Legendary Violinists in Germany
Gioconda Anna Clelia de Vito was born on July 26, 1907 in Martina Franca, Italy. At age 11, she entered the Rossini Conservatory in Pesaro to study with Remy Principe. She graduated at age 13, commenced a career as a soloist, and at age 17 became Professor of Violin at the newly founded conservatory in Bari (Italy). In 1932, aged 25, she won the first Int. Violin Competition in Vienna. She then taught at Palermo and Rome, at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. During the war years, de Vito played almost exclusively in Italy and Germany and in some of the Nazi-occupied territories in Europe. In 1944 she premiered the Violin Concerto of Pizzetti. She made the first of her relatively few recordings after the war. In 1948 she made her London debut under de Sabata, playing the Brahms concerto. This was very successful, and led to performances at the Edinburgh Festival. She played under Wilhelm Furtwängler a number of times, and had a great affinity for his approach. She collaborated with Edwin Fischer, who was near the end of his career. She had attended a recital by Cortot when the great pianist was way past his best; the result was a personal resolution not to fall into the trap of continuing too long. She was a deeply religious Catholic, moreover. Having played twice to the Pope, she decided she had reached the peak of her career and that that would be the end of it – even though the Pope himself spent an hour trying to talk her out of abandoning her God-given talent! She retired in 1961, aged only 54, not just from concert appearances, but from playing the violin at all. She lived in quiet retirement with her husband, David Bicknell, until his death in 1988. She died on October 14, 1994.
Ruggiero Ricci was born in San Bruno, California on July 24, 1918, the son of a poor Italian immigrant trombonist, who insisted that all seven of his children learn to play instruments. The piano was Ruggiero’s first love but his father was set on his becoming a fiddler. He received his first music lessons from his father and could not ever remember being without a violin in his hands. His father, arranged an audition with Louis Persinger (1887-1966). Persinger referred the father and son first to Mary Elizabeth Lackey for beginning instruction. In November 1928, Ricci’s father signed an agreement giving Lackey guardianship. After winning a gold-medal in a local contest, Ruggiero gave his first public performance in San Francisco on Nov. 15, 1928 (age 10), playing works by Wieniawsky and Vieuxtemps. Persinger accompanied him on the piano. On October 20, 1929, Ruggiero made his New York City debut, playing with the Manhattan Orchestra conducted by Henry Hadley. An unsettled period ensued. He had unsuccessful lessons with Mishel Piastro in 1931, toured Europe in 1932 – appearing in Berlin with Bruno Walter, in Rome with Bernardino Molinari, and in Budapest with Ernst von Dohnány. He studied with Georg Kulenkampff in Germany and the Auer disciple Paul Stassevich in Norway and America. Further studies with Louis Persinger resulted in a still more penetrating approach to the music he chose to perform. His career was disrupted by his call-up to serve in the US Army from 1942 until 1945, where he was an “Entertainment Specialist”. He performed at army camps and hospitals, and it was the frequent unavailability of a piano that caused him to explore the unaccompanied literature for his instrument. Ricci realised such performances gave him the chance to bring out a single interpretative point unaffected by the disagreements that so frequently occur between soloist and accompanist. After discharge, his first recital included solo sonatas by Bach, Ysaye and Hindemith, two Paganini caprices and unaccompanied pieces by Wieniawski and Kreisler. Soon he was giving this type of recital all over Europe. He gave the first performance of a newly-discovered Fourth Paganini Violin Concerto with the New York Philharmonic in 1971, and introduced the Sixth to the US in 1976. A year later he brought out a hitherto unknown 25th Caprice. Ricci’s last appearance in this country was at a packed Wigmore Hall in 1998. He played magnificently and even included some Paganini in his programme. Ricci was liked and respected; he was a brilliant conversationalist and would express his views in a direct manner. He achieved considerable success as a teacher, at the University of Indiana from 1970-73 and at the Juilliard from 1975 until 1990, when he was appointed violin professor at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, a position he held until his death. On August 6, 2012, Ruggiero Ricci died of heart failure at his home in Palm Springs, California, aged 94. He admitted that he used to lie about his age. “I was a prodigy. They said I was 7 years old but I really was 9. I looked young for my years.” Life for a prodigy was tough back in the 1920s, according to Ricci. “My father was kind of a music maniac. He started all the kids on an instrument. He said if we weren’t musicians, we’d wind up being garbage men. Pappa Ricci patrolled the house, making sure the kids were practicing. We practiced five hours daily. A tutor taught us school lessons at home. And prodigies were in vogue because parents could make a lot of money from them. I liked showing off, but on the other hand, I didn’t like the life I had. I had too much acclaim as a kid. I was a has-been at 13. That’s when I made up my own mind to be a violinist.”
Emilia “Lilia” d’Albore was born on January 4, 1911 in Santa Maria Capua Vetere, Italy. She belonged to the Neapolitan aristocracy presumably stemming from the Bourbon era. She entered the Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome to study with Gioacchino Micheli (violin) and Aldo Perini (viola). She graduated from the Conservatory in 1929 and continued to study under Carl Flesch until 1931 in Berlin and Baden-Baden. She made the first of her relatively few recordings in 1940 for Polydor (Franck, Schubert, Dvorák, Simonetti, Mozart and Veracini) with the German pianist Hubert Giesen, and (Brahms and Pizzetti) with the Hungarian-Dutch pianist Géza Frid. Her repertoire was rather small. She played under Wilhelm Furtwängler, Hermann Abendroth, Carl Schuricht, Artur Rother, Bruno Maderna, Oliviero De Fabritiis, Fernando Previtali and Carlo Maria Giulini. After 1948, she was asked to play with Sergiu Celibidache, which resulted in a few performances. From 1955 until 1961, she played the first violin in the Italian string ensemble “Complesso di solisti Antonio Vivaldi”. She also formed the Trio di Roma in 1959 with the pianist Germano Arnaldi and the cellist Antonio Saldarelli. She taught at the Naples Conservatory San Pietro a Majella and at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. As a teacher, she was a bit “laissez faire” with no interest for modern or contemporary music. In selecting repertoire she went as far as Respighi’s Concerto Gregoriano. She was the President and founder of ESTA (European String Teachers Association) Italiana. She played on an Alessandro Gagliano with two Sartory bows of different weight. She died on August 21, 1988 in Grottaferrata, Italy.
Nejiko Suwa was born on January 23, 1920 in Tokyo. Her first teacher was Nakajima Tazuruko, but she soon progressed quickly enough to study with the Russian violinist Anna Bubnova-Ono. Suwa was introduced to Efrem Zimbalist while on his second Asian tour in 1930. Her performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor impressed him enough that the meeting made headlines. He recommended that she study abroad and offered his assistance. While she did not take up this offer and continued to remain in Japan for six more years, she did decide to study under another Russian violinist, Alexander Mogilevsky. Having relocated to Brussels in 1936 to continue her studies with Mogilevsky, she moved once again to Paris, in 1938, to study with Boris Kamensky. She gave her European debut in the Salle de Chopin there on 15 May 1939. Although World War II broke out several months later, Suwa continued to stay in Paris to further her studies even after the Nazi regime occupied Paris. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, at this time, were united, and this military alliance allowed Suwa’s career to flourish: she was allowed to give concerts to wounded German troops to strengthen the alliance. In recognition of her services to German, Joseph Goebbels presented her with a violin on February 22, 1943. The gift was meant to be of a Stradivarius, and Goebbels himself noted in his diary that he was “offering the Japanese violinist a Stradivarius violin”. Suwa was a featured soloist in a concert given by the Berlin Philharmonic under Hans Knappertsbusch in October 1943 and performed to great acclaim. She also continued to travel between German cities giving concerts, but was finally forced to flee Paris in August 1944 when the Allies closed in on the city. She joined Japanese Ambassador in Berlin in April 1945 before moving with them to Bad Gastein when the war in Europe ended in May. She was captured in the Austrian Alps with the entire Japanese diplomatic mission to Germany by the United States Army in May 1945. She and other Japanese nationals were placed on board the liner Santa Rosa, in Le Havre, France, bound for New York. They were briefly sent to Pennsylvania in August to be detained in the Bedford Springs Hotel in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains before being released in November and sent back to Japan. In 1951 she boldly returned to America to perform in a benefit concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Suwa died on 6 March 2012 at the age of 92 in Tokyo.
Tibor von Bisztriczky was born on July 28, 1908 in Arad, then a part of Austro-Hungarian Empire, later Romania. At the Royal Conservatory of Music in Budapest, he studied the violin with Jeno Hubay. He taught at the Győr Music School from 1946-1963. He was the concertmaster of the Budapest Opera between 1948 and1950. The Hungarian composer Farkas Ferenc dedicated his “Éclogue pour violon et piano” to him. He made relatively few recordings for Imperial (1955), Electrola (1957) and Deutsche Grammophone (1959) with the German pianist Fritz Schröder. Bisztriczky died on November 12, 1983 in Budapest.
© Michael Waiblinger 2014
RECORDING OF THE MONTH
All the recordings here were made for German radio companies between 1938 and 1944. A host of thoughts immediately appear, but let’s just confine things to the performances for the moment. There are five violinists featured: Gioconda de Vito, Ruggiero Ricci, Lilia d’Albore, Tibor von Bisztricky, and Nejiko Suwa. Of this quintet Ricci’s name will be the most familiar, followed by de Vito. Some may recall d’Albore’s 78s, and Suwa never recorded as a solo artist, so far as I know. Von Bistricky was not a big name, though he was a fine teacher and made a few LPs, notably for DG and Electrola, in the 1950s.
What a fascinating collection this is and how resonant of time and place. De Vito’s performance of the Paganini Caprice is the disc that, unfortunately, has not survived in great shape. There’s rumble and some distortion. In any case, de Vito tends to be a bit simpering. Gustav Beck is the pianist. The trio of Ricci performances (Berlin, November 1938) coincide with some of his earliest recordings. Both the Sarasate (first class) and the little Mattheson Aria in the Willy Burmester arrangement come from those sessions, so he is sensibly performing repertoire with which he is already familiar, and may be doing some flag-waving for the 78s too. The pianist has changed, though – not, as in the studio, Fürstner, but Waldemar von Vultée. There’s also the Bach Chaconne to consider and that’s no small matter. I understand that a fragment of an earlier Ricci Chaconne performance has been preserved and released on One-Eleven, but I assume that this 1938 recording is the earliest extant example of a complete Bach performance from Ricci, if we allow the Chaconne to be extracted from its Partita. Like the other two examples, it’s heard in really excellent sound. Ricci’s tonal qualities are fully to be heard and the playing is well shaped, unsentimental, forward-looking, and as yet perhaps lacking something in expressive force.
Lilia d’Abore (1911-88) performed a lot of early music. Italian by birth she recorded with Hubert Giesen and Géza Frid for Polydor on 78s and after the war gravitated to ensemble playing. She played in the Trio di Roma and was also a member of Complesso di solisti Antonio Vivaldi. In her time she played under conductors as notable as Furtwängler, Schuricht and Abendroth, but her career trained off in the 1960s. She plays early Italian music with the sonorously named Heinrich Graf Wesdehlen in Berlin in 1942 and with the better-remembered Hans Priegnitz in Leipzig in 1944. She has an insistent, bright, forward tone that is rather lacking in light and shade. I’m not sure if the quality of the radio broadcast accounts for it but the tone, to me, sounds all top and no bottom. She’s close to the microphone, as one can even hear her sniffs in the Leipzig performance of the Tartini Sonata. Her double-stopping is smooth and precise, she extracts pathos from the slow movement, and shows good style in this repertoire. Despite recording Brahms’ Third Sonata with Frid – her major recording – baroque repertoire was her metier.
The Hungarian Tibor von Bisztricky (1908-83) prefaces his recital in November 1942 in Berlin with Veracini’s evergreen Largo – so wonderfully recorded some years before by Szigeti. The sound here is less good than the d’Albore recordings and Erhard Michel’s piano sounds especially watery. He recorded no Paganini or Sarasate so it’s good to hear him in unbridled form in both composer’s music, though the restricted sounds somewhat lessens pleasure. Finally there is Nejiko Suwa (1920-2012), the long-lived Japanese violinist who studied first in Tokyo, and then in Paris. She performed widely in Germany during the war, before being captured in the Austrian Alps with the entire Japanese diplomatic mission. She provides a violin obbligato to the not-very-good Japanese soprano Michi Tanaka in Strauss’s Morgen under the dispassionately watchful eye of master accompanist Michael Raucheisen, who then accompanies Suwa in Falla.
It completes a fascinating slice of violin recordings of exceptional rarity value, all being made available, so far as I can tell, for the first time. The digipack comes with biographical paragraphs on the violinists. Where these radio recordings have been all these years, and the process by which they have been made available now, are things I’d very much like to know. In the meantime Meloclassic is doing me out of superlatives.
© Jonathan Woolf