Let’s clear the air first. The top ten covered in this two-part series are all musicians and all were born in the month of February. They include a world-class violinist (February 2) and a world-renowned opera composer born on a Leap Day (February 29.) The selection is mine alone based on my lifelong appreciation of the art and craft each brings to his or her boundless talent. Unfortunately there is only one woman represented here, namely the legendary figure, Dame Myra Hess. Through no fault of mine, I have no control on the horoscopes of those happily born in the second month of the calendar year.
1) We may now cut to the chase, opening with a remarkable South American from Chile. Claudio Arrau (born in Chillan on February 6, 1903) was a prodigy who gave his first concert when he was five. Financed by the Chilean government, he studied in Europe where he attended the Stern Conservatory in Berlin as a pupil of Martin Krause. He made his Berlin debut at 11. Two years later he won the Ibach Prize and later the Liszt Prize (twice), the Schulhoff Prize, and the Geneva International Prize.
His American debut took place in New York on November 14, 1923. In 1935 he presented a series of 12 concerts in Berlin and Vienna devoted to the entire keyboard literature of Bach. From 1925 to 1940 he was professor of the piano at the Stern Conservatory, and in 1940 he founded a piano school in Santiago, Chile.
He returned to the United States for a tour in 1941 and established his permanent residence in America. Since my move from India to New York in 1975 I had several opportunities to attend Mr. Arrau’s rewarding recitals. In particular, I recall his performance in Detroit where my organization was fortuitously having its annual conference. His rendering of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata was truly insightful, and since it has been a staple in my own development as a concert pianist around the world I cherished his classical interpretation with just a hint of personal give and take in the concluding movement.
2) Dame Myra Hess (born in London on February 25, 1890) attended the Royal Academy of Music on a scholarship, from 1902 to 1907, a pupil of Tobias Matthay. She then made a sensational debut in London on November 15, 1907, as soloist with Thomas Beecham’s orchestra, the Beecham Symphony, which he’d founded in 1905.
After extended tours of Europe, Myra Hess made her American debut in New York on January 17, 1922. In 1936 she was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in recognition of her position as one of the leading women pianists of the world.
With the outbreak of World War II, she organized concerts at the National Gallery in London to help maintain civilian morale. By the time the war ended she had arranged 1,698 such concerts in which over a thousand artists had participated. For such services she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) by George VI in 1941. On October 12, 1946, she returned to the American concert stage after an absence of almost eight years. Her signature ‘song’ was her own version of Bach’s timeless Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring played here in this recording on YouTube. (This happened to be the very first piece of Bach I played as a child pianist back in the day!)
3) Gioacchino Rossini (born in Pesaro on February 29, 1792) was an Italian composer whose immortality rests exclusively on his operas. Nevertheless, his overtures to some of the famous ones have found a permanent place on present-day concert programs. A prime example is La Cenerentola written when he was 25 years old and followed the success of The Barber of Seville the year before. La Cenerentola, which he completed in a period of just three weeks, is considered to have some of his finest writing for solo voice and ensembles. The light, energetic Cinderella Overture has been in the standard repertoire since that opera’s premiere.
What is most exciting is the way Rossini creates unforgettable crescendos that make the audience rise to the occasion – literally and physically in their seats! – as the overture reaches its climax. I still recall viscerally that a full four decades ago our orchestra’s guest conductor that year, the unforgettable Romanian Sergiu Comissiona, almost dropped to his knees on the podium before rising imperceptibly, ever upward and onward, to imbue his musicians with enormous yet controlled inner energy to attain the fortissimo that he needed them to achieve without strain, rawness or ugliness – fantastico! At the post-concert reception at my house, I told the maestro that our musicians really loved playing under his baton. However, I learned later that he would be moving from Europe to the U.S. to take up the music directorship of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Why not listen now to the YouTube recording of the La Cerenetola (Cinderella): Overture performed here by the State Hermitage Museum Camerata with conductor Saulius Sondeckis – enjoy!
4) George Frideric Handel (born February 23, 1685 in Halle, Saxony)was a German, later British Baroque composer who spent the bulk of his career in London, becoming well known for his operas, oratorios, anthems, and organ concertos. Handel received critical training in Halle, Hamburg and Italy before settling in London in 1712; he became a naturalized British subject in 1727. He was strongly influenced both by the great composers of the Italian Baroque and the middle-German polyphonic choral tradition.
Born the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti, Handel is regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Baroque era, with works such as Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks and Messiah remaining steadfastly popular.
5) Fritz Kreisler (born February 2, 1875 in Vienna, Austria) appeared as a child prodigy in his hometown, then attended the Conservatories of Vienna and Paris.
In his twelfth year he received the Grand Prix for violin at the Paris Conservatory. One year later he toured the United States in joint recitals with the pianist, Moriz Rosenthal, making his American debut in Boston on November 9, 1888. After returning to Vienna, he abandoned music and studied medicine at the Vienna Academy. Then, tiring of medicine, he went into the army and served for a year as an officer of an Uhlan regiment.
However, in 1899 he returned to his first love, although his return debut in Berlin did not get the recognition he desired. It was back in the U.S. over the period 1901 and 1902 that he won acclaim with his grace and charm, musical perception and humanity.
World War I interrupted his music career as he served with his Austrian regiment. He returned top the concert stage with a recital in New York in 1919 and for the next two decades he maintained his status As one of the world’s most highly honored and beloved performers.
Kreisler wrote a library of charming pieces for violin many of which have become staples in the repertory. They are too many to list here, but here is a romantic example of the great violinist’s popular compositions – Liebesfreud – in which you’ll feel Love’s Joy while listening to this performance by Mikhail Barash on YouTube.
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Copyright © 2016 Azim Lewis Mayadas