Otto Deri – Oh Dear!

Memory is short when it comes to remembering some of Western music’s noteworthy men and women of the past. In that gap of amnesia I would interpose the name of Otto Deri – Oh dear, some of you musicians out there might sigh! But let me delve into more than a bit of history via a reprint bequeathed to me in 1972 by a companion pianist of note, Lisl Starri, an Austrian who spent much of her adult life in India, Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta performing widely with orchestras – and in recital – in those major cities of India.

It was in what is now known as Kolkata that my wife and I really got to know Lisl, and with our mutual Parsee friends, Victor and Jer Viccajee, we’d gather in the latter couple’s garden of an evening to discuss Western classical music and its waning influence in India. In that context, and in talking about programs for piano recitals on one occasion, Lisl brought up the name of – you guessed it – Otto Deri. He was born this day, October the 5th in 1911, and grew up to be a fine cellist, but his musical interests were not confined to that instrument alone but to exploring the music of the 20th century during his long career.Otto Deri

That worthy gentleman, she said, deplored the fact that the late compositions of Franz Liszt were performed only rarely, and recommended their serious study since, as he pointed out, in those pieces Liszt’s conception of melody, rhythm, and harmony were quite novel and anticipated Debussy, Ravel and Bartok.

One particular piece he’d mentioned to Lisl was a rarely performed work from Liszt’s Annees de Pelerinage (Years of Travel) – Sunt lacrymae rerum. I told her I’d never heard of it and in short order contacted the local store for Western music scores to import it for me from Europe. When it arrived weeks later by airmail, I was soon immersed in its other-worldliness on my Bechstein upright.

Out of the blue, a short time later I learned from the Hungarian Embassy in New Delhi that I’d been invited to participate in the First Franz Liszt International Piano Competition in Budapest that September (1956). When I received the official invitation, enclosed were the requirements for the competition including – believe it or not! – Sunt lacrymae rerum, a non-elective that all contestants had to perform en mode Hongrois.

I was overwhelmed and got down to concentrating on that compulsory work in preference to my favorites of Waldesrauschen, the E flat major Piano Concerto and the D flat Concert Etude.  My practising paid off and although I didn’t win big, my performance of Sunt lacrymae rerum was given a special award for a deep heartfelt understanding of what it stood for – “There are tears for things.” Here it’s performed by my late friend Lazar Berman on YouTube: Sunt lacrymae rerum.

In my teen years I’d already dug into such exhilarating compositions as the great Hungarian’s Two Concert Etudes, the 12th Hungarian Rhapsody, the Piano Sonata in B minor and the Mephisto Waltz. The last of these seduced and enticed with its sensuality, and another friend, Agustin (‘Gus’) Anievas, who is still very active in the concert world gives a remarkable account in an April 14, 207 recording of the Waltz – judge for yourself!

So far as I was concerned, those pieces appeared at different times in my recital programs, live on stage and on All-India Radio.  But on my return to Calcutta from Budapest I concentrated on Liszt’s so-called “late pieces” that foretold the atonalism of the 20th century. Even today, some of them sound jarring and disjointed and others downright lugubriously so as per their titles. The Liszt Society Publications (Late Piano Works) is a one of a kind edition with such titles as Csardas Macabre, La lugubre gondola, and Trauervorspiel.

Afterword
I first met Gus Anievas in Rio de Janeiro in 1956 when we were both competing in the First International Chopin Piano Competition. Since that time we met up once again in New York in 1961 and forged a friendship that has lasted over the years, despite the fact of our living in two difference continents, America and Asia, for over two decades.

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