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Isolde Ahlgrim, Vienna and the Early Music Revival by Peter Watchorn

Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007) 264pp., hardback. ISBN 978-0-7546-5787-3. Includes 32 b&w illustrations and 23 music examples. £55.

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Though I have long been interested in the authentic performance of early music, I had never even come across the name of Isolde Ahlgrimm before I read this book. The loss was clearly mine, but one which I shared with those much more eminent than myself, as the quotation on page 2 from Henry Haskell’s The Early Music Revival indicates – scant mention of Vienna’s part in the revival, none at all of Ahlgrimm. Whereas the work of Wanda Landowska in championing the harpsichord is well known, Isolde Ahlgrimm seems to have sunk into oblivion until now.

Landowska’s philosophy was to make the harpsichord accessible to modern ears by playing instruments built to all intents and purposes like pianos, with massive metal frames; Ahlgrimm was performing before World War II on instruments much more like those produced in Bach’s time and, therefore, much closer to those generally preferred today. Landowska’s inheritance was continued well into my own musical ken by the likes of Rafael Puyana, the covers of whose Mercury recordings depicted the monster instruments on which he performed. One of my greatest surprises when I sold off my LP collection was to be offered more for a Puyana recording, which I had not valued at all highly, than for any of my other prized recordings; clearly there is still something of a cult following for the monster harpsichord.

Landowska was on the ‘right’ side in World War II; forced to flee Paris in 1940, her recordings were issued by RCA in America and its HMV associate in the UK. Ahlgrimm remained in Vienna throughout the war – her husband was even investigated afterwards for his Nazi associations – and was not discovered by any recording company until Philips, then a relatively new enterprise, recorded her in Bach’s harpsichord works in the early 1950s.

The great strength of the book is that it is written with two types of reader in mind – the general reader who will be interested in the biographical details of Ahlgrimm’s life and work and the specialist looking for more information about, for example, those Philips recordings. So as not to complicate the issue for the general reader, almost half the book consists of appendices of more specialist interest. Thus, her discography for Philips and, later, for other smaller companies, is itemised in Appendix I with recording dates, catalogue numbers, etc.

Much of the book describes the Concerte für Kenner und Liebhaber which Ahgrimm gave before and after the war. The title was taken, as explained on p.55, from CPE Bach, hence the antiquated spelling of Concert for the more usual Konzert. Once again, the details which would interest the general reader are given in the main body of the text, including the argument caused by her husband which led to the concerts having to be moved from the concert hall to their private apartments, whilst the performers at those concerts are itemised in Appendix II.

What a distinguished group those performers were: Rudolf Baumgartner, Alice and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Eduard Melkus, Paul Angerer ... how could I recognise the names of these distinguished associates and not know that of Ahlgrimm herself?

The book is well written, with sub-headings for quite short sections within chapters to help the reader navigate. Though the author is Australian and the publishers English, the spelling is mid-Atlantic with, for example, licence serving as the spelling for both noun and verb. Occasionally I took issue with inconsistencies in the translation of German words: the Concerte für Kenner und Liebhaber are variously translated as "for Connoisseurs and Dilettantes" (p.10) and, much more helpfully, "for connoisseurs and amateurs (in the sense of non-professional yet discriminating music lovers)" (p.55). ‘Dilettante’ gives quite the wrong impression, as the word is now generally used.

The general reader will be interested in the way in which Ahlgrimm came to influence those distinguished successors, but probably more interested in the ways in which her life was shaped. Had her mother not prevented her travelling to Paris to study with Landowska (p.9), would she have become another advocate of the monster harpsichord? Perhaps not: the book indicates how the playing style of the eminent harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick – he of the Kirkpatrick numbers for Scarlatti – was shaped as much by what he rejected of Landowska’s teaching as by what he absorbed from it.

What, too, if Ahlgrimm had not met, in Frinton on Sea of all unlikely places, and been befriended by Juliette Matton Pain-Parré, a member of the Dolmetsch circle, who gave her much encouragement? (pp.35-6).

Even more important was Ahlgrimm’s relationship with Erich Fiala, whose collection of early instruments gave her access to the two harpsichords on which she performed Bach for Philips. Watchorn admits that it was difficult to get Ahlgrimm to speak about their marriage and divorce, but that has not prevented his giving a very readable description of the relationship from its early days to the gradual breakdown. He clearly puts his finger of blame on Fiala’s insistence on being regarded as a first-class musician when he was, in truth, only a gifted amateur.

The specialist will find a wealth of material in the body of the book and much more in the appendices. As well as the discography and list of performers at the Concerte, there is a wide range of material: correct fingering, when and how to play ornaments, etc. Much of this is extremely valuable to the performer, not least for being at odds with the technique most of us learned in playing those interminable Czerny exercises. There is also an excellent bibliography, including details of several of Ahlgrimm’s own writings.

For all the value of the book academically, however, it is the personal details that remain in the reader’s mind. Chief among these is the account, on page 76, of her encounter with Captain Henry Pleasants of the US Army, then on a mission to find a harpsichord for his wife to practise on, an encounter with long-term consequences for both parties. Henry Pleasants, who was later to become a distinguished musicologist, and his wife became Isolde’s life-long friends. The episode, following hard on the heels of the account of Erich Fiala’s encounter with Richard Strauss, reminded me of the more famous chance encounter with an American officer which led to the composition of one of Strauss’s last compositions, the Oboe Concerto.

‘Early’ music has, of course, diversified considerably since Ahlgrimm’s time. Her own recordings, listed in the discography, of the likes of Cabezon, Byrd, Sweelinck, Frescobaldi, etc. (Eterna 826312, p.167) took the boundaries back to a time earlier than Bach and Handel. (The use of the form Händel in the book is faintly irritating – it isn’t even pedantic, since Handel himself dropped the umlaut when he moved to England.) And, though most of the emphasis in the book is, quite properly, on her harpsichord performances, it was Ahlgrimm’s fortepiano renditions of Mozart that came first, as Watchorn makes clear.

Nor have we yet properly absorbed the lessons which Ahlgrimm taught. Even now debate continues about whether modern equal temperament is suitable for Bach’s Well-tempered Klavier, an issue on which Ahlgrimm long ago made a rational decision. Peter Watchorn’s interest in this matter is far from being solely academic, since he has himself recently controversially recorded the 48 on the pedal-harpsichord in a tuning which reputedly sounds sweet in every key. (Book I on Musica Omnia 0201, a Musicweb Recording of the Month – see review.)

As Watchorn notes, performances of Bach on the piano seem to be coming back into fashion, an observation borne out by developments since the book was written: Richard Egarr’s recent harpsichord recording of the Bach Well-tempered Klavier has almost been swamped by piano recordings of that work. I must also admit to a personal shortcoming, in that, though a strong advocate of the harpsichord, I have yet fully to come to terms myself with the fortepiano.

Watchorn rounds off his account of Ahlgrimm’s career by speculating on what might have been if she had received the kind of support that Leonhardt and Harnoncourt received (p.161) – a piece of speculation which I found as intriguing as I found the book overall to be informative and readable.

The Index is fairly comprehensive, but I was unable to find easily the page reference that I was looking for concerning Ahlgrimm’s views on modern equal temperament and the Well-tempered Klavier, though I looked in all the likely places – no entries for equal temperament, mean-tone, temperament, well-tempered or Werkmann to be found there.

Just one final thought: considering that this is quite an expensive book, the general reader who is not likely to be interested in the appendices will be paying for half a book. That apart, I can recommend the book to generalists and specialists alike. Watchorn has whetted my appetite enough for me to wish to hear some of Isolde Ahlgrimm’s performances, contemporary as they were with the Karl Münchinger mono LP recordings of Bach and Vivaldi which now sound very dated. Could the book not have included a sampler CD? Perhaps Philips will oblige instead, with some reissues?

Brian Wilson

 


 


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