Obituary: Andre Gertler

Graham Whettam
Monday 17 August 1998 23:02

THE EMINENT Hungarian-born violinist Andre Gertler was part of a link stretching back through only one intermediary teacher to another celebrated Hungarian, the violinist Joseph Joachim, and through him directly to Felix Mendelssohn. Remarkably the lives of Joachim and Gertler actually overlapped for two and a half weeks in July and August 1907, and their joint lives spanned 167 years.

Until Joachim's time leading virtuosi had toured the concert world playing music they had written for themselves, exemplifying their particular technical strengths and to suit their individual styles of playing. One thinks of the Italians Tartini, Viotti and Paganini, and the latter's German-born and German-trained contemporary Ludwig Spohr (better known by the French forename "Louis"), whose 15 violin concertos had far greater currency than Beethoven's solitary masterwork of that genre. With Joachim came the missionary zeal for performing masterworks of great composers, and therein the link with present-day custom - and there besides with Andre Gertler.

It was no less a musician than Mendelssohn who examined the 12-year-old Joachim when the latter sought entry to the Leipzig conservatoire, and who advised against such an academic course in favour of study with Ferninand David, Gewandhaus Konzertmeister and later first performer of Mendelssohn's celebrated concerto. And it was the composer himself, as the orchestra's conductor, who engaged the boy as concert soloist in 1843.

Joachim was to champion the late String Quartets of Beethoven and music by both Schumann and Brahms, of whose Violin Concerto he was the first performer, bringing it from Leipzig to England but three months later. And Joachim's exemplary championship of great music of his time anticipated Gertler of only two violinist-generations later.

That intervening generation was represented by another great Hungarian musician, Jeno Hubay, whose teaching career spanned the years 1882 to 1934. Hubay's glittering galaxy of pupils included such renowned performers as Joseph Szigeti, Franz von Vecsey, Emil Telmnyi, Jelly d'Arnyi, Odon Partos, Sandor Vegh and Stefi Geyer. (Geyer, a Hungarian-born Swiss, was for a time the intimate friend and confidante of Bela Bartk who wrote his early First Violin Concerto for him, subsequently suppressed until after Geyer's death in 1956.) Carl Flesch - also Hungarian - wrote in his memoirs: "Only since Hubay's appointment to the Budapest Academy (1886) can one speak of a specifically Hungarian school." It was this Hungarian School which Gertler joined some 35 years later.

Having been initially a student at the Budapest Academy, Bartk was Professor of Pianoforte from 1907. Although there were professional tensions between conservatively inclined Hubay and the progressively minded Bartk, both he and his music were destined to play a major role in the activities of Gertler.

After studying with Hubay and Zoltn Kodly, Gertler achieved his Budapest Violin Diploma in 1925, later giving many violin and piano recitals with Bartk and learning at first hand the composer's performance intentions for his own music in that genre and for his music in general. This was of course an asset when Gertler moved to Brussels, and in 1931 formed the Gertler Quartet, of which he was leader for 20 years, and played as soloist with leading orchestras internationally. He joined the staff of the Brussels Conservatory in 1940, first as Chamber Music Professor, becoming Professor of Violin a few years later - a post he held until the age of 70.

In 1954 Gertler became Professor at the Cologne Academy of Music for three years. Around this time he became well known in Britain - particularly for his performances of Alban Berg's Violin Concerto - both in the concert hall and for broadcasting. These two outlets came together during the Henry Wood Proms of 1955 when Gertler was soloist in the Berg Concerto, Sir Adrian Boult conducting. Controversy raged over the inclusion of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony for the second time that Proms season. Sir Malcolm Sargent replied for the corporation in the Times that repeating Beethoven's work was to ensure Berg's Concerto had an audience!

It is to Gertler my generation are particularly grateful for opportunities - then all too rare - to hear Berg's Concerto, and for his celebrated recording of that marvellous work, with Polish-born Paul Kletzki conducting the Philharmonic Orchestra. But Gertler by no means confined his concerto playing to the leading metropolitan orchestras. Sir Charles Groves, a firm admirer, described how Gertler travelled tirelessly to teach conductors, and by extension orchestras, the intricacies of Berg and Bartk's concertos, and it was with Groves and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra that he played these works in the later Fifties.

I well remember when visiting Bournemouth for a premiere of my own music in 1961, the excitement with which the orchestra's principal clarinettist talked of Gertler and the Berg Concerto - the kind of enthusiasm not always found among orchestral players. Gertler returned to play during Constantin Silvestri's conductorship at Bournemouth later on in the decade, and a tape of Bartk's Concerto from the BBC broadcast of November 1964 is in the Wessex Film and Sound Archive at Winchester.

The great strength of Gertler's playing was a passionate commitment to the music he was playing, predominantly 20th-century compositions of which many had received their first performances at his hands. He was married to the Danish pianist Diane Andersen with whom he formed a concert duo. Together they recorded all of Bela Bartk's violin and piano music, and indeed Gertler recorded all Bartk's violin works including those with orchestra. The marriage was not entirely happy, and was eventually dissolved. Gertler spent his last two decades in the companionship of a former pupil, Nila Pierru. He was given high honours in Belgium, Sweden, Hungary, Germany and Poland. In Britain he was made Honorary Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music.

In London, Gertler's foremost pupil is Israeli-born Yossi Zivoni, leader of the Gabrieli String Quartet, soloist and professor at the RNCM in Manchester and the RCM in London. Another former pupil is the Spaniard Augustin Leon Ara (son-in-law of the composer Joaquin Rodrigo), formerly at Brussels Conservatoire, who now teaches in Madrid.

Andre Gertler, violinist and teacher: born Budapest 26 July 1907; founder and leader, Gertler Quartet 1931-51; Professor, Royal Conservatory of Music, Brussels 1940-77; married Diane Andersen (marriage dissolved): died Brussels 23 July 1998.

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