157_elan_katharina_2011_crop_highresElan Sicroff is one of the leading interpreters of Thomas de Hartmann’s music and his extensive recording project with the Nimbus label brings de Hartmann’s chamber and solo piano music to a wider audience. Here he talks about the project as well as his own influences and inspirations and the experience of recording and performing de Hartmann’s music.


Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

There were two people who influenced my decision to become a professional musician:

I met J.G. Bennett in December 1972. He directed an academy in Gloucestershire modelled after the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, founded by George Gurdjieff, a spiritual teacher and polymath. At the time I was ambivalent about my path as a musician, and he said to me “If you have talent, it is a gift. It doesn’t belong to you, and you have an obligation to share it.”

Bennett was particularly interested in Beethoven’s music, and we worked together on the late sonatas Op. 110 and 111. During this time I also came across the music of Thomas de Hartmann, beginning my lifelong involvement with his music.

A second important influence is the guitarist Robert Fripp. In 1985 he produced my CD Journey to Inaccessible Places – the music of Gurdjieff and de Hartmann. Since 2006 he has helped me with a 21-year effort to bring de Hartmann’s classical music back to public awareness. In 2010 he introduced me to Gert-Jan Blom, Artistic Producer for the Metropole Orchestra in the Netherlands. We embarked on a five year recording project in 2011, resulting in six hours of music for solo piano, voice and chamber ensemble, now being released by Nimbus Alliance Records.

I would like to mention one other, overwhelmingly important influence on my pianistic and musical development. This was Jeaneane Dowis. When I first met her in 1964 when she was 32 years old: elegant, beautiful, and brilliant. In her early 20s she had become assistant to Rosina Lhevinne, on the strength of her ground-breaking discoveries in piano technique. Rosina had taught Van Cliburn, winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia in 1958, and students flocked from around the world to study with her. She sent those with technical problems to Jeaneane, and soon she was teaching 70 hours a week. I was 14 years old at the time, and she agreed to teach me if I was accepted by the Juilliard Preparatory School. The four years I spent with her were consistently exhilarating. She had astonishing insights, not only in technique but also in musicianship and interpretation. I went back to her again in the 1980s for further study, and her teaching had moved to another level: her remarkable discoveries about ease of movement, related to skeletal anatomy and visualization, deserve to be more widely known.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

After nearly 40 years teaching piano, I was thrust into the world of professional musicians in 2011, due to the needs of the Thomas de Hartmann Project. The recordings in the Netherlands that began in 2011 presented many firsts for me.

The repertoire was very demanding. Many of the pieces contained technical difficulties, and once those were surmounted the task of turning them into music could be challenging. This was especially true for the later works, like the Commentaries on Ulysses Op. 71 and Musique pour la fête de la patronne Op. 77.

Accompanying vocal music was something I had never done before. Working with musicians of the calibre of Claron McFadden – a celebrated soprano in the Netherlands; and Nina Lejderman, a talented young opera singer, was quite a stretch.

Recording is an uncomfortable process and presents its own challenges. I have had to overcome my self-consciousness, which was magnified whenever the engineer said “You’re On!” After five years in the studio I have learned to trust the process. I now find myself looking forward to it: the birth pains are unavoidable, but the result is worth it.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

In 2016 the Thomas de Hartmann Project gave two memorable performances at Splendor in Amsterdam. The venue is quite special, founded in 2010 by a group of musicians, composers, and artists who needed a place to experiment and perform as they saw fit. When the de Hartmann recording project in Hilversum came to an end, many participants offered their services, pro bono, for the recitals. Music for saxophones, a trio for flute, violin and piano; sonatas for violin and cello, works for solo piano as well as de Hartmann’s songs were among the works featured. The response was very positive, confirming our belief that the listening audience was becoming ready to embrace de Hartmann’s music, after many years of neglect.

As for recordings: I have made 3 CDs of the Gurdjieff/de Hartmann music. I like all of them, but my favourite is Laudamus…, released in 2010.

That said, the Thomas de Hartmann Project CDs, now being released by Nimbus, occupy a special place for me. They represent the first commercial recordings of Thomas de Hartmann’s work, ever. I am so happy that this music is now available for the public to enjoy, and also to play. The contributions of Gert-Jan Blom, producer extraordinaire, and Guido Tichelman, one of the leading recording engineers in Europe, cannot be overstated. Gert-Jan brought his wide-ranging knowledge and enthusiasm to the project, and the sound quality that Guido captured is of the highest order.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I find myself attracted to composers who are able express deeper meaning in their music. In May 1970 I sang in a performance of Mozart’s Requiem at the National Cathedral in Washington, presented by the Oberlin Conservatory, as an act of protest against the Vietnam War. I was strongly affected by how Mozart expressed the meaning of the words through his music. It was a seminal moment, which lead me to look for more works by Mozart and other composers that had this power.

Beethoven’s struggles with deafness are well known – he even contemplated suicide in his thirties as a result, but decided to continue and compose for the benefit of mankind. His compositions became a chronicle of his inner life. The same can be said for Schubert – contracting syphilis was a death sentence, and his music often reflects his inner struggles, sometimes leading to defiance, at others to acceptance.

Thomas de Hartmann attempted to express psychological ideas that he encountered through his work with Kandinsky and Gurdjieff, in addition to wide-ranging literary influences. Along with the colour, vibrancy and beauty of his music, his attempts to insert meaning in his music continue to fascinate me.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I find that physical work of various kinds is essential to my feeling of well-being. These days I walk and have a vegetable garden. I also practice yoga and the Alexander Technique, which help to tune the whole body, before sitting down to the instrument.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Since 2011, there has been a flow that has made choices for repertoire fairly easy. The aim to present a body of representative works by de Hartmann for the public, resulted in our recording a substantial portion of his output for piano solo, voice, and chamber ensemble…though to be accurate, we’ve only scratched the surface of his vocal output.

A group of musicians has now come together to form the Thomas de Hartmann Consort. The aim for our programming has been to integrate de Hartmann’s work into the rest of the classical canon. The programming possibilities are almost endless:

— Music by de Hartmann’s composition teachers, Anton Arensky and Sergei Tanaieff.

— The music by Debussy and Ravel, to compare and contrast de Hartmann’s own work with Impressionism.

— Music that relates to de Hartmann’s quest for meaning: Beethoven and Schubert.

— De Hartmann’ Bach transcriptions for Pablo Casals provide the opportunity to perform them next to the originals.

— Music by contemporaneous Russian composers, from Rachmaninoff to Scriabin, Prokofiev, etc.

— Music by Bartok and Kodaly, delving into early attempts to bring World Music to the West.

As for recording, the Piano Concerto Op. 61 is next on the agenda, scheduled for this autumn. There are also a few solo piano pieces that need to be recorded, including a 25 page sonata written when de Hartmann was 17, and some very late works from the 1950s.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Most of my performances have taken place in small halls that seat several hundred people. I particularly like Carnegie (Weill) Recital Hall for its intimacy and acoustic. I’ve played at many universities and conservatories, including the University of Anchorage, Alaska, UCLA and UC Berkeley in California, and the Longy Conservatory in Boston. I always enjoy the energy and enthusiasm of these audiences. Young musicians represent the future, and if de Hartmann’s music is going to be established, it will be those people who will give it voice.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

Quality education is the highest priority. Very young children should hear top-notch recordings and performances to develop an ear for music. This means that parents need to get involved. It also helps when elementary and high schools have good music programs: Zoltán Kodály brought solfège to the Hungarian school system, and Japanese schools also have a quality music program. Dr. Shinichi Suzuki revolutionized violin teaching when he developed the “mother-tongue approach,” in which young children learn to play an instrument in the same way they learn to speak. He has been a major force in bringing youngsters to classical music.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Following are two answers to this question, from opposite perspectives: first as performer, secondly as audience participant:

In 1975 Mme. de Hartmann had organized a recital of her husband’s music at McGill University in Montreal. I had been asked to play the Two Nocturnes Op. 84, written in de Hartmann’s late classical style.

This was my first meeting with her. Madame may have been diminutive in size, but she was truly a force of nature. She had been a member of the Russian aristocracy, close to the Tsarina before the Russian Revolution, and had strong ideas that sometimes ran contrary to the relaxed attitudes of young people in the later years of the hippy era. She didn’t approve of women wearing jeans, of young men with beards, or grand pianos on movable platforms being used in performances of her husband’s music. She told me to ignore the audience and play only for her, to look up at the ceiling before playing ‘the Music of the Stars,’ and that a musician must rest on the afternoon of a performance to conserve energy for the event. I was still impressionable at the age of 25, and took it all in.

When my performance was a success, it began a relationship that lasted for 4 years until her death in 1979. It opened the door for further recitals under her tutelage, as well as instruction in de Hartmann’s music.

One of the most memorable performances I ever saw took place in London in the mid 1970s, when I heard the cellist Paul Tortelier give a solo recital. I had not heard his name before, and had no idea what to expect. He came onto the stage, an elderly man, thin, with a shock of white hair. He seemed to float over the cello when he played. The first piece, a Boccherini sonata had 3 movements, but he was so pleased with himself after the first two that he stood up, took a bow and moved onto a Bach cello suite! Then he stopped, began speaking in French, and changed to English: “If you want to cough while I play, please leave the room!” The audience was noticeably taken aback.

In the second half he played the Franck Sonata and (if I remember correctly) also the Debussy cello sonata. By the end he had won the audience over, and began playing encores – without leaving the stage, he continued for another 45 minutes, even including the entire Kodály Unaccompanied Cello Sonata. By this time the audience was in a frenzy, with some people standing to watch him in amazement. Finally he stood up, closed the lid of the piano, and walked off the stage, not turning back….

In the programme notes I noticed that he had studied with Gerard Hekking. De Hartmann had dedicated his cello sonata to him, so I went backstage to ask Tortelier if he knew of the piece. “Yes,” he said, “it has a beautiful second movement, but the rest is not for the masses.”

I walked out of the hall feeling that I had witnessed an event that was a throwback to the Romantic Age, reminiscent of stories I’d read about Liszt and Paganini in performance.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I view my work in music as a process, with different stages, and it is necessary for some form of success to enter into each of them. First there is the functional work of learning the notes, understanding the structure, and overcoming technical challenges. Then another level comes: the music must begin to speak. In some ways it is the opposite of the functional work – activity ends and receptivity begins: one must listen, be still, be open, questioning. This stage is sometimes quite agonizing: the piece still is not music, and one cannot “make it happen.” When one completes this stage and is prepared, the final stage comes with performance. Here the audience becomes a participant, adding its listening to the music. There are then three aspects: the performer, the audience and the music. Occasionally there is an “event,” where something new and memorable occurs. Success!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

In 1972 I went to see Nadia Boulanger in Paris, to inquire about becoming her student. One of the most memorable things she said to me was “If you can live without Music, do!”

This statement has resonated with me over the years. It covers a lot. Anyone considering a career in music should have an all-consuming love for it. If one is fortunate enough to realize that there is nothing one would rather do than make music, then there really isn’t a choice…!

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Seven years remain until the end of the 21-year Thomas de Hartmann Project. For a long time I’ve an image of what completion would look like: I will be standing in front of Carnegie Hall, looking at the billboard announcing the performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and Thomas de Hartmann’s Symphonie-Poème. This would indicate that de Hartmann has finally “arrived.”

I’d be happy to substitute specific works in this visualization – it might be another symphony or concerto by Thomas de Hartmann. Another orchestral work by Beethoven might also be acceptable….!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I would say that true happiness results from a life well lived, in which one manages to achieve one’s goals. As a working musician, I find that self-satisfaction comes from overcoming obstacles in learning the repertoire that I value, and performing it well. Each time this occurs, it gives a taste of happiness.

On 2 April, Nimbus release three volumes of the Music of Thomas de Hartmann. More information here.


Elan Sicroff is known as an interpreter of the music written by Thomas de Hartmann, both the classical works as well as the music from the East composed in collaboration with Gurdjieff . In the 1960s he studied with Jeaneane Dowis, protégée and assistant to Rosina Lhevinne at the Juilliard School. From 1973-75 he attended the International Academy for Continuous Education at Sherborne, in Gloucestershire, England, as a student and later Director of Music. The Academy was directed by J. G. Bennett, a leading exponent of Gurdjieff’s teachings.  It was here that Elan was introduced to the music of Thomas de Hartmann. Between 1975 and 1979 he studied with Mme. Olga de Hartmann, widow of the composer, focusing on the music which de Hartmann composed in the classical idiom.  He performed many recitals under her auspices, and in 1982 toured the United States.

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(video credit: Victor McSurely )

I Musicanti
 
Leon Bosch, conductor
Arensky – Tchaikovsky Variations
Tchaikovsky arr. Stephenson – Rococo Variations
Alexandra Harwood – Sinfonia Concertante ‘The Secret Ball’ (world premiere)
Shostakovich, arr Stasevich – Sinfonietta after the String Quartet No. 8

4th November 2017, St John’s Smith Square, London

 

On (almost) the eve of the centenary of Russia’s October Revolution, I Musicanti presented a programme which spanned the old and the new: music from Imperial, Tsarist Russia (Arensky and Tchaikovsky) to an elegy to post-Revolution, post-war Russia in Shostakovich’s searing String Quartet No. 8 (here arranged for string orchestra with timpani), and the world premiere of a new work written by a fifth great granddaughter of Catherine the Great, Alexandra Harwood.

Following on the success of their first series at St John’s Smith Square, I Musicanti’s latest series ‘Alexandra and the Russians’ showcases brand new works specially written for the ensemble by Alexandra Harwood alongside well-known pieces and lesser-known or neglected gems of repertoire. This is proving a very successful and satisfying “formula” for I Musicanti: the juxtaposition of old and new, familiar and lesser-known offers interesting comparisons and contrasts within programmes, and brings to the fore music which may otherwise have lain dormant and unheard (for example, Schubert’s Quartet in G D96 for flute, viola, cello and guitar, which was part of the May 2017 programme). The programmes are also just about right in terms of length, no more than 40 minutes maximum per half – an important consideration for those of us who have a longer train ride back to the leafy suburbs after a concert.

Perhaps the most significant facet of the success of the I Musicanti formula is the selection of musicians. The ensemble is flexible – sometimes a quartet, sometimes at septet, depending on the repertoire; on this occasion a small string orchestra, led by Fenella Humphreys. The musicians are hand-picked: as Leon Bosch, the driving force behind the ensemble, said to me after the first concert (which included Peter Donohoe on piano), “I can choose the best people to work with” – and this shows in the quality and commitment of performances and performers. This is not flashy, ego-driven playing, but really exceptional playing driven by common purpose and a shared love of the music.

The concert opened in Russia’s Imperial age with Arenksy’s Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, written as a tribute to the recently-deceased Tchaikovsky, and which begins, choral-like, with a motif which mimics the sound of male voices in a Russian Orthodox Choir, expressed in the dark sonorities of two cellos, violin and viola. A lyrical work with seven variations of differing tempi and moods, it was an affecting and genial start to the evening, elegantly presented by I Musicanti.

For Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, a work inspired by the composer’s love of Mozart, the ensemble was joined by South African cellist Peter Martens for a performance which combined understated virtuosity (the work contains some fiendish technical challenges for the cellist and few opportunities for the soloist to rest) with a delightful interplay between soloist and ensemble. This arrangement, by cellist and composer Allan Stephenson, restores the variations to their original order and assigns the original wind solos to the string principals (in this case Fenella Humphreys, violin, and Richard Harwood, cello, who both brought colour and verve to the music). Peter Martens’ tone was rich and colourful, balancing wit with seriousness to create a performance of great variety, character and warmth. This was the first performance of Allan Stephenson’s arrangement, the scoring for strings bringing a clarity to the music with no less texture or richness than the original.

After the interval, the world premiere of Alexandra Harwood’s Sinfonia Concertante: The Secret Ball, a work scored for string quintet surrounded by orchestra inspired by a story by Alekxander Afanas’ev (1826-71). A single movement takes the listener through a series of dances, opening with a grand, if slightly raunchy waltz followed by a polonaise, tango, polka, mazurka, tarantella, sarabande (using fragments of melodies from Corelli and Bach), minuet (with a fragment from Mozart), Bourree (Bach quoted again), Badinerie (Corelli), Galop and finally another waltz, the music fading away to nothing, as if the dancers are disappearing into the dawn. Alexandra is a noted composer of film music and the piece had, for me at least, a very visual quality with a clear narrative. In the lively, foot-tapping fragments of dance, one could easily picture the secret ball, dancers twirling on the dance-floor, while unspoken scenes and assignations perhaps took place in side rooms.

This work provided a striking contrast to the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 (in an arrangement for string orchestra and timpani by Abram Stasevich) which followed. Here was a work of great emotional power which takes Shostakovich’s motto theme DSCH as its starting point, the motto returning in various guises throughout. The timpani provide an underlying martial character to the work (said to be dedicated to “to the victims of fascism and the war”, but also perhaps dedicated to the composer himself who in July 1960 discovered he was suffering from a debilitating muscular weakness). This was a compelling, sombrely elegaic and tautly managed performance, and a fine close to what I feel was I Musicanti’s best concert so far in their residency at St John’s Smith Square. This concert also represented a debut of sorts for double bass player Leon Bosch as it was his first appearance in London on the conductor’s podium, a role he seems to relish.


Further I Musicanti dates at SJSS

Sunday 21 January 2018 at 3pm – music by Arensky, Alexandra Harwood (world premiere), and Tchaikovsky

Sunday 3 June 2018 at 3pm – music by Prokofiev, Smirnov, Alexandra Harwood (world premiere) and Glinka

Do go – I promise you won’t be disappointed.

 

Meet the Artist interview with Alexandra Harwood