Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Book review

Sandor Vegh in Cornwall: the Hungarian Virtuoso Violinist and the founding of the International Musicians Seminar Prussia Cove.

By Hilary Tunstall-Behrens
49 (large)pp £15
IMS 52 Grafton Square, London SW4 ODB Tel. 0207 720 9020

Sandor Vegh's claim to fame, a large fame, was as a violinist, leader of a celebrated string quartet bearing his name, a teacher of international renown and a conductor. He was a pupil of the great Hubay, of Kodaly, he led the Budapest National Orchestra, premiered Bartok's String Quartet No. 5 and with his quartet made recordings of the complete set of Beethovens that are still considered one of the best half a century later.

His postwar association with this country was his nine visits to the Summer School of Music at Bryanston, later Darlington, over a period from 1950 to 1979, concerts with the quartet in the fifties, recitals and master classes in the seventies. Students came from far and wide to study with him, for his work with Bartok, Kodaly and, later, Casals somehow led to his playing and teaching embodying the best of the traditions of the nineteenth century. What he taught was imagination and colour, with the bow especially, to make music sound fresh, spontaneous and inspired, so that performances were not manacled to the printed notes or the bar line but took off into the air. And that spontaneity had to be based on proper study, hard work and tradition/experience. His master-classes were inspiring, combining intensity with the basic truths of music that could often bring tears to the eye.

His playing of the late Beethoven quartets almost matched the profundity and spiritual qualities of those works, not forgetting the prodigious skill required to negotiate the abnormally high flying first violin parts of those works. As a soloist he illuminated Bach's solo sonatas and one never-to-be-forgotten evening at Darlington, it felt as if he almost changed our lives with his playing of all three of the Brahms Sonatas.

But at Dartington his classes were part of a large programme of teaching and a visit to Cornwall led to the formation of the seminars at Prussia Cove; master-classes for strings and piano in the spring, chamber music with teachers playing together with students in the autumn, Sandor Vegh in charge. The author of this handsomely produced little book organised the sessions. The Cove is based on a fascinating house with art-decorations, a stone's plop from the sea, not far from Penzance. Here the students and professors live, eat together, work together, play together and, who knows, sometimes sleep together. Now that Vegh is gone (he died in 1997 at the age of 86 according to Behrens, although Groves says 95), Stephen Isserlis is music director.

He was a vast man and his looks led many Americans to ask for what Vegh called his 'autogram', only to be disappointed when they found he was not Charles Laughton. Strong accent: Hungarian mixed with German. From observations over several years in the green room it seemed to me that the other three members of the quartet did not relish his company. It seemed as if they avoided contact as much as possible and that they argued all the time; but that might have something to do with the Hungarian language. The desire of the various members to get away from each other was also apparent. For years Vegh lived in Zurich, the violist and cellist in Geneva and Basle, whilst the second violinist was domiciled in Paris. This meant that the question "Where shall we rehearse ? Your place or mine ?" was fairly important.

Another feature was their reluctance to give balance tests. "We always play the same - so what's the point?" they said. In old age arthritis brought his playing to an end, so he took to conducting: string orchestra versions of quartets and sextets (the Brahms larger chamber works were a speciality) and then recordings with Andras Schiff of all the Mozart Piano concertos, the rehearsals were like master-classes, fine CDs they were.

His wife survives to this day. A stunningly beautiful actress before their marriage, she was bright and witty, protective and trying - sometimes vainly - to curb his appetite for a fattening dish or a pretty girl. He had a good life and he was good for musical life, he brought music to a better life and students nearer the goal.

Hilary tells it like it was and it is a heartening story, including good quotes (particularly from Susan Tomes who played many times for his classes and writes of them perceptively). Some of Vegh's sayings are included and they tell something of his wisdom: "to be a soloist one must also be a chamber musician; if I engender a tension be it physical or mental, its corollary must be a relaxation of that tension; there is never an authentic interpretation; never be a slave to your violin. First be a musician and then a violinist; make music with love and joy". Vegh lived all these sayings, especially the last.

1 comment:

AntoniaDel Mar said...

Steven Isserlis spells his name with a 'v'!

On another note - do you have a recording( of any sort) of Babar, with Poulenc at the piano?

Thanks a lot.
Toni Del Mar