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<<  -- 2 --  Bill Newman    THE HUNGARIAN NIGHTINGALE


Re-reading Toni's Notes of Seven Decades, published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1979, I gleaned some facts concerning the brother-sister relations as part of the family life: as youngsters their endless piano duet playing, sight reading mastery, her beautiful countenance, long blond hair and wonderful singing voice, musical lessons and training. Then the excitement of opera and concerts -- particularly the visit of Toscanini to perform in Berlin at a later date. The growing out of adolescence followed by their separate lives and careers, afterwards, her personal sufferings in Hungary and Germany and -- wonder of wonders -- eventually coming out of it relatively unscathed for the two to meet up once more later in life.

We sat opposite each other surrounded by valuable furniture, paintings, antiques, chinaware, curios of all sorts, a grand piano -- of course. Ceiling lights set everything off to perfection and would illustrate topics from our conversation. On a shelf, in front of a row of books by mostly musical colleagues was a framed photo -- the brief, but all-important reunion when he said to her that he would stay much longer, but his music-making commitments didn't allow him to, and I remembered, too, the last time I went to visit him in the Royal Albert Hall Artist's Room during the interval of the Beethoven series shortly after his appointment as Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the late 1960s. It was our final meeting.

'My father was always an enthusiastic orchestral violinist, and very proud when the Opera mounted a new production, telling me it was very nice and to come along! My first instinct was to play the piano, and my brother being two years older was already learning. It began with two Bach Preludes, which I played after he did! Every minute of each hour was devoted to music in our family. My mother and father played Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms Sonatas together. Toni often said that we had a very happy childhood, and as we grew older we would recall them. At first with me, it was by ear before learning to read music, and we first played as four hands Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony by heart. That was the beginning of our performing together. Next, I sang and he accompanied me. He writes about it in his book, very well. There is always something very special about Lied, which is different to Chansons and Song. Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf -- in other words, it is unique. Sometimes, I have to read the texts -- Schubert, for instance, wrote six volumes of songs and can you envisage the amount of words in the poems? Can you imagine him reading them, and then composing the music? Nobody thinks of that! Late last year I discovered how much, and then thought of him selecting the texts to fit his music.'

Schubert enhanced the poems when he set them to music. 'I think you are saying that without his music, many of the texts would not be well known. In some cases, but not all, like Erl könig and Gretchen am Spinnrade.' I quoted the rocking figure in the piano as she started to hum. 'It involved all the German and Austrian Lieder composers. Toni went to the music shop and brought back all the music. It was an exciting and new discovery for me, and I sight read them. At the time, my voice was not strong, but I did not study seriously until the age of seventeen. Most of my colleagues were older than me -- twenty and over -- and my first teacher at the Academy was an ex-opera singer called Laura Hilgemann. My father knew her, but she was not really a proper teacher. It is impossible to teach singing, and I have always known that. You sing, or you can't sing! Teaching the piano or violin -- that is different and necessary, but she was only interested in pupils with strong voices, and that I didn't have. It became one hour of scales, another of solfège, then perhaps an aria. After a while my friends told me to bring along a set piece to perform, otherwise I would lose six months progress in the first year. I dared! Bringing along Schubert Volume 1, I opened up, by accident the page for Wohin?. She played a marvellous accompaniment to my singing. Then she said: 'I have heard this some hundreds of times, but so beautiful I never heard it!'

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Copyright © 10 April 2006 Bill Newman, Edgware, UK


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