Peter Watchorn: Isolde Ahlgrimm, Vienna and the Early Music Revival. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007; ISBN 978-0-7546-5787-3, Pp. xvi + 248, $99.00.

Have you ever heard of Isolde Ahlgrimm (1914-95)? I certainly had not until this fine book arrived in my mailbox. But, if the book is to be believed, we certainly should have, in view of her importance to the way we today understand “historically informed performance” of music earlier than the mid-19th century. She was playing Mozart in Vienna in 1937 on a fortepiano built by Anton Walter in 1787! No one else did that again for 40, maybe 50 years.

And there is ample reason to believe the book, in spite of the apparent bias inherent in its authorship by one of Ahlgrimm’s students, who deliberately sought her out after reading a review in Gramophone in 1976 of her final recording of music by Bach on a harpsichord, a review whose author had never heard of her either and who wrote as if it were her début disc! Ahlgrimm authorized Watchorn to write the book but insisted that he focus on her work and her historical performance mission rather than on her life. He has done just that, dedicating the work to her as well. It is a perspicacious work of admiration, not the one of blind adulation it could easily have become.

How does such near-total obscurity descend upon someone this visionary, this far ahead of her time? It was a combination of the times in which she lived, a singularly unfortunate marriage, her lack of financial means, and her own unassuming, unaggressive nature that did not permit her to proselytize vociferously, adamantly, and internationally. That she was a mere unimposing five feet tall may not have helped either. Her career was interrupted at its outset by World War II and its consequences to the city where she lived. Think of the composers extinguished in the Holocaust who are similarly unknown to the vast majority of music lovers today.

Ahlgrimm wed in 1936 a wealthy collector of historic instruments, Dr. Erich Fiala, with whom she initially had a satisfying professional relationship. She did not realize — because women were supposed to marry and raise a family, and she wanted to (although she ultimately had no children) — that she would be ill-advised to advance the relationship beyond that business arrangement. He behaved as if he owned her and controlled her career in consequence, subordinating it to his own eccentric behavior and delusionary desires, his total lack of musical training notwithstanding. During the marriage, she performed nearly exclusively in Vienna, and for about half of those 18 years, in private subscription recitals in her home rather than in public concert halls because of her husband’s disputes with their managers. Her 74-concert series, Concerte für Kenner und Liebhaber (Concerts for Connoisseurs and Amateurs), all played from memory, many on period instruments, was always sold out during its 20-year span, each one having to be repeated four or five times when it moved to the residence.

She recorded all of J.S. Bach’s harpsichord music (played from memory) for Philips during the final 6 years of the marriage (1951-56). The recordings were well received in Europe, but few were brought to the USA because of a poor review by an influential writer of the first disc and the lack of contemporary name recognition here. None have been re-issued on CD because of the current star-focused orientation of the classical music recording industry.

After the divorce, Ahlgrimm lived in near poverty and had to re-start her career. Except for a promotional tour in the Netherlands, she did not concertize, but rather focused on teaching, motivated in part by the need for a steady income. Even establishing herself in this role was not easy, however, because of her prolonged absence from this activity forbidden by her husband. Hence, her name-recognition ultimately no longer extended beyond the relatively small circle of her former students.

The book is chock-a-block full of facts about Ahlgrimm’s historical context as well as her life. It is as much the history of the birth and growth into maturity of the early music and historically informed performance movement of the past 70 years as it is of her own 81. Amazingly, where most adherents of this practice are today philosophically is where Ahlgrimm started out, but she had no teacher to show her the way; she had to do the research, reading, and reflection on her own. The book is convincing on this point, using documents and interviews to support the allegation.

This is not her sole accomplishment, however; although she moved rapidly to the fortepiano and then the harpsichord, she began her career as a pianist noted for her performance of the Romantic classics. She also knew Richard Strauss and played the harpsichord on stage in the Vienna première of his opera Capriccio in 1944. He subsequently created the Capriccio Suite for her and gave her exclusive performance rights to it.

The book is profusely illustrated with black and white photographs that Ahlgrimm left to Watchorn. Although the text reads easily, it is a carefully annotated scholarly work rather than a popularizing one. The body text occupies 162 pages; ten Appendices, including a complete discography and a bibliography of Ahlgrimm’s writings, a selection of reviews of her performances, and one complete talk/essay by her, followed by a general bibliography and an index, fill out the volume. There are few errors (only a couple of typos and five instances of repeated, extra, or missing words were found), although unnecessary repetitions of information from one chapter or section to another are occasionally annoying. It is unfortunate that its high price will probably limit purchasers to academic libraries. Readers should borrow it from one of them. It’s simultaneously fascinating and illuminating.

© 2008 Marvin J. Ward