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The art of diamond cutting

The Eugen Werner Velte prize is awarded to the pianist and pedagogue Sontraud Speidel

By Christine Gehringer

(Photo: Musikhochschule Karlsruhe)

“Practicing - that's just like cleaning your teeth.“ Sontraud Speidel, professor of piano at the Karlsruhe Music University and director of the Karlsruhe Piano Podium, drums this sober word of musician's wisdom into her students during lessons, for the very reason that the foundation of great art and lively music-making is after all hard work, which may not be much fun, but is a simple necessity. And the young Rastatt pianist and conductor Frank Düpree, who has been working with Sontraud Speidel for the last 14 years, and whose list of performances and awards is impressively long, knows this very well. In order to learn a piece of music off by heart, one has to cope with certain obstacles in the lessons: “You sit down at the piano and play a Bach fugue. Frau Speidel also sits down at the piano and plays the fugue at the same time - but a semitone higher. That produces pretty extreme dissonances.“ One has to have played virtuosic and complicated figuration completely blind at least once (meaning literally just “shut your eyes and hope for the best!“)

Sontraud Speidel is obviously an unusually gifted teacher. She has a feeling for pianistic rough diamonds and knows how to polish them. Her up-and-coming young talents are showered with prizes almost every week: the Mendelssohn prize, first place in the Prof. Dichler competition in Vienna, “Jugend musiziert“ at the federal level goes without saying. She is also artistic director of the concerts of the Baden Cultural Foundation and the Hohenwettersbach Musikforum - and promotes talented young musicians here as well.

It is this all-round commitment which has now brought Sontraud Speidel the Eugen Werner Velte Prize at the Karlsruhe Music University, an award established by the Rector´s office and now presented for the first time. The award is intended in future for personalities, who have served the “artistic, pedagogical or organisational interests of the music university in an exceptional way, thus enhancing the national and international reputation of the institution“. In his appreciative address, Rector Hartmut Höll especially emphasised Sontraud Speidel's “resolute tranquillity“ and “inner independence“ as well as her empathy and insight into human nature, characteristics which are prerequisites of great achievement.

The pianist and composer Eugen Werner Velte, vice-chancellor of the Karlsruhe Music University from 1971, had also worked untiringly in the interests of his students and the university, which wouldn't exist now except for his dedication. As Hartmut Höll put it, he acted “outwardly with political intelligence and inwardly with sensitivity“. In her acceptance speech, Sontraud Speidel also painted a vivid picture of her former teacher: Whereas other lecturers were interested mainly in conversations with each other, and didn't mind a bit of gossip along the way, Eugen Werner Velte mainly sought communication with the students; in so doing, he was exceptional for his profound respect for the giftedness of his pupils. Sontraud Speidel's great wish is especially that his works, currently in manuscript form in the library, should “at long last be published“.

For Sontraud Speidel too, teaching means “intelligently passing on one's own knowledge“. She doesn't think much of a style of teaching based on an “artificially induced permanent state of tension“. Even though the market place for musicians is highly competitive, she wants to “keep the pressure of competition in her class down as low as possible“.

Twenty current and former students (some of whom themselves now university lecturers) thanked Sontraud Speidel with a broad and finely performed programme. Hartmut Höll had previously pointed out to the audience that Sontraud Speidel's students are special not for superficial virtuosity but for artistic individuality. The guests in the fully occupied Velte Auditorium, (including incidentally the great granddaughter of Fanny Hensel) could hear that for themselves. No two performances were alike. The contributions were distinguished not only by enormous stylistic variety and technical ability, but in particular through the personal manner of the presentation. By the time the person being honoured together with three of her students herself sat down at the piano for a snappy and witty "Galop-Marche" (by Albert Lavignac) one could really sense: this was the result of a huge artistic team spirit and intuitive rapport.

PAMINA, Dec. 22, 2011