English profiles

Amsterdam, 27 May 2006

The eminent Dutch pianist Tan Crone is mainly known for her collaboration with many Dutch and international musicians, among which Roberta Alexander, Arleen Auger, John Bröcheler, Miranda van Kralingen, Tibor de Machula, Theo Olof, Marien van Staalen, Carolyn Watkinson, etc. She also has a reputation as a teacher. And, something that few will know, she knew the legendary pianist Clara Haskil quite well. She received letters from the famous Haskil, was asked to turn pages during recording sessions and accompanied her during her only American tour in 1956. I had previously heard Tan Crone on the radio when she spoke at length about Haskil so after a pre-concert talk in Rotterdam when she spoke about Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto, I decided to ask her for an interview. She accepted and one month later, I visited her, listened to her stories in her beautiful appartment in Amsterdam with view of the Amstel river and the Skinny Bridge. I hardly needed to encourage her, I barely sat down and she started reminising about her great colleague, with several handwritten letters by Haskil on her lap....

Willem Boone (WB): Looking at the biography of Jerôme Spyket, it appears that Haskil wrote an enormous amount of letters during her life...

Tan Crone: That was at a time when travelling took much longer than nowadays and when artists stayed longer at the same hotel. Haskil was actually only well known during the last fifteen/twenty years of her life, before that period she was often ill and therefore she had a lot of time to think and reflect.

WB:  Yes, but even when she was well known, she still wrote a lot of letters!

TC: That’s true, but in general they were much shorter.

WB: How did you get to know her?

TC: That was in the 50’s when the Brabants Orkest had just been founded. They played the Schumann Concerto under Hein Jordans with Clara Haskil as the soloist. They played four concerts in Den Bosch, Breda, Eindhoven and Tilburg, but unlike nowadays, these were not four consecutive performances. They rehearsed in a building called “Het Kruithuis” in Den Bosch, the city where I was born. I used to play with orchestra too and Jordans asked me whether I wanted to prepare the rehearsals of the Schumann Concerto. I had played this concerto for my final exam and thought it was a great experience as a young pianist who was not even 20 years old to help the orchestra. I asked whether I could attend the rehearsal with Haskil. The Kruithuis was not far away from the city center and at that time, there were no taxis or cars to take musicians to their hotel or to the station. They just walked to the station. When I went to my bike after the rehearsal, I met Haskil outside. I told her that I had heard her play, she was interested to hear that I studied the piano and that I had prepared the rehearsal with the orchestra. She knew my piano teacher Nelly Wagenaar, which was a good recommendation. We walked together and I carried her bag, I almost asked her if she wanted to ride on the back of my bike. She was a lady with a slight handicap, so of course I didn’t ask her. Jordans invited me for the concert in Eindhoven and I had to promise Haskil to come round after she had played. By chance, we both took the same train to Paris shortly after. She often stayed in Paris, where her sister Jeanne lived, whereas she lived in Vevey with her other sister Lily. She travelled first class, I travelled 2nd class, but she begged me to stay with her. She liked talking and was very interested. She spoke French very well. In Paris, her sister Jeanne was waiting for her, she introduced me to her. At that time, I studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, that was another good recommendation.

She invited me for her recital at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. I remember only two of the pieces she played, Bach’s Toccata in E minor and Schubert’s Sonata in B flat major, D 960, I don’t remember the rest of the program. After the concert, a lot of Romanians flocked to her dressing room. She asked me whether I wanted to have coffee at her hotel and Jeanne gave me a pass to attend the concerts of the orchestra in which she was playing, the Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux. It was a nice acquaintance, but I wouldn’t call it a friendship. 

Later, she made recordings in the Netherlands with Grumiaux at the Kurhaus in Scheveningen and in the Bachzaal in Amsterdam. I turned pages during the recording sessions and concerts. I still remember that she was never satisfied, wheras I thought she did amazing things. At that moment, I realized there are degrees of excellence. Sometimes, she closed the lid of the piano and said: “I won’t play any more and I don’t want this to be kept”. It sometimes irritated me, when you are turning pages for someone, you tend to listen less well. By the way, Grumiaux and his wife were always extremely nice to her. They always brought her gifts and always accompanied her to her hotel.

Sometimes I wrote to her and I also got letters in return. I gave the originals to her sister Jeanne after her death and made copies for myself. In the book “Frauen mit Flügel”, they included a short letter from Haskil to me. “The first time, I opened the book, I just saw the page with my own name”!). Sometimes, I went shopping with her, because she had little confidence. I remember we went to the Bonetterie in The Hague. After she had seen herself in a mirror she would sometimes suddenly walk out of the shop, due to her lack of confidence.

In the mid 50’s, I studied in the Unites States (Boston). Coincidentally, Haskil played there in 1956 with the conductor Charles Münch three times Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto and once Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor K 466. He was a charming man, who loved women, regardless whether they were beautiful or not. The orchestra adored him. Haskil was completely unknown in America. She toured with the Boston Symphony Orchestra to Philadelphia and New York. She sent me a letter and asked whether I wanted to accompany her. She wanted me to help her with the language, since she didn’t speak English very well. She stayed at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in New York and I stayed with friends. She created a sensation and was surrounded by journalists. After the intermission, she wanted to listen to Tschaikofsky’s Pathétique. She was so impressed at the end she didn’t want to leave. She got angry when I tried to guide her through the audience when the applause started. Münch invited her to come over to eat spaghetti after the concert, but she was also invited to a chique party. She refused to go there “There will be a grand piano and of course they will want mo to play’. I had to excuse her and say that Madame Haskil had become unwell and couldn’t come, which made it possible for her to go and see Münch! She had already been invited for a second tour and I even managed to get time off to accompany her again.

WB: Did that tour take place?

TC: No, she was not feeling well at the time, she had to cancel.

It struck me that I seldom heard her practice, I asked her “Clara, (I had to call her Clara), I never hear you practice”, to which she answered “No, I used to do that when I was young”. The only thing I heard her play in her dressing room was the Chopin study opus 10/2 in chromatic scales and it was flawless. She had huge, “meaty” hands and a natural talent for the instrument.
For every performance with a different conductor, she got a new score in which she noted his remarks. She didn’t want to show Szell for instance that she had played the same concerto with Münch one week before...

WB: Is it true that she never had scores with her?

TC: She sent me to a shop in Amsterdam, Broekmans en van Poppel to find her a score. She always wanted to look at a fresh score.

One of my teachers, Rudolf Serkin, studied with the same teacher as that of Haskil. As a young girl, she had been very ill and was forced to stay in bed for a long time. She had hardly experienced anything in her youth. However, she played the music of Granados and Albeniz with the temperament of someone who had experienced a thousand love stories. You see, you really don’t need to have lived through anything to play well...!

She was very interested in everything I did, I was very young and unexperienced at the time. At first she wrote “Liebes Fräulein”, later on she wrote “Ma chère Tan”, I have a letter she wrote on the train (“Dans le train de Paris à Amsterdam”). I even have a picture on which she had written “Pour ma chère Tan, que j’aime de tout mon coeur”( To my dear Tan, whom I love with all of my heart). I was quite proud of that.

WB: Do you have pictures of Haskil and yourself?

TC: No, I was the one who took the pictures. Later on, I received her records with a dedication. When she recorded the Mozart Double Concerto with Anda, she said I would only get the record once I guessed whether she played first or second piano.

WB: And what happened?

TC: I don’t remember, but she gave me the record anyway. We stayed in touch until her death. I heard about it on the radio, it was a tremendous shock.

WB: Her death at the Antwerp’s Central Station, when she accidently fell off one of the stairs, wasn’t that just unfortunate?

TC: We’ll never know, it could have been a small stroke..

WB: When I was doing my “homework”, while listening to her performance of Mozart’s Variations on a theme of Duport, K 573, I was struck by her extremely clear left hand playing!

TC: That’s true, I recognize her playing because of her left hand. Her jeu perlé is very characteristic. It has focus, like a singer is supposed to have in his voice.

TC: She loved doing normal things, for instance, I once took her for a bus ride in new York. The pianist Geza Anda, who happened to be in New York at the same time, was furious and said: “How could you take such a fragile woman for a bus ride?”But she wanted it so badly! I also took her to museums. She hated pretentiousness, she had experienced too much of that.

WB: What kind of a person was she? She comes across as a pretty pessimistic person in Spyket’s book

TC: That’s correct, but she needed joy. And she had a great sense of humor.

WB: How did you find out about that?

TC: She could laugh about small and silly things. It has to do with intelligence when you can laugh about such things. She was egocentric though, always concerned about how she felt. A lot of colleagues like Serkin, Stern and Anda were married and had families. She was by herself and lived with her sister Lily in Vevey. Her other sister lived in Paris.

WB: Didn’t she feel the need to marry? Spyket is not very explicit about that in his book!

TC: I don’t know whether she felt the need to marry. Maybe nobody ever proposed to her. She was not approachable because of her handicap. She was a simple, unassuming woman. Clothes were not as important as nowadays. And right after the war, there were less clothes. She often wore a long skirt and a blouse, it had to feel confortable. Only in the 70’s, was there more luxury.

WB: Was she an innocent person?

TC: I can’t tell you, the age difference was too important.

WB: What made her so unforgettable for you?

TC: Her touch, the lyricism. It was magical. The other day, I heard someone say on the radio that nobody can be compared to her when it comes to Mozart Piano Concertos. She was simply spellbinding and created a very special atmosphere.

WB: Why?

TC: Because of her touch, the timing and the honesty of her playing. She had a lot of temperament, just like Martha Argerich, whom I admire, although Haskil didn’t walk on the edge, as Argerich sometimes does. Haskil had an enormous, flexible hand. Huge, but not unelegant? They were like those of the harpist Phia Berghout.

WB: Spyket’s book lists all the compositions she played throughout her life, her repertoire must have been huge!

TC: At the end of her life, it wasn’t that big any more and she often played the same pieces. That’s still the case with certain musicians..

WB: Did she ever hear you play?

TC: No, she was convinced it was ok. There was no time for it.

WB: Would you have been intimidated if she had found the time?

TC: Probably, yes. I was less convinced of my solo playing.

WB: Did she ever say anything about colleagues?

TC: She never said anything bad about other musicians, never anything good either.. She mostly avoided the subject, although she asked me whether I listened to others like Anda and Istomin.

WB: May I ask you a few questions about yourself? Do you still play concerts?

TC: No, I stopped playing concerts. I wanted to stop when things were still going ok. I was getting increasingly tired of having to schedule concerts long in advance. In addition, I was the one who had to plan all the rehearsals. I planned to stop playing  concerts by no longer accepting engagements. A lot of my “customers” like Theo Olof had stopped playing, and singers like Bröchler and Alexander were increasingly focusing on opera. Rehearsing means a lot of work. You can’t afford to be ill. I also wanted to do other things, like travelling and gardening.

WB: Don’t you play the piano any more at all?

TC: Yes, I do, but I need to be encouraged. I play piano trios and quartets with friends at home or pieces I don’t know very well. We pianists can go on for a long time!

© Willem Boone, 2006