Thursday, 27 May 2010

Remembering Fernande Kaeser

Among the many pleasures of Leo Black’s new book, BBC Music in the Glock Era and After, are his short portraits of some of the artists and performers he knew during his years with the Corporation. Meet Luigi Dallapiccola and Hans Eisler, Janet Baker and Norma Burrowes, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and many others. This post, however, remembers someone that Black describes as ‘one of the great musicians in my life’:

The encomium ‘made in Switzerland’ comes my way but rarely, implying as it does the perfect execution of a Martina Hingis or a Roger Federer. Very early in my BBC time William Glock asked me to look in on the Festival Hall rehearsal of an American conductor who’d written to him, and say what I thought. I arrived while an orchestral work was being rehearsed (even a week later I couldn’t have told you what it was, though I seem to remember that the second half consisted of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony). Things changed drastically for the better when a small, dark-haired young woman walked on, sat down at the keyboard, and conjured up the opening chords of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. The rest of the morning was magic. I’d seldom or never heard piano-playing of such concentrated beauty and communicative power; the passion with which this apparent Swiss mouse delivered the fortissimo version of the chords at the first movement’s recapitulation is with me still. For Fernande Kaeser music was, in the immortal words of another William (Bill Shankly, Manager Liverpool Football Club), “not a matter of life and death but more important than that”.

Here, clearly, was an artist I just had to work with. She went on to continue a reasonable career on both sides of the Atlantic, but in the course of time it became a career teaching rather than performing. I discovered much later, after dropping some dismissive remark about competitions, that in the early 1950s she’d won the top piano prize at the Geneva International, one of the relatively few such contests which really counted, long before the time when you absolutely have to have won somewhere, and preferably somewhere else too. That she’d been in good company emerged even later during a brief acquaintanceship with Jennifer Vyvyan’s son: he dug out a programme that showed Fernande as the year’s successful pianist, alongside two major singers, his mother and the American soprano Teresa Stich-Randall. They’d shared the top vocal prize (which must have been too small to reward suitably two such talents): I still remember hearing about it at the time, and the way in which the name Jennifer Vyvyan immediately became one to watch out for. She was in fact one of the greatest singers Britain has produced, and I regret having worked with her only once, in a programme of French songs. Not being British, the piano-prizewinner didn’t get the same attention here. Fernande was the last pupil of Dinu Lipatti and had in her tenderest years received memorable advice from Clara Haskil; but despite Geneva the top agents weren’t interested, which even then was an inhibitor of really widespread success.

Our BBC collaborations were few and far between, for she spent a lot of her time teaching in the USA, but they always produced something of lasting interest. The pearl among them was a programme with two sets of fairly obscure variations, Bach’s Aria variata alla maniera Italiana and Mozart’s on a theme by Duport. I count that as the most beautiful programme for which I was responsible in my twenty-eight BBC years. Basil Lam summed up her special quality when I played him something she’d recorded, saying “Well, it isn’t fair is it, you give her a better piano than anyone else”. Certainly her ability to find the poetry in any given instrument was phenomenal; it came partly from careful preparation, sometimes involving all the spare studio time available for a couple of days before the show, as well as a pianistic talent of rare quality.

Fernande’s career was never glamorous, which is in part attributable to her own total distaste for the kind of ‘glamour’ that attracts attention regardless of talent, and also, perhaps, to that responsible attitude to preparation. On her one and only visit to our house, near the end of her life, she told of playing chamber music with a group. It was a pleasant enough evening, but one that ended in bathos when the chaps said “Right, the concert’s in a fortnight’s time.” “Not with me it isn’t,” said Fernande, and that was the end of the matter.

There was certainly nothing missing on the musical side, as I realized when I discovered in the Austrian Radio’s index of recordings a performance by her of the notoriously difficult Tippett Piano Concerto. Its designated first performer had withdrawn, declaring it unplayable; the veteran virtuoso Louis Kentner had then stepped in and proved him wrong; and here was five-foot two Fernande taking it on! Poor health meant an early end to her work, and she died too young: I count her one of the great musicians in my life.

BBC Music on the Glock Era and After is published by Plumbago Books and is available in both hardcover and paperback from booksellers of repute.

1 comment:

Ralph Locke said...

Fascinating to learn about a fabulous pianist/interpreter whom I had never heard of. This is a lovely reminder that only a few great musicians become world-famous, yet thousands more are able to enrich our lives if we take advantage of what they have to offer! The same is true, of course, for lesser-known films, by independent producers and such, by novelists who have somehow not been catapulted to fame, and so on. It's often well worth a chance to try out something new that one stumbles upon, or is located nearby.... (The slogan Eat Locally could perhaps be adapted: Listen Locally! Read Locally!)