Lost and Found: Joseph Banowetz Introduces Karl Weigl Print E-mail
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Written by Robert Schulslaper   
Sunday, 23 September 2012

Lost and Found: Joseph Banowetz Introduces Karl Weigl

Although pianist Joseph Banowetz probably would not describe himself as a specialist in reviving overlooked music of the past, a significant portion of his discography has been devoted to just that: He’s recorded works by Anton Rubinstein, Sergei Taneyev, Mily Balakirev, Leopold Godowsky, and Paul Kletzki, to mention a few. During a conversation with Fanfare’ s Peter J. Rabinowitz ( Fanfare 34:3), he mentioned a forthcoming disc of music by Karl Weigl, a composer, it’s safe to say, not as well known as others Banowetz has chosen to record. It’s time to learn more.

Q: So, who was Karl Weigl?

A: He was a very talented musician whose historical position is in a sense a tragic one. Born in 1881, he became prominent as a composer in Vienna through the early 1930s, with performances by such famous conductors and pianists as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, and Ignaz Friedman, who premiered his piano concerto. He served for two years as Mahler’s assistant and rehearsal conductor at the Vienna State Opera, from 1904 to 1906, an experience he regarded as the most significant of his musical life. Many of his works from this time were large-scaled symphonic compositions; he also wrote for the voice and for string quartet. Mahler and Richard Strauss publicly expressed their admiration for him and he was a very close friend of Schoenberg and Bruno Walter. His musical style was considered by some to be a holdover from Bruckner and Mahler, and he did not explore the experiments in atonality being undertaken by Schoenberg and Berg. Although an excellent pianist, Weigl wrote relatively little for the instrument until the late 1930s, when he realized that because of the increasing anti-Semitic sentiment in Europe, smaller works would have a better chance of receiving public performances. His world collapsed with the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938. Like such prominent figures as Arnold Schoenberg, Bruno Walter, Béla Bartók, Ignaz Friedman, Paul Kletzki, and many others throughout Europe, Weigl was forced to flee the Nazis. But unfortunately, in America where he resettled, he was not a known celebrity. To keep his family financially afloat he was forced to take a series of temporary non-tenure-track teaching positions at the Hartt School of Music, Brooklyn College, and the New England Conservatory, and to take private students. Furthering his music without having a large international name became an ongoing problem. Although he continued to compose several large-scaled orchestral works, more and more of his relatively few public performances were of works for solo or duo piano, small chamber ensemble, or voice. Mercifully, neither he nor his family was ever sent to a Nazi concentration camp, but he nonetheless suffered both career-wise and psychologically through his experiences.

Q: How did you get involved with Weigl’s music?

A: It was through Victor and Marina Ledin. In addition to being world-famous producers—they’ve produced for the London Symphony and for many years they have been affiliated with Klaus Heymann of Naxos and Marco Polo and all of that—they run Encore Consultants, which does a wonderful job researching and providing scores for out-of-the-way music while forging connections with record labels around the world. I’ve done a good number of recordings with them. They were familiar with the Weigl Foundation and put me in touch. In turn, the Weigl Foundation generously underwrote the expenses for my recording the complete solo piano pieces. A number of the pieces in the album are premieres, and in one case ( Die Toteninsel ) the first known performance. It goes without saying that I feel honored to have been invited through Encore Consultants, with the consent of the Weigl Foundation, to realize this important project. Encore Consultants provided scores and copies of unpublished manuscripts, so their help was invaluable. Hopefully further releases of Weigl’s music will be made possible under the auspices of the foundation.

Q: Some producers are more knowledgeable about repertoire than the musicians they record.

A: Well, believe it or not, when Victor was young he was a pupil of Alexander Brailowsky [known for performing complete cycles of Chopin’s piano music]. He actually performed at a concert playing a concerto with Ozawa conducting. And then he went into producing and whatever happened after that. They’re very well known and absolutely incredible.

Q: It’s not easy to be a good record producer. Not only do you have to know the music inside out, you have to be adept at working with many different personalities. And then there’s all the technology, microphone placement, sound quality …

A: Well, if you don’t have a good producer, you’re finished.

Q: Were you under a lot of time pressure?

A: There’s always time pressure because the recording facility will be reserved for so many hours and in addition you’ve got to have the piano technician there at all times. Working on the piano cuts into the time, so your eyes are always on the clock.

Q: What would you like to tell me about the piano works?

A: For me, Weigl’s piano music has been a treasure-trove of uncharted music. One of the compelling characteristics for my ears is its constantly intense emotional content. Although the form is carefully worked out, one never has the feeling that it simply becomes an intellectual game. The music is at times freely tonal, yet, as I’ve said, does not explore the atonal serial techniques developed by Schoenberg and others. The harmonic complexity of Weigl’s scores demands that the music not be rushed through, otherwise it would sound like overly rapid spoken gibberish. Intensity and expression are the key words that come to my mind when speaking of his musical language. Cheap display is not to be found. I cannot imagine that the sophisticated listener will find his music anything less than compelling!

One of his earliest surviving compositions is Die Toteninsel , or Isle of the Dead , which he composed in 1903. Inspired by one of Böcklin’s paintings portraying Charon rowing a boat carrying a human soul across the Styx and Acheron rivers to the isle of the dead, it is a deeply felt, dark work that, like Chopin’s “Funeral March” in his Second Piano Sonata, I find frightening yet intensely moving to perform. Rachmaninoff and Reger also composed works using this mythological theme. Weigl goes further by quoting from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra : “Yonder is the cemetery island, the silent isle. / Thither will I carry an evergreen wreath of life.” Not music for the masses! The six Pictures and Tales are by the titles outwardly associated with children, similar to Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood. Yet to this player Weigl’s pieces are far more than merely works intended to be played by children. Not only is the pianism demanded far beyond what a child could manage, but the emotional content, as well, exceeds pure innocence. More like memories of childhood, at times the music borders on the morbid, as in the fifth in the set, “Sleeping Beauty’s Grave.” Then, after a brilliant first part, the final piece in the set, “By Moonlight,” quietly dies away to silence after quoting motifs from “Sleeping Beauty’s Grave.” This set was premiered by Weigl in Vienna in 1910, and became one of his most popular works. In a later orchestrated version it was the last of Weigl’s works to be publicly heard before Anschluss in 1938.

I strongly feel the five Night Fantasies are profound and compelling works. Schumann of course wrote several “night pieces,” as in the Fantasiestücke , op. 12, and the Nachtstücke , op. 23. Bartók, too, contributed “night music” in his Out of Doors (1926). And then we have the nocturne itself coming from Field, Chopin, and others. Weigl’s pieces are compellingly dark, with subtle emotional content and meaning. As with some of Mahler’s music, the message of the music can also be unsettling and disturbing. The Dance of the Furies was begun in 1937, then completed a year later, around the time the Weigl family fled the Nazis in Vienna. Weigl never performed it, or even had it professionally copied for publication. To me it has, like some of the other music included here, a dark, sinister quality. Perhaps he left it shelved during his lifetime because of its emotional linkage with the final dark days in Vienna! Unfortunately I have not had access to any recordings of Weigl’s own performances. They would have to have been privately recorded, as he made no commercial discs. Although an occasional well-known name such as Charles Rosen or Roman Totenberg gave public performances of his music in the United States, I know of no recordings that have survived. But I have felt a distinct link with his style through having spent several years as a student at Vienna’s Akademie für Musik und Darstellende Kunst. (It should be remembered that Weigl graduated from the same school!) During the mid 1950s when I was there I could still sense a feeling in the air remaining from the Nazi occupation. This was reinforced by knowing that just about three blocks from the Akademy there still remained the gutted ruins of the Gestapo headquarters! Also, my landlady had a restaurant during the war, which was bombed out! Later in my career I recorded the music of Paul Kletzki [Naxos], who himself had fled Germany during the war because of his Jewish blood. Weigl’s similar situation somehow reminded me of Vienna during my student years. I have asked myself how I could cope with losing everything, leaving my homeland, and moving to a country where I had to learn a new language and completely rebuild my career!

Q: Knowing a bit about your background, I could almost say you were destined to record Weigl’s music. Not only did you graduate from the same school, but you had previously studied with teachers who had a strong Viennese connection.

A: Yes, that’s true. While I’d attended the Academy in my teens, I’d actually studied with a teacher much earlier who had been a pupil of Leopold Godowsky. Her name was Ann St. John. She was a tremendous influence on me. I went to her when I was around 12, something like that.

Q: Influential in what way?

A: Well, of course, musically, and also from a technical standpoint. When I went to her, I was playing pieces that were too difficult for me and she was shocked and immediately jerked me back and put me through a very intense technical regimen, a lot of it based on what she’d learned from Godowsky.

Q: Did you eventually study some of his works with her?

A: No, I didn’t. She did give me the concert paraphrase on Strauss’s Fledermaus of Godowsky, and I never really completely finished it. No, she didn’t push Godowsky on me or anything like that. And a lot of Godowsky, the Chopin etude transcriptions, things of this sort, my God, the level of difficulty is just way too much. Later I recorded some Godowsky; Alton Chan and I did the complete Godowsky miniatures for Marco Polo. And later we did an edition of them for Warner Brothers.

Q: What had brought you to Ms. St. John?

A: Well, it was purely a kind of coincidence. My father was with Sears Roebuck. We had lived in Wichita before that. I had a very fine teacher in Wichita, but he let me sometimes play things that were really too difficult for me at the time. And then, my father was transferred to Kansas City, Missouri, and Ann was at the music conservatory there. John Thompson [the pianist, pedagog, and music publisher known for his piano method books] had actually been the head of the conservatory before, and then when I was there Victor Labunski was the head of the conservatory. Ann St. John knew Friedberg very well, and after studying with her I went to him the year before he died. And then after that I went to Vienna and then on to Sándor [György Sándor had been a student of Bartók and recorded his complete works]. Sándor was a very strong influence on me. I probably would have stayed in Europe when I graduated but at the time the draft was going on and you had to get clearance from the draft board every year to stay in school. When I was graduating from the Academy, they said they would give me a full scholarship for the next year if I wanted to come back, but the draft board told me, well yes, we’ll let you stay an extra year in Europe but after that you’ll be drafted, no questions asked. And I didn’t have any real university education yet when I went to Vienna, so I came back to the United States. Sándor had just become artist-in-residence in Southern Methodist University, here in Dallas. Later he went to the University of Michigan, and I studied about a total of five years with him; he was my last teacher.

Q: I admire Sándor’s recordings very much and I’ve also learned a lot about piano technique from his book, On Piano Playing , which stands out as a model of clarity and common sense in a field littered with peculiar theories.

A: He was an incredible teacher, absolutely incredible. He had … I don’t want to call it a technical system, but he had very interesting ideas on technique and he would pass them along to certain pupils. I asked him specifically, Where did you get your ideas, did these come from Bartók? And he said, “Oh, no, Bartók never talked about technique.” He just one day sat down, so to speak, and thought through what he was doing and analyzed it and put it into this form. His teaching in general was always extremely logical and coherent, and of course he was very careful about following what’s in the score. I studied a few Bartók pieces with him; he didn’t push Bartók on his students. Or Kodály, for that matter, although I studied some Kodály with him. But there was never the kind of thing, oh, we’ll do it that way because Bartók told me. There was never any of that.

Q: I don’t suppose it would have been inappropriate if he at least told you how he remembered Bartók playing, since he had such a close relationship with him.

A: No, no. But I mean, some people would have used that as a form of name-dropping, or to enforce their authority, as in, “I studied with Bartók.” He never did that, at all.

Q: It seems you were lucky to have teachers who were smart enough to let you develop your own responses to music.

A: Well, yes, but always within a very clear, logical framework. I never had the kind of teacher who would talk about the wonderful sunset …

Q: You haven’t told me who you studied with in Vienna.

A: The teacher I was with probably isn’t going to be a familiar name, Josef Dichler. He was Walter Klein’s teacher and a very close friend of Friedrich Gulda’s and all of them. He was absolutely the ideal teacher for me at that time. Took me under his wing entirely, did everything possible to help me. At the time I was there, and I think it’s now changed a bit, because the Academy has now merged with the University in Vienna, but at the time I was there, the primary thing they were interested in was how well you played the piano. They didn’t mix it up with a lot of musicology courses, so all I did during the time I was there was practice seven or eight hours every day and go to a concert. That’s literally all I did.

Q: Did you feel there was something in the air in Vienna that you wouldn’t have felt anywhere else?

A: Of course, obviously, with the historical importance. And there were certain pianists that I got to hear. Well, as I told you, I heard Ellie Ney play, and I heard Cortot; of course he never came to the United States after the war at all. Backhaus I heard a number of times. You can just go down the list of fantastic performers. Conductors. Karajan, of course, I heard. I regret that I never heard Furtwängler. He died a short time before I went to Vienna. The whole atmosphere was totally different than the United States. Just walking around. Of course, I’d studied with Carl Friedberg in New York City, but I’d gone to high school in Kansas City, Missouri. Well, obviously, Kansas City and Vienna are two totally different environments. Historically, one was aware of what happened, what went on in the past in Vienna.

Q: My impression of a certain segment of Viennese musical society is that there’s a reverence for the classical repertoire that you wouldn’t necessarily find in the United States. Would you say that’s true?

A: I wouldn’t necessarily say that now, but at that time, back in the ’50s, I think there was definitely still somewhat of a general cultural divide. In other words, it was a tremendously high level of sophistication and knowledge, taste, and whatever, at least among the musicians there.

Q: And would you say that the public at large was resistant to newer trends?

A: This is kind of funny. At the time I was studying over there, if you would talk about a modern composer, they classified Debussy and Ravel as modern composers. So it was a little bit of a reactionary attitude in that way, which I didn’t mind. It didn’t bother me at all.

Q: Speaking with you about Weigl, Godowsky, and turn-of-the-century Vienna has prompted thoughts of the so-called Golden Age of Pianism: the charm combined with impeccable virtuosity, the special aura that can still be felt in certain recordings. Do you encourage your students to listen to what is, in a sense, their musical heritage?

A: Well, this is something that I have always been very, very concerned with. With the, shall we say, lack of awareness. And I’m not talking about an elementary student, I’m talking about maybe someone who’s working for a doctorate in piano performance. The lack of awareness from a historical standpoint, through recordings of what is available. I remember years and years ago I had a very fine student and he started working on the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto, and when I asked him what recordings he’d heard he rattled off three or four of the current fad pianists and I asked, Have you heard Rachmaninoff? No.

When I was with this very first piano teacher that I had, the one who started me, I was very grateful to him because he would drive over to our house once a week and bring a carload of 78-rpm records. And then I started a little bit later going out and sniffing around record stores and Salvation Army stores and all that.

Q: Cynics could claim that it’s the perennial complaint of the old—oh in my day, things were so much better—but when you hear these recordings, they really were different and they really are fabulous.

A: And of course the link they had, you know … just Paderewski alone, who studied with Leschetizky who studied with Czerny who studied with Beethoven. I mean, my God! And there are recordings of pupils of Liszt …

Q: Yes, there’s something there, and not to hear it is a crime, in a way. I’m not saying students should consciously emulate them …

A: No, no, no, I’m not talking about copying.

Q. I don’t know if you could, honestly.

A: Well, no. I had a very funny experience when I was about 14. I found in a junk shop the twelve Chopin mazurkas that Ignaz Friedman did, and I brought the album of 78s home, then couldn’t believe what I was hearing. And I thought, oh, gee, I want to do that, I want to play like that. And so I took one of the mazurkas and started learning it and tried to copy what Friedman did, and I suddenly gave up. These many years later, it is a great pleasure and a little ironic that fairly soon I am having released two CDs of Friedman’s works.

Q: As to imitating Friedman (or anyone else), you might come close, but in the end …

A: You can’t copy genius.

Q: But you can develop your own way of achieving freedom in music. Of course, a conscientious student could make a bar-by-bar analysis and try to follow it.

A: That doesn’t work. But you can really learn so much. I’m not saying every old recording is better …

Q: No, of course not, and there are some wonderful players on the contemporary scene.

A: Of course.

Q: One who immediately comes to mind is Marc-André Hamelin: He plays everything. You, too, have been able to indulge your enthusiasm for overlooked repertoire.

A: Championing forgotten music by significant composers has for me always been a passion. I have been blessed by being given the opportunity in the past to record, in addition to a number of albums of solo piano music of Anton Rubinstein, also his eight orchestra-and-piano works. Like Weigl and Kletzki, Rubinstein was of Jewish descent. Other composers whose works have fallen into relative oblivion that I have recorded have included the piano concertos of Eugen d’Albert; the complete Chopin, Robert, and Clara Schumann song transcriptions by Liszt; works of Taneyev (including his piano concerto); and with Alton Chung Ming Chan, four-hand music of both Balakirev and Godowsky. To me it is unfortunate that too often in order to sell tickets, orchestras insist on programming the same 15 or 20 concertos over and over again! There is so very much to discover, like the music of Weigl. I am deeply thankful for recordings, which allow the sophisticated listener to seek out forgotten but important music. In addition, earlier recordings now allow that great performers of the past be heard. Rachmaninoff, Hofmann, Lhévinne, Gieseking, Busoni, Godowsky, Friedman … the list goes on and on! When I was young I began to collect recordings, this being during the 78-rpm era. By the time I went to Vienna I had a huge collection of recordings by what are now termed “historical pianists.” In Vienna I was fortunate to have heard a few of them in person, such as Alfred Cortot (an idol of mine to this day), Elly Ney, Edwin Fischer, Wilhelm Backhaus, Alexander Brailowsky … . Awareness of these recordings by students today is appallingly low. So much can be learned from, for instance, hearing Cortot play Schumann or Chopin, Ney play Beethoven (she studied with Theodore Leschetizky, who was a pupil of Czerny, who was a student of Beethoven), Rachmaninoff play anything. Now, too often people are interested to hear recordings only by the latest prizewinners or “names,” excellent as these may be. One must not forget the past. To me, partially forgotten figures such as Weigl are important links to an older era that still has much to say to today’s audiences and performers.

WEIGL 6 Fantasies. Isle of the Dead. Pictures and Tales. Dance of the Furies. Night Fantasies Joseph Banowetz (pn) NAXOS 8.572423 (78: 49)

Josef Banowetz’s efforts on behalf of neglected music have not gone unnoticed by the recording industry. Two of his projects—Balakirev’s piano music for four-hands (with Alton Chung Ming Chan) and the Kletzki Piano Concerto (with the Russian Philharmonic of Moscow conducted by Thomas Sanderling)—have received Grammy nominations for outstanding performances. Whether his current disc of the complete piano music of Karl Weigl will be so honored remains to be seen, but connoisseurs of the rare don’t have to wait for the Grammy’s imprimatur to feel secure in acquiring the CD. Banowetz is an excellent pianist whose warm tone and expressive manner are stylistically well matched with Weigl’s Viennese aesthetic. It’s tempting to think that Banowetz’s years in Vienna sensitized him to the evanescent wisps of the turn-of-the-century zeitgeist that still hovered in the air even in the 1950s. Of course, Weigl, although born in 1881, lived until 1949, so he had ample opportunity to embrace new trends such as atonality or 12-tone composition had he been of a mind to. But for whatever reason he chose another path, preferring to extend the harmonic language of Mahler and his contemporaries while remaining true to their artistic ideals. Banowetz hears a dark undercurrent in much of Weigl’s music. Certainly that holds true for the Isle of the Dead , the Night Fantasies , and the Dance of the Furies , although the latter is more restrained, at least in Banowetz’s interpretation, than the title would suggest. However, Weigl has his lighter, even frolicsome moments: Witness several of the Six Fantasies and Pictures and Tales , although even the Pictures , ostensibly intended for children, touch on some disquieting ideas; Sleeping Beauty’s grave, for instance. Banowetz’s thoughtful interpretations emphasize the varied character of the music, and his touch delineates every nuance from delicate clarity to full-bodied resonance. Incidentally, his pedaling beautifully complements his incisive technique, adding luminous or ominous colors as required. This is a welcome release, showcasing the works of a formerly unsung composer who merits the attention of the listening public. Robert Schulslaper


Last Updated ( Wednesday, 26 September 2012 )
 
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