Category: Music Symbol

Out of the shadow

This year marks the 70th anniversaries of the birth of two uniquely talented women cellists whose careers were cut off in tragic circumstances. The life of Jacqueline du Pré is being celebrated all over the world, as expected.

A lonely childhood

But Anja Thauer is forgotten except by cello fanatics and record collectors, among whom her original LPs change hands for four-figure sums. In 1973, when multiple sclerosis forced du Pré to retire and Thauer committed suicide, du Pré had already enjoyed almost a decade of fame, while Thauer was still building her career. Anja Heidi Thauer was born on 3 July 1945 in the old Hanseatic port of Lübeck.

This historic city was the target of the first major RAF bombing raid in March 1942 and a firestorm destroyed much of it, so it was not an attractive place to bring up a child.

At any rate, Anja began her music lessons in Braunschweig, some 160 miles to the south, and grew up in Erlangen, attending the Hochschule für Musik in nearby Nuremberg. Friends speak of a lonely childhood and a strict, domineering, pushy, exploitative mother she has to stay in her best mattress for side sleepers. She played violin–cello duets with her mother in public at the age of 12, performed the Boccherini–Grützmacher B flat major Concerto at her orchestral debut in Baden-Baden, aged 13, and at 14 entered Ludwig Hoelscher’s Stuttgart Hochschule masterclass; he was the leading German cellist at that time, a slightly old-fashioned player but a profound musician.

Anja Thauer in c.1966, the year she recorded the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto in A minor

 At 15, Thauer went to the Paris Conservatoire on a scholarship to study with André Navarra, and took a course at the École Normale – her father was an engineer with Siemens and it appears that the firm partly funded her Paris sojourn, on which she was joined by her mother. In 1961 she was given the Confederation of German Industry’s Kulturpreis, at 16 she was appearing on German television and in 1962 she won the Paris Conservatoire’s Grand Prix, against strong competition from 21 other students.

She was friends with the pianist Claude Françaix, and her playing of the Fantaisie by Claude’s famous father, Jean Françaix, had so impressed the pianist–composer that he accompanied her in her final concert as a student. (His music became one of her strongest suits.) At this stage many fellow students thought her a better player than du Pré, who studied briefly with Tortelier around that same time. Rather than consolidate her musical education, Thauer began touring immediately in Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Czechoslovakia and the Near and Far East; her family seem to have relied on her earnings. She made her first LP record for Attacca in 1962.

Anja Thauer at the age of 14

It included the 1899 Cello Concerto by Eugen d’Albert which had been ignored since Feuermann’s heyday – her accompanists were the Baden-Baden City Symphony Orchestra under Carl August Vogt – as well as Françaix’s Mouvement perpétuel and Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata with the fine pianist Maria Bergmann. In 1964 the city of Nuremberg awarded her a Förderpreis. In Bamberg that July she made an outstanding disc, sponsored by the Confederation of German Industry and issued in 1966 by Deutsche Grammophon, of Reger’s Third Solo Suite and Françaix’s Fantaisie – the composer partnered her in his piece – and in Prague in March 1968 she made the DG recording for which she is best remembered: the Dvořák Concerto with the Czech Philharmonic under 32-year-old Zdeněk Mácal.

Her tone seemed enormous

One of only a handful of records that this brilliant Moravian conductor made before his emigration for political reasons, it was supposed to be followed by two more Thauer LPs, but at the time of her death five years later DG had made no further move. In 1967 and 1969–72 Thauer appeared at least once a year in Britain, but most of the concerts were fairly low-key.

as a student in Paris

On 7 November 1967, at the German Institute in London, she played Boccherini’s Adagio and Allegro, Reger’s Third Solo Suite, Schubert’s Arpeggione, Debussy’s Sonata and a work by Martinů with pianist G. Shanahan; on 17 April 1969 she was back at this venue with Rudolf Macudzinski, playing sonatas by Locatelli, Beethoven and Strauss and Françaix’s Fantaisie; on 30 October 1970 she performed the Boccherini–Grützmacher in Liverpool with the RLPO under Martin Turnovský; and on 25 March 1971 she made what was billed as her London debut in the cavernous acoustic of St John’s Smith Square with pianist Alexander Kelly (Paul Hamburger had been announced).

The programme consisted of her usual Boccherini, Reger (just the Prelude), Schubert, Strauss and Françaix. Stephen Walsh wrote in The Times.  Miss Thauer’s performance was that of a confirmed extrovert.

Her tone seemed enormous (even allowing for the building), and she was clearly reluctant to subside into any accompanimental role – which Schubert, for one, occasionally requires of the ‘cellist’ in his Arpeggione Sonata.

Technically, she was impressive, particularly in this Schubert, with its extended high passage-work on the A-string, but also in Reger’s rather discursive Prelude for solo cello. And one was glad of the rare opportunity to hear Strauss’s early Sonata, a fine and characteristic work whose bold, neo-Brahmsian romanticism suited Miss Thauer down to the ground. The programme was repeated at the Goethe Institute in Manchester, and in October she was at the Wexford Festival. In 1972 Thauer toured with the English Sinfonia under Neville Dilkes, playing the Haydn D major Concerto.

studying a score with conductor Zdeněk Mácal

It is difficult to avoid the impression that despite Thauer’s talent and high level of culture – her chief interests outside music were painting and philosophy – her career was not going anywhere very fast. She visited Italy in 1972 but never ventured across the Atlantic and she played quite a restricted repertoire, although she did become known for Britten’s Cello Symphony: she gave two performances of it in Vienna in April 1971 with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Günther Wich.

An affair with a married doctor

She worked with some excellent ensembles, touring in 1968 with Vilmos Tátrai and his Hungarian Chamber Orchestra and playing concertos with the Württemberg Chamber Orchestra of Heilbronn under Jörg Faerber, but she never appeared with the Berlin Philharmonic or in the prestigious Frankfurt Museum Concerts. ‘I heard her in the 1970s in Kassel and it was fine playing,’ violist Hartmut Lindemann told me. At some stage in the early 1970s this lonely woman, starved of affection since her childhood and never able to have a life of her own, began an affair with a married doctor in the city of Wiesbaden, west of Frankfurt.

His wife, apparently very jealous, would certainly not have granted him a divorce. In October 1973 he broke off the affair and on the 18th of that month Thauer committed suicide at her home in Sonnenbergerstrasse, Wiesbaden. Five days later her appalled lover killed himself. Rumours of a suicide pact appear to be unfounded. Little about the double suicide appeared even in the German press – there was nothing in the Wiesbaden papers, I am told – and Thauer’s passing caused hardly a ripple in international musical circles.

Recently the tide has turned. In Japan, Tower Records released a CD with all her DG material; and in Germany, Wolfgang Smitmans of Bremen began issuing CDs of her radio recordings on his Hastedt label. Three have appeared so far, the first also including the Dvořák Concerto from DG. The earliest performances are from 1962, with the slightly reticent pianist Helmut Schultes:




The hole truth

In February, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) published a paper entitled ‘The Evolution of Air Resonance Power Efficiency in the Violin and Its Ancestors’ in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.

It has sparked a debate primarily with regard to the contention that ‘by evolution-rate analysis… changes [in violin f-hole length] are found to be consistent with mutations arising within the range of accidental replication fluctuations from craftsmanship limitations.’ The claim that the violin’s resonance changed as a result of the accumulation of small ‘accidental’ errors by Stradivari, Nicolò Amati and Guarneri ‘del Gesù’ and their followers is spurious.

Rigid proportional ‘rules’

While, as the authors of the study assert, it may be true that minor differences in the shape of f-holes are due to the vagaries of handcrafting, the essential shape, dimensions and placement of f-holes have traditionally been governed by rigid proportional ‘rules’ established in Cremona in the early 16th century.

Deviation from those rules might be subtle (such as the way Guadagnini occasionally placed the bridge- positioning ‘nicks’ below the centres of his f-holes), whereas gross alterations (such as the simple slots used by Chanot and Savart in their experimental violins) failed not because they were acoustically ineffective but because they were visually unaesthetic.

Stradivari used drafting instruments and templates to position and shape his f-holes, hence their regularity. The elongated and open shape of the f-holes carved by Guarneri ‘del Gesù’ in his later years are certainly not because of slips of the knife, nor would violin connoisseurs consider them to be ‘in the expected range of craftsmanship fluctuations’ as the MIT researchers’ calculations would indicate. Rather, they are intentional departures from the norm.

Primary factor

The other controversial conclusions of these researchers are that f-hole length is the primary factor governing the ‘acoustic power’ of violins, and that f-holes steadily increased in length from the 16th century until the death of ‘del Gesù’. They dismiss plate thicknesses (based on averages) and arching height (based on a single height measurement) as of secondary importance, although every violin maker is aware that subtleties of graduation are critical to the tonal characteristics of an instrument.

In fact, flat arching is generally associated with a more powerful tone: late ‘del Gesù’ instruments with pancake-flat tops are among the loudest violins.

Prior to the development of large symphony orchestras, immense concert halls, and the Romantic and post-Romantic concerto repertoire, brute acoustic power was not the primary goal of violin makers. As a result, violins designed in earlier times were later modified to produce greater volume.

This was not accomplished by modifying the f-holes, but rather by re-graduating the top and back plates, changing the neck angle and projection, fitting new bass-bars and bridges, and switching over to modern strings made of high-tensile steel, other metals and synthetic materials.

The paper also contains a graph showing the progression of f-hole length from the days of Amati to Guarneri. The data for this graph is skewed by the eccentric instruments made by ‘del Gesù’ in the last three or four years of his life. Clearly he was on to something, although his instruments are less often copied than those of Stradivari, despite the world’s continued preoccupation with acoustic power.

If the researchers’ graph of f-hole length were to extend to instruments made after the death of ‘del Gesù’ and include makers besides those of the Amati, Stradivari and Guarneri families, it would revert to the mean, and the lengths of the late ‘del Gesù’ f-holes would just be a blip on the curve. Other blips would include the f-holes of various early Brescian makers, as well as those of the 17th-century Alemannic school.




A Proud Inheritance

Despite his long career as a violinist and teacher, Boris Goldstein (1922–87) is not one of the most recognisable names in the pantheon of string players. The career of the Odessa-born musician was mostly confined to the Soviet Union – his precocious beginnings stymied by the post-war regime that turned against artists, intellectuals and especially Jews.

It was with the aim of promoting awareness of Goldstein’s place in violin history that his former student Zakhar Bron founded the International Boris Goldstein Violin Competition Bern, which took place from 22–30 January this year. Bron also conceived the event as a way of honouring the man whom, after Igor Oistrakh, he still considers to be his most important mentor.

Special protection from Stalin

As a child prodigy, Goldstein received special protection from Stalin – not to mention praise from legendary figures such as Rachmaninoff and Kreisler – but he was not selected by authorities to perform in the West, unlike his more fortunate compatriots David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich.

He nevertheless became famous in Russia, known for combining technical precision with a beautiful tone, and for the effectiveness of his fingerings. One source of income was as a tester of instruments in state collections – reportedly he knew exactly how to get the best possible sound out of inferior work.

As a performer, however, he was forced on to secondary circuits, which paradoxically led to his developing an unusually wide repertoire, including music by Honegger and Bloch. He championed the works of both of these Swiss composers (at that time, knowledge of Bloch’s Jewish roots had not crossed the Iron Curtain).

Suffering increasingly hostile treatment

He also taught at the Gnessin Institute in Moscow, where Zakhar Bron numbered among his students. After suffering increasingly hostile treatment, in 1974 he emigrated to Germany with his family, when he was well past his prime. It was with his mentor’s legacy in mind that Bron selected the required works for the competition. Bloch’s Sonata no.1 was included for the second round, where students also choose two pieces arranged by Jascha Heifetz (who had once called Goldstein ‘the USSR’s most brilliant violin talent’).  The jury featured a Goldstein student from the Germany years, Michael Guttman, who was made aware of the event by Vadim Repin – himself a protégé of Bron’s, and whom Goldstein considered to be a kind of musical great-grandchild. Other jurors included Igor Ozim, Viktor Pikayzen and Ida Haendel, who voted by Skype from the US.

Top Cantabile and dramatic integrity from Mone Hattori

Guttman drew parallels between his erstwhile tutor’s teaching methods and those of Goldstein. ‘Much of Zakhar Bron’s demanding attitude towards his students comes from Boris Goldstein,’ he told me. ‘As friendly as he [Goldstein] was, right before and after each lesson he was a different man. He would demand more and more precision, and more and more sound. And, like Goldstein, Bron has a solution to any technical problem.’ The high number of Bron students who emerged as finalists caused some controversy on various online forums (see last issue). It was certainly noticeable that of the initial 31 participants, selected from 39 submissions, only a third were students of Bron.

By the final round, only one – Benjamin Baker, who would emerge with sixth prize – had not studied with him. But although this fact might have seemed dubious from afar, once I had heard the finalists’ performances of Mozart concertos, with the Zakhar Bron Chamber Orchestra accompanying, I could only concur with most of the jury’s decisions. (Each finalist also performed a Romantic concerto with piano accompaniment.) All of Bron’s students, from the Grand Prix winner Mone Hattori to the fifth-placed Furong Li, boasted a robust low range, singing high notes and a strong but flexible bowing arm. This was perhaps most conspicuous in the small frame of Hattori, who collected CHF15,000 (£9,800) after performing Mozart’s Concerto no.3 in the final round.

Although I found her to be generally lacking in dynamic nuance and personality, her precocity emerged through her restrained, honeyed tone in the Adagio.

Gallery Aleksey Semenenko; Stefan Tarara; Shiori Terauchi; Arsenis Selalmazidis; Furong Li

Even stronger was Waxman’s Carmen Fantasy, played at the prizewinners’ concert the next day, which brought forth the required dose of cantabile and dramatic integrity despite the occasional harsh tone. Both Aleksey Semenenko and Stefan Tarara, who tied for the first prize, demonstrated an unparalleled level of refined musicianship and stage presence.

Semenenko in particular, performing Mozart’s Concerto no.5, imbued every moment with meaning, creating an almost improvisatory feel in the opening Allegro, a melting, crying tone in the inner Adagio and, through expert use of rubato, a nearly operatic dialogue in the final Menuetto.

In the winners’ concert he turned Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Figaro Variations on a Theme by Rossini into a mini-drama of its own, allowing the lines to speak with idiomatic Italian accents. Although I was less charmed by Tarara’s performance, there was no denying the professionalism with which he delivered Mozart’s Concerto no.4, with its incisive attacks and use of colour across the violin, always with a specific dramatic purpose in mind.

He blended masterfully with the orchestra

In the inner Andante he blended masterfully with the orchestra, only to retake command suddenly. He also rendered the chirping melody of the final Allegro with the most authenticity of any version that afternoon.

If his performance of Paganini’s Introduction and Variations on ‘Nel cor più non mi sento’ the following day was somewhat flashy, Tarara left the audience in no doubt of his technical prowess, his sharp grasp of musical form, and his fearless thespianism. ‘When a real talent arrives, that is always a unique thing,’ said Bron, also stating his hope that the competition would provide a platform for young talented artists who deserved to be associated with his tutor’s name.

This first iteration of the contest appeared to have done just that, with many of the finalists demonstrating an ability to interpret each of the required pieces with freedom and confidence, while also respecting a given work’s stylistic boundaries. It will be interesting to see how many names on this edition’s roster will go on to enjoy the international fame that eluded Goldstein for so much of his life.




Sarah Chang

I do the same scales, arpeggios and vibrato exercises every day.

Basics are the most important things

Sometimes my mum and brother stop me to say, ‘You have done your scales for 25 years. Don’t you know them by now?’ But I really do believe that the basics are the most important things, regardless of whether I’m practising for 20 minutes or 8 hours.

If I have a 10am rehearsal or a day of meetings, I’ll start my exercises at 9am at the latest and forget about the repertoire until later. I use a combination of the Flesch and Galamian scale systems, with a bit of my teacher Dorothy DeLay thrown in as well. Each day, to get my fingers warmed up, I go through four octaves in every scale that allows it.

Then I choose one key to work on using different bowings, 3rds, octaves and other variations, using double-stops from the Flesch system. It takes me about 15 minutes to go through all the keys, and then another 15 to do all the arpeggios, double-stops and vibrato exercises. So if everything’s going well and my fingers are cooperating, I can be done with my warm-up in 30 minutes. But I am not a morning person – I can’t even make coffee! So some days it can take me 45 minutes or even an hour.

Today I’m practising C major. It’s the most difficult scale to play in tune because you can’t hide behind any sharps and flats. It’s very exposed, so I always choose it when I’m trying to be hard on myself. It’s like looking at your face without any make-up on. I go back to correct my tuning all the time – it isn’t just a warm-up exercise.

Then I go through my 3rds and octaves, and I’m feeling brave today so I do my 10ths as well. When I’m playing pieces with a lot of 5ths, 6ths or other intervals, I add those to my exercises too.

Learn at least one new piece every season

At the moment I’m working on Bernstein’s West Side Story Suite, which I’m playing with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. After that I have a recital of the Franck Sonata, a Brahms sonata, Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances and Ravel’s Tzigane. Then I have to play the Dvořák Concerto, so there’s a lot going on at the moment.

I work on West Side Story for the majority of the day and touch on the Bartók, which is new to me, whenever I can. I try to programme and learn at least one new piece every season.

The Bernstein has been arranged for me by David Newman. He’s had to stick to Bernstein’s version quite carefully because the music is still owned by the Bernstein estate, but even two days ago he was  sending me rewrites and whole new passages, and the concert is next week! I’m playing from memory, so I try to get the rewrites embedded in my head and fingers as quickly as possible. Then I work through the piece section by section, thinking about structure, phrasing, musicality and dynamics.

I’ve watched the movie of West Side Story, seen the stage version and listened to the original soundtrack; I’ve also got my hands on video footage of Bernstein recording it with the singers and telling them to be more lyrical. It’s fascinating. Moving on to Bartók after Bernstein is a shock.

They’re like night and day! I begin by going through the piece slowly with a pianist friend of mine so that I can hear its structure and sound, rather than just trying to make sense of it from the piano score. I find that helps a lot, because the violin part is only about a tenth of what’s really going on and doesn’t always make sense by itself. Once I have a full sense of the piece I start working on it with the pianist, section by section, trying to get it under my skin in its complete form. Bartók’s markings are scarce, but those he did write are dead on.

Even if I try a bowing another way, usually I end up going back to what he originally wrote because it’s better. Music like this is more about your musical standpoint than your technique.

Technique will come with practice, but if you don’t sound convincing, as though you are playing straight from the heart with an honest interpretation of the music, it won’t sound good. Ideally, I would have a month off and dedicate 100 percent of my practice time to the new piece I’m learning, but that’s not realistic with all the concerts going on right now. I just have to find time when I can.