Sunday, August 15, 2021

The concert zither - Nikolaus Schaack (1892-1981) records original works and arrangements of classical pieces for the zither

Photo courtesy Dr. Myrna Herzog


“Nikolaus Schaack, Zither at 80, Bach, Debussy, Villa-Lobos”, a recording of historic and musical value, is bound to arouse curiosity and interest among those interested in music for the zither, its tradition and in musica rara in general. Consul of Luxembourg in Rio, Brazil, Nikolaus Schaack (1892-1981) was a composer, arranger, zither player and pianist.  Born in Luxembourg Ville, Luxembourg, he started learning the zither at age eight, also studying violin and piano. In 1912, he met Austrian zither virtuoso Richard Grünwald who had innovated zither technique. Inspired by Grünwald, Schaack championed the use of the “Reformzither" (the perfected zither) also called the “concert zither” for the playing of classical music, the instrument developed by Grünwald having incredible expressive possibilities and a huge range. For this instrument Schaack made numerous transcriptions of works by Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and more. 

In 1923, Schaack was sent to work in Brazil, where he would then spend the rest of his life. In addition to his work as company manager, he served as Luxembourg’s consul in Rio de Janeiro. There, he continued his studies in theory, music history, composition, counterpoint and fugue with Egon Kornauth and twelve-tone technique with Brazilian composer Claudio Santoro. He also became actively involved in Brazil’s cultural life.

On February 14th 1973, Schaack made a home recording of his playing at the request of his children, who had been “asking me to record some zither pieces for them as a memento”. His granddaughter, gamba player and musicologist Dr. Myrna Herzog (Brazil-Israel), took it upon herself to make this unique recording available to the general public. The preparation process was long and painstaking. The recording had been made on reel tape recorder. In the 1970s, Eliahu Feldman transferred it onto a cassette. Several computer copies were then made of this cassette, each, however, sounding slightly different due to different speeds of cassette players. On choosing the best-sounding copy, Herzog and mastering engineer David Feldman realized that the general pitch was too low and the speed too slow. To rectify this, they took the cue from the time Herzog and her grandfather had played duets together, she playing a recorder at 440 pitch. Addressing the problem of some disturbance present in the last track, tonmeister Ben Bernfield managed to reduce the noise to an acceptable level without spoiling the recording’s sound quality.

In addition to arrangements Schaack made from familiar classical repertoire, the recording presents works by composers who wrote for the zither. Of the latter are Schaack’s touching and beautifully shaped playing of the Classical-style Larghetto from Concertino for zither in B flat major prolific zither composer Heinrich Freiherr von Reigersberg (1875-1946) and the programmatic “Abend-Feier im Kloster” (Angelus in the Convent) - Fantaisie, Op.37 by Carl Fittig (1839-1899), its set of vignettes including the masterfully produced imitation of church bells. An item I found myself returning to several times is the Toccata from Nikolaus Schaack’s own Triptychon in B flat major, appealing in its inégal rhythms and tonal course and his spirited, spontaneous performance, a piece indeed harkening to Schaack’s familiarity with works of J.S.Bach.

As to Schaack’s arrangements of works from the classical repertoire, we hear his introspective, tender playing of  the Largo from J.S.Bach’s cantata “Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe”  BWV 156, the poignant and pensive Berceuse Op. 13 No. 7 from  Alexander Ilynsky’s orchestral suite "Noure and Anitra" (pub. 1896), a piece for which  Ilynsky is best remembered,  Träumerei” (Dreaming) from Schumann’s “Scenes from Childhood” and Schaack’s fresh, and poetic rendition of “La fille aux cheveux de lin” (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) from Debussy’s  Préludes, Book 1 (c.1910),  the latter’s  pentatonic-modal mix and  parallel chord movement sounding especially effective on the zither. And for some Brazilian content, Schaack plays his own revised version of Ewald Kuchenbuch’s arrangement of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Prelúdio No 3.

On making this recording at an advanced age, Nikolaus Schaack wrote: “I have done it, but am not too happy with the result. At 80, one cannot play like at 40.” Despite a few moments of somewhat laboured, restrained playing (Schumann, Villa-Lobos), the recording is most inspiring, indeed, a fitting and moving tribute to this artist’s deep inquiry and fine musicianship, the expressive capabilities of the instrument and to the playing style of an era. “Nikolaus Schaack, Zither at 80, Bach, Debussy, Villa-Lobos” is available on the following digital platforms:


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