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Friday, August 23, 2013


The news out of North Carolina is so awful that I have taken to retreating to the cultural superstructure as a way of maintaining my sanity.  Herewith some idle reflections that came to me as I was taking my morning four mile walk.

When I was a boy, there were two violinists whose technical virtuosity set them head and shoulders above all the rest:  Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein.  If I heard a violinist on the radio, I could tell that it was Heifetz or Milstein simply from the brilliance of the playing.  Heifetz had a more Romantic style, Milstein was more classically pure, but both were non pareil.  I once actually heard Milstein in person, at a recital in the old Town Hall in New York City.  I was at the time in high school, playing violin in the school orchestra.  [I was the concertmaster, which tells you how bad we were!  I never learned the words to the National Anthem because instead of singing it at assemblies, I had to play it.]  Milstein gave a brilliant concert, and was called back again and again by the audience for encores.  After seven or so, when he was returned to the stage by an audience that would not let him go, he started to play a technically very difficult but musically uninteresting piece that I did not recognize.  He got himself way up on the E-string, and then rather abruptly jumped down to the D-string.  Suddenly, I realized what was going on.  He had run out of prepared encores, and was just playing exercises.  In effect, he was doing tomorrow's practicing today.

A bit later on, a third transcendently great violinist came on the scene -- David Oistrakh, whose recording of the Beethoven violin concerto is to die for.  [Oistrakh and Milstein had the same teacher, in Odessa.  Heifetz was from Vilna, my grandmother's home town.  All three were Jews, needless to say.]

Today, there are so many violinists as good as that immortal trio that I simply cannot tell, from sound alone, who is playing.  Everyone knows Itzhak Perlman, but Pinchas Zuckerman, Joshua Bell, Hillary Hahn, and many others play at the same exalted level.  Perlman, in particular, has always been a total mystery to me.  Thanks to the miracle of television, I have on occasion been able to see an extreme close-up of Perlman's hands playing the violin.  Now, the thing is, he has stubby fingers.  I simply cannot figure out how he manages to play perfectly in tune with fingers that stubby!  Judging from the photos I have seen, Heifetz had long, slender fingers, which is what one would expect.

I often reflect on how difficult it must be to work these days as a professional music reviewer for a paper like The TIMES.  In the old days, you could rave about Heifetz or Milstein, and then offer guarded encouragement, hedged round with judicious critiques, to the other violinists.  These days, it seems every review ought to be a rave.  But newspaper readers do not want unrelenting praise.  They want the occasional rave coupled with criticism of the rest.  I think I would just throw up my hands and quit if I had to crank out a series of reviews of such phenomenal instrumentalists.

Here, by the way, is a true story about Zuckerman, who is not only a great violinist but also one of the very greatest violists in the world.  [He was also married for a while to Tuesday Weld, if you can believe Wikipedia.]  Zuckerman came to the United States from Israel as a teenager, and enrolled in Juilliard, the world-class music school in Manhattan.

Now a lengthy digression to explain how I know this story.  [But I warned you these would be idle thoughts.]  For six or seven years during the end of the 90's and the start of the new millennium, I played in an amateur string quartet in Amherst.  The quartet was organized by Barbara Greenstein, a wonderful woman and very close friend, now sadly departed, who played second violin.  [It was Barbara's death that led me to stop playing.  My heart simply went out of it.  I have not taken my viola out of its case since moving to Chapel Hill.]  The cellist was Barbara Davis, who has a lovely tone and was a pleasure to sit next to in a quartet.  I played viola.  Like all true amateur quartet experiences, we were friends as well as fellow musicians.  Indeed, the two Barbaras, with exquisite tact and patience, put up with my inferior play during the time when I was taking weekly lessons and practicing daily, until I finally brought myself up to their level of performance.

Our quartet had a number of first violinists.  The problem, you see, is this:  in the classical quartet literature -- Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert -- the first violin part is a great deal more difficult than the other three.  Indeed, some quartets, such as the Haydn Opus 20 quartets, come closer to being little violin concertos with accompaniment.  Now, in the great professional quartets -- the Juilliard, the Emerson, the Boromeo -- everyone is a virtuoso quite capable of playing solo if they want to.  But that is hardly the case in an amateur quartet like ours.  So we were always looking for someone who, despite being a good deal better than we, was willing to play with us.  Why would any really good amateur violinist be willing to play with three inferior musicians?   Well, the alternative is to get hooked up with some really good players, in which case you might run the risk of ending up playing second fiddle.  So, happily, the world of amateur string quartet players contains a number of good violinists willing to put up with inferior cellists and violists in order to get to play those tasty first violin parts.  One of these generous souls was an Amherst College professor who had actually gone to Juilliard with Pinchas Zuckerman.  One day, as we were warming up, he told us this story.

Zukerman was a phenomenally gifted violinist, even as a boy, but he was a terrible cut-up, an unruly type who was forever making trouble.  All of the students were required to play in a chamber orchestra as part of their studies, and Zuckerman was a constant problem for the teacher who served as the conductor of the group.  Now, these were all serious music students and Zuckerman was clearly a standout, so he could not simply be kicked out of the group.  But one day, the conductor had had enough, and was unwilling to put up with Zukerman's shenanigans any longer.  In a desperate attempt to force the rambunctious teenager to concentrate on the music, he said, abruptly:  "Zuckerman!  You play viola."  So it was that a brilliant violin student became also one of the world's great violists.


C Rossi said...

Thanks for the lovely musings on this day after the 96th anniversary of the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Your comment about Isaac Perlman's fingers reminded me of my experience of Andres Segovia. I was a fairly serious classical guitar player and went from Madison, Wisconsin, to Chicago to attend a concert by Segovia at Orchestra Hall (a rather large place for an intimate instrument like guitar). Segovia was then in his late 80s (he died at 94). When he came on stage he walked slowly and tentatively carrying the guitar and barely acknowledging the audience. He was a large man with an oval torso like some child's drawing. He sat at first uneasily and adjusted his large body for quite a long time. I remember being very disappointed as I watched and thought that this old man, no longer a great master, was being hauled out by some impressario or other to make what could be made before the old guy died. Great masters should not outlive their talents. When he finally settled in, he caressed the guitar, started playing, and a miracle occurred. This slow, old, ungainly man brough forth such beauty from that small instrument that it filled the hall and thrilled everyone who heard it. He would rise slowly after each piece, bow slightly to the audience, and carefully sit again. Guitarists, and probably violinists, are observers of fingers. I noticed several times during the concert that his fingers were not just large but also puffy like breakfast sausages, the kind of fingers that learners are told are not made for such a fine instrument as the guitar. The great ones, like Perlman and Segovia, can break the rules.

Unknown said...

Robert Wolff does a grave injustice to the wonderful Haydn Op. 20 quartets when he writes that they are little more than violin concertos with accompaniment. They are anything but. From the Wikipedia entry for the Haydn Op. 20 quartets: "When Haydn published his opus 33 quartets, ten years after the opus 20, he wrote that they were composed in "an entirely new and particular manner".[15] But, if the opus 33 was the culmination of a process, opus 20 was the proving ground. In this set of quartets, Haydn defined the nature of the string quartet — the special interplay of instruments that Goethe called "four rational people conversing."[16] Many of the compositional techniques used by composers of string quartets to the present day were tried out and perfected in these works.

"This cannot be overstated," writes Ron Drummond.[17] "The six string quartets of Opus 20 are as important in the history of music, and had as radically a transforming effect on the very field of musical possibility itself, as Beethoven's Third Symphony would 33 years later." And Sir Donald Tovey writes of the quartets, "Every page of the six quartets of op. 20 is of historic and aesthetic importance... there is perhaps no single or sextuple opus in the history of instrumental music which has achieved so much."[18]

Here are some of the innovations of the quartets:

Equality of voices: Prior to opus 20, the first violin, or, sometimes, the two violins, dominated the quartet. The melody was carried by the leader, with the lower voices (viola and cello) accompanying. In opus 20, Haydn gives each instrument, and particularly the cello, its own voice. An outstanding example of this is the second quartet in C major. The quartet opens with a cello solo, accompanied by the viola and second violin. This was virtually unheard of in Haydn's time. Another example is in the slow movement of the fourth quartet, in D major. This movement is a set of variations, written in D minor; the first variation is a duet between viola and second violin, and the third variation is a solo for cello."

Robert Paul Wolff said...

My humble apologies. I was speaking as someone who encountered the Opus 20 quartets in an amateur string quartet, not at all as an expert or a musicologist. That they are important in the history of music was never in dispute, but I have obviously shortchanged them as music. Maybe it is just as well that I have stopped playing!

Matt said...

Thanks for posting this. To say that I'm a dabbler into classical music would do me too much credit, so I'm always glad to get some sort of recommendations, even if not fully intentional. There are some nice versions of Oistrakh playing Beethoven on youtube (though of course the sound isn't great) that kept me going while finishing some grading last night. Of course, as is usually the case, you should avoid the comments, where people talk endless about how bad Oistrakh was. I often think there is no better example of resentment of the sort Nietzsche was interested in than youtube comments, or the comments on most popular blogs.