Niel Immelman - pianists and Nettie

Niel Immelman - pianists and Nettie

Niel Immelman is Professor of Music at the Royal College of Music in London. He has enjoyed a distinguished career as pianist. His mother, the formidable Nettie Immelman, sadly passed away earlier this year. She was one of South Africa’s most respected piano teachers and produced many outstanding pupils. In this interview Niel Immelman shares memories of his mother and speaks about pianists’ careers.

Your mother, the formidable Nettie Immelman, was a legend in the music fraternity, producing many successful pianists. Please tell us about her formative years as a musician.

Nettie du Plessis was born in Boshof.  She was an only child who lost both her parents in the Spanish Flu epidemic when she was a year old.  An uncle adopted her and she grew up surrounded with music; both her new parents played the harmonium, her father by ear and her mother form the score.  All three her siblings took piano lessons and her sister had a beautiful soprano voice.  Nettie’s own piano studies got off to a less than auspicious start. Her first teacher had herself only passed Grade V and in lessons seemed more interested in stroking her cat than in listening to her pupil. It is no surprise that Nettie frequently failed to turn up for lessons. All this changed when she was heard by the young Maarten Roode who would later become head of the Music Department of Potchefstroom University.  Roode spoke to Nettie’s parents and persuaded them that she should study with him, later adding Organ and Harmony to her study programme. After her marriage to Michael Immelman, she continued her studies at the South African College of Music in Cape Town; piano with Eric Grant, and Harmony and Counterpoint with Nella Rainier, sister of the composer Priaulx Rainier.

Why do you think she achieved such great success as a teacher?

Well, to begin with, she herself had all the necessary raw materials.  Although she hardly ever practised, apart from studying the scores of works she was about to teach, she had an enviably natural and supple technique. Her ability to find inventive and practical fingerings was uncanny.  Together with this, she had an instinctive grasp of phrasing and structure, and of course a very fine ear. 
You asked earlier about her formal studies but you know, she really never stopped learning. 

She regularly attended master classes at the Royal Academy and the Royal College in London, in Dartington and in Siena. Eminent teachers she observed in action include Sequeira Costa, Maria Curcio, Hans Keller, John Lill, George Malcolm, Murray Perahia, Vlado Perlemuter, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Bela Siki, John O’Conor, Sandor Vegh and Fanny Waterman. The detailed annotations she made in her scores afterwards was a lesson in itself.

Nettie loved people and she particularly loved young people.  She was a demanding teacher and no student who showed a lack of commitment lasted long in her studio. 

What was the most important thing she taught to her pupils?

She was practical and realistic in her expectations and gave much help to the inexperienced by showing them how to practise. But for her, the most important thing was to develop the students’ ability to listen objectively to their own playing, including rhythm, tone production, phrasing and pedalling. It is no wonder that she made a permanent impact on piano playing and piano teaching in South Africa.

Did she ever have ambitions to become a concert pianist, or was her enthusiasm focused mainly on teaching?

When she was studying with Prof Grant he made noises about getting her to play with the Cape Town Orchestra, but nothing came of this. Frankly, I do not believe that she had the necessary temperament for a concert career.

Please tell us a bit more about Nettie as a person. Apparently she had an intense interest in tennis.

She was a cheerful person who could derive immense pleasure from the simplest activity. Her interests ranged far and wide. She was very proud of her garden, especially her roses which she tended with loving care.  She loved to travel, coming to Europe at least once a year, and she also ventured further afield, visiting North and South America, Scandinavia and the Far East. These trips were planned meticulously and she knew before arriving at a new destination exactly how the transport system worked, what she wanted to see, in what order and which restaurants to frequent.  Just “soaking up the local atmosphere” was not for her. I often accompanied her on these tours and, believe you me, they could be exhausting! 

Tennis?  Until her 70th year she played twice a week. She did not enjoy playing singles, but in doubles matches her formidable volleying skills intimidated many an opponent.  You will therefore not be surprised when I tell you that Stefan Edberg and Martina Navratilova were two of her favourite players. My house in Wimbledon is within easy walking distance of the grounds and she and I spent many, many hours queueing for tickets while keeping a watchful eye on the weather. It is too bad that she never saw the splendid new roof over Centre Court in operation. 

She was also your first piano teacher. Did her passion rub off on you and influence your career choice?

Let me explain:  Schnabel got it in one when he said that music lessons in the family was not a good idea because people either did not take it seriously or they took it too seriously.  However in the case of my family we had no choice because we spent the first twelve years of my life in Jacobsdal, a small village where mother was the only decent teacher.  I could not have been an easy pupil because I remember that, whatever she said to me in the lessons, I would retort: “How do you know?”  We somehow managed to “sukkel” (struggle) on and shortly after we settled in Bloemfontein, my training was entrusted to Leo Quayle.

Well, there is no question that growing up in a musical environment is a tremendous advantage and from an early age I knew that I wanted to spend my life doing music, in whatever shape or form.  I have to give my parents credit for never putting any pressure on me.  On the contrary, they were at pains to point out that music is a tough career and that I should think seriously before choosing. I love languages and am also interested in history, but to me these seemed tame alternatives. 

You have had a successful career abroad as highly respected teacher, recording artist and performer. What are you focusing on in your career at the moment?

Pretty much the same as before: practising, giving concerts, making CDs, teaching at the Royal College of Music, giving master classes and acting as a jury member in International Competitions.

You have played a very wide variety of repertoire during your career. When playing the works of living composers, do you ever ask them about aspects of their compositions while studying their works, or do you prefer to not be influenced by their vision of the work?

I make a point of playing to composers whenever possible. Just think how much one would welcome the opportunity to discuss ornamentation with Bach and Scarlatti, or the chance to question Beethoven about his sometimes puzzling metronome marks. In my experience composers, in this context, can be divided into two categories:  helpful and unhelpful.  I am often surprised by how undogmatic they are and how receptive, no appreciative, they are of one’s own take on their music.

The problem with the unhelpful ones is that it often becomes apparent that, especially in the case of older pieces, they do not know their own works nearly as well as we do.  All they are interested in is the composition that they are working on at the moment.

Your survey of the complete piano works (on the Meridian label) of Josef Suk (1874 – 1935) is a first in recorded history. You have now embarked on a similar project devoted to the output of Victor Vítězslav Novák. Why were you specifically drawn to these two Czech composers?

My interest stems from a real Road to Damascus experience. It was hearing a broadcast of Suk’s “Asrael Symphony” that spurred me on to investigate his piano music.  I was thrilled by what I found and started including the pieces in my recitals, where they were received with great enthusiasm.  It so happens that after recording a chamber music disc for Meridian Records, the company invited me to make a solo disc, subject to repertoire suggestions. I proposed various projects and was delighted when they selected Suk.  At the conclusion of the recording sessions I was asked if it could be labelled “Volume One”, and when Volume Two was in the can, they insisted that I do the whole lot.  Moving on to Novák was the obvious next step. He and Suk were almost exact contemporaries and, like Suk, he had studied with Dvořák.

Do you think too much pressure is put on young musicians today to start their performing career at as early an age as possible?

I am so happy that you ask me this, because it is an issue that concerns me greatly.  Can we work backwards?  In my lifetime I have heard many great pianists play magnificently well into their eighties:  Arrau, Backhaus, Cherkassky, Horowitz, Kempff, Perlemuter, Rubinstein, Serkin. Not to mention the nonagenarians Horszowski, Tagliafero and Wild.  I should now like to ask you: how many pianists in their seventies are still active on the concert platform today?  Not many, I fear.  Clearly, something is very wrong. One of the first whistle-blowers was Benno Moiseiwitsch who said in an interview more than forty years ago: “The trouble with young pianists nowadays is that they don’t study, they just learn things”. How right he was!

I constantly say to my students that I refuse to do an “instant fix” and that it is our responsibility to build a technique that will literally last them a lifetime. Artistically this is equally true. To have “great temperament” or “compelling lyricism” is not enough - people need to develop a much wider musical profile and this takes time.  Of course, managers are greedy and they will exploit young talents, but I think of the wise decision of my friend Radu Lupu who, after winning the Van Cliburn Competition, turned down many of the engagements offered to him because he knew that the right thing for him to do was to return to Moscow and continue studying.

How do you feel about competitions and the role they play in developing young performers?

My goodness, this requires a long answer!  Winning a competition gives the victor valuable public exposure and the chance, but it is only a chance, to build a significant career.  With so many competitions around, the days are long gone when a First Prize in a major competition automatically brought with it a recording contract.  Then there is the question of coping with the stress of suddenly being thrust into the limelight. This is why my student, Kevin Kenner, who triumphed at the Warsaw Chopin International, fared so well. He had previously won prizes in the Tchaikovsky and Van Cliburn Competitions and therefore had both the necessary maturity and the repertoire.

It cannot be denied that juries sometimes make wrong decisions.  Many years ago I was astounded when my colleagues failed to respond to the playing of a young Italian contestant. True, there were some rough edges, but to my ears he was streets ahead of the other competitors. After the event, I told him that I thought the wrong winner had been chosen and then I rather rashly added:  “Don’t worry, your time will come.”  Imagine my delight when, not long afterwards, he walked off with First Prizes in the prestigious London and Busoni Competitions.

I hold strong views on the different systems of judging adopted.  To my mind, having any discussion is counterproductive, as is the dubious practice of awarding marks. Simply ensure that there is an uneven number of jurors and continue voting until the winners emerge.

In spite of these reservations, there can be no doubt that preparing for a competition is wonderful training for an aspiring performer. They have to cover a varied repertoire with all the works ready for performance at the same time. Rubbing shoulders with colleagues from all over the world is immensely stimulating and can be very inspiring for young people.

When can we expect to hear you perform in South Africa again?

There is nothing in the pipeline at the moment.
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Photo, courtesy of Friend Newspapers: Nettie and Niel Immelman, taken circa 1969
Published 22.08.2011

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