The private residence where some of the legendary players featured in the October issue of The Strad performed is under threat. Nicholas Lane revisits those glorious days – and nights – via first-hand accounts from the time

Edith Grove crop

To return to Lionel Tertis’s recollections: ‘It was my good fortune to meet Rubinstein when he was a young man in his twenties and I was in my thirties... He was a wonderful pianist... From the numerous parties at which we gathered, a memory that is particularly impressed on my mind is that of his extraordinary gift for playing excerpts from a symphony or opera that you cared to mention – a marvellous feat at which he never faltered.’

This gift is borne out by Muriel in an amusing story. It was July 1914. After a difficult day crossing the channel with a very seasick Ysaÿe, Thibaud had not felt like playing. But, she writes, ‘Artur became annoyingly persistent.’ The irritated Thibaud eventually retaliated: ‘Very well, I will play the Brahms violin concerto if you will play it with me.’ There was no score of the work at 19a, as ‘violinists do not consider it as part of their chamber music repertory!’ Muriel recounts: ‘Artur accepted the challenge. I was amazed. ‘But, Artur... I don’t believe you have ever seen a piano score, much less played it.’ ‘Why should I have seen it? I am not a violinist. I am not a conductor. I have heard it’. He walked powerfully out of the dining room, and down the stairs into 19a. Thibaud, suddenly alive, followed him. ‘The Brahms Violin Concerto! You’re crazy. These two Americans have driven you all mad. What are you going to play it from?” he asked them. “Memory,” they answered, at the same moment... In the unlit corner of the studio, they played the work through, without slip or unwritten pause….

‘The performance stimulated a desire for more music, Casals suggested the Brahms sextet, the earlier one in B flat major. Thibaud was too exhausted from his inspired labours to play the first violin, so Paul Kocha?ski assumed the responsibility. Casals, his usual imperturbable serenity shaken in strange places by the concerto and the elusive unrest that pervaded Edith Grove that night, insisted upon taking Thibaud’s violin, holding it between his knees and playing the second violin. It was an erratic performance. Tertis and Monteux played viola, Rubio and Salmond the cellos... Rubio... with tears of laughter in his eyes at the sight of “Pablissimo” turned violinist.'

Of the playing of Tertis, Muriel writes: ‘Lionel Tertis was unique among viola players. He made of that ungrateful but necessary instrument a solo instrument of manifold beauties and possibilities... Every note was a full convinced statement that between the brilliant clarities and penetrating flexibilities of the violin and the rich serenities and shapely flow of the the cello, was a province of sound where the qualties of both were accessible to one instrument, and that was the viola. Phrases given to the viola emerged with startling value when played by Tertis, instead of sinking anonymously into the general musical whole.’

Goossens recounts what must have been a centenary tribute to Wagner at 19a: ‘One night in the summer of 1913 I conducted, perched on top of a soap-box, an improvised performance of the Siegfried Idyll; another night played in the Mendelssohn Octet with Thibaud, Kocha?ski, Arbos, and Tivadar Nachez as the four violinists, Harold Bauer and myself as violists (Bauer played the viola excellently), and Casals and the beatific Rubio as cellists...

‘Theirs was one performance, at least, where the divergent temperaments of the players were fully reflected in the execution! Equally true was it of a performance of the Brahms A major Quartet with Ysaÿe playing violin, Sobrino piano, May Muckle cello, and myself viola. At loggerheads throughout the entire work. The pianist didn’t help matters by reinvigorating himself between movements with large glasses of champagne, having previously having almost come to blows with Ysaÿe over a nearly catastrophic event. Sobrino, opening the lid of the Bechstein, failed to notice that Ysaÿe’s Guarneri violin reposed on top of it, with the result that the instrument slid off and disappeared on to what the horror-stricken spectators imagined to be the parquet floor of the studio. But there was no resultant crash: the fiddle had fallen gently into the soft cushions of the divan alongside the piano... It seemed at one moment as though the big Belgian was going to strike the little Spaniard in stupefaction at a near calamity.’

That same parquet floor at 19a still survives; the same 29-foot beamed roof in Rubinstein’s description, the timbers of which resonated to the vibrations of so many glorious instruments; the brick walls and huge Tudor fireplace, complete with the bar from which the Drapers’ Gothic tapestry hung are all still here, unchanged – for the moment. But 19a is a building at risk, and English Heritage has twice turned down applications to have it listed this year saying that ‘claims to national significance are not sustained’. They add: ‘None of this is to deny that 19a is an evocative building through which the spirit of an exceptional interlude in early-20th-century London’s cultural life is vividly conveyed. But these qualities of association and atmosphere are ultimately too nebulous to be captured within the regime of statutory designation.’

Number 19a has been my home for 49 years. I believe that the only way to ensure that it survives intact is to buy it as soon as possible, and the freeholders have agreed to this. To me 19a is a fragile document of musical history which is in need of careful conservation, with a minimum loss of the original fabric of the building. But because it is in Chelsea it is at constant risk of development simply for financial profit. My supporters and I need to raise the rest of the money to complete the purchase as soon as possible. We are more than half way there already and just need someone or someones to help us find the remainder of the money. This is the last opportunity to prevent its historic resonances being lost for ever.

Click here to read Part 1 and Part 2

The campaign to preserve the residence is supported by leading cultural figures and musicians, including guest editor Steven Isserlis. Download the October 2013 issue to read the news story. Click here to read the news story.