Isolde Ahlgrimm: Harpsichordist, mentor and friend
by Peter Watchorn

It began in 1968 in Newcastle, New South Wales, when I discovered the two spirax-bound volumes of Isolde Ahlgrimm's recordings of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, part of the Philips Complete Works for Harpsichord in my piano teacher's collection. So entranced was I that I spent years trying to find my own copies of these long deleted releases, writing letters to Philips to see if they would re-issue them. In 1974 (I like to think due to my efforts), I was finally able to hear nearly all of Ille's recordings in nicely cleaned up versions in the form of two 10 LP boxes. In 1977 I moved from Newcastle to Sydney to pursue my career as a harpsichordist and asked a friend who had studied in Vienna to deliver a letter to Professor Ahlgrimm, as I had discovered that she was still teaching at the Hochschule, the successor to the old Wiener Akademie, where she had herself studied as a youngster.

Her reply came within a few weeks:
“Thankyou for the kind words you find for my records. I am astonished if someone still likes them – performance style has so much changed !”.

This was the beginning of a relationship – first by mail, later in person, which lasted from that time until Ille, as I came to know her, died aged eighty-one in October 1995, worn out by struggles with illness, a decade of artistic neglect, a lifetime of hard work and much tribulation. I met her for the first time in person in 1985, when I spent three months travelling twice a week from Amsterdam to Vienna for lessons. She was incredulous at the distance involved, but, as I pointed out, the trip was like going from Sydney to Melbourne, not a big deal for an Australian – especially one who had flown from Sydney in the first place. After my first period of work with her I flew to Boston and won the coveted Erwin Bodky Memorial Award for my performance of the A minor English Suite, which I had studied with her in great detail. In her honour, too, I played the work as she would have done: entirely from memory. She was thrilled.

In 1985, when I first met Ille in person, Vienna was still a far less prosperous looking city than it is now – grey and depressing in many ways. After sorting out the streetcar system, I arrived for my first lesson at her modest apartment in the Strudlhofgasse (near Vienna University and the foreign embassies). After I rang the house bell, there, on the stairs, appeared a tiny figure, with the same grave smile and almost magical eyes that I had seen in various pictures. I think she was genuinely astonished that I had come from the other side of the world to study with her, and that I seemed to know so much about her work. Her English was not perfect, though far better than my German, but there was no mistaking the incredible intelligence, the humour and the wisdom that were hers. We were instant friends.

Ille's playing made an unforgettable impression on me from the very beginning. The fine sense of timing, the flexible ornamentation, the phrasing, the intelligence – and a host of other characteristics too numerous to mention – represented all that was best in harpsichord playing. These things became my ideal, too. By the time I met her, Ille had already given up the two Ammer harpsichords and pedal harpsichord that had become so familiar to me through the Bach recordings of twenty years before. In their place, she had a green David Rubio instrument, which she had bought from Miles Morgan in 1972. In her small living room, which also contained her tiny sofa bed and a micro-film reader, to enable her to research her dictionary of ornamentation, we had lessons on everything from the Well-Tempered Clavier to the English Suites and Italian Concerto. For two weeks I had as my travelling companions Ille's own heavily-used working scores of the Well-Tempered Clavier: the edition by Donald Francis Tovey. It was these same scores that she used to make her recordings for Philips in 1951 and 1953. Although Ille always played from memory, the scores showed evidence of incredibly meticulous work, chiefly in the remarkably detailed multiple rows of fingerings that she had marked in the score, one of them, the final choice, in red ink.

I remember so well her amazing technique, where virtually no finger motion was evident, and her wrist and elbow joints absorbed nearly all movement, while remaining relaxed. This, she felt, was the real secret: total flexibility. It was also, she was convinced, the true secret behind the contemporary reports (by Forkel and others) that no-one could see Johann Sebastian Bach's fingers move when he played: all movement was absorbed by the larger joints at shoulder, elbow and wrist. In preparing music for performance, two things mattered to her above all: slow practice for as long as possible, and extreme care in working out the fingering. The extraordinary clarity of her part-playing, evident on all her Bach recordings, is a direct result of these two obsessions.

By the time we completed eight summers of study together, made somewhat easier for me by my move from Sydney to Cambridge, MA in 1987, we had become close friends. It was in 1990 that I first broached the subject of writing her story, which I felt was far more important to the general history of the “Early Music” revival than had hitherto been claimed by anyone. In fact, she was remarkably absent from all the standard reference works, including, until 1980, when Howard Schott rectified the situation, Grove's Dictionary. I recall that, in 1974, when Philips released a new Bach recording of hers, including some of those works omitted from the earlier series, the Gramophone reviewed it as though it were her debut! They didn't know who she was. I was determined to change this state of affairs.

As a confirmed sceptic when it came to the idea of anyone writing her story, Ille submitted herself to 20 hours of questioning about a range of subjects: from the troubled yet artistically fruitful twenty-year marriage to Erich Fiala, to her own years of study, to relations with friends and colleagues, to her technique, to the war. Above all, Erich Fiala and the war shaped Ille's career, and determined its outcome, for better or worse. Fiala, who once in a rash moment publicly denounced the Nazis, was arrested by the Gestapo twice, the second time on the serious charge of sedition, for which he was sent to a labour camp, with a very uncertain future. From 1944 to 1946, Ille did not even know whether he was still alive, until word reached her from her friend, Richard Strauss, that Erich had been liberated and was headed home.

Despite their divorce in 1956, Ille always gave Erich Fiala full credit for the idea that music must be played on instruments of its own time, properly restored, by musicians knowledgeable in their use. She first played the fortepiano in the music of Mozart and Haydn, simply because the couple were able to buy one cheaply in Vienna. Her first fortepiano, a beautiful five-octave instrument by Michael Rosenberger, cost twenty Austrian schillings. When I met Gustav Leonhardt in 1995 while researching the book, he told me that, from his interaction with Ille in the early 1950's, when he occupied the harpsichord professorship in Vienna that Ille had set up before the war, two things stood out in his memory: her incomparable fortepiano playing, and the extraordinary collection of string instruments that Erich and Ille had built up.

Ille's first harpsichord, an “historical” copy made in 1937 by the brothers Ammer was a wedding present to her in 1938 from Fiala's parents, wealthy owners of the still famous company Manner-Schokolade. In those days, the Ammer brothers, Michael and Alois, through their association with Ulrich Rück, whose instruments later formed the nucleus of the collection at the German National Museum, made instruments that were far more “original” than the immediate post-war products bearing their name. This superior sound is clearly audible on Ille's recordings. Her second Ammer, from 1941, was traded from Wien-Film for a Pleyel, which was fancily veneered, but which Ille disliked musically. This second Ammer is the instrument that was used for the English and French Suites, as well as for the Partitas and Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. It had two 8' registers, as well as 4' and 16', the 4' on the upper manual. Like the 1937 instrument, it had handstops to change the registers. This is why the registration heard on these recordings is so classical and restrained compared to other harpsichord recordings from the same period, where pedals were normally employed for quick registration changes to add colour. There is nothing from the same period that sounds remotely like Isolde Ahlgrimm's recordings, which still speak to us today of the inexhaustible gifts of this great and indomitable lady. The harpsichord world today is more greatly in her debt than it knows.

Peter Watchorn, Cambridge MA, 2006

"Isolde Ahlgrimm, Vienna & the Early Music Revival"
by Peter Watchorn
c.260pp, 32 photographs (most never published).
Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. London
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