I was first introduced as a student to the Popper Etudes for their technical challenge and value as skill building exercises. They struck me as not much more than a set of forty clever academic studies, somewhat disorganized, in that they show no logical order or progression in difficulty.
My viewpoint began to change after I heard the 1967 recording of select etudes and caprices by Janos Starker. His performance vivified the works by inputting a measure of artistic insight and imagination into their substance, adding in his own way the sophistication that the composers had left out. The net effect was both interesting and enjoyable to hear.
Reflecting on this "superimposition of personality," I saw that a composition can, and normally does, possess latent elements of musical value that exist in the matter of the work itself, even apart from the composer's explicit intention or awareness of it. And, further, when the performer can discern such elements and bring them forward in keeping with the inner logic and beauty of a work, he becomes more of a co-creator with the composer and less of a performance functionary.
Notable artists—Daniel Shafran, Vladimir Horowitz, and Glenn Gould to name a few—have famously imparted a personal stamp in this way, and often enriched music by adding artistic tempering not otherwise discernible from the narrow perspective of the written score. This seems to be most feasible with the etude, where there is maximum scope for creativity, rather than with a masterwork.
Time and occasion and I met to make this recording some years ago. My intention was to explore how rubato, articulation, and dynamics could be used to control the matter of Popper's Etudes. Could I lead the mind of the listener toward something more beautiful by way of symmetry and proportion, all the while retaining the character of virtuoso etudes? Lacking a pedagogical objective, very many liberties were taken such that it would be foolish to ask students to use my renditions as a guide. The freedom, intensity and speed often employed is not intended to suggest the most effective manner to practice etudes, nor are the musical choices meant to be definitive, but rather more suggestive and dialectical.
I am amazed at how differently I would re-invent Popper's Etudes again today. Nevertheless, this album presents an accurate exposition of my interpretive decisions at the time. These capture more of the comical than the serious. Listeners with a sense of humor will best appreciate this undertaking and the playful witticism of my characterizations.
David Popper, renowned cellist of the late 19th century, was born in Prague in June, 1843. He began his studies on the violin and auditioned at the Prague Conservatory as a violinist in 1855. Due to a lack of cellists and abundance of violinists he was accepted on the condition that he switch from the violin to the cello, which he did, thereupon studying at the conservatory with cellist Julius Goltermann (1825-1876), and soon attracted attention. He made his first tour in 1863; in Germany he was praised by Hans von Bülow (who was also a son-in-law of Franz Liszt), who recommended him to a position as Chamber Virtuoso in the court of Frederick William, Prince of Hohenzollern. In 1864, he premiered Robert Volkmann’s Cello Concerto in A minor, Opus 33 with Hans von Bülow conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. He lost this job a couple of years later due to the prince’s death.
He then made his debut in Vienna in 1867, and was made principal cellist at the Hofoper. From 1868 to 1870 he was also a member of the Hellmesberger Quartet. In 1872, he married pianist Sophie Menter, a pupil of Franz Liszt who later joined the staff at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. In 1873, Popper resigned from his post at the Hofoper so as to continue his tours with his wife on a larger scale, giving concerts throughout Europe.
In 1886, Franz Liszt recommended Popper to teach at the newly opened string department at the Conservatory at Budapest. In Budapest, he participated in the Budapest Quartet with Jeno Hubay. He and Hubay performed chamber music on more than one occasion with Johannes Brahms, including the premiere of Brahms’s Piano Trio Op. 101 in Budapest, 20 December 1886.
Popper died in Baden in 1913. He embraced cello playing in every capacity: as a solo virtuoso performer, chamber musician, soloist in the Imperial Opera Orchestra, teacher and composer. Popper's playing is distinguished by its very pure and extremely clever technique, as well as by a refined, graceful manner of rendering. His legacy today primarily rests upon his compositions for cello and piano, including some of the most inventive cello writing and piano accompaniments in the whole of the virtuoso cello repertory. Of all the compositions written in the Romantic virtuoso style, it is almost exclusively those of David Popper that have never lost a place in the cellist's repertoire. His Etudes in particular have taken on a special role as the primary tool in teaching each successive generation of cellists.
The artistry of Peter C. Dzialo, cello
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