Edmund Kurtz

Cellist and editor of Bach's 'Six Solo Suites'

Monday 10 October 2011 03:22

The cellist Edmund Kurtz, whose international career as soloist, principal cellist and chamber musician spanned some 60 years, later turned to editing, where he was equally successful.

Edmund Kurtz, cellist: born St Petersburg, Russia, 29 December 1908; married 1936 Barbara Bellair (two sons); died London 19 August 2004.

The cellist Edmund Kurtz, whose international career as soloist, principal cellist and chamber musician spanned some 60 years, later turned to editing, where he was equally successful.

He was born in St Petersburg in 1908 into a musical family and had his first lessons on the piano, but with little success. In 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, the family left for Germany and the nine-year-old Edmund started to learn the cello. He made such good progress that at 13 he was accepted as a pupil of Julius Klengel - then the most important teacher of the instrument in Europe. Edmund Kurtz confirmed what every Klengel student has stressed: "He would allow you to develop in your own way. You could do what you wanted - faults included. He would not put you in a strait-jacket but guide you to develop your own musicality."

Kurtz always treasured a letter written by Klengel in 1924, in which he wrote, "In spite of his youth, Edmund Kurtz is already one of the most outstanding violoncellists of today . . . rarely have I found a pupil who developed so rapidly."

Kurtz was only 16 when he made his début recital in Rome, where he received much praise, and he repeated this success the following year in Berlin. This led to well-received solo appearances in all the main cities of Europe. In Paris he came under the influence of Pablo Casals, who recommended a further period of study, with the controversial teacher Diran Alexanian, which Kurtz found extremely helpful.

The next few years were spent in a varied and active performing life in the main European countries. In 1926-27 he was principal cellist of the Bremen Opera Orchestra and from 1927 until 1930 toured as personal cellist to the great Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. He reflected that he must have played the Saint-Saëns "Dying Swan" solo hundreds of times for the legendary dance which gained Pavlova world celebrity.

He was principal cellist of the Prague German Opera Orchestra under Georg Szell, 1932-36, after which he moved to the United States where he was principal cellist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the next eight years. During this time he also toured internationally as cellist in the distinguished Spivakovsky Trio with the violinist Tossy Spivakovsky and his pianist brother, Jascha.

In 1944 Kurtz resigned from orchestral playing in order to devote himself to his rapidly expanding solo career. He first appeared as a soloist before the American public in 1945 playing the Dvorák Concerto with the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. The performance was also recorded and has recently been reissued as a CD as the only recording of that work ever made under the baton of the Italian maestro.

Kurtz always included a number of contemporary works in his repertoire and gave many first performances of those dedicated to him, including Ernest Krenek's Suite for Unaccompanied Cello Op 84, Alberto Ginastera's Pampeana No 2 and Darius Milhaud's Elegie and Concerto No 2, the last of which took place in November 1946 with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Artur Rodzinski. He also gave the first American performance of the Khatchaturian Cello Concerto in Boston under Serge Koussevitsky with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1948.

Throughout his performing career, Kurtz had been unhappy about the various editions of the Bach Six Solo Suites. He knew instinctively that the bowings and fingerings were not right. So in 1978, at the age of 70, he decided to make a new edition based strictly on the Anna Magdalena manuscript - the only one extant. It took him four years to complete and it was published in 1983 with the facsimile of the Berlin MS facing every page. It has since gone into numerous printings and is today recognised as the most important edition of the greatest music ever written for the instrument.

Kurtz himself was a fine interpreter of the suites, and in 1952 when he played them at Carnegie Hall, the critic Olin Downes, of the New York Times - never a man to dole out praise to the unworthy - wrote: "Mr Kurtz gave breadth and nobility to every line . . . this was not only an achievement, it was an intimate and eloquent discoursing of Bach."

Right up until his death, Kurtz was preparing and publishing new editions of the cello repertoire written in impeccable manuscript - without glasses. As a man he was kind and generous, with a delightfully dry sense of humour; and good taste was, for him, as natural as breathing. But he also held very strong views on certain subjects and was never afraid of expressing an unpopular opinion. An enthusiastic collector of fine bows, he owned six made by the man who perfected the modern bow, François Tourte. For many years he played a superb Stradivarius cello dated 1724, the Hausmann, named after Robert Hausmann, cellist of the Joachim String Quartet: the instrument had first been heard in Great Britain on 25 April 1900 when the ensemble made their début at the St James's Hall in London.

Margaret Campbell

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