Pianists From The Past: Edith Vogel

Pianists From The Past continues today with this fascinating article featuring Austro-Hungarian-born pianist and pedagogue Edith Vogel, written by one of her pupils, British pianist and piano professor Andrew Bottrill, who is head of keyboard at Latymer Upper School and professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. Over to Andrew…

Recollections of Edith Vogel

Edith Vogel (1912 – 1992)

I first met Edith Vogel when I played Beethoven’s Op.110 to her in a masterclass in 1981.  When I say I was a ‘fledgling’ at that time, as I certainly was, my choice of word is honouring her surname in a way she would have enjoyed.  She loved playing with words, and she enjoyed bird-like calls in music too, such as this:

– from the first movement of Beethoven’s Op.31 no.3, to which she chuckled with joy.  And she could find more cuckoo calls in the Viennese classics than could possibly be heard in the Vienna woods.  After participation in several masterclasses, my weekly lessons spanned 1984 to 1988, during which time I also took lessons with James Gibb in the room next door, overlooking the lake, on the top floor of the relatively new Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Silk Street campus.

I recently gathered up all my cassette recordings which I had saved from that period, including 39 Vogel radio broadcasts, plus three precious recordings of my two teachers playing four-hands together.  I have digitalised them all and uploaded them to YouTube playlists, which form the core reference material for this article.

Edith Vogel playlist

James Gibb and Edith Vogel four-hands playlist

For me, Edith Vogel’s unique musical personality shines through the unfortunate varying degrees of terrestrial-broadcast crackle.  You may prefer first to go straight for the recordings that have the best audio quality, which are all by Beethoven: the Choral Fantasia Op. 80, the Sonatas Op.106 and Op. 111.  For a first taste, I recommend this recording:

Coincidentally these are all live performances, with audience.  The remaining studio recordings also tended to be done in one take, I believe.  Naturally enough, I have no recordings of the live performances that I attended in person, and those experiences together with hearing at every opportunity Tatiana Nikolaeva, Shura Cherkassky, and of course James Gibb, were the mainstay of my formative learning.

Edith Vogel was a formidable figure at GSMD.  She spoke of herself as the ‘dragon’ of the building, but in reality, she was just good at telling the truth, with a patience for interpretative and technical detail second to none.  It is true though that she spent much energy opposing ‘pet hates’, especially common practices that are generally seen to be a good thing.  Here’s a little list of what she would certainly have called the ‘bees in her bonnet’: the word okay, career, compromise, tradition, good sound, facility, projection and accents on bar-lines.  I think all Edith Vogel students would recognise this list as a completely integrated thread of logic.

In a nutshell it goes like this.

The word okay symbolizes a mediocrity of engagement, like ‘yes, I submit’ – to Vogel it was a negative expression posing as a positive, or at best just not good enough.  Being busy performing here-there-and-everywhere, international tours and travel, building a career out of being useful to agents and concert schedules: she had no time for any of this, and didn’t see it as a worthy aim for her students either.  Vogel was constitutionally opposed to compromise, and when the modesty of the performer as ‘executant’ diminishes his or her creative engagement in performance, this would be the worst kind of all.  I believe her views on tradition were aired in a ten-minute broadcast talk in 1979.  I hope such material will now start to emerge but suffice it to say that she viewed the mere ‘following’ of performance tradition as a shortcut to nowhere.

She objected to a commonplace cultivation of a ‘good sound’ as a hollow, empty obsession: what matters she would say is the expressive reality that lies behind the sound, i.e. what it is saying.    Of course a pianist wants to acquire dexterity, and needs facility in that sense, but a quick twist on the meaning of that word can be found in the word ‘facile’: she was keen to say that ‘nothing worthwhile is easy’, and she was repelled by slick, clean, sterile virtuosity.  And so, to projection: it is understood that dynamics are nothing to do with ‘decibels’, you only have to listen from a back seat in a large concert hall to realise this.  The cultivation of a particular ‘sound’ for the purposes of projection really links to her aversion to the notion of ‘good sound’ per se mentioned earlier, but there is another aspect here.  This is to recognise a meaningful opposition between the Italian word espressivo and the German innig – there is perhaps no perfect English translation, but it is to speak of ‘outward intensity’ versus ‘inward intensity’ respectively.  Whilst Vogel conjured up ‘fortes’ from the cataclysmic to the warmly passionate, at the other end of the scale she was not afraid to ask the audience – in her playing – to reach out, to make an effort to listen.  She was an authority on both the audible and the ‘almost inaudible but meaningfully tangible’.  This latter facet, together with a pedagogical horror of accents on bar lines stemming from her own ever-present supple mastery of rhythm which is never a slave to the metre but always in its orbit, lie at the heart of Edith Vogel’s musicianship.

A detailed discussion of Edith Vogel’s unique pianism, musicianship and pedagogy would over-burden this short recollection, but if you have an appetite for more, I have begun to document material, for example on overlap legato, and bebung – topics again very familiar to all her students.  Links to this material will be updated on my Andrew Bottrill, pianist Facebook page.

I would very much like to prompt discussion on such topics amongst her former students, and importantly too, more widely.  Here, I propose to move to the gold dust of her recorded legacy.

Edith Vogel espoused a sense of humble reverence to the text.  She referred to piano repertoire as ‘the literature, and she had a deep sense of truth to each work, as a whole and complete ‘organism’.  She would have been very attuned to the work of Heinrich Schenker, but she never referred to it: erudition was specifically not her source.  Intuition was the foundation of her approach, both to music and to people: her ‘good nose’, she would say.   As I mentioned earlier, she preferred to record in one take, because she believed the detail belonged to the whole, indivisibly.  And no performance was repeatable – she professed never to ‘recycle’ repertoire, but always to work from scratch in her preparation for each performance.

In the recordings that contain whole works (another pedagogical horror incidentally was to refer to them as ‘pieces’), as are most in my YouTube playlist, you may notice something unusual in the connections between movements, often with very little pause on the double bar line.  Her playing captures the subliminal motivic developments that operate through an entire work, and in this sense the notion of relaxation between movements is to miss the point.  Partly for this reason, personally I feel that Beethoven is central to her artistic character, a composer for whom each work comes from a new creative spark, and for whom motivic integrity seems paramount.   The paradox in Beethoven is that he can seem deliberately frenetic and disjointed: the examples of Op.77 and the late Bagatelles flit unpredictably from the bizarre to the sublime, but never with more underlying coherence than in her hands. Here is her recording of the Bagatelles, Op.126.

She had paradoxes too though, and spoke of her admiration for the Schubertian moments in Beethoven – where, so to speak, the spirit of one composer merges with his opposite – such as perhaps occurs in the second movement of Op.90.

And so, to Schubert himself.

This is the opening of the slow movement of his last Sonata, D.960 – possibly the essence of the sublime in music.   A standard inclination is to overlap the notes of the accompanying figuration with the pedal into a harmonic haze, thereby prioritizing an ‘open’ cantabile glow to the ‘tune’ and a proper sustain of the pedal point.  The alto voice in the interpretation I describe becomes a shadow of the ‘tune’ – incidentally ‘tune’ is a word Vogel lists with ‘okay’ as an example of an undesired four-letter variety.   Given the experience that the whole performance has to offer, including to the context under discussion here, I am reluctant to tell you (but I will) that this location is 20’50” into her recording of the work.

Schubert Sonata in Bb, D.960:

Ambiguity is unavoidable for pedal markings – not least this one, which is merely a general indication – given the interrelationship between fingers and foot, and the changeability of performance context, including the historical development of the instrument.  So, the licence is always there to do otherwise from the interpretation I describe above.  Indeed, Vogel categorically chooses an ‘otherwise’ option, which, in more than one sense, is not so easy.  I never saw her play this, but it is of interest that she was highly inventive in the distribution of notes between the hands – ‘ten fingers are better than five’ she would say.  In this instance, the C#’s can be seen in different staves from one edition to another, but of course we must remind ourselves that composers don’t necessarily use staves to indicate which hand plays what.

I often wonder if Brendel had Vogel’s performance in mind when he writes One could imagine this opening played by a string quartet with pizzicato bass notes, and indeed I have heard a pianist who tried to perform it that way.  But this is a misunderstanding….” (Alfred Brendel, Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts, Faber and Faber, 1978, p67).  To me, there is no reason to reject his or her approach: it is a fact that they both manifest ‘understanding’.  Vogel’s D.960 casts the work as a whole in a very different light to that of the recordings Brendel made of the same work.  I think Vogel does use pedal here, but she changes it frequently in order to facilitate an enjoyment of the very pizzicato string-like sonorities mentioned by Brendel.  The pedal-point thus becomes more implied than real.  The comparison doesn’t stop there, because Vogel, as ever, asks more of the listener than does Brendel, the alto voice being more prominent and shapelier, the soprano having a more ‘shaded’ presence, being more integrated into its textural environment – a tangible but not overt presence towards which the listener is compelled to reach.  Could this be an illustration of ‘innig’ versus ‘espressivo’, mentioned earlier?  She doesn’t win easy plaudits for such an interpretation, but she just couldn’t compromise on her idealised vision for the music.

Coming back to these recordings, with the benefit of all the music that has passed through my fingers and ears in the interim, my astonishment at Edith Vogel’s achievements has magnified.  She would say that she ‘used to be talented’.  She spoke of the period in which I knew her as her ‘bonus’ years, having previously suffered a heart attack and been fitted with a ‘pacemaker’.  Keeping the form and agility of her younger years would not have been expected.  Well, I missed those previous years, and it has not been possible to catch up. The BBC archive seems to be a closed book: she was prolifically active as a performer, but the seven appearances at the Proms between 1952 and 1978 together with her numerous other live recorded concerts and studio recordings are now neither broadcast, nor accessible.  In her final decade I cannot know which of her powers had diminished, but in the recordings I have shared, we hear a unique pianistic and musical voice, as persuasive and nuanced as the most celebrated international icons of the tradition.  To speak in those terms though is to slightly misrepresent her, since, as with only less than a hand-full of exceptional figures, ‘tradition’ is not really the correct word.  To me this playing is not traditional – it is an origin, it is somehow built up from the barren soil of a new land.

There is a Facebook page for Edith Vogel (click, here), which has been put together by a ‘sibling’ of mine in the Edith Vogel ‘family’ of the period, Colin Stone.  It is a valuable repository of documents including a short autobiographical extract of particular interest.  It recounts a childhood memory from within the Highgate household which took in Edith Vogel (and her circle as and when they too could be brought over from Austria).  I recommend you read it from the source, but I quote it here: They told us of Edith Vogel, already an established concert pianist in Vienna, who was doing domestic work in London, having escaped from Austria.  Her father had committed suicide and her mother and brother were in concentration camps.  She came one winters night, after her work of scrubbing floors, a small pathetic figure in a black woollen dress. She went over to the piano and sat down and knowing of her reputation as a great concert player, we expected to hear some pianistic fireworks.  Instead, after a long pause, the quiet opening bars of Chopins third prelude came stealing across the room, almost inaudible; then another silence, followed by a storm of tears. On a fourteen-year-old, the impact of this first contact with adult human sorrow left an indelible mark.  Edith came like a dark shadow across our complacent middle class, safe suburban lives, reminding us of the suffering and death millions of her fellow Jews were having to endure under the Nazis.” It was 1938, and Edith Vogel was around 26 years of age.

We are now in an era in which the musical past seems to be increasingly accessible.  Even some obscure outtakes from Glen Gould sessions can be obtained, and the early years of the recording age – the playing of Grieg, Rachmaninoff, Bartok, Debussy, Gershwin – are available at the click of a computer mouse.  To their credit, the BBC have established the so-called ‘Genome Project’ to document all that has been broadcast, but they have not yet come to release their crown jewels of musical history – the recordings themselves.  In the case of Edith Vogel this is particularly lamentable, because the BBC was the only channel through which her performing career flourished.  When she arrived in the UK it was really the BBC that eventually came to her professional rescue, as they did for Hans Keller who arrived in the same year: huge credit to the post-war BBC establishment for recognising and nurturing such enriching influences upon British culture.

Keller espoused the notion of ‘wordless’ wisdom for music, and it is of course not without deliberate irony that his published words are voluminous.  Thank god we have them.  I did learn with Keller at the Dartington summer school – memorably working with him on the Debussy Violin Sonata which I played with the clarinettist (!), Nick Hayes, and I was privileged by Keller’s enthusiastic presence at GSMD for my performance there of the Berg Chamber Concerto, under Buxton Orr with the violinist Oliver Lewis.  Thanks to Keller’s writings we can all still learn from him.  Indeed, his article entitled ‘Phoney Musical Professions’ (published in ‘Criticisms’, Faber and Faber) could read as a sequel to my list of the bees in Edith Vogel’s bonnet.  But without access to the recordings it is not possible for the younger generation to continue learning from Edith Vogel.  This would compound the tragedy from which her rebirth as a UK citizen derived.  I hope that my YouTube channel of recordings can be available until such time as the BBC let us access this material from the original source.  I truly hope they will do so.  Such an act would serve to fulfil the relationship they cultivated in the first place: it would be a moral triumph to match and complete that of the wartime generation.

Copyright © Andrew Bottrill 2020

Andrew Bottrill

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Allan Fuller says:

    Hello> I really admire these types of articles that honor the rich tradition of the past. They are so very inspirational…and so very necessary. In a world of piano players that often just imitate, we can be reminded that there was / is those that truly have the fortitude to play lovingly, passionately and on their own terms. Bravo! Keep them coming please.

    1. Hello Allan, Many thanks for your kind comment. I’m so pleased that you are enjoying the articles. I’m certainly having a lot of fun curating the series. There will be lots more, so do stay tuned. Best wishes, Melanie

  2. Hugh Molloy says:

    A fascinating article by Andrew Bottrill: Recalling Edith Vogel’s personality and musical character, but also describing her historical context. Much enjoyed… thank you!

    1. Thank you for your kind comments, Hugh. Yes, Andrew’s article is so very interesting. Best wishes, Melanie

  3. Robby says:

    Thank you so much for the eye-opening interpretations by Frau Vogel you have made availalble on YouTube! I have now been searching far and wide for the precise dates of her BBC broadcast performances of Johannes Brahms—particularly Op. 119, as it was evidently posthumously aired. Do you know the date of her actual playing of it? Surely it is somwhere in between the large margin of time she was in contact with the BBC, from the “1950s” until some point before her death in 1992. Any narrowing of that margin would be tremendously helpful for me!


    1. Hello Robby,
      I’m so glad you enjoyed this article. You would need to contact Andrew directly to ask for these details as he has written the article and is an expert on Edith’s recordings.
      Best wishes,


  4. Andrew Bottrill says:

    Thanks for your interest Robby, although this one is from Nicholas Brown’s collection – donated to my playlist in response to this article – it replaces the copy I had originally posted there which was incomplete. I remember Edith Vogel’s series of late Brahms recordings (and also a series of recordings of middle-period Beethoven) within the period I studied with her, i.e. between 1982-1992, probably around the middle of that time-frame.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.