A tribute to Noel Lee, who died today, by the Norwegian violinist Ole Böhn.
Noel Lee was a musician’s musician. Born in China to American parents, he served in the US army in the Second World War and studied at Harvard University before heading to France where Nadia Boulanger became his teacher. Noel immediately felt at home in Paris and eventually became a French citizen.
He made more than 200 recordings of which several received the Grand Prix de Disc. His complete recordings of the piano music of Debussy and Ravel stand out as the finest ever made. I also highly appreciate his complete Schubert sonatas.
Noel was the perfect chamber music partner. He formed a famous duo with violinist Paul Makanowitzky and their recordings of the Beethoven and Bach sonatas are legendary . With Christian Ivaldi he formed a piano duo and also appeared often with violinist Gerard Poulet. Personally I feel honoured to have had numerous concerts with him. He introduced me to Elliott Carter and we played the European premiere of Elliott Carter’s Duo, which we also recorded.Playing with Noel was always special. He was very well prepared before the first rehearsal and had strong views on the interpretation. Being the older of us, he knew many of the works that I played for the first time. Sometimes I would play from memory, while he used the music. But he took revenge , when I played the Cesar Franck sonata in public for the first time. HE played from memory, I had to use the music!As a composer he looked at music from a composer’s aspect. He detested unnecessary ” violinisms” and his remarks : “Don’t drag, you break the musical line” or ” a slide again???!!!” remain in my ear. Noel had a great sense of rhythm and was very helpful in studying the Carter Duo. Although he had played several times his piano sonata, here we started both from scratch. We had numerous rehearsals and I think we managed to play the Duo quite well in many places in Europe.I am very happy that I managed to tell Noel many times how much I loved him. Last time when I saw him a couple of weeks at the hospital. He has played such an important part of my musical upbringing and introduced me to Ellliott Carter who later wrote his violin concerto and Statement for solo violin for me. Elliott Carter also became a musical mentor and now both Noel and Elliott are gone. I feel like an orphan !
(c) Ole Böhn/Slipped Disc