A Conversation with Violinist Steven Staryk
Since his 1949 Toronto debut, Canadian-born (1932) violinist Steven Staryk has earned the esteem of colleagues ranging from such maestros as Thomas Beecham, Rafael Kubelík, Rudolf Kempe, and George Szell to fellow violinists Zino Francescatti, Henryk Szeryng, Josef Gingold, and David Oistrakh. As a concerto soloist, virtuoso recitalist, famed concertmaster, chamber musician, champion of new music, gypsy fiddler, commercial studio/film freelancer, and university-level teacher at 10 different schools in Canada, the U.S., and Europe, Staryk has received enthusiastic notices from critics and record reviewers in which comparisons to Heifetz are common, on an international level. And he has been privileged to perform on, record on, and often to own, many dozens of the world’s most glorious violins.
In spite of all this, and notwithstanding his large and diverse discography (nearly 200 works, on labels both major and minor), it may take some prodding of the memory for serious record collectors to link Steven Staryk’s name with specific accomplishments, such as his authoritative treatment of the violin solos in Beecham’s stereo recordings for EMI of
I suspect Staryk’s
registers primarily with the world of violin enthusiasts, for his level of artistry has never been matched by the trappings of “stardom”—the big label recordings contracts, the high-fee/high-profile appearances, the mass-media name recognition—that the industrial/public relations side of the music world elects to bestow, or withhold, as it sees fit. This puzzle or enigma—or injustice—is discussed in the combination biography/memoire that Staryk and Thane Lewis authored,
Fiddling With Life, the Unusual Journey of Steven Staryk
(Mosaic Press, 2000), as well as in the notes to a massive 30-disc
Fortunately, the Centaur label has released CDs that do about as good a job as can be expected in documenting Staryk’s superb violinism and wide-ranging musicianship. Older Centaur releases include a reissue of his CBC recordings of the 10 Beethoven sonatas with John Perry, and his
Every Violinist’s Guide
, a collection of technical exercises, studies, etudes, and caprices, a classic LP that has awed and humbled generations of violinists (my high school orchestra conductor routinely utilized it to curb the egos of his first violin section). The
was also made part of Staryk’s six-LP set on Everest Records, a bedrock item for violin record collectors in the LP era,
Four Hundred Years of the Violin, An Anthology of the Art of Violin Playing
. It also included records devoted to Bach and Italian baroque sonatas, unaccompanied music, encores, and Wieniawski.
More recently, and the impetus for this interview, Centaur has commenced a “Retrospective” series of CD releases, in six volumes thus far; a mix of broadcasts, live performance tapes from Staryk’s own collection, and reissues of commercial recordings.
A bit of biographical information is in order. Staryk’s parents were among the many Ukrainian immigrants to Canada who fled Stalin’s forced famine, but the Great Depression could not be escaped, and Staryk’s father committed suicide when Steven was but two years old. The Ukrainian community was musical, and the violin was as much a path out of hardship for Staryk as it was for many of the Odessa-born violinists. His studies at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory resulted in a position with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, a post which ended abruptly in 1952 when the TSO was not permitted to bring Staryk and five colleagues on an American tour due to mysteriously unspecific “best interests of the country” reasons—the Red Scare at work. In spite of these setbacks, Staryk found himself in London in 1956 as a member of Beecham’s Royal Philharmonic, and at the age of 24 he became their youngest concertmaster ever. By the time he was 35 he had served as concertmaster of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and the Chicago Symphony; later he returned to the Toronto Symphony as their concertmaster (earning him the title “King of Concertmasters” from
Magazine). After decades of concertizing and teaching, Steven Staryk is now 81 and fully retired; as he remarked to me, “All I am trying to do now is get my stuff out there before I pop off.”
readers are not necessarily violin aficionados, but they do enjoy reading about great orchestras and the great conductors and players. The highlights of your career, the musicians you have known, and the details about your recordings are sure to be of tremendous interest to them. Centaur’s Volume 1 includes concertos of Beethoven, Mozart, Paganini, and Shostakovich (a CBC recording) with such conductors as Bernard Haitink (Beethoven) and Andrew Davis (Shostakovich). Would it be your view that this represents you at your best—this is how you would want to be judged?
SS: If we were to break it down in order, I would say the Mozart A Major, the Paganini, the Beethoven, and the Shostakovich. The Beethoven Concerto with the Concertgebouw was an informal recording of a performance, one microphone, no set up or anything. Considering it was not properly recorded—the Prokofiev [in Volume 4 and also with Haitink] was done better because they knew they were recording it, but the Beethoven was a shot in the dark—it actually comes out very well when one calibrates the sound to make the violin more obvious. The sound was a little dark and mushy because it was an extremely humid day. Everything was soggy. I didn’t want to play around with it too much but helping the treble just gets it out of the quagmire. The old fiddles, they do suffer in the humidity. Depending on the type of instrument, if it’s in good shape and good health it should not affect it too much, but if it is the usual old violin that has been through everything with patches and all, they generally suffer in that atmosphere.
In the notes, which come with the Centaur recordings, I have put in as much information as I possibly could regarding the date of the recording, the place, and particularly, whether it was “live.” Many of them, almost half, maybe more than half, are “live.” I am very interested in the live aspect of recordings, like when direct-to-disc came out. I think I did some of the very first ones, the
Histoire du Soldat
of Stravinsky and a Bach E-Major Concerto with Boyd Neel, and so on. I think that is the best way to be able to judge someone. The notes not only have the dates and place, and the artists or orchestras collaborating, but also the instruments I played.
DKN: We should say a few words about those glorious violins. It is almost unthinkable that a violinist these days could actually purchase these instruments that now cost millions.
SS: My first violin, a Sanctus Seraphin, was not appropriate for me. It looked great and what struck me was the beauty of the instrument itself. That was a great lesson because I suffered with that violin and it suffered with me. I realized it was primarily a [Guarneri] del Gesù that suited me most. And then after having a del Gesù for a few years, I was having some problems with the fiddle. It had a “wolf” note, an incurable wolf. It was a very well-known del Gesù, it was the “Lord Coke” of 1744. Nathan Milstein himself was a Strad player, and one fiddle primarily; we spent an afternoon together in his hotel room and he convinced me that if I wanted to play a del Gesù I should play the viola [laughs]. So I looked into it very seriously and started playing more Strads, and comparing them to various del Gesù. It was like looking for the ideal voice. It would always be this constant turn around, from one to another. Over the course of time I owned seven “big ones,” not at the same time. There was only one period when I had both a del Gesù and a Strad, which was really ideal. I learned that you could find that ideal voice in a Strad and in a del Gesù: the combination in a del Gesù of the “golden period” or earlier ones, which were not as dark as the later ones, they had a little more of the Strad quality, and in those Strads which were darker, more like a del Gesù. That is eventually what I think I found and settled down with. My two favorites are the “Baltic” del Gesù of 1731 and my very last Strad, which was the “Barrere” of 1727. I am living off that violin now [laughs]. That is my retirement. The “Barrere” Strad is now being played, and I am very happy about this, with my Dutch wife and my Dutch background with the Concertgebouw, it is being played by Janine Jansen. She wanted this fiddle and she got it through the Stradivari Society of Chicago.
DKN: The first LP of yours I purchased as a young record collector was four Bach Sonatas [not from the standard set of six but BWV 1021, 1023, and two attributed works, BWV 1020 and 1022 with Kenneth Gilbert on harpsichord, Baroque Records BCS 2858]. Two sonatas are included in Volume 3, with other works of Bach. Even now those four sonatas, and I know there are issues of attribution, are little known. The style is something we hear less of now, a modernized violin playing with harpsichord. When I acquired it, that was the standard style for Bach.
SS: What we have done in the remastering, and we have done actually quite a bit with some of the old things, I brought out the harpsichord so that is much more at the same level as the modern violin. The baroque fiddles had a different type of sound, a smaller sound, better suited to harpsichord: They matched better. In order to get something akin to that we worked, and I think we succeeded, in getting a good balance between harpsichord and fiddle.
DKN: That volume also has the Bach concertos and the Partita No. 2. It lacks what you have written about more than once: the
St. Matthew Passion
’s “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” with its solo violin part. Is there a
that’s complete with you playing the solo part?
SS: No. We’ve combed everywhere, and I played it numerous times with the Concertgebouw, including a wonderful one, and the Royal Philharmonic, and the Toronto Symphony, with Maureen Forrester. You know, it is ironic, really ironic. When I pick up a fiddle to test it out the first thing I usually do is the Bach
solo to see what happens, what it feels like, what it has in the way of warmth and response. It is a great piece in that way if you feel it intensely.
The Bach A-Minor Concerto was on the same program as the Prokofiev, with the Concertgebouw and Bernard Haitink as a young man. The E Major I conducted myself in the studio. The Chaconne in the set is a live performance. The first four movements of the Partita are from a different source. There was a series of violin recitals by half a dozen violinists;
it was called. Milstein was there, Fodor was there. I did all sorts of different things on that program, even Kreutzer caprices, and Paganini, and the Bach Chaconne was on that program. This is the first time it has been issued.
DKN: Obviously the music of Bach speaks strongly to you. You are hardly alone in that of course, but do you feel a bit abandoned? There are many reviewers today who say they are uninterested in hearing Bach played on a modernized violin. They are not interested unless it is a period instrument played by a period-instrument specialist. The other day I read in a newspaper review that “nobody” plays Bach on the piano anymore, which is obviously not true, but in some people’s minds should be true.
SS: I don’t agree totally. I knew Glenn Gould quite well. We were the same age and we studied across the hall from each other at the Royal Conservatory when he was with [Alberto] Guerrero. And of course he was able to make the piano, with his wonderful staccato approach, and the dryness, as close to the harpsichord as one could. So I cannot agree totally. But I have great respect…if I had to do it all over again, I would do something else in the profession and I would play period instruments in the period manner, which I respect very highly. And some of my students are well known and I have more or less guided them in this way. The best of them is, and perhaps you have come across his name, Daniel Stepner.
DKN: Very well known to those of us in Milwaukee, where his father Bernard was a much-beloved educator.
SS: Oh, of course, yes. Daniel’s a friend of mine, and speaking of Bach, he just called me the other day. We were in touch because of the disaster in Boston [we were speaking just days after the Boston Marathon bombing tragedy] and he has just recorded, it will be released now, this month or next, the complete Six Sonatas and Partitas, in the period manner. I think he used three instruments, the Strad from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a very good Amati from a museum, and his own violin, which is a Kloz.
DKN: Working through the other volumes, there is an all-Prokofiev disc in Volume 4. The Concerto No. 1 is again with Bernard Haitink.
SS: Also redone, remastered digitally. All the things have been looked at and, if necessary, remastered. The Concerto No. 1 is from a performance with the Concertgebouw, and I am very happy about it. I recorded it also with the Vancouver Symphony, but this “live” performance really came off better than the studio recording.
DKN: Moving to the Mozart disc, on Volume 5, with the Concerto No. 3, Quintet in G Minor, and the
with your old friend, colleague, and teacher, Oscar Shumsky on viola, that must be good to know that that wonderful document has been preserved.
SS: It really is. The fact that he played both violin and viola…I talk in
Fiddling With Life
a great deal about Oscar Shumsky and Alexander Schneider. I studied with both and was friends with both for many years. Oscar Shumsky: a great violinist who should be famous but isn’t; Alexander Schneider: for me the greatest “second violinist” in the world. As a musician in the chamber-music sphere, Schneider was just for me…we became quite friendly and had a good association for a long time.
DKN: That description of Oscar Shumsky may be as good a segue as any into a topic mentioned in articles about you, in other interviews, and in
Fiddling With Life
, and that is the issue of “justice”; did your career do you justice or do justice to your abilities? Shumsky is known to connoisseurs, and any audience that heard him play would immediately realize his stature, but if a bin of Beethoven Concerto recordings at a record store had Perlman and Shumsky, and I reviewed both for
, we know which one would sell better. We don’t know which one might be listened to more often. Now your Beethoven Concerto will be available. I have a sense of, well, perhaps anger, perhaps dissatisfaction, over your situation?
SS: You’re absolutely right. Yes. At first it was hope, and then it was anger. I have not even sent you all of the “where has this guy been all my life?” and “why has it taken so long?” types of articles and rave reviews in such major sources as
The Strad, Fono-Forum
in Germany, the American String Teachers Association, and the like. At first it was sort of hopeful and then it is as with the quote from Aristotle: “A modest man is generally admired, if people ever hear of him.”
My upbringing was modest. My parents were simple peasants from the Ukraine, and always reminded me that if you were that good, people would let you know. Unfortunately I found that all the praise, and the reviews, and the compliments, did not land a major solo contract. They produced “quotes,” you know, such as “why it took so long for planet Staryk to reach Earth will always remain a mystery,” and others in a similar vein. I pretty much skimmed the minor labels, or major minor labels like Everest. We were almost with EMI but something happened there. It has always been a matter that the carrot is there but just out of my reach.
I think it is in the business aspect of it. Irresponsible people, or rather, people who don’t know that much about what they are dealing with. I won’t name a name but someone with a certain label who had recordings that he had to distribute to shops around Canada and referred to Oistrakh as “you know, that David Ostrich.” That gives it away. And he’s not the only one. I have had similar experiences; people knowing so little about it and yet being in the business in a controllable way, controlling many things, many choices. It is very, very frustrating.
The other thing that I have done, just loving music, period, and not looking at music only through the
-hole of a violin, there has always been this thing about a soloist, that everyone who picks up the instrument inevitably will be a soloist according to all the stage mothers. That was never a problem of mine or my family. In fact my family did their best to encourage me to go in a different direction, to be a doctor, be a lawyer, anything which was remunerative, and play the violin as a hobby. But I got into all sorts of things because of my background, including the gypsy violin which I found fascinating, especially the authentic Gypsy: the Rumanian, the Balkan, the Hungarian. I did jazz because I did quite a bit of studio work and I got to know some very fine jazz musicians. The only thing that I missed, and I am sorry about it, was the tango. Not enough time in life, and it is actually one of the easier things that one can learn and do very well, so that you wouldn’t know it is a “straight” player doing tango or whatever.
The reviews and compliments did not land a major solo contract of any sort, through recordings or otherwise. I had my principles. I didn’t believe in the manner in which things function with finding management for a career. You give them your $10,000 or $20,000 or whatever; you give them all the material that they need, the photographs and everything. All to get on their list, which would usually just be a Community Concerts list. I just found it unreal and not honest. That is one of the frustrations.
I thought possibly the venue, the breakthrough, could be through recordings. And I would say, there is an example, and he happens to be one of my favorite violinists, and that is Arthur Grumiaux. Knowing him, knowing about him, most of his career was primarily through records. He hated to travel; he did only two tours of America and very small tours at that. He played when I was concertmaster in Chicago and then of course, in Holland where I recorded with him, played some concerts. But he is one who actually did manage to get a career through the recording medium. So I thought, it is possible; if you have the right company, the right people, someone who is subsidizing or pushing you, it can be done.
Especially having had the experience that I have had with, let’s say,
music. All music, as I used to say to my students, who were on the “solo” kick: You can’t perform a Bach
or a Mozart opera alone, nor a symphony of Brahms or Beethoven for that matter. All of that literature of music, all that there is, there is so little of it that is solo repertoire for violin. The “soloist” emphasis does not give one a great insight into music, into all music.
DKN: A young artist, or even an established violinist, might well wonder how you can have any possible dissatisfaction. You played on the greatest violins with the greatest orchestras, under the greatest conductors and composers, you have played the great concertos, and your students have gone on to fame. There is hardly a masterpiece that you have not played, and often recorded. Many would envy this career. Yet you feel that something did not quite click, something you deserved did not come your way.
SS: Shall we say, in psychological terms, “ego”? The fact that I think, in fact I am sure, I am the only one (and I am always aware) who has done the amount, and the variety, and the versatility, of things that I have: the tzigane/Gypsy stuff, the
of Hoffert which is
Grappelli. I remember hearing Yo-Yo Ma with the trumpet player Wynton Marsalis and it just didn’t work. It was like Menuhin doing the Grappelli thing, and it was just funny. There is a piece by William Russo, which was written for Menuhin. Jazz musicians tend not to look on names as holy untouchables, and if it doesn’t work it doesn’t work. They were supposed to record it for EMI and Russo decided, after going over it with Menuhin and guiding him, it just didn’t work. They did the performance at the Bath Festival, which Menuhin ran, but the recording didn’t work out. They came to a studio that leased their stuff to EMI and we recorded it. Finally it was released on some minor label. From that aspect I think I have achieved something which is distinct and I do not know anybody else who has done it. It is one of my passions to find and hear someone that will fool me. For example, Vadim Repin playing some tzigane music or whatever and you wouldn’t believe it is Repin or whoever.
I was very interested in science as a subject even before high school days. My daughter is a veterinarian. My wife, who was a violinist in the Concertgebouw, wanted her to play the violin, as in some musical families, where everybody plays. I was totally against it, and now my wife is very happy that she did not become a musician, and so is my daughter. I would have rather gone into another field where publicity isn’t all important as in this part of the “entertainment” kingdom, and unfortunately it has become more about entertainment than about serious music. It has just been a matter of luck—as Gogol said, at birth one must be lucky in everything.
This is one thing that frustrates me. I have done the quartet stuff; the CBC Quartet, a piano quartet; I have done chamber music, I have done just about everything. I did contemporary music; 14 works of Canadian composers alone, six of them dedicated to me. Difficult, very difficult stuff. One can’t put me into any category. I found it frustrating when I was put into the category of concertmaster, “The King of Concertmasters” according to
. I was typecast. It happens. It happens in acting, it happens in writing, and it happens in music. This I found not fair. Most of those who pigeonholed me as a concertmaster were certainly not aware.
DKN: There does seem to be a general notion that someone “plays well…for a concertmaster.” I myself may have fallen into that habit when I was a reviewer. And yet, we should talk about the concertmaster period of your life because record collectors would certainly want to read more about those orchestras and conductors. Any insider information about how the great recordings were made will fascinate them. I have the famous rehearsal recording of Beecham, and it may not be the candid reality—he knew what was going on. Toscanini regarded Beecham as a talented amateur but you cannot argue with the results of some of those Beecham recordings, where you were a few feet away from him. How would you evaluate a Beecham?
SS: I think as Toscanini did. Beecham was a most talented man. He could have been a statesman; his wit, his depth of education. When I did the audition for him I was warming up outside the dressing room at Royal Festival Hall and the librarian heard me and said, “Oh my God, are you going to play
for him? Oh my, how terrible! He hates Bach.” I wasn’t told to bring a pianist so I had Paganini and Bach. But he let me play practically the entire Partita and the entire Chaconne. Then I had a trial in the “hot spot” for a few weeks and that was it. Then I got my first big fiddle, which I couldn’t wait to get, and very soon after that came the recording of
which hasn’t been deleted since it was recorded. In fact that was the first time I did the
solos. I’d done the piece but not the solos. It wasn’t ideal. Some of the bits he wanted to do again because he wasn’t happy with the bassoon solo in the second movement, which follows the violin solo. We were in Paris recording Haydn; we did a lot of recordings in Paris at the Salle Wagram because he was only allowed 90 days in England due to tax avoidance and so on, and those 90 days he wanted to use in concert with an audience, not recording. So we did a lot of stuff there, and suddenly I see
on the stand again when we are actually recording the Solomon Symphonies of Haydn. Very surprising things.
During the recording, his wife, Lady Betty Humby, and he were having a bit of an argument about ensemble and entrances. I came in, quite green. Anyway, we got to the section and she more or less put me on the spot, “Mr. Staryk what do you think of this?” And I said it was not together. And he of course [imitating Beecham’s growl], “Oh, well, my dear boy. I have been conducting this for 50 years and it’s
been together.” You’d get caught in these situations quite often with him, and I got to know him quite well in that way. We would have a piano rehearsal when I would do a concerto or whatever with him. He couldn’t play the piano. It was terrible.
I took on the position with the understanding that he would help me with my solo aspirations. He got me in touch with his management, so that he would help me. We were on tour in Europe and unfortunately he had a program that included the “Pastorale” Symphony of Beethoven; Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms, the bread and butter of music, were not his forte. I was the soloist in the Tchaikovsky Concerto. It was one of those nights when everything happens right. I got a wonderful review and he did not get as good a review as he expected. And things started to cool off. The management thing was finished, something happened with that. Just one of many, many things that took the carrot away from me. It was no fault of mine that the reviewer liked the way I played the Tchaikovsky and thought his “Pastorale” was a bore.
that was never finished; what there is of
is not good at all. We recorded it in the same hall, the same venue, Kingsway Hall, which was the favorite of most orchestras. They were moving microphones and trying to set things up and whatever and we were doing takes. We did a performance, of which I have a tape, which was very good, from Festival Hall. But the recording itself is something else, it is put together piece by piece. I was already in the Concertgebouw and Sir Thomas was dead, and this was issued as sort of a memorial. You know, I made a superior recording of
with the Toronto Symphony and Andrew Davis for the CBC.
DKN: In 1952 you and other members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra were unable to travel with the TSO to the U.S. for tour performances, due to unspecified political beliefs. You were then, in essence, fired. Yet none of this seems to have been an issue any longer by 1963 when you joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as concertmaster, at the beginning of the Jean Martinon era.
SS: The Chicago Symphony cleared all the matters with regard to the McCarthy-era thing. This had not impacted me much, as far as I know, because when it happened I was advised to go to Europe and set my sights on that. George Szell was the one who actually got me to go to Chicago. We arranged things and it all fell into place. And after that I went to Oberlin and, shall we say, “a few other places.”
DKN: The Martinon years in Chicago are something of an empty hole from a record collector’s standpoint. A footnote.
SS: He didn’t have a record contract, and the few recordings that we did do were basically subsidized by the Chicago Symphony’s Board. They were good recordings, extremely good. He was very good in the French material and the contemporary work. Where he should not have, shall we say, exposed himself was in his baroque series, where he did the
. I played them but he stood on the podium with a violin, like the old days, and he did play some of them and it was not good. He should not have done that. It was one of the obvious negative things to the orchestra. The other thing was the basic bread and butter repertoire, where it was very difficult for him to follow Reiner and some of the guest conductors who were very fine.
DKN: You mentioned George Szell and he is someone I assume you worked with in the Concertgebouw.
SS: Yes, he was basically the guest conductor—
guest for long periods of time. They had had a bad time with him earlier and were now trying to make up. The orchestra needed him more than he needed them. I enjoyed him immensely, he was a great musician. And another who, like the “unknowns” Shumsky and Schneider, another favorite of mine who is not so popular, was Rudolph Kempe. He for me was one of the very finest conductors, a very serious musician.
DKN: I think of Kempe as a Richard Strauss conductor.
SS: Yes, but he did other things just as well, extremely well. He was trying to get me to go to the Berlin Philharmonic in the period before Karajan. And then when he got the Royal Philharmonic, I was again asked to come back to the Royal Philharmonic, but by that time I made up my mind that I had to stop being a concertmaster sooner or later, and I was already committed to North America.
DKN: The Centaur recordings also document your work with Canadian colleagues, and with pianist John Perry. They bring up the matter of the CBC. It is no longer a problem that the U.S. radio networks don’t do classical music—they don’t do any music. The CBC seemed to model itself more after the BBC, or the ABC in Australia, with CBC orchestras, CBC concerts, and CBC recordings.
SS: Perry is American, of course. I met him at Oberlin; we were both on the faculty there. The CBC, you may not be aware, is not what it was. They are totally changed. They are becoming more of a commercial station than a state radio station. I had no difficulties in arranging with them to get some of the things that I wanted to release on other labels. I don’t think anything was on CD. Everything was on vinyl. They were happy—they were giving away things that they really didn’t care about. They are changing the whole landscape there. Canada has a funny attitude towards the arts. It is a hockey culture. At one time the CBC was a great outlet, and many wonderful things went on. There was the Toronto Symphony, the CBC Symphony. I remember as concertmaster the recordings for Stravinsky’s 75th birthday. They did many, many interesting things. But now, I returned here, in 2009, it is like I have not been here. I called up the chief critic of
; he didn’t even reply or answer my call. They snub me, so I’ll snub them. I am the first Canadian who has done the things I have done outside Canada, numerous things, in England, in continental Europe and so on. It doesn’t seem that important to them. They have given me a few medals, the Order of Canada. I regard myself as a cosmopolitan artist, as James Creighton has termed me. I have returned and left here a number of times, but at this point I am not ready to move anywhere now.
DKN: I read references to you as “Canada’s greatest violinist,” but while Canada has had many fine violinists, that seems too small a statement for it to convey what it really stands for.
SS: Yes, yes definitely. Because I know all my colleagues, I know what has been. I go all the way back to [Auer pupil Kathleen] Parlow, I knew her. She was teaching at the Conservatory at the same time I was studying with Spivak. I chose not to study with her for the reason that I knew she was a wonderful performer and wonderful person but not really a teacher. There was a good string colony here. Geza de Kresz, Nikisch’s concertmaster in Berlin, Parlow, and Elie Spivak, a Paris Conservatory graduate who had studied with Adolph Brodsky. You had choices here, but after you had covered them you had to start looking elsewhere. That is when I started looking to people like Shumsky and Schneider. Mischakoff, too: Mischa Mischakoff used to come here to give some classes. A good violinist, a good concertmaster.
DKN: When I acquired your
Four Hundred Years of the Violin
set on Everest, which I bought primarily to get the
Every Violinist’s Guide
of technical etudes, the LP that I ended up playing the most often was the all-Wieniawski. At that age I was drawn to the showy “no one can do this” sorts of pieces.
SS: Ah! That is one that I want to redo. I have a Wieniawski Concerto No. 2 that I would like to attach to that, because it was only on vinyl. If the concerto were there then I’d have the Caprices and the showpieces, and that would make a full disc. There are other things, things that I have, which I think should be out there, like for example the Schumann Concerto, there are not too many issues of that. I find it a worthwhile and a very musically rewarding piece. I am hoping, this is my great hope, it is like pie in the sky, I have some wonderful recordings that I was hoping to get out on some label. But so far I have not managed to do this. I have a wonderful Schumann Concerto, a Mendelssohn Concerto, and some more unusual repertoire, that I would like to get out. I respect Victor Sachse very much, but Centaur doesn’t seem to have world distribution, in spite of what the contract says.
DKN: We mentioned Daniel Stepner. You have also had a successful career as a teacher with many successful students. Of course, by the time they come to you they know how to play.
SS: I remember a remark of one of the big name teachers brought into a school, not really a teacher as such, who was replacing somebody, and met a colleague of his in the hall and asked, “What am I here for?” And the colleague says, “To teach, of course.” “Well how can I teach them? They can’t play!” And that is the kind of situation you find yourself in. At a school you set your load and then there are so many hours to fill. You get them by recruiting and by word of mouth mostly. I always refused places which didn’t seem to be in the right geographic location, or where there were too many “kingpins” all in the same place. You experience those things when you do some of the festivals and you have all the greats sitting together at the tables, and the egos are just beyond words. Nobody knows who is going to outdo each other.
DKN: The conditions that you write about of music-making in London sound almost chaotic. If it wasn’t for everyone being a wonderful sight reader nothing would sound any good.
SS: It goes beyond that and has to do with the producers and the chaps in what I would call “the aquarium” who produce a sound which is not what it is. When you hear them in Festival Hall, which is not exactly a great hall for acoustics (even the Barbican is not I understand the greatest for a symphonic concert for a hall of that size), you have to work very hard to make things come across. Generally the style, the British style, is pretty much on the light side. They’re great for accompanying. It’s a joy. You never have to fight to be heard, unlike with the Concertgebouw or the Chicago Symphony. There’s a very famous story that happened here [Toronto] with Heifetz and Ernest MacMillan. I was at the rehearsal, which I went to every chance I could, past the eighth row which was the cut-off point. Heifetz would not allow anybody closer. He came on stage and there was applause of course, and he whispered something into Sir Ernest’s ear and then waited. Sir Ernest addressed the orchestra—unbelievable, this was typical Heifetz: “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Heifetz feels the orchestra is just too loud.” They hadn’t played a note!
DKN: One of your most-quoted reviews concerned a Chaconne that you played in London where you were compared to Heifetz. In fact more than a few of your reviews compare you directly to Heifetz. Now, I know that some artists insist that they never read their reviews and maybe they’re telling the truth.
DKN: And I know from talking to younger violinists that the name Heifetz does not mean to them what it did to my generation. Even the Heifetz name can begin to fade.
SS: It’s amazing. It’s so quick. As with everything now, it is here today, gone tomorrow. I would just like to make a little dent in there, and then fade away into obscurity as the rest do.
DKN: But to be compared as you were so often to Heifetz, that is still the highest standard. You played at that level, with that kind of preparation, that kind of technique. You gave it that kind of effort.
SS: With a good dose of cynicism, I gave it a lifetime.
Steven Staryk—A Retrospective: Volume 1
Steven Staryk (vn);
Bernard Haitink, cond; Royal Concertgebouw O; John Avison, cond; CBC Vancouver CO;
Douglas Gamley, cond; London Festival O;
Andrew Davis, cond; Toronto SO;
Herman Michael, cond; North German RS
CENTAUR 3186-7, mono/stereo (2 CDs: 144:02) Live: Hamburg 1/1969
, Amsterdam 9/18/1961
, Vancouver 1972
Violin Concerto No. 1
Violin Concerto No. 5,
Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso
Violin Concerto No. 1
Steven Staryk—A Retrospective: Volume 2
Steven Staryk (vn);
Jane Corwin (pn);
Members of the Royal Concertgebouw O;
Raymond Parnell, pn;
Lisa Bergman, pn;
Adela Kotowska, pn;
CBC Vancouver Studio O;
Robin Wood, pn;
Douglas Gamley, cond; London Festival O;
Robert Linzon, pn;
Laurent Philippe, pn;
Primas Stefan & his Royal Tziganes
CENTAUR 3203, mono/stereo (71:58)
Liebesleid. Liebesfreud. Schön Rosmarin. Gypsy Caprice. Tambourin Chinois. Caprice Viennois
Chanson Triste. None But the Lonely Heart.
Pe Loc and Buciumeana
Violin Concerto No. 2:
Pièce en forme d’Habanera
Violin Concerto 2nd mvmt
Steven Staryk—A Retrospective: Volume 3
Steven Staryk (vn, cond);
Bernard Haitink (cond);
Royal Concertgebouw O;
Vancouver Baroque O;
Kenneth Gilbert (hpd)
CENTAUR 3211 (72:34)
Violin Concertos: No. 1 in a;
No 2 in E.
BWV 1023 and 1020.
Violin Partita No. 2
Steven Staryk—A Retrospective: Volume 4
Steven Staryk (vn); Mario Bernardi (pn); Bernard Haitink, cond; Royal Concertgebouw O
CENTAUR 3222, mono/stereo (69:26) Live:
Violin Concerto No. 1.
Violin Sonatas: No. 1; No. 2
Steven Staryk—A Retrospective: Volume 5
Steven Staryk (vn);
Mario Bernardi, cond; Natl Arts Centre O;
Thomas Beecham, cond; Royal PO;
Alexander Schneider, cond; Mainly Mozart O;
Jean Deslauriers, cond; CBC Montreal O;
Jaime Weisenblum, violin; Rivka Golani-Erdesz, John Mair, va; Peter Schenkman, vc;
Oscar Shumsky, va; David Miller, cond; Mainly Mozart O
CENTAUR 3223, mono (75:06) Live: London 12/1958
, Toronto 1980
, Montreal 1975
, Toronto 1981
Violin Concerto No. 3:
Adagio in E,
Rondo in C,
Quintet in g,
Sinfonia Concertante in E♭,
Steven Staryk—A Retrospective: Volume 6
Steven Staryk (vn); John Perry (pn)
CENTAUR 3224, mono (65:15) Live:
Oberlin ca. 1969-70
Violin Sonata No. 9,
Violin Sonata No. 1