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My heart is in the Classics – An Interview with William Corbett-Jones

My heart is in the Classics – An Interview with William Corbett-Jones

I would start the story like this: When it comes to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, almost everybody thinks of Glenn Gould who made his historic recording debut with Bach’s masterpiece in 1955 – yet almost nobody knows that a young and aspiring American pianist, William Corbett-Jones had already recorded the Variations on the piano two years before. Mr. Corbett-Jones was only 23 years old when he… But that would be somehow wrong. I cannot arbitrarily say: this is how the story starts. Because the story of William Corbett-Jones, the Goldberg Variations and a lonely vinyl without the cover wants to start like this and I won’t stand in its way even though it is somewhat a personal story for me as well.

So, the story starts like this: sometime in the early 1990s there was a now-defunct record store in downtown Budapest where I found a record of Goldberg Variations performed by a certain Richard Corbett-Jones. The vinyl had no cover, but as I loved the piece to death, I decided to buy it. The label gave no indication as to when it was recorded and those were the unimaginable days without the internet and Discogs, but that didn’t stop me from listening to it over and over again. I had no idea who this Richard Corbett-Jones was, but I loved his version of the Variations all through the years. One day I had to pack in my collection and leave it at my aunt’s. Wild and interesting years followed and upon my return I found that my collection, my dearly beloved and carefully organized collection, was gone except for two records. One was The Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1 by Thelonious Monk and the other the Goldberg Variations by William Corbett-Jones. Years came and went, I lost my record player as well but those two records I carried with me until I purchased a new record player and started rebuilding my collection. And it bugged the hell out of me that I couldn’t find this Corbett-Jones guy. No trace of him, none. I searched high and low to no avail. But then I widened the search and… “There was a pianist named Richard Corbett who also recorded on this label, hence a mix up occurred at the time of production”, wrote me William Corbett-Jones whom I just found this summer. He was in plain sight all along, making records and giving performances all over the world, but due to the mix up 66 years ago, it took me the better part of 25 years to find the pianist who made that lovely and lively recording of one of my favorite musical pieces of all time. And to top that, he was willing to answer my questions via email, so I was able to learn the full story of how this pioneering and historically significant recording came to be.

Goldberg

Before William-Corbett Jones went into the studio, only three pianists recorded the Variations on the piano: Rudolf Serkin, Claudio Arrau, and Rosalyn Tureck, and all those recordings date back before WWII. The most admired version was still that of Wanda Landowska’s on the harpsichord. So, when Mr. Cobertt-Jones went to the studio in the fall of 1953, he didn’t even dream that he would be a pioneer. “I had no idea that mine was the first recording of the Goldberg Variations. At that time I had never heard of Glenn Gould. My connection to the Goldberg Variations goes back to my youth when I came upon the score as a boy of fourteen while browsing in the music department of the Los Angeles Public Library. Shortly afterward I went to my piano teacher Alice Ehlers, a well-known harpsichordist at the University of Southern California, and when I entered her studies she said: ‘Sit down Bill. I can’t give you a lesson today because I’m playing the Goldberg Variations soon and I want to try them out.’ There was an older gentleman in the room to whom she introduced me. ‘By the way, this is Mr. Otto Klemperer.’ We both sat fascinated as she played her large Pleyel harpsichord.” But Mr. Corbett-Jones, who never attended a conservatory but due to his unique gift and diligence proved to be a first-rate pianist at an early age, was not a harpsichord player. He was a pianist and a determined one at that. He didn’t forget the experience with her teacher.

“In my early twenties, I decided to study the work seriously. I had the habit of taking the music scores with me everywhere, and once, on a streetcar in San Francisco I was reading some music and an elderly gentleman sitting beside me asked if I was a pianist, and being answered in the affirmative, he said: ‘I have a record company and I’d like to record you.’ ” The company’s name was Music Library Recordings and the gentleman was a retired engineer. “I recorded in the home of Mr. Stanley Page, who had a Boesendorfer piano and recording equipment in his home in Saratoga, California, about seventy miles south of San Francisco. I recorded everything in three sessions, with no opportunity for editing. They were done in the evening after I made the long drive to his home.”

How Mr. Corbett-Jones memorizes scores – a mystical procedure for laymen.

“It would be impossible to say anything about memorizing that hasn’t been said a thousand times already. Like sight-reading, it is an invaluable tool for a musician, and both seem to be special talents. Memorization is easier for the young. There is a huge technical advantage to playing without score, because then one can use the eyes on the keyboard – essential for a big concerto, for example. For me, memorizing a piece of music is like making it a part of my own body. I willingly memorize anything by the masters – Brahms, for example, because I want this to become part of my whole being, and my motivation is strong. The main thing is to find out how much to memorize at one time – usually a small amount. Then, this must be reviewed at very short intervals, before one has had a chance to forget it. One must find out what each part has in relation to the whole. One must look for a pattern and be aware of the underlying harmonic structure. One must be creative and find mnemonic devices to help. Even after memorizing a piece, one should refer back to the score frequently, because small mistakes will keep creeping in. The best way to memorize is to start with what one remembers without making a conscious effort and then building on that. For me, practicing, working on the conception and memorizing are really all one process. After having said all this, I must add that confidence is essential. All I have said above will come to naught if one fears failure. I never had a problem with this because I never attached too much importance to it. To forget is human.”

He was alone in the studio, only the recording engineer kept him company. He was alone with the Boesendoerfer and the formidable Variations. “Of course I was nervous. I was alone. I worshipped Landowska and never thought of competing with her or anyone else. There is now such a plethora of recordings that I haven’t heard of this work. However, for me, hers is still the best. I chose to record this particular work firstly because I was working on it and secondly because it represented what I aspired to become as a musician.” There are several versions and transcripts of the Variations and he used a transcript by the Italian pianist, Ferruccio Busoni.

“The musical and technical challenges of this piece are formidable. I used the Busoni edition for a few of the variations because I found them more pianistic and playable than the original. Busoni takes considerable liberties with the text, but is concerned with the total effect.”

And what an effect that is. His Goldberg is the first true modern interpretation of this iconic piece that remained with him ever since. “I have played it a number of times in public, but intend to restudy it as long as I live because of its limitless spiritual content. Arthur Schnabel once said that there are pieces that are greater than they can be played. This is one of them.” And as Glenn Gould did, Mr. Corbett-Jones is ready to go the studio again with the Variations. “As to rerecording it, I would like to do that, in spite of realizing that it is really a harpsichord piece. My conception of the work is essentially the same, but I would probably change many details if I were to rerecord it. My reaction to my own recordings and even those of others often depends on my mood at the time. Sometimes I am more forgiving of my mistakes than at other times.” I would have thought that being a pioneer brought him money and fame at least.

“I never received any money for the recording or royalties. I considered myself fortunate to be recorded at all. This chance encounter changed my life because Stanely Page produced the Bach and a few more recordings including an all-Scarlatti and an all-Haydn.”

So, this recording and that old engineer gave him the all-important first push that started him on a long a successful career as recording artist, educator and concert pianist.

On Learning Hungarian

And the story continues with a sharp and surprising turn. Mr. Corbett-Jones quickly let me know that he was studying Hungarian – which as it turned out was in the cards since the mid-50s but I still wanted to know why at the of 89 someone takes up learning such a complicated and unforgiving language. “The general answer to the question is that I have always been interested in languages, and have studied several – German, French, Italian, Spanish and Chinese. I made seven trips to China and was forced to learn enough to give a piano lesson, make small talk at meals and get around by myself. Another of my interests is folk music and dancing. In October of 1961, I attended a performance in Paris of the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble, and it made a tremendous impression on me. In particular, I loved ‘Ecseri Lakodalmas’ by Rudolf Maros.

Three years ago I found a film of this on YouTube and was enchanted all over again. This experience made me decide to learn something of the Hungarian language. I’ve been using the Assimil method, and am still a beginner in spite of having learned several hundred words. I plan to take lessons with a private teacher, although it is unlikely that I will ever travel in Hungary and put this to practical use.” I began to suspect that there might have been more to it than that. “I have been to Hungary twice. The first time in 1977 when I drove from Austria and simply went around the countryside in an effort to immerse myself in the atmosphere that produced Bartók and the great Hungarian folk culture.”

Bartók

There we are: the one Hungarian composer nobody can neglect. Nevertheless, I was a bit surprised to read Bartók’s name since Mr. Corbett-Jones sent me several concert programs from his career and he basically performed almost exclusively classic composers – except for Bartók. “My heart is really in the classics. As for Bartok, I’ve played his works throughout my life. My interest in Bartok began when I heard some of his own recordings of Mikrokosmos when I was about 19. I started working on these right away and added the Six Roumanian Folk Dances. Later I began to study with my main teacher, Adolph Baller, and I learned that he and Yehudi Menuhin had recorded Bartok’s first violin sonata and had played it privately for Bartok around 1943 in his New York City apartment. My awareness and admiration for him date from this time. Actually, I studied and recorded this sonata later and found it one of the most difficult pieces I ever attempted.”

Hungarians

Slowly and steadily Mr. Corbett-Jones shone more light on his many Hungarian connections that accompanied him during his active years. The first of those Hungarians was Lili Kraus who is completely neglected by Hungarian music historians and scholars even though in the 50s and 60s she was one of the most prominent Mozart interpreters in the world. “There was a Hungarian musician who had a great influence on me when I was young. I studied with Lili Kraus during the summer of 1953 and later, and stayed in contact with her for many years afterward. She also wrote a letter of recommendation for me which proved to be very useful in my career. She also attended my debut with the San Francisco Symphony.”

Only two years later Mr. Corbett-Jones had the chance to play with the world-famous violinist Joseph Szigeti who used to be a friend of both Busoni and Bartók. “I had heard Szigeti play in recital and with an orchestra when I was a boy. At the recommendation of my teacher, Adolph Baller, in 1955 Szigeti invited me to spend a week with him as his pianist in his home in Palos Verdes, near Los Angeles. I remember my long drive down there from San Francisco, and his immediately asking me to play a Tartini sonata with him. We played the Brahms D Minor, the Prokofiev D Major, the Busoni E Minor, Bloch Baal Shem, a half dozen Mozart sonatas and his arrangements of several Hungarian folk songs.” He met and was on good terms with Eugene Ormandy, the larger than life conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra whose recommendation meant a lot to him both personally and professionally.

A Brief But Important Interlude in Vienna

As his career advanced, Mr. Corbett-Jones got a scholarship to study in Vienna, the capital of classical music with historic musical landmarks basically on every corner. The year was 1956 which represents the lost freedom fight of Hungary – and he was in the neighborhood while first freedom fighters than tanks roamed the streets of the Hungarian capital. “1956 was a difficult year in world history and for me personally. I was making my first trip to Europe and was unprepared financially, linguistically and emotionally. I was with my wife, Sylvia Jenkins and we couldn’t make the adjustment to living in Vienna at the time of the Hungarian Revolution and the Suez Crisis.” They were pretty successful in the States where they received enthusiastic and rave reviews to their energetic performances. “She was a wonderful pianist, but eventually it didn’t work out for us and we divorced. We toured for several years playing four-hand music.” (A contemporary note: Mr. Corbett-Jones have been happily remarried for forty years to Louise DiMattio and they have a daughter and two grandchildren.)

Mr. Corbett-Jones wanted to stay in the Austrian capital but found that he couldn’t. “I lived there for about three months and would have stayed longer but I couldn’t manage on the $200 stipend from the University of California. Vienna was expensive even then. I stayed in some pretty terrible places, especially one on Gumpendorferstrasse. Later I lived on Klagbaumgasse – a slight improvement. The city was cold and dark, and a great deal of war damage was still visible. The facades of many buildings were pockmarked with shrapnel from bombs. On the bright side, I went to the opera and the Volksoper for Fledermaus and visited many of the famous landmarks. On one trip, still in my student days, I stayed in a super modest place on Naglergasse. One musical event took place when I was there in 1956, which I regret having missed, a recital by Gyorgy Cziffra. He is a pianist I greatly admire.”

Even More Hungarians – The Alma Trio

For some reason, he wound up with Hungarians, this time several years after his return to the States but this long-lasting association brought him fame and success. He became the pianist in the well-known and respected musical group. “The Alma Trio was formed of the estate of Yehudi Menuhin in 1944 in Alma, California, a very small place in the Santa Cruz Mountains outside of Los Gatos, California. The original members were Jeno Lener, violinist of the Lener Quartet, Gabor Rejto, cellist, and Adolph Baller, pianist. “Baller was an Austrian-born pianisit who escaped from the Nazi Austria in 1938 to Budapest where he married his wife and they travelled from the Hungarian capital to the US.

“Later, the violinists changed – first to Roman Totenberg, then Maurice Wilk and then Andor Toth, who joined the trio in the early sixties. I replaced Mr. Baller upon his retirement in 1968 and was in the trio until it disbanded in 1975. Andor Toth was born here and studied here. He held many faculty positions and was also the violinist of the New Hungarian Quartet. He died several years ago in Washington State.

The Alma Trio

Gabor Rejto lived in Los Angeles. He was a professor at the University of Southern California. I first met Gabor Rejto in San Francisco when he was touring with the Alma Trio. I heard him play many times and was greatly influenced by him as a musician – never dreaming that I would become his colleague in the trio. He died about thirty years ago. Earlier, the trio made recordings on the Allegro label and later for Decca. Mr. Rejto had a big career here as a teacher. I found the best way to keep things smooth on a long, tiring travel was to tell not “Salonfähig” (unsuitable for the drawing room) stories or jokes. Mr. Rejtő had an attractive, sunny personality and I got along best with him.”

After The Alma Trio

Mr. Corbett-Jones traveled the world and became a professor but he never stopped playing. After playing the piano for almost 80 years, I was sure that there were only a few pieces he would never get tired of playing. “My most loved piano piece would be the B Minor Sonata of Chopin. Also the last sonatas of Schubert and the Davidsbuendler of Schumann. ( I should also mention the Andante movement of the F Minor Sonata of Brahms).” He played literally all over the world in many, many concert venues, and some are very close to his heart. “As for the favorite venue, for me, a few come to mind where I felt a oneness with the music and my listeners. One would be an old Romanesque church in Meiringen, Switzerland, where I first played Beethoven’s Archduke Trio with Swiss colleagues. The piano was magnificent, as were the acoustics and the audience involvement seemed total. It seemed like a very special event.

I had a similar feeling in the late ’60s, touring the American Midwest in Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa performing the Dvorak Dumky Trio, the Brahms and the Schubert Trio with the Alma Trio. In my record collection, I have a performance of the Schubert Symphony in C Major by the Munich Philharmonic, conducted by Celibidache. I have the feeling that this a once-in-a-lifetime performance.” Oddly enough, even though he called the Goldberg Variations “formidable”, another piece proved to be the technically most challenging for him.

“I think the Chopin Etude op. 10, No.2 is the most difficult piece I have ever attempted.”

And the attempts he keeps making at his home at the age of 89. Even though he broke a finger – which understandably is a horrible thing for a musician, especially a pianist -, he keeps practicing at home on one of his pianos. “My favorite piano is the German Steinway. I have three in my home, two model B and a model C. My second choice would be the Boesendorfer or the Kawai. I think the best piano ever made was the American Steinway of the pre-World War 2 vintage.”

Of the future and of the past

He plans on performing but he might not be able to match his fondest memory and proudest achievement which took place in the early 80s in Italy.

“I must emphasize that it takes courage to perform in public. In 1982, I was in Europe on vacation, with no plans to perform and having left all my scores at home. I arrived in Florence to visit an Italian pianist colleague and friend, and while walking on the street, we saw an announcement of a concert to take place the following evening for the Maggio Musicale Orchestra – featuring renowned conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester Kurt Masur conducting the Beethoven Choral Fantasy. Of course, we intended to attend. Through a set of circumstances later that night we learned that Masur had fired the intended soloist and that I had been recommended to replace him. The following morning I met the maestro in his hotel and was given his score and was led into a practice room to have one hour to prepare the piece. I went on to the brilliantly lit stage where a full orchestra and a large chorus were assembled. The maestro smiled and nodded for me to begin. I was scared to death but plunged in. It was like a fantastic dream. When the rehearsal ended I asked for criticism, and he said, ‘Play the beginning louder’. We gave three performances.”

And I’ve just finished playing his version of the Goldberg Variations. Now I even have a cover, as a courtesy of Mr. Corbett-Jones and as always, this feeling overwhelms me that the Goldberg Variations is something that is more than just a collection of pretty tunes – somewhat the pinnacle of our existence here, on Earth. Not too oddly, Mr. Corbett-Jones shares this feeling. “I agree that it is one of the ‘ultimate pieces’ in the class of the late Beethoven Quartets, the St. Matthew Passion, Don Giovanni, and the Schubert Cello Quintet. We all have our ‘most special’ pieces.”

pianist | new york | alma trio | goldberg | goldberg variations

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