Feature Article in Fanfare - July/August 2019
Composer Masterworks Executive Producer David Stambler was interviewed for a Feature Article in Fanfare magazine for the July/August 2019 issue. The full article is reproduced below.
Feature Article by Robert Schulslaper
A Lost Artist Reborn - The Piano Legacy of Jean Tews
In her youth, Jean Tews was one of the shining lights of the Toronto Conservatory, a pianist for whom many foresaw a brilliant future. Sadly, the promise of a sure road to success went unfulfilled, and her accomplishments seemed destined to be remembered only by her peers. The resurrection of a heretofore-unheralded recorded legacy, however, has once again allowed us to appreciate her gift. I recently spoke with David Stambler, the Executive Producer of the six volumes of The Composer Masterworks Series, to learn more about this fascinating story.
How did you come to be involved in this project?
Gavin Hamilton, Jean’s 88-year-old brother, is married to one of my mother’s oldest friends. He and his extraordinary wife Bea visited Vancouver in May 2018 and took my family out to dinner at Bacchus Restaurant, an old-world classic where waiters are still in formal dress, you sit in high-backed leather chairs, and a grand piano is played live in the corner. We happened to be sitting only about a dozen feet away from the piano and suddenly the musician launched into Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, one of my favorite pieces of all time, and it was magical and perfectly performed. I gushed to Gavin about it, and remarked that it was exceptionally rare to get this piece played in a restaurant. It was only then that I first heard about his sister and her music. I could hear the lament in his voice as he related how he felt that her true legacy was never achieved. As a digital designer and website content manager I explained to him that with today’s technology it would be possible to share her performances with the world. He was thrilled with the idea, and sent me the recordings the following week. It’s been a whirlwind since then—we produced and released six discs, launched a website, were reviewed in International Piano, and are currently in the middle of an international radio promotion. Volume 1 has been distributed to 60 international classical radio stations by Phoenix Classical and is currently getting great airplay.
What was your first impression of the recordings?
I’m an audiophile and so I could recognize that there was quality there, but the recordings didn’t initially have the richness that they currently exhibit, which is a result of the excellent work that Armoury Studios put into them. At first, they were curiosities—hidden recordings that may or may not be artistically successful interpretations. The more I delved into the 112 tracks the more I realized that they had great potential.
Are you affiliated with Armoury Studios?
I have no official affiliation with Armoury Studios. Drew Arnott, one half of a Canadian New Wave band from the 1980s called Strange Advance, is a good friend and recommended them to me. He is a music producer as well, and sat in for an afternoon at the studio as they worked on the recordings and found the sweet spot in their Class A analog mix, running the recordings through tube amps and more to bring out the best in them.
As I understand it, Jean’s husband Lothar was an essential member of their team. The couple had installed a studio in their home, and Lothar, acting as both engineer and producer, used a Swiss Studer ReVox reel-to-reel recorder to capture her performances. Do you know if these were edited in any way?
Well, the Studer ReVox was what he recorded Jean on for several years, but they were analog tapes. The recordings from The Composer Masterworks Series that were recorded from 1989 to 1992 were all done digitally direct to DAT tape, using the Calrec Soundfield Mark IV, which was a $10,000 microphone at the time. Jean was adamant that no editing be done—she would record and re-record until she got the perfect take. They would review all the recordings and rank them by quality. Jean was a perfectionist and had the ability to memorize quite easily what she studied. This was not the photographic memory with which one looks at a page and an exact copy is imprinted on the brain, but the end result was almost the same after a short period of intense study. She could play the Goldberg Variations note perfect, from memory, as a teenager.
Lothar Tews was a genius, and basically taught himself how to set up a professional digital recording studio and operate it. We have checklists that he made, showing his step-by-step setup for each session, including every option for the microphone and recording gear. As it was a home studio, other precautions were also taken, like unplugging the door bell and soundproofing. He was meticulous and fastidious and immersed himself in the technology behind the recording process.
After Jean’s death, Lothar returned to Canada. He spent two years researching violin and cello making, joining clubs, attending meetings, contacting authors to clarify the details described in their books—and acquiring the best wood and wood-working equipment used in cello making. During this period, he started dating and then married Jean’s sister, Marion. He entered the first cello he made into the Mittenwald European Competition, winning an honorable mention for sound quality. He was elected as president of the Michigan Violin Makers Association, resigning after two years for health reasons. He died of cancer in 2010.
The beautiful tone of Jean’s magnificent Kawai piano—Volume 1 features a lovely photograph of her and her pride and joy—plays a major role in defining the distinctive ambiance of these recordings. How did she come to choose this particular instrument?
After Jean and Lothar moved back to Canada from Germany in 1989, they decided it was time to invest in an instrument of the highest quality for her recordings. During a visit to Stephenson’s Pianohaus in London, Ontario’s only Kawai dealer, Jean’s talent left a strong impression on owner Don Stephenson. He took them to the Kawai head office in Mississauga, where they purchased an exclusive Kawai EX Concert Grand piano. Handmade by master piano artisans at the Kawai Piano Research Laboratory, the model was primarily used by institutions and concert halls across Europe. Jean’s purchase was considered particularly noteworthy, and a photograph of her at the piano was subsequently featured in Kawai’s marketing material.
They converted their living room into a recording studio with state-of-the-art equipment. Don Stephenson set up the piano—voicing it for the quality of sound and recordings that they wanted—as he explained voicing to me, it’s a way to shape the spectrum of sound to enhance the musicality of the entire instrument, its inherent colors and harmonics—to achieve the certain quality of sound that Jean imagined. Following Jean’s instructions, he conditioned the hammers to make sure they weren’t hitting too hard or too soft.
Jean had many recordings of famous conductors and pianists; Don and she would listen to them together, and she would play him an excerpt from a record and ask him to try to duplicate that particular sound quality. Jean admired the lyrical quality of Sir Clifford Curzon on her collection of 78-rpm records; these chosen discs revealed a sweeter sound, a lyrical sound quality—not percussive at all. Certain sounds by particular pianists influenced her in performances, usually by Europeans. Stephenson believed the sweet lyrical sound quality Jean required matched her gentle personality.
Are there any surviving recordings from her student years, such as her Massey Hall concert?
Keep in mind that Jean was a student in the late 1940s—there was very little recording done of students at that time, and so no, unfortunately there are no early recordings. To be honest, I’m glad that there aren’t—her recordings are the culmination of her life’s study and devotion, and they are the pinnacle of her journey.
There are some recordings from the 1970s and 1980s on TDK metal cassettes that we are currently reviewing, and we are hoping that her reel-to-reel analog Studer-Revox recordings may be found in the family archives.
Have you been in contact with any of Jean’s fellow students to learn more about her years in the Conservatory?
Although we have not maintained a connection to any of her fellow students, I am lucky to have a rapport with another former student who was at the Royal Conservatory a few years after she attended. Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist and musicologist, and as a teenage opera singer performed in Bizet’s Carmen. He is a published author, with many articles in national newspapers and magazines, and had this to write upon recently hearing Volumes 1 and 2 in The Composer Masterworks Series, which is an eloquent and insightful view of Jean’s music that I would invite you to share verbatim with your readers:
“The music of the 19th century is justly called Romantic and was based on the exploration of the inner world of feeling as it was in the literature of the time. Those who explore this kind of feeling, who recreate it, like the late great Jean Tews, were able to render the pieces written at the time so that we in the 20th and 21st century can commune with this world view and interpret it, each in our own way. Although or despite the fact that I was trained in the same Conservatory as was Jean, and then studied Western musicology as an undergraduate and continue to regularly listen to the full panoply of Western classical music, I was blown away by Jean, particularly her touch and her phrasing. I felt like she was talking to me. The effortlessness with which she played reflects the single mindedness that characterized her career, her own personal success in her second marriage, and no doubt her suffering, reflecting all the concerns of the great composers of the 19th century that she interpreted.”
That’s truly a moving tribute that touches on Jean’s drive to, in your words, “uncover the original intentions of each composer” to arrive at “the truest interpretation of their music.” How did she pursue this aim?
She spent years studying the history and biographies of each composer, as she felt that the more she could know about each one the closer she could get to understanding them as composers and creators, and therefore hoping to divine more about that idea of the “original intentions.” She delved deeply into anything she could acquire about the lives of the composers. By so doing, she believed she could get inside their heads to understand the meanings behind the written notes.
I’m reminded of Pablo Casals’s conversation with Wanda Landowska (often cited in connection with Rosalyn Tureck), during which the latter famously said, “You play Bach your way, and I’ll play him his way.”
I think that quote rings true for Jean as well. It was her intention through her life’s work researching, studying, listening, and practicing to get as close as possible to what she believed was playing the composers in the truest way that she felt they intended.
Do you believe that she was convinced that hers was “the right way,” or was she still open to a variety of interpretations?
Jean was a woman of incredible humility. She believed wholeheartedly that music was, to quote Jean herself, “a vital component of existence, one that elevates, transports and transforms.” I don’t think the term “the right way” would have even been part of her vocabulary. She had a massive record collection, and part of her study and research was listening to a wide range of interpretations of the music she loved. Over the years she had acquired recordings of the world’s greatest pianists, from Rubinstein and Rachmaninoff to modern artists like Glenn Gould. She listened intently to the recordings, extracting from them parts of their techniques that she adapted to hers. As well, she had at least three years in the Artists Class at what is now the Glenn Gould School, where her tutor was Lubka Kolessa, an internationally acclaimed pianist.
By the way, I’ve read a recollection of this “infamous” incident by Denise Restout, Landowska’s close friend and student, who was an eye witness to the encounter. Her retelling casts a far friendlier light on the anecdote. [Interested readers can find it at: glenngould.org/mail/archives/f_minor/msg01400.html]
Historical misinterpretation is rife when examining the remarks of famous musicians. I would like to think that each musician who interprets the masters would feel like his or her ultimate goal is to present an emotional, technical, and insightful rendition that either imparts something new to the pantheon of performance or touches their audience and connects them to the music in a new and vital way. Jean Tews is no different—there is no audacity or authoritativeness in her approach, rather a concerted effort to bring her life’s study into each note’s breath. Herein lies one of the greatest conflicts in listening to auteurs—does the music stand on its own, or is its value only redemptive when placed in reflection with their lives and philosophies? I have no answer, other than it’s up to listeners to weigh their own balance of significance between the music itself and the performer’s background and history.
Glenn Gould was a year ahead of Jean at the Conservatory and subsequently became the best-known Canadian musician of their generation. Were they friends, and did she ever express an opinion about his recordings or views on performance?
Jean and Lothar lived a very quiet and quite private life, deeply submerged in the world of music. Lothar knew Jean had a great gift and catered to her music greatly. Jean believed that Glenn Gould had made his mark mainly through his recordings and she believed that, with Lothar’s help in the art of recording, she could do the same, so her focus was on perfecting her performances and recording them until her vision of perfection was attained. Lothar went through several generations of recording techniques before the final one used in the London, Ontario recordings on the EX piano.
Glenn Gould was her classmate, but her brother gathered from Jean’s conversations that he was withdrawn, so they wouldn’t have talked much together—about anything. He wasn’t famous then, just a talented pianist, like Jean. Later in life, when Gould had become acclaimed, she liked his music, but he didn’t play the way she wanted to. She realized he was different, somewhat out of the loop of classmate conviviality. Gavin remembers her commenting that, as an adult, he might wear an overcoat and gloves on a hot summer day.
Another well-known classmate was conductor Mario Bernardi
Gould was a year ahead of Jean at the Conservatory—Bernardi and Jean were in the same year. Jean had once said to her brother, “Mario Bernardi was a great school chum.” The training that Mario had previously received in Italy was such that many of the studies at the Royal Conservatory of Music were a review for him. Only Jean and Mario had the “golden ears” to master “Transcribing onto paper, music as it is being played,” a difficult exercise assigned to all the students.
Years later, Jean, with her second husband, Lothar Tews, had front row seats to watch Mario Bernardi conduct, with the intention that, “It would be wonderful to speak with Mario again, as they had been such friends in [their] youth.” She had thought that Mario would recognize her, and that that would initiate a reconnection. Unfortunately, an obstruction made it impossible for them to see each other, and although Jean had ample opportunity to speak with Mario after the concert, she got cold feet, thinking that she had not yet secured the achievements that everyone at the Conservatory had foreseen for her, and that somehow she had let them all down.
Returning to Gould for a moment, Volume 2 of The Composer Masterworks Series includes a recording of the Goldberg Variations. How would you compare Jean’s version to his?
The answer to this question could either be an extended essay, silence, an exaltation of Gould, or a defense of Jean. Up until the release of the recordings in autumn 2018, Jean was an unknown. Gould has had several decades in the public sphere which have shaped the opinion of his Variations, and more importantly, he recorded two vastly different takes on the Variations which are representative of the stages of his life in which he recorded them. It would actually be unseemly of me to compare Jean as an unknown to the legend of Gould. And so, this was definitely a concern when releasing Jean’s Composer Masterworks Volume Two: The Goldberg Variations. Are we being impetuous or full of hubris to present yet another recording of this incredible composition? However, Jean’s take on the Goldberg Variations is unique. I would posit that it’s subtle, tender, and joyous in its celebration of Bach. Unlike the 1955 Gould version, she isn’t demonstrating a technical virtuosity that revels in speed and dynamics. Unlike Gould’s 1981 revision, she isn’t introspective. Instead, there is a purity and innocence in her projection. She isn’t trying to outdo Gould, she isn’t trying to make this a platform—she is simply presenting the music through the lens of her life, and allows us to seek our own meaning.
Does Volume Two include anything from the Well-Tempered Clavier, especially Book I, which she performed to great acclaim (and from memory) as a student? Gould, of course, recorded both books early in his career.
Yes, there are four pieces from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1—the Prelude and Fugue No. 8 in E♭ Minor (BWV 853), and the Prelude and Fugue No. 5 in D Major (BMV 850). Again, I’m reticent to compare Jean in any way to Gould. I believe I’d like to refer to the comment that one reviewer made of her playing: “No one else sounds like Jean Tews.”
Was her repertoire mainly centered on the composers represented in The Composer Masterworks Series, or was she also interested in more contemporary music?
Jean was devoted mostly to the Romantics—I think she considered them the pinnacle of musical achievement, and was so focused on learning and listening as much as possible about them that contemporary music would have been a distraction that would have detracted from her achieving her desired perfection in her interpretations.
Which volumes are currently available?
Volumes 3 through 6 have actually been recently released, and span Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Bach. All are available in digital and CD format, and also are available through most online streaming services like Apple Music, Spotify, Bandcamp, and more.
How have the various releases been received?
We were fortunate to have had Volumes 1 and 2 reviewed simultaneously by International Piano in its January/February 2019 issue, which gave it a four out of five star rating. It was a great review. Here are a few highlights:
“Tews’ Bach is luminous and variegated.”
“Suffusing the entire interpretation is a quiet underlying dignity that refuses excess in any area; pedalling is a model of its kind yet consistently imaginative.”
“This remains a significant Goldberg Variations.”
“The Brahms Waltzes are an absolute delight (as is her single Chopin Waltz), and Tews’ Chopin Nocturne Op 9/1 contains great beauty.”
“The so-called ‘Cello’ Étude and a swift ‘Raindrop’ both have eloquence on their side, while Mendelssohn’s contained expression in Op 62/1 suits Tews to a tee.”
And in this issue of Fanfare, reviewer Dave Saemann gave an intimate analysis of Volume 1, and his insights were poetic and glowing, and his was the best review we’ve received so far. Here are a few highlights:
“She shows a deep concern for the architecture of every work.”
“These are performances of great subtlety and spirit, with Jean accomplishing everything while seeming to do little at all. No one else sounds like Jean Tews, even though she has a different sound for each of the composers on this CD.”
“There always is a knowing twinkle in Jean’s eye.”
“Revel in some of the best piano interpretations I’ve heard in a long while.”
Are there any anecdotes about Jean you’d like to share?
There are many, but I think what I’d like to focus on is how the most fascinating part of this journey is the story of the struggles she and her music endured before her posthumous success.
Jean’s family grew up during the depression in St. Thomas, Ontario, on a limited income. When her piano teacher realized Jean’s talent required far more advanced training, she was referred to Dr. Harvey Robb, London [Ontario], the Principal of the Western Conservatory of Music (an affiliate of the University of Western Ontario Music School), at the age of 12. Robb, too, recognized her talent and arranged for Jean to audition at the Toronto Conservatory of Music (now the Royal Conservatory). Jean was awarded a scholarship to continue her studies at the TCM. Because of the family’s limited resources, such a path would have been impossible without the scholarship. Jean continued to win scholarships, culminating in a three-year major scholarship for the Artists Class.
Jean’s first husband, Anton Johannes Diehl, was approximately 20 years older than she was. He had sought a career through the Conservatory as a concert tenor soloist, but was told his singing was good but not of the quality required to be a concert performer. She was 19 when they married on June 30, 1949, and she did so against the strong objections of her family. He was domineering and abusive, both mentally and physically. In one of his fits of anger, Anton told her that he had never loved her, but married her to steal her from the Conservatory, where she was one of their prodigies. This, combined with the abuse, precipitated her leaving him six years into the marriage. This triggered a musical hiatus in her career, which resumed when she met the love of her life, Lothar Tews, who she married in 1959. Her recordings were created after surviving breast cancer and a radical mastectomy—and while on tour in Germany to expand her international profile, the cancer returned and she passed away in 1993. The recordings languished in the family archives, until Gavin and I started working on them and resurrected them, and they have gone from being forgotten and lost, to being highly reviewed internationally.
Jean’s brother created a piano scholarship dedicated to Jean at the Glenn Gould School of Music in Toronto, in appreciation for the school’s contribution towards her training. Jean was one of the Toronto Conservatory’s top students and her name was engraved, along with other significant TCM scholarship winners, on a stone wall in the main hall. Many years later, her husband, Lothar Tews, was contacted after a renovation, as that part of the Conservatory was demolished and rebuilt. They were storing the old stones, including the one with Jean’s name, and inquired if the family would like to take it. It was too massive for the family to take possession of it.
Jean was also an accomplished oil painter. She had been excellent at drawing when young, and took up oil painting after she married Lothar. She produced a series of canvases depicting the nature she loved and visited during camping trips in Algonquin Park, her time visiting and living in Germany, and from over 30 vacation trips to Switzerland, where her painting equipment was permanently stored for many years. A selection of her oil paintings is available in the photo gallery on jeantewspiano.com.
One more story: Jean wanted to acquire a “dummy” or silent practice keyboard, but was disappointed in the available ones, as she felt they were all lacking in various respects. She and Lothar consulted a piano factory in Europe and had custom-built a silent keyboard, manufactured with actual ivory piano keys, damping, and counter-levering to simulate the actual feel of a real concert grand. The factory said no one had ever made such a request before. It unfolded to a full concert piano keyboard to lay on a flat surface, and had a custom travel case—very costly. The silent keyboard went on every trip with Jean, and it was only held up once by customs. “How can you have a practice keyboard and no music books?,” Swiss customs asked. “I have a photographic memory,” Jean replied. So, due to the thorough training of the Swiss, if you bring Swiss cheese over the border, do not forget some crackers.
Did Jean enjoy performing?
I think she was a reluctant performer. However, she did not ever suffer from stage fright. When she played, her mind and body existed in the realm of that particular piece and that particular composer.
As I said earlier, she was following in Gould’s footsteps by focusing for many years on perfecting her recordings, believing that to be the way to contribute to the musical body of work associated with these incredible composers. But she also realized that to be able to share her music she would need to make a name for herself, and the only way to do that would be through the concert stage. As she had lived in Germany previously and was familiar with the performance world there, it seemed like the natural place to start touring. Sadly, it was towards the beginning of her touring life that her cancer returned, and she died before achieving the recognition towards which she had worked so hard.
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