In Memoriam - Address of Elmar Zorn
1. Munich, 23.3.94
IN REMEMBRANCE OF NICOLAS ECONOMOU
Eighteen years ago the Munich college of music experienced an unforgettable performance: the stage was empty, apart from an open grand piano: a cleaning lady appeared: going up to the piano she began to try out the keys with inquisitive fingers, and started to dust them. Her dusting gradually began to produce music. With the duster still on the keys the old lady played and her notes became increasingly recognizable as the ‘Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells’ from Mussorgsky's ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’: after a truly frenzied show of virtuosity the old lady gave as her grand finale a rendering of the fivefold fortissimo in the ‘Great Gate at Kiev’. The pianist in question was a certain Nicolas Economou. The performance which he gave in fancy-dress at this concert at the ‘College of Music’ during ‘Fasching’ or carnival time combined both a maximum of virtuosity and a tremendous sense of fun.
Completely taken aback by this event, Dietmar Polaczek, the music
critic made the following comment in the "Süddeutsche Zeitung": "The
joke made by Nicolas Economou was on two levels: Economou is, I
gather, a young pianist who apparently turned up only recently in
Munich: I do not even know whether his name is a pseudonym, but what
l do know is that his dexterity is phenomenal and his musicality and
intelligence quite exceptional".
This performance was typical by Economou in many ways: he was a highly talented piano virtuoso, an inspired musical entertainer and someone who, nevertheless, never really wanted to take on a popular role in the music industry. Economou was born in Nicosia, Cyprus in 1953 and experienced - or rather suffered - the career of an infant prodigy. He took up piano studies at the age of 5 with George Arvanitakis.
Then, like so many other talented artists from Aphrodite’s island, such as pop musician Cat Stevens or the pianist Cyprien Katsaris, for example, he too felt the urge to widen his sphere of activity beyond that of an insular existence. The wonder boy's first move was to Athens, coinciding with the first prize in the 1964 ‘Pan-Hellenic Piano Competition’. In 1965 he won the highly sought-after scholarship granted by the Russian government enabling him to study at the Moscow Conservatory after a preparatory period at the ‘Central School in Moscow’.
The next seven years were spent in Moscow under the tutelage of Nina Emilianova and Rima Hananina. The formative influence of this period of his life was unmatched by any other. He spoke Russian without any trace of an accent and Russian music was his greatest passion. All those who have had occasion to hear him interpret Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev or Scriabin will have recognized his deep understanding of the Russian soul and his ability to profound melancholy of ‘Autumn’ in Tchaikovsky's suite ‘The Seasons’.
(First musical excerpt: Autumn’ by Tchaikovsky)
Similarly, he was able to summer up with religious images from orthodox liturgy, arousing the awesomeness of eternity in the ‘Catacombae’, or transforming the frenzied ‘Ride of the Witch Baba Yaga’ into the embodiment of speed and allowing the entire wealth and majesty of the ancient Russian Empire to unfold in the image of the ‘Great gate at Kiev’ - never before had this piece been heard in an interpretation as ‘Russian’ or as orchestral.
(Second musical excerpt: ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ by Mussorgsky from ‘Catacombae’ to ’the Great Gate')
Economou left Russia in 1973 and turned up in Germany and England. He never adequately explained his sudden departure from his beloved Moscow. Certain remarks would imply that he was severely disappointed by the outcome of the ‘Tchaikovsky Competition’: his prospects of winning were probably reduced by his Cypriot origins, although in terms of the actual level of musical proficiency attained, he in fact stood far better in his chances of winning.
One of his earliest performances in Germany was given in the spring of 1973 in Cologne. This was a sensational appearance reported on by the "Kölner Stadtanzeiger" as follows:
,,Economou's stupendously polished technique is never an eye-catcher, but a starting point combining both spiritual and musical perception of the texture, it is the mark of a practice method which has no parallel in Europe. His touch delicately articulated the sombre yet sweet melancholy of Tchaikovsky, and transformed the superficial artistry of Prokofiev's ‘Preludes’ into new depths of meaning: he characterized each individual scene in Mussorgsky's ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ with a touch that corresponded unfailingly in the mood and expression. When he came to the end of the suite, finishing with a dramatic and highly powerful rendering of ‘The great Gate at Kiev’, the audience broke out in a storm of applause that barely subsided after several encores.”
Economou's performance at the 1974 ‘English Bach Festival’ even motivated Andrew Porter, the dreaded music critic of the ‘Financial Times’, to write the following words in his praise, generous indeed by British standards:
"He is an accomplished performer. No slips, no faltering or hesitation. Nor does he thump the keys; his playing has range, richness and even."
Friendship was important to Nicolas Economou. One of his friends in Germany was the British diplomat Mike Reynolds and his wife who lived in Düsseldorf. Economou began work on a song cycle with Reynolds as songwriter, to which he was to return in later life.
Economou then came to Munich on a DAAD scholarship. At the college of music he studied piano with Ludwig Hoffmann and composition with William Killmayer. Although there was an atmosphere of mutual respect Economou was actually reluctant to return to the student role. The dry practice routines of Hoffmann's young female students from Japan were too far removed from Economou's passionate, overpowering emotional temperament as a musician; equally there was a vast distance between Killmeyer’s approach to contemporary German music and Nicolas’ own personal exploration of Russia and Byzantine traditions, which had only just begun.
Economou took no part in the musical life of Munich, he set about creating his own by holding a form of musical salon, together with his new American-Greek wife Maritsa. The first of these meetings were held in their extremely unassuming flat in the Schlotthauer-Strasse in the Au, a part of town in which Karl Valentin had also lived. Later on they moved to a spacious flat in the Lindwurm-Strasse near Sendlinger-Tor-Platz. At that time I myself became one of Economou's closes friends, after our first meeting at a private concert in Rome. Other close friends were the journalist and feature writer Gottfried Knapp, Andreas Elsner, expert on the history of music and Ulrike and Klaus Voswinckel, author and film-maker. Other close friends were those from the Bayerischer Rundfunk and members of the large Furtwangler family. Later on the Circle of friends expanded to include Margarethe von Trotta and Volker Schlöndorff from the film industry, and the writer and producer Philipp Kreuzer, to name a few. Through Maximilian Schell Economou then gained the close friendship of Friedrich Dürrenmatt and collaborated with him on a project for setting the ‘Minotaur’ to music. Due to Dürrenmatts death this project never came to fruition.
It was at Furtwanglers that Economou was also first introduced to Joachim Kaiser, who as piano connoisseur enjoyed the absolute position of a ‘Pontifex Maximus’. The story goes that when Kaiser heard Economou producing a perfect Bach fugue, and a Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Prokofiev sonata without the slightest hesitation from a casual tune he leapt out of his seat and embraced him enthusiastically.
(Third musical excerpt fictitious Mozart sonata by Economou.
Taken from a music quiz broadcast by Gerhard Haffner)
Kaiser however was never entirely satisfied with Economou's public performance at any of the concerts he gave in Munich, although he certainly judged Economou by higher standards that most other performers.
Economou's debut in the ‘Herkulessaal’ of the ‘Munich Residenz’ in 1974 was organized for him by friends, and the event was clearly so well managed that Karl Schumann, the music critic, made the following sarcastic comments in the ‘Süddeutsche Zeitung’ under the headline: "A fresh wind from Cyprus":
"The latest trend is for pianists to begin with a crowd of devoted followers. Before even one note is played, the fans are there. In the case of the 23 year-old Cypriot pianist Nicolas Economou, making his debut in the Herkulessaal, Public Relations did a thorough job - plainly speaking; making a big noise is part of the business. They didn't leave out anybody in their campaign to publicize the return of the 'Weltgeist’ for it's latest revelation on the shiny black high-alter of the concert grand In restrained pieces Economou overwhelmed, revealing himself as a highly lyrical pianist bordering on sentimentality. Thus Scrjabin's ‘Preludes’, Schumann's ‘Arabesque’ and a Tchaikovsky encore were punctuated by loud cheers, hearty applause, more encores. Economou, who moved to Munich recently, has announced that he will be performing a Beethoven next spring. Even at this stage interest is guaranteed"
The Beethoven concert quoted by Schumann which Economou later gave was completely out of line with conventional programs. He performed both bagatelle cycles with a serenity of conception and philosophical absorption that demonstrated clearly the high level of perfection he had already reached at the age of only twenty-three.
(Fourth musical excerpt Beethoven ‘Bagatelles’: the last 2 from the second cycle)
His deep sense of the tragic might well have been something to fear, if Economou not had another side of his nature, namely that of the irrepressible musical entertainer: another - far more powerful - Victor Borge. Economou was able to send every guest in the pub into raptures within seconds, whether playing the piano or singing. The songs he sang were compositions of his own in Greek, Beatles songs in English and Russian folk songs. The place to which he preferred to go for these delightful evenings amongst friends was Vassili's Greek Tavern in the Au.
Munich had therefore become Economou's domain. He gave solo recitals in all the ‘Konzerthaus’, founded his own ‘Soloists-ensemble’ and took the group on tour, performing in concert halls or circus tents. In 1979 Economou was presented with the celebrated ‘Sponsor's award for interpreting arts’ by the Bavarian capital Munich. (The ‘Förderpreis der Landeshauptstadt München fur Interpretierende Kunst’).
Concert performances by Economou were by no means numerous, but always sensational, as in London's Queen Elizabeth Hall. This concert received outstanding reviews by the critics. One of piano music's great moments occurred at a concert in the ‘Goldener Saal’.
(Fifth musical excerpt the ‘Mephisto’ waltz by Liszt, final part)
Economou was increasingly embittered by the fact that none of the Munich Concert agencies wished to take him under contract, in spite of the fact that he was an artist capable of such sensational performances as these. He began to construct his own ideas, and was one of the founders of the Munich Piano Festival. The idea was preceded by Economou's momentous encounter with the jazz pianist Chick Corea at the Loft studio in Haidausen. Both musicians improvised with unrestrained energy on the borderline between classical music and jazz. A short time later they appeared together on the podium of the ‘Kongresshalle’ in the ‘Deutsches Museum’. Their piano dialogue sowed the seeds of the first Munich ‘Klaviersommer’ which took place in 1982. Economou was initiator of this event and the main protagonist. He played with Chick Corea, persuaded Martha Argerich and her friends Nelson Freire and Alexander Ravinovitch to perform and gave a recital with Martha Argerich; Karlheinz and Renate Hein, who were the official organizers succeeded in persuading Friedrich Gulda, the grand seigneur of ‘borderless’ piano recitals, to give a concert as well. A series of legendary concert performances followed, in varied combinations - a summit conference and a form of fusion for the piano-playing elite. Fortunately these concerts were recorded on sound and screen and broadcast all over the world, under the laconic titles ‘The Meeting’. On one unforgettable occasion Gulda, while improvising a piece with Economou and Corea, suddenly sprang up in ecstasy, calling out to the audience: "This is pure alchemy".
(Sixth musical excerpt: Chick Corea and Nicolas Economou, ‘On Two Pianos’)
This was the moment when the record industry moved in: at about this time the Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft brought out a record entitled 'On Two Pianos', which was based on a live recording of the Munich 'Klaviersommer' with Corea and Economou. We have just heard an excerpt from this recording. Deutsche Grammophon also brought out a recording of Rachmaninov's 'Symphonic Dances' with Argerich and Economou on two pianos, a documentation of their collaboration, and a recording of Economou's brilliant transcription of Tchaikovsky's 'Nutcracker Suite' for two pianos.
(Seventh musical excerpt: Argerich Economou, 'The Nutcracker Suite')
The success of the 1982 Munich 'Klaviersommer' did not have a direct follow-up for Economou. Although he took over Argerich's part when she failed to appear in 1983 and had the courage to perform the 'Nutcracker Suite' on his own, there was no dispelling the audience's disappointment at Argerich's absence.
Economou, who had brought together so many artists and friends in the context of this festival, for example the composer and pianist Rodion Shchredin and his wife Maya Plissetskaja the 'prima ballerina assoluta' both who were from Moscow, retired from public life after 1986 and gave only one further recital in 1992, with Leonid Chichik. Logically therefore, the 'Klaviersommer' gradually developed into a jazz festival, there being no other way for the event, which was not subsidized, to break even. However, it is all the more painful to experience the symptomatic institutionalization of a cultural event like this, when considering the fact that Baldur Bockhoff, the very person who, from the beginning, witnessed with immense enthusiasm the birth of this unusual model of cooperation, omitted in the 1991 program to mention Economou's key role in the creation of the 'Klaviersommer' in his tribute on the occasion of it's 10th anniversary.
In the mid-eighties Economou turned more and more towards composition. He wrote the score for Margarethe von Trotta's film 'Die bleierme Zeit', which won the ‘Golden Lion’ at the ‘Venice Film Festival’, and a score for the film 'Rosa Luxemburg'. The score for Maximillian Schell's film 'Marlene - a Portrait' was also composed by Economou, who enjoyed playing duets with Schell.
Economou's versatility was virtually inexhaustible - whether as concert pianist, composer, improviser, conductor, entertainer or arranger - and for this, the commercial music industry had no use. Economou was simply unmarketable.
This point was openly confirmed by one of Deutsche Grammophon's leading figures in Hamburg. When it was time to decide whether Nicolas Economou or Ivo Pogorelich should be given worldwide promotion, it was Pogorelich who was chosen; not because he was a better pianist, but because he had a readily marketable image as dandy, popular with both sexes.
Deutsche Grammophon did, nevertheless, offer Economou a contract for a solo CD. This production included the two pieces that had hitherto accompanied him through life in a unique fashion. One was Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition', and the other 'Kreisleriana' by Robert Schumann, which had already lent its name to a 60-minute television portrait of Economou broadcast by Bavarian television in 1982. Economou felt bond with the demented figure of the musician Kreisler, a grotesque artistic failure of demonic character. The text Economou wrote to accompany this CD illustrates his understanding of German Romanticism. One of the most moving musical moments he ever created is to be heard in his interpretation of this piece, as we experience the unfolding of this great artistic epos, and at the end, its dissolution into diffuse. In order to express his gratitude to Economou for his interpretation of 'Kreisleriana' Friedrich Dürrenmatt dedicated a drawing to him, showing the figures of Economou and Kreisler as they merge into one.
(Eighth musical excerpt: Robert Schumann 'Kreisleriana')
From the late 1980's onwards Nicolas Economou spent a number of years away from Munich, living mainly in Italy and France. He visited Canada, Sweden and Japan on concert tours. At the same time he worked on an opera entitled 'The Tower'; a piece which was intended to give pop- and rock music the forms and musical gestures of classical music. The piece, which is unfinished, contains a cycle of melodies which are yet unknown, but have all the potential of popular hits comparable with the tunes of the Beatles or musicals by Andrew Lloyd Webber, in his best moments.
In 1992 Nicolas Economou was elected a member of the European academy of Arts and Sciences in Salzburg. This was an honour which gave him particular pleasure as, unlike most of us, he united many different European identities within his own person - the Dionysian, being a Cypriot, the Asiatic, being a Byzantine, the Orthodox and at the same time the Revolutionary, being a Russian, and in addition, that of an English speaking cosmopolitan, a German Romantic and, if he was in a particular good mood, an easy-going Bavarian.
Very few people knew that Nicolas Economou was extremely widely read in world literature. He read quantities of material every day and enjoyed reading verses, for example poems by Kafavis, to his friends. He worked regularly on a roman a clef. Only his publisher, Klaus Piper, to whom he had entrusted the project confidentially, will be able to disclose how far the work had progressed.
It was between Christmas and New Year last year, that Nicholas Economou had a car accident, while returning at night to his parent's house in Limassol from the music studio in Nicosia where he was completing work on his opera 'The Tower' with his friend and fellow composer Savvas Savva. He hit an obstacle while driving in thick fog and was thrown from the car.
The obituary composed for Economou by his closest friends consists of the final fading lines of music from 'Kreisleriana'; the only obituary, which he received from the music world, came from Joachim Kaiser, bearing the beautiful heading:
During one of the last serious discussions which I had with Nicolas in Venice where he was organizing a new piano festival at the 'La Fenice' opera with Martha Argerich, Nelson Freire and Afanassiev, and his latest discovery, the Viennese pianist Ingeborg Baldasti, he spoke above all of the music of Mozart as a superior divine principle and of the dying Mozart as an individual burnt out after wasting himself on the divine.
In the archives some of Economou's most magnificent interpretations still lie dormant; these are the 1988 recordings of works by Beethoven, Schumann and Mozart. In making treasures like these available for the judgement of posterity, justice would be done to an artist who frequently went unrecognized during his lifetime.
Let us end this reflection with an example taken from the same group of unpublished recordings, a piece by Mozart.
(Ninth musical excerpt: Mozart tape, S.B., 2nd piece.)