TORONTO – Anton Kuerti has been an adopted musical treasure in Canada since moving here from Cleveland in 1965 to protest the Vietnam War.
He had studied with Rudolf Serkin and Mieczylaw Horszowski at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, and before that with Arthur Loesser (half-brother of Frank Loesser, composer of Guys and Dolls and other Broadway shows) at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Kuerti won the coveted Leventritt Award while still a student. Kuerti developed into a formidable (if under-appreciated) exponent of the great Austro-German classics – above all Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart. His maverick career path remained true to his distinct musical voice: deeply intellectual yet deeply communicative. Richard Goode has said that Kuerti’s playing was more reminiscent of Serkin than any other pianist, and termed his colleague “the most under-appreciated” pianist.
According to Kuerti’s own website, “His anti-establishment inclinations were apparent back in 1975, when an article in Performing Arts in Canada magazine appeared under the headline, ‘Anton Kuerti’s Fight Against Fame.’ It’s a fight he has won: no matter what praises the critics heap upon him, he has no contract with a major record label, and it seems he would rather play at a small festival in Canada’s North than at the Proms or Salzburg.”
Nearly four years ago, Kuerti suffered a stroke while performing a solo recital in Miami, and he has not played in public since. For Toronto audiences that had grown accustomed to his performances, the loss has been felt keenly.
All the more credit to the Toronto Summer Music Festival (TSMF) that it chose to honor Kuerti with a tribute concert organized by his well-respected former student, Jane Coop, a Canadian pianist who retired as the Head of the Piano Dept. at the University of British Columbia.
Toronto has been an important city for both Kuerti and Coop. Raised in Calgary, Coop worked closely with Kuerti as his student during undergraduate piano studies at the University of Toronto, then as his teaching assistant for four years. An honorable musician and pianist, she led a lively chamber music master class at TSMF and proudly carries the musical torch for her erstwhile mentor.
For this special occasion on August 3, Coop assembled a sensitively-designed program – mostly chamber music but starting solo, with some early Beethoven Bagatelles for piano. For the rest of the program, she enlisted some of her TSMF colleagues, including Joseph Johnson, principal cello of the Toronto Symphony; Douglas McNabney, faculty violist at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music; Toronto violinist Barry Shiffman, and mezzo Laura Pudwell. The program included Mozart’s E-minor Sonata for piano and violin, K. 304; Brahms’s haunting Two Songs for alto, viola and piano; and Schumann’s radiant Piano Quartet in E-flat. (Schumann was a particular passion for Kuerti, as for many great musicians…)
Probably the finest playing of the evening came from Joseph Johnson. The cello line in Schumann’s glorious slow movement sang with beautifully-focused sound. Elsewhere in the piece, the foursome scrambled some fast passages and never quite nailed the elusive thematic transformations. The odd acoustical quirks of the space did little to support warm string tone, which only underscored the cellist’s achievement.
Shiffman’s playing in the Mozart seemed unsure whether to embrace period-performance style or a more vibrato-friendly approach. The work’s opening sounded bare and unconvincing, but then the violinist became more generous in sound. Pudwell’s tone in the Brahms never quite found a focused center, but these songs don’t fall within her ideal range, calling for a darker voice and more tonal solidity, if not opulence (…very much Maureen Forrester territory, speaking of great Canadian artists.) Her two colleagues provided stalwart support.
The pressure of playing for her former teacher, Coop confessed, made this a particularly challenging assignment, most apparent in her opening solo Beethoven. Later in the program, she settled into playing that was invariably assured, conscientious and well-judged in detail.
The event was held in the 400-seat Walter Hall in the stifling basement of the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto. It should have been staged in the 1,135-seat, air-conditioned, acoustically reflective Koerner Hall at the nearby Telus Centre of the Royal Conservatory of Music. Of course, the rent would have been higher, but so would the box office return. Walter Hall was sold out, just as Koerner Hall assuredly would have been. For Toronto concert goers, the Kuerti name remains magical and filled with cherished memories.
In the event, Kuerti attended the concert with his partner, Catherine Berthiaume. (His late wife, cellist and educator Kristine Bogyo, succumbed to cancer at age 60, more than a decade ago.) He still looks good at 80, but the effects of the stroke are evident.
The pianist was given two stirring ovations after spoken remarks of appreciation by Coop and by Jonathan Crow, the Toronto Symphony’s young concertmaster and new artistic director of TSMF.
Admirers of the Vienna-born Kuerti should know that as recently as November 2011, he self-produced and self-directed a new video, filmed in Australia, of the work he considers Beethoven’s supreme masterpiece for piano: the Diabelli Variations, Opus 120. I attended an August 1 screening of this film.
At the start, Kuerti, seated at his Steinway, delivers a 29-minute, unscripted, trenchant motivic analysis of the work. Then he performs the entire 55-minute composition.
I heard him execute this same feat at a recital in north Toronto a few years ago. Few pianists can summon such musical insight, allied to technical brilliance. The DVD is available from www.antonkuerti.com
Connoisseurs of great Beethoven playing need not hesitate.