Four Great Teachers


I had to give a farewell speech at the end of IMS Prussia Cove’s Open Chamber Music in Cornwall last week, and, while pontificating a little tipsily about the ideals of the seminar, mentioned the differences between the three great Hungarian teachers with whom I’d worked there, Sandor Vegh, Gyorgy Kurtag and Ferenc Rados. I thought that I might expand on that a bit here, and offer some thoughts on the four teachers who have had the strongest influence on my own musical development – the three listed above and my own main teacher, Jane Cowan.

I think I am right in saying that all four of these unique visionaries, different as they were/are, shared a basic set of musical values. In every lesson I took or observed with any of them, there was an over-riding goal: to help the student realise the composer’s vision. It hardly needs saying that none of them were interested in career for its own sake – in treating music like a competitive sport, in fact, which alas is the case in all too many institutions around the world today. These sages followed their musical ideals, and tried to help others do the same; what is the point in being a musician if one is not an idealist?

But, for all the similarities between the four, there were huge differences as well. So here is an attempt to illustrate some of these differences with the following brief summaries of what I myself gained principally from their teaching. (In the case of Kurtag and Rados, I and many others still gain from their invaluable advice, and hope to do so for many years to come; but since I can’t keep mixing tenses, I’ll mostly adopt the past tense from now on!) Of course, these synopses are gross generalisations, which do scant justice to the vast range of any of these luminaries; but maybe it gives some idea of what they had to offer – to me, at any rate.

Jane Cowan: most musicians have one central figure in their lives to whom they owe most of all, and for me she was that figure. I have already written on this page at length about Jane, so will try not to repeat myself too much here. ‘Natural’ was the key word for both her technical and musical approach. While giving a lot of detailed technical advice, she convinced us that playing the cello should be as unforced and easy as breathing. Her approach to musical interpretation was the same; one was not allowed to ‘do’ anything to the music – the music must do things to us! Bringing the composers and their characters to life so vividly that it seemed as if they were with us in the room, her concern was to teach us how to interpret the music without seeming to interfere with it at all. She talked incessantly about ‘agogic accents’ – ie emphasising the central note in a phrase with time, which one would then have to give back through the rest of the phrase, to create rubato in tempo; but the listener must not notice that we were doing anything other than allowing the music to speak for itself. Anyone singing a simple melody would shape it naturally without thinking; start putting technical difficulties (or ‘clever’ ideas) in the way, though, and that instinctive style is all too easily muddied. Jane’s genius was for cutting through such unnecessary complications and helping her students see the music as it was, shorn of clichés and obstacles.

Sandor Vegh: Vegh’s approach was similarly natural; but his chief concern, rather than agogic accents, seemed to be with following the contours of the music. Until I played to and with him (chamber music rehearsals with him were lessons in all but name), I tended to think that a forte was just that – a forte. One of his favourite sayings was: ‘Forte has his piano, piano his forte.’ And so with him, each phrase was satisfyingly shaped, every note in its rightful place, less or more than its neighbour, but not the same – again, as one would unconsciously sing or hum a simple melody. He was also insistent on the importance of clear articulation – every note had to speak, as well as sing. One can hear the results of those preoccupations very clearly in Vegh’s recordings of Schubert symphonies (for instance); every note truly lives, breathes, dances.

Gyorgy Kurtag: From Kurtag I learnt, very simply, the vital importance of each musical gesture. No element in his music is without a strong meaning; he has an image for practically every note, which he imparts with an infectious intensity that is overwhelmingly convincing. I have mostly studied his own music with him – but have heard him coach a lot of works by other composers (and I did once have the memorable experience of playing two movements of a Bach gamba sonata through with him). His approach to all music is the same in that he makes one feel that it is vital to the future of the human race that we understand fully, and convey with conviction, each nuance of every phrase. His burning, urgent conviction is a revelation in itself. And what a profound, deeply emotional musical soul he has! Astonishing.

Ferenc Rados: Rados’ genius seems to me to lie in his x-ray vision into music. I have been lucky enough to work on and perform many sonatas with him – and it is always almost uncomfortably illuminating. We will play a piece that I consider I know well; and within minutes he, often coming to the work for the first time, will point out connections and (rather more often) separations between motifs that have never occurred to me. He rarely if ever refers to any specific emotion in music – or even to the composer’s dynamic or tempo markings. Somehow, he sees beyond them, to the vital organs that lie within the music: the harmonic structure, the inner shaping, the rhythmic heartbeat. And woe betide one if one indulges in redundant beauty, lingering sentimentally on unimportant notes, thus distorting the essence of the phrase; nothing is more likely to produce the famous sound of Rados’ scornful laughter…

So there it is, a very brief summing-up of my experience with these extraordinary beings. No doubt other people who have worked with them will have completely different impressions; as I said above, each of these icons had a vast range of insights to offer. And of course their personality, their ability to translate musical ideas into words, the imaginative array of images with which they would convey those ideas, were important components of their genius as teachers. None of them were easy characters (especially Vegh!); but they all found their direct paths to musical truth, and took the trouble to try to communicate those paths to others. And for that I, and countless others, are truly thankful.