The distinguished German cellist Siegfried Palm was a gifted performer and teacher who specialised in promoting and interpreting avant-garde music, and once said, "Strictly speaking, I have never seen an unplayable cello part."
He was born in 1927 in Barmen, Germany, soon to be absorbed into the new city of Wuppertal. He received his first lessons at the age of eight from his father, also Siegfried, principal cellist in the Wuppertal City Orchestra, but never attended a Hochschule or a conservatory. He made his début as a soloist when he was only 14 playing the very difficult Adagio con Variazioni by Respighi and achieved a great success.
From this time onwards his career gathered momentum and at 18 he became principal cellist of the Lubeck City Orchestra. From 1947 he was principal cellist to the Norddeutscher Rundfunk symphony orchestra; he stayed with them for 15 years. He also played with the Hamburg and Cologne Radio symphony orchestras until 1977. In addition to his orchestral playing he was also a member of the Hamann String Quartet, who were known for their performances of the 20th-century repertoire - which included the works of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. In 1965 he formed a duo with Aloys Kontarsky and in 1967 succeeded Cassadó as cellist with Max Rostal and Heinz Schröter.
Once, when asked how he came to be so proficient in the avant-garde repertoire, he explained that for four successive years he attended masterclasses given by Enrico Mainardi in Salzburg and Lucerne. At these sessions he acquired the necessary technique for playing contemporary music, and also equipped himself with an analytical approach. He considered that Mainardi and Bernhard Hamann - from the quartet - had exerted the greatest influence on him.
He was also a very successful teacher. From 1962 he began to teach at Darmstadt summer courses and that same year became a professor at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Cologne. In 1972 he was appointed their director. Outside Germany, he somehow also found time to teach at the Royal Conservatory in Stockholm, Dartmouth College and Marlboro College in the United States, and the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.
In 1976 Palm took over as general director of the Deutsche Oper in West Berlin, where he expanded the house's repertoire to include productions of a number of works such as Hindemith's Cardillac and Offenbach's The Brigands. He also introduced new productions of Verdi's Macbeth and Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, all of which were greatly praised by the critics. As if this were not enough, Palm also took part in a number of music festivals in Holland, Poland, Spain, and at the very popular Prague Spring Festival. In 1981 Palm retired from the opera and returned to his professorship in Cologne and to his cello career. He also headed the International Society for Contemporary Music from 1982 to 1988.
Palm's most important contribution to the music profession was that, through his interpretations of contemporary music, he encouraged others to investigate this genre. He gave first performances of numerous concertos by modern composers including those by Stockhausen, Zimmerman, Penderecki, Xenakis, Zillig, Kagel and others.
As a man, he was reserved and introvert but was well liked by his close friends and students. It would seem that, for him, the best way of communicating was through music.
Margaret CampbellReuse content