Basil Tschaikov Ė The Music Goes Round and Around
Fastprint Publishing 2009
ISBN: 978-184426-647-0 £12.99

Any book, the index of which runs from Abbado to Zappa, has aroused my interest. Actually Iím cheating; this one runs from Abbado to Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, but the wide ranging ambit is unchanged.

Basil Tschaikovís fatherís family, as one might imagine, was Russian and their migrations took them to the Black Sea, and, after pogroms, to Poland, thence to England. His motherís family (called Belinfante) was Portuguese-Jewish, and his maternal grandfather was second clarinettist in the Concertgebouw Orchestra. The family had been in Amsterdam since the mid-seventeenth century.

Those familiar with British orchestral musicians will know that the authorís own father Anissim was a highly distinguished player in his own right, and a student of Charles Draper. When Anissim became principal clarinettist of the BBC symphony in the 1930s, we learn, the salary of a principal was somewhere between £750 and £1,000. His own was certainly enough to ensure that Basil went to Colet Court, the feeder school for St. Paulís. In time the young Tschaikov too turned to the clarinet, and some interest accrues to the recollection that his teacher, Jack Thurston, evinced some jealousy over Anissimís technical prowess in his mastery of fast staccati. Tschaikovís father in his turn resented Thurstonís position as principal in the BBC Orchestra.

A number of things struck me as I read these wide-ranging thoughts. The book is by and large chronological insofar as it relates to Tschaikovís career in his music, though it does sweep back and forth, the later chapters addressing certain important elements such as technology and audience-going amongst others. Some of these things may appear merely footnotes in themselves but they summon up a time and place with great evocative power. Sometimes in fact their force is all the more provoking for the offhand way they are described, if indeed theyíre described at all. So, for instance, we read that Tschaikov heard W H Reed play the Dyson concerto at the Royal College. Sammons premiered it in February 1942 and Reed died in July of the same year Ė was it a post-premiere performance or did the work have a tryout with the college orchestra actually before the official premiere?

Itís also fascinating to hear, from the inside, how certain conductors re-scored and exactly what they did. Sargent Ďboiled downí Deliusís wind writing, taking triple woodwind down to two. Amateur orchestras especially admired this reduced scoring generally, and one can see why. Similarly we learn about Tschaikovís early experiences with Reginald Goodallís Wessex orchestra and their gruelling touring schedule, and how he made the move to the LPO. Is it true incidentally that the Automat, which he encountered for the first time during the famous 1950 RPO tour of America, never came to Britain? Iím pretty sure I remember seeing them.

Thereís plenty of material about that tour but more particularly about Beecham, and the genuine admiration and respect Tschaikov feels for him is not allowed to obscure the Baronetís more explosive moments. His ultimatum to Dennis Brain is noted Ė no outside date clashes (even if they werenít Brainís fault) - play with the RPO or leave; Brain left. A particularly spectacular chair kicking incident at the expense of cellist Raymond Clarke is also recalled. Beecham demanded loyalty and if he smelt divided loyalties he took it badly, especially, it seems, from his best players. After Beecham the British conductor Tschaikov most admired was Barbirolli. About Stokowski, Tschaikov recalls from his Philharmonia days when the winds refused to adopt Stokowskiís unique seating arrangements. It seems to have soured the relationship between orchestra and conductor. Authority and control are recurring features here; Albert Coates was too easy-going; Boult was under-appreciated; Sargent was Ė as we know Ė disliked. Elsewhere his summaries are brisk and very much to the point. Leinsdorf was disagreeable but had real ability. Malko was efficient but uninspiring. Naturally there are glimpses of giants such as Klemperer and Karajan amongst many others, but he reserves legendary status for De Sabata, who impressed him and the LPO to their bootstraps. He found that Ďlight musicí conductors shared two qualities; they were humourless and strict disciplinarians. But I must say that the anecdote I most relished is second-hand but well worth retelling. At a rehearsal Klemperer rushed over to the fourth horn and, towering over him, said; ĎDo not be afraid! I am your friend. I have come to tell you, you are no good.í

Regarding instrumentalists he has especially expensive tastes in string players; Ida Haendel, Menuhin, Sammons, Oistrakh, amongst them. He heard Thibaud playing Saint-SaŽnsís Introduction and Rondo capriccioso and regrets that no recording exists. Fortunately a broadcast has recently been unearthed so he can listen to this wizard as many times as he wants (itís on APR). He tells of a fingerboard incident suffered by Heifetz playing the Beethoven Concerto at his return to London after the War, which Iíve never seen mentioned. Many of his most admired players are French; in addition to Thibaud and Francescatti he admired cellists such as Fournier and Tortelier, whom he preferred to Rostropovich and was one of three musicians to have lifted his spirits; the others were Perlman and Rubinstein. Brymer was, along with Dennis Brain, his ideal for clarinet and horn playing. Other hugely admired colleagues included cellist Anthony Pini and Bernard Walton, another elite clarinettist. Manoug Parikian was his ideal leader.

There is interesting information on fees and on working practices reading the battered scores in music halls. Also the loss of control suffered by performers resulting from recordings. Tschaikov has been long active in administration and as a teacher and his insight into the business Ė the industry Ė is uncommonly wide. Heís active in the preservation of recordings and has a sense of chronology that is admirable. His view is essentially kindly, sympathetic and deeply understanding of the pressures and psychological questions underlying musical performance.

There are inevitable slips and repetitions; one of the biggest whoppers is the CD arriving in the 1990s, and I donít believe Myra Hess ever accompanied Melba or Lotte Lehmann. I think thatís a misreading of a passage in the Hess biography. Enough carping.

This book satisfies oneís expectations. It is more than a memoir, less than a tract. It covers a wide range of ground, and shows its author to be possessed of the soundest judgement. Itís enjoyable to read, not weighed down by philosophical reflection, but not superficial either.

Jonathan Woolf

More than a memoir, less than a tract ... see Full Review