Jura Margulis

By Dana Abbott

IN A BRIEF COMMENT, Peter Meckel, general manager at Hidden Valley Music Seminars, told of first meeting pianist Jura Margulis, who while visiting relatives in the Carmel area asked to use the Hidden Valley Steinway late at night in preparation for a concert tour. Meckel reported that much of Margulis’ fee for the Hidden Valley concert was a dinner at a Carmel restaurant.

In his concert on Sunday Margulis opened the program with a set from the song cycle Dichterliebe (Poet’s Love) by Robert Schumann. The first number, “Dein Angesicht” (Your Face,) was a simple, tuneful piece. It was deleted from Dichterliebe by the composer and published later. The pianist immediately set a tone of entrancing control and fine musical phrasing that never faltered. The Schumann set got more demanding with “Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen” (When I hear the little song resounding) and “Es leuchtet meine Liebe” (So shines my love), also published separately. By the end of this first set Margulis had commanded undivided attention with beautiful control of tone and musical line.

Tchaikovsky’s set of piano pieces entitled The Seasons was the source of three extracts, “June—Barcarolle,” “October—Autumn Song” and “November—Troika.” Here the Russian-born pianist displayed the ability to make musical thought of less than first-rate quality into a tapestry of inviting allure. Every color opportunity was presented with care.

Franz Schubert provided the source of the third set, which opened with Liszt’s florid arrangement of “The Wanderer.” Liszt wrote several song-arrangements, in part to bring Schubert’s work to a larger public in an age before recordings and, in part, to display his own formidable piano skill, which Margulis shares. Then a serious course was offered, a Liszt/Margulis compilation from three of Schubert’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. No obstacle seemed too great for the pianist who played with singing tone, clear and careful balance between hands, and precise attention to phrase and dynamics which he himself had a hand in creating. The set closed with the familiar “Marche Militaire” also in a Margulis adaptation, which kept the shape, structure and charm of the original but added some Hungarian paprika in a stunning tour de force.

In the intermission speech by Meckel, mentioned above, he told of his earlier efforts to arrange a concert at an out of the way location of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The effort involved getting a fine piano transported to the remote location, tuned, and then, witnessing “the finest I ever heard or expect to hear,” said Meckel. “That’s when I met Jura Margulis!”

This reviewer has never seen the autograph for Pictures. But as a student pianist I acquired a copy of an aged edition with accurate notes and questionable dynamics and detailing. A friend and I compared the piano score to Ravel’s famous orchestration of the work, made in the 1920s, commissioned and published by Serge Koussevitzky. Ravel made some changes in his orchestration.

Others have orchestrated or arranged Pictures, tempted by its kaleidoscopic pictorialism to all manner of molestations. For the knowledgeable listener it is probable that Ravel’s fine take, French sophistication though it may be, affects the listener’s expectations of the score.

Jura Margulis is a pianist who can adapt scores with great technical skill, changing them to make their substance even more apparent. As in the Tchaikovsky earlier, here he stuck closely to the original. His taste and command are of the highest order. In Pictures at an Exhibition he seemed very at home and thoroughly comfortable with the Russian idiom. There was nothing crude nor overbearing in his playing, though its dynamic range was wide. “The Old Castle” was its charming, limpid self. The big moments were bold and blazing. His performance brought one to the conclusion that, even as a mere piano piece, it is a masterpiece.

Assuredly those in the audience will look forward to more of Margulis as he is a regular visitor to Hidden Valley. If further inducement be needed, the refreshments offered after the concert were also quite fine.