alive. He insisted that every note have its correct place, that music never stand still; perhaps his over-riding preoccupation as a teacher was contour, every phrase having its high and low points, each forte (as he put it) ‘having his piano’. It all felt as natural as speech.

At the end of the course, I played Prokofiev’s sonata for cello and piano in a student concert, and afterwards, to my delight, found myself completely enfolded within a hug from Végh. ‘I am sorry that Pablo {Casals} could not hear you,’ he said. ‘He would have loved to tease you.’ (I THINK he meant ‘teach’ – but he said ‘tease’. Maybe that was what he meant!) It was a thrilling moment for me – and the beginning of a rather rocky, but to me immensely important, relationship that was to last until Végh’s death. The next year I went back to IMS, and played a Beethoven string trio with my sisters in Végh’s class. Two years later, I attended for the first time the newly-formed Open Chamber Music at IMS, in which older musicians (including Végh) worked on chamber music with younger musicians. I was put into a few different groups with the great man – and disaster struck. I was now nineteen, very pleased with myself, rather irresponsible – and inexperienced in chamber music. The main group in which I was playing with Végh was the Mendelssohn Octet for strings, on which we were to work for two weeks. I was initially supposed to play first cello, but after hearing me floundering through one rehearsal, Végh (quite rightly) demoted me to second. From then, having been a favourite of his, I became a distinct un-favourite. The second cello part has its own share of difficulties: for instance, the last movement begins with a fast passage played on the C string, the lowest string of the cello; it is very hard to make the notes sound clear. Every time we approached that part, my heart sank. Végh would yell at me, imitating the noise I was making and making me do it over and over again, with everyone else sitting in miserable silence. It was hell. And yet – at the concert, I was told that that passage was clearer than my friends had ever heard it. And, far more importantly, Végh played like an angel. I realised, as I emerged from the seminar, that I had learned a huge amount, that I would never see music in the same light again.

Over the next years, I played with him often. It was never easy – I was no longer his blue-eyed (well, brown-eyed) boy, as I had been when I was 16; but the relationship was (for me, anyway) incredibly fruitful. There were many low points – such as the time he threw me out of a rehearsal for bringing a cup of tea in with me; the hideous moment when, after I had repeatedly (in an effort to assert my independence) accused him of coming in on the wrong beat in a Schumann trio, it transpired that it was I who was wrong – I’ll never forget the look he gave me; and, most memorably, the time he poured a glass of beer over my head. (I think he’d overheard me imitating him.) But there were also many high points, as he demonstrated ways of playing that were completely new and revelatory. The last work we played together was Schumann’s 3rd trio, op 110, with András Schiff playing the piano. Végh more than slightly un-nerved me before we embarked upon the first rehearsal by casually mentioning that the last time he’d played the piece had been with Casals; but still, rehearsals, while tough (mostly) were fascinating (always). The concert at the end of the week had its share of mishaps, and Vegh worried that his playing might be going downhill (it was one of his last concerts as a violinist); but András, who listened to the tape afterwards, told me that despite the imperfections, Végh sounded wonderful, his playing conveying a gritty strength that was unique. I remember many other revelatory performances he gave in Cornwall – none more so than one of the Mendelssohn D minor trio, also with András at the piano, and with Tibor de Machula (former first cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic under Furtwangler) playing the cello. It was extraordinary – half the tempo of most of the performances I’d heard of that piece, but again sounding totally inevitable, and so much more meaningful than any other reading.

His physical approach to the violin was, like his musicianship, founded on completely natural principles. His teaching was organic, every piece of invaluable technical advice entirely related to a musical goal. His legacy as a teacher can be seen in the huge number of his disciples around today, themselves performing or teaching throughout the world of music. Some of the recordings of his famous Végh quartet, too, have earned themselves immortality – rather literally in one case, since their recording of Beethoven’s quartet op 130 was placed in NASA’s outer-space-bound Voyager, as one of the items intended to show other civilizations what we’ve achieved down here. Many of his performances with Casals are also striking testaments of a great partnership. But in general, I feel that perhaps one had to be there in person to feel the full force of Végh’s playing; on disc, sometimes the intonation (to which he had a very individual attitude) and the lack of beauty for its own sake can be a distraction to ears used to the shiny perfection of today’s touched-up performances. I feel no such qualms, however, about his recordings as a conductor. Here – in Schubert’s 5th and 8th symphonies, for instance – one can immediately feel his wondrous understanding of phrasing and of musical structure, gripping the listener from the opening sounds until the last note dies away. The orchestra is the one of which he was principal conductor for almost twenty years, the Salzburg Camerata. How hard he must have worked them! No note is taken for granted, every phrase having its own unique shape and meaning. Knowing his methods, I can imagine that it wasn’t exactly pure enjoyment for the players – and yet, few orchestras can ever have sounded that fresh and spontaneous. It is no surprise that Carlos Kleiber used to listen to as many of Végh’s rehearsals as he could; when they finally met, at a dinner hosted by Végh’s daughter Alja, the two men got on splendidly.

Alas, Végh is long gone. I didn’t see him for a few years before he died, unfortunately, although I corresponded with him through his wife Alice; and then, through Alja, he invited me to play in a festival to celebrate his 85th birthday – sadly, though, he died a few months before the event took place. (Perhaps I meant a little more to him than I would have imagined, because after Alice died, Alja told me that she’d found a framed picture of Végh and myself in her mother’s apartment. I was deeply touched to hear that.) These days his influence lives on as strongly as ever at IMS Prussia Cove. He became less involved with the organization during his last, frailer years; and eventually, with Végh’s blessing, Hilary Behrens, the former student of Végh’s who had made his master’s dream of a seminar in Cornwall a reality, asked me to take over as Artistic Director. I was thrilled that Végh wanted me to assume his mantle. From the beginning, I felt the responsibility of taking over a seminar that had meant so much to so many musicians. Our principal aim was – and still is - to continue to pass on Végh’s musical values, the values he had himself imbibed from his teacher Hubay, and also from such figures as Bartok, Dohnányi, Chaliapin and Casals, all of whom played important roles in his life. Of course, such a seminar has to keep alive, and to be renewed. Some of the professors who have to come to teach there recently – such as the composer Thomas Adès - never knew Végh; but the majority of our regular teachers are musicians who came under Végh’s direct influence. These include András Schiff, who performed more than anyone else with Végh in his later years, and who brings his mentor’s ideas wonderfully to life in his own music-making; the great composer György Kurtág, who cites the performance of Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue which Végh conducted at one of the seminars as being among the absolute highpoints of his musical life; Ferenc Rados, the inspiring and brilliant teacher of Schiff, Zoltan Kocsis and many others; Végh’s pupils Gerhard Schulz, Erich Höbarth and Thomas Riebl; and for the cello class, Ralph Kirshbaum, David Waterman and myself, all of whom, while not exactly his students, played many times with Végh – not so different from studying with him.
© Steven Isserlis 2012