Back to the roots…

Like every violin student, at least in Hungary, I also had to start learning the Bach Solo Sonatas/Partitas when I was quite young. There was not one day without at least a few minutes of Bach on the practicing list. It was like a daily prayer, actually really cleaning the brain, taking away all the problems of everyday life, showing the path to the pure, naked, simple joy of music. It was not easy to really “practice” Bach for me, often after couple of bars just feeling this magical power, it forced me to play and play without stopping for corrections.

Growing up without access to the first stereo good quality LP’s straight from the record companies, we could listen at least via radio broadcast to the recordings of great violinists of our times, the 60’s, 70’s. If someone was able to get hold of an LP, that went around the circle of friends, so we could make cassette recordings of it, to be able to listen to them at any time. Unfortunately, I didn’t have an LP player, so I looked up the broadcast programs every week, and picked the best music I wanted to listen to, of course mostly late evenings when I had the time for that. At one point, I got an LP player chassis, not knowing that I need an amplifier and speakers too, well, I was just putting my ears very close to the pickup and so could hear it like in an old phone booth, holding the phone at a similar distance to the ear!

The first Bach recordings were on the way, we hardly knew the names because they didn’t come to Hungary to play, however two names, Szeryng and Milstein we learned very quickly. I don’t think Milstein ever came to Hungary, but Szeryng did, it was the greatest experience every time. Especially when he came to the encores, we hoped he would include a Bach movement also.
Much later, I had the chance to listen to Milstein live, in Germany. He played only Bach!

The tendency of having a “mandatory list of recordings” for a young violinist (or any other musician in fact) these days is a bit disappointing to me, having uncounted series also of the Bach solo works, played by more or less known superb violinists with 200% technical perfection, absolutely flawless; somehow so overwhelming that I am not sure any more what or who am I listening to. It used to be so wonderful to try to guess who the player was, by sound, style, character, interpretation, etc.

Actually, I am not sure any more where are we going today. The repertoire of a violinist has all the major concertos, the Bachs, some virtuoso works and maybe a few contemporary works to hide in their programs. Same with orchestras, the concert programs are full of repeated works, and unfortunately there is hardly any contemporary music that is able to survive this mass of “standard” literature.

Anyway, as we made the Bach Chromatische Fantasie and Fugue to work for both, violin and harp, I had the urge to make more like that. I looked through the keyboard works of Bach and picked all that were suitable for transcription. And again I had to realize that Bach was simply the greatest of all! His music is never the same, he has always something more to say, he is showing the way one has to go in his music, we just have to be able to understand and then we have an endless world of musical joy.

To make the transcriptions was not difficult. Perhaps that is the proof of that these works are just as well fit for the violin too. After all, Bach himself made transcriptions of his works as well as those of other composers. I really loved the challenge of having to deal with some new kind of technical achievements, some unusual chords and chord settings, runs also in a bit more unusual way, so I was figuring out the most suitable fingering also and all the notation is completely prepared that way. Back to Szeryng for another moment, his Bach edition of the Solo Sonatas/Patritas is full of “unusual” fingerings and even bowings, at first attempt even strange, but definitely working well, sometimes even tricky, to work around some of the old type of traditional way of doing it.

These Bach keyboard works for solo violin are made for enlarging the Bach-solo violin literature, to make it possible to have a bit more of a choice when programming recitals.

Shall We Dance…?

The idea of making a transcription of Ravel’s La Valse came as we were searching for a theme we thought would be nice, something happy, somethig people enjoy, something that keeps people together. Dance. But there are millions of all kinds of dance music out there, how could this be something more special, more specific? Dance music without dancing?

Especially in Vienna, dance is part of life, all teenagers go to ballroom dancing classes! Especially in winter time, one can go to a ball almost every day, begining in November through to June, most famous are the Vienna Opera Ball, Vienna Philharmonic Ball and the Life Ball. I myself played many times at different balls there, it’s a huge tradition, high society entertainment, with lots of dancing. I even tried to see if I could pick some good “material” from the Strauss & co. world, but there are so many, I simply gave up.

So instead, I started to browse the symphonic literature and found surpisingly many dances, so we just had to choose a nice selection. We already had a title for the bunch “Shall We Dance…”, so I started to work on it. One of the priorities was giving both instruments equal treatment for melodic and accompanying material.

Weber’s Invitation to the Dance seemed an obvious opening piece. It was so popular in the early 19th century, that Berlioz orchestrated it, using harps. Transcribing this was actually quite straightforward.

The Valse from the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz worked similarly – it was important for us to keep the original harp excerpts as harpists learn them for orchestral auditions.

Salome’s Dance of the Sevel Veils started to make my life a bit more busy. I remember Katrina saying that she would never play any other than the original in orchestra, so I started to work on it without telling her. When I had most of it done and I was with her in Germany to practice together, I carefully told her while out for a walk, that well, I tried it anyway, and if she still doesn’t like it, I would play it with someone else. Of course it is now in our rep and we have recorded it.

The main difficulty with Salome was that we need to make this huge, in orchestra practically unplayable ending doable.

Already many years ago, I had the impression, that we have to play everything as fast as possible. Since I had a reasonable technique, I was going with this trend, Mozart, Beethoven, Bartók, no matter what, I played as fast as possible, until one point came, where I suddenly felt, hey, this music is just not enjoyable that fast. This was Kreisler’s Recitative and Scherzo Caprice. Even my prof at the Liszt Academy said, hm, he always played it much faster, but yes, it does make sense slower. Many years later, visiting the old Liszt Academy, seeing former colleagues, I was a bit annoyed when they asked me, “do you still play so fast?”

When I had the chance to play the opera Salome, I was simply shocked. And ever since, when I listen to recordings, I’m surprised that conductors absolutely don’t care if we musicians are sweating blood, taking it to the extreme, totally inconsiderate of the technical difficulties. Personal anecdotes relate that Richard Strauss himself said that many of his technically difficult spots are basically just colour. However, this Salome ending is a different case. Already the start of the last section is so transparent and quiet, that just one wrong note in the violin section makes it messy.

It was a long process, but I believe I managed the right compromise, using some “violinistic tricks” and of course a good steady harp base to make it most effective. Even so, the last couple of bars are still a bit sacary, but oh well, some challenge is nice to have, isn’t it?

Speaking of challenge, thanks to Nathan Milstein, we have a couple of very interesting works for solo violin, one of which is the Mephisto Valse by Liszt. When it was first published, I had to have the music right away and practiced it like crazy (recorded it too). And because it is a Valse, a dance, I took the challenge and included it into the series of dances.

Actually, this is only one of Liszt’s Mephisto Valses, somehow only this one became famous, also for orchestra, but I think the piano version is really fantastic. This is a different world! His unique atmosphere with the melancolic slow sections mixed with the really devilish fast parts, he brings us to an unparalleled space of music.

It is not easy technically for both instruments, particularly because the tiniest details are important without giving the slightest impression of technical show off. There are only the millions of dancing little devils who suddenly change face and end up in a romantic love scene, but finally realize that this was only a dream and the dance goes on.

The only dance in “Shall We Dance…” that originally was also ballet is the Dance of the Hours by Ponchielli, part of his opera “La Gioconda”. Perhaps this is the loveliest music of all, it is light, easy going and fun.

I didn’t know the Jazz Suites by Shostakovich. But I knew those melancholic, nostalgic sad Jewish sounding valses and had no idea he used them for his Suites. And I definitely wanted to use them also.

After listening to all, I decided the ones I was going to include, but I didnt want to make movements. So in this case, I wrote a quite long “medley” of the most popular parts, some happy and some sad, ending with what to me, is this so much like circus music ending. Its a really fun music.

The First Attempts…

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve had the idea of writing music for quite a long time, but I just didn’t have the time and didn’t think I could do it.

We played here and there together, Spohr, Saint-Saens, Damase…, and even asked an American composer to write for us, the Poème by Michael Kimbell.

But after a while, it just wasn’t enough. I remember my first attempts, for example the Bolero by Ravel, which was almost unplayable, but wow, the audience loved it. Then we added some Gershwin and Piazzolla pieces.

I always loved Bach. So did, well, does Katrina too, starting with learning the violin partitas as training for the fingers. And then she discovered that Bach keyboard music works very well on the harp. One day, she came up with the idea of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. I also thought it was a great idea, so we had a sort of competition, she for harp, me for violin. She started with the Fantasy, me with the Fugue; well, honestly, I wasn’t yet sure about the Fantasy because of the exisiting transcription for solo viola by my countryman Kodály.

When we were ready, we played the complete work in concerts in such a way that she played the Fantasy and I the Fugue (I think the othe way around too). Later we both made spearate recordings of the Fantasy and Fugue.

I’m not sure any more what was then my first “real” transcription for harp and violin, but I know I had a lot of trouble. Nothing was working with the pedals. I know, all of you harpists laugh now, of course, a violinist shouldn’t write for harp. Sure. So I learned the hard way; I tried to imagine playing, trying to feel how much time I would need for certain pedal changes, which enharmonics to use, and so on.

My first attempt of the Dukas Sorcier Apprenti was a slap in my face; here I hadn’t considered if it works or not, sent it to a harpist friend, who wrote back, well, sorry, but I can’t make pedals for this.

The hardest piece so far was La Valse by Ravel! I rewrote it 3 times until it became “almost” playable. As the work is extremely chromatic, it was almost impossible to manage, but I made some (actually quite a few) changes, so it became more friendly to the harp player.

Just recently, actually only a few days ago, I finished the version for string quartet and harp of Ravel’s La Valse, now with a really friendly harp part!

More Harp…

Then there is one other problem:

unfortunately, because the major development of harp construction and technical advances for players started after much great music had already been written, the harp part is mostly less interesting. Often the harpist has to sit through long sections of works without playing a note, to fill in some hardly audible chords, or even worse, to play a cadenza alone with cold hands! Both scenarios are not very welcome by musicians.

Sometimes the harpist can actually go home, have dinner between entrances; obviously if he/she lives nearby.

And then there are those few operas where the orchestra needs eight harps, even on stage in order to hear them – a wonderful sight! I’m sure every harpist knows which music I am referring to – yes, that’s right! And some other composers used two harps doubling each other in order to be heard.

Well, of course, a number of composers used the harp mostly really as a background colour, which is alright. But these days, we just don’t have enough music for the hundreds of fantastic harpists. They finish their studies, go to competitions, if they win maybe they get some soloistic or chamber music possibilities, but finally most of them either find a place in an orchestra or in a teaching position. Often it is quite sad, because there are so few orchestra postions available, and especially with budget restraints, full-time harp positions are among the first to be cut. So that takes young players back to becoming background musicians, as ist was common 30-40 years ago.

It is my goal to encourage harpists to use their skills which they acquired during their studies to enable them to keep performing.

Why Harp…?

Even though there have been huge developments in the harp-making industry in the last century, and there are many wonderful harpists around, I believe that the majority of music lovers still see this beautiful instrument as some gorgeous golden giant, played by sweet girls with lovely curls, wearing fancy gowns, most suited for background music at high society banquets and parties. At symphonic orchestra concerts the harp is also a lovely piece of stage decoration which is often a disappointment when the audience sees the player, but the sound is barely noticeable. Of course, when there are wonderful cadenzas, especially in operas and ballets, everyone enjoys the marvellous spectrum of the lovely instrument, heard but hardly seen in the pit.

And yes, this is exactly what I wish to point out here: the harp is no longer a background colour for some social occasions, it is a highly professional “music making tool”! As with all instruments, there are innovative advancements that instrument factories and players are constantly working on to improve.

If I look at two harps, let’s say an old Erard and a new Lyon & Healy next to each other, the difference is clearly obvious. Already the size and the whole construction in every aspect is completely different.

It is possible to take part in a tour at harp factories observing all the production stages, where they show the process of harp building beginning with wood selection, preparation, how to glue and what kind of methods are used to make the harp more sturdy, etc.. For me, as a violinist who can do small repairs such as bow rehairing, it was amazingly interesting when we took part at a tour of a harp factory. If you are interested, I think the big factories have online tours, so one can get a feel for it. However, being there, smelling the wood, hearing the noise of the tools, and seeing the masters working on the hand-made parts make it a memorable experience. Perhaps, currently, the most interesting and important aspect is the development for a bigger, warmer and rounder sound, having more “bass”, a more brilliant “treble” with more projection of sound, so it can be a more soloistic instrument. In addition, of course, the harp needs to be more robust for transporting, without becoming heavier, using the best materials for mechanical parts and longer-lasting strings. After all, quite often the harpist must manage to transport a harp in a suitable vehicle by him/herself. It may be safe to say, that long gone are the days when performances were interrupted by strings breaking in the middle of a piece!

Comparing the sound of even just 20-30 year old harps with any of the modern instruments from the USA, France, or Italy will prove this great advancement in harp making.

Luckily, we can observe similar developments at music institutions worldwide. The “one professor for one or two students” era is long since past. Visiting any music schools, universities, the harp faculty is most probably very busy, especially when there are few practice rooms with instruments!

However, there is one problem, that is not exclusive for harp, for an instrument used singly in an orchestra of 100 players. Similar to the piano, which is needed even less in an orchestra, and there are many more pianists around, the available work for them falls into categories as soloists, accompanists, chamber musicians, correpetitors and, of course, teachers.

And here I am with my strong sugestion: harpists should get involved in much more chamber music and play as soloists! This wonderful instrument is continually gaining more potential for use on stage as a solo instrument. I am absolutely convinced of that!

I do believe though, that we need some changes in concert programming by showing the harp as a major solo and chamber music instrument, and by widening and expanding the repertoire and by refreshing the taste of listeners to actually gain more interested audiences.