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This volume consists of 19 penetrating, non-reverential interviews, one- to three-page snippets from 13 other musicians and finally a 110-page memoir of Varga’s own life. Born in 1941, Varga conducted his first interview in October 1966 – with Arthur Rubinstein. An indication of Varga’s honesty throughout the book is his memory of Rubinstein’s playing in a Budapest recital at that time as ‘gray, devoid of any expression’(!)

Composers interviewed include Ligeti, Kurtág and Stockhausen, Copland and Lutosławski. Conductors include Ormandy, Dorati, Abbado, the two Fischer brothers and, interestingly, Ernest Bour – tireless champion of new music and less well-known today. Brendel, Menuhin, Stern, Tibor Varga (no relation), Cathy Berberian, Schwarzkopf, Szigeti, Perlemuter, Sándor and Kirkpatrick are among interviewed instrumentalists and singers.

Particularly compelling is the section devoted to Wolfgang Stresemann, intendant of the Berlin Philharmonic for over 20 years. He talks about Bülow, Nikisch, Furtwängler (who ‘radiated a kind of holiness’) and Karajan – the only BPO chief conductor with whom he worked – as well as Walter, Kleiber and Toscanini. Some Karajan stories emerge also from the joint interview with Schwarzkopf and her husband Walter Legge – producer with EMI and founder of the Philharmonia orchestra. In Varga’s commentary a story from Raymond Leppard is retold, in which Karajan’s arrogance was challenged by heroic violinist Peter Gibbs (misprinted here as Gibb), splendidly supported by the rest of the orchestra. This interview with Stresemann is among the best, but those with Nadia Boulanger and William Glock provide equally valuable historical record and insights.

Varga’s memoir begins with his ancestors before tracing his own rich life – including growing up amid political turmoil, an affectionate memory of Margit, maid, cook, cleaner and nurse, his work at Budapest’s broadcasting house, and his promotional positions at Edition Musica Budapest and Universal Edition. Covering 50 years of great music-making, this book is essential reading.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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