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Barbara Polášek (Guitar)

Born: March 8, 1939 - Gera, Germany (?)

The German-born guitarist and luenist, Barbara Polášek, comes from a family with their roots in Bohemia, conceding the proverbial musicality of the Bohemians. Her father Ottomar Effenberger, the violin and viola player in Bohemian Reichenberg (today Czech Liberec), Schwerin and later on in Gera and member of the Holdgrün Quartet, who passed his talent on to her. Being only four years old, she received the musical basics from him and learned to play the piano and the violin. At the age of seven, though, she discovered her favorite instrument, the guitar.

At the age of twelve, Barbara Polášek (Bärbel Effenberger at that time) was able to argue her audience in Gera into the astonishing virtuosity she made possible on this instrument, and into the role the instrument takes in chamber music of past centuries. On March 11, 1964, the Pforzheimer Zeitung wrote: “The artist´s dynamic art of shading was amazing, beating the number of ‘sounding registers’ even of a big cembalo by far. If you depreciate the guitar to be a “zupfgeigenhansl instrument”, you will have to thoroughly revise your disrespect after having heard Barbara Polášek´s artistic, polyphonic playing.” On May 7, 1963, a critic of the Bayreuther Tagblatt (Bayreuth Daily) is crazy about the "Phenominal Appreciation of the Guitar": "All the baroque ornament works, the warblers and double strokes have the same kind of brilliance as if they had been struck on a spinet".

The first crucial meeting of young Barbara Polášek must have been the meeting with her future husband, Czech violoncello player Jan Polášek, whom she followed to Prague. Both of them were still at the very beginning of their studies and yet they already gave their audience reason to expect a lot of their abilities, which was fully confirmed when they received their first prizes at contests. In 1959, at the age of 20, she gained one of the most important prizes: The First Prize of the international contest in Vienna. Her husband didn't rank behind her and attended the international contest in Moscow, gaining the second prize, and later the U.N.A.R. contest of French artist agencies, gaining the first prize.

Today Barbara Polášek calls the year of 1960 the most venturesome in her life. Thanks to an aunt of Barbara's living in Allgaeu, Jan Polášek was able to escape to Bavaria after a contest in Switzerland. In summer, his wife followed him via Berlin. On her hair-raising trip she could only take along her not even two year old son Hansi and of course her also beloved guitar, a "Weißgerber" from Markneukirchen, instead of luggage. "The fact that there are blazing and devoted interpretations of old music from time to time", is what a critic of the Schwerter Musikwinters considers a very joyable indication in 1965. After the Salzburg Castle Concerts, all newspapers agree:” The playing of both of them is excellently dovetailed, and even with all the contrariness of the musical tempers and instruments […] you get the impression of absolute entity. Above all it´s the minstrelsy of the German-Bohemian and Czech musicians that carries away their audience. These two artists of music are aligned to music with enthusiasm we don´t meet very often these days, as intellect seems to be the all embracing power, and you happily feel that here music is not located in the fingers, but in the heart and soul, supplied by a musical impulse.” (Badisches Tagblatt, October 15, 1965). Despite their basic, intoxicating way of playing, the two of them focused on exact, precice coaction as to cues, balance of sounds and dynamic punchlines. That's how Helmut Wilhelm of the Hildesheimer Allgemeinen Zeitung doted on them on February 28, 1966: "Who could have guessed that these musicians, acting so seriously and plainly, could rear such a parade of sonic sophistication? The combination of artistic profoundness and musical airiness, merging mimosa-like sensivity and aggressive spirit – those were the highlights of this evening".

Barbara Polášek's guest performances can be read like a map of Europe: Salzburg, Munich, Paris, London, Dublin, Hamburg, Mannheim, a Spanish tour with nine concerts within thirteen days… However, there's an eye-catching center during all of these years: Castle Elmau close to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Since the January Music Weeks in 1961, that is immediately after their escape from Prague, both of them feel at home there with great regularity. They socialize with already famous artists like the Amadeus Quartett, the legendary piano player Elly Ney and her chamber music partner Ludwig Hölscher, with whom Barbara Polášek plays some duo concerts - guitar and violoncello - later on, the famous tenor Peter Pears, the English cembalo player George Malcom or Lord Yehudi Menuhin, just to mention a few. In the following years versatile concert activities arose for Barbara Polášek to play with many artists from the Elmau Music Days. She played concerts in London together with her guitar collegue Julian Bream, who pleaded for the guitar to be accepted as a concert instrument by the public just like she did. She played very many concerts with the flute players Aurèle Nicolet and Gabriele Zimmermann, and also with Paul Meisen in the 1970's.

She had already done various TV and radio recordings for the WDR (Western German Broadcasting Corporation), the BR (Bavarian Broadcasting Corporation) and the English BBC, when her great talent was noticed at the sixth „Concours internationales de la guitare“ of the French broadcasting companies (ORTF) in Paris in 1964. It is by far the most important contest for the guitar, where hundreds of guitarists from more than 30 nations participate. The jury not only unanimously awarded her the first prize with gold medal, but also presented her the special prize that was assigned for the first time, a guitar from the workshop of Madrid master Josè Ramirez, donated by Narciso Yepes.

This terrific success was the final start of a world carreer. The young guitarist received her finishing touches in a course for interpretation with Andrés Segovia in Santiago de Compostela. One of her lessons with the famous maestro was recorded by an American camera team: After having played to Segovia, the Maestro mutters some words of approval, but is not satisfied with her way of holding the guitar, so he makes his wife demonstrate the “Ladies´ Posture of the guitar” common at that time. In return, Barbara Polášek shoes how unhandy and doubtful that posture is, and does not even think of changing her attitude. Today of course, no one would think of teaching a lady guitarist or lady cello player a “decent” posture.

Barbara Polasek's numerous solo recitals and duo concerts, festivals and radio/tv recordings also shift to France, England and the Netherlands. Time and again she is invited by Robert J. Vidal, the founder and organizer of the ORTF contest, to both be a member of the jury and give a recital at the end of the competition program. In 1967 she is the first and only guitar player who is admitted to the famous Paris concert agency "Dandelot", which picks out most outstanding artists only: Jascha Heifetz, Leonid Kogan, Yehudi Menuhin, Nathan Milstein, Ruggiero Ricci, Henryk Szeryng, Emil Gilels and others. First recordings, appreciated and praised by the press, are published: for the American company RCA Victor she records Cinq piéces anonymes de la Renaissance and the Rondoletto Op.4 by Mauro Giuliani, J.S. Bach's Suite for lute in G minor, BWV 995, along with cello player JaPolášek and self-arranged accompanyist the sonata for violoncello E minor by Antonio Vivaldi and the sonata in A major by Luigi Boccherini and J.S. Bach's Prelude for lute in C minor, BWV 999 for the Paris record company Erato, the Suite for lute in E minor, BWV 996 and Chaconne from Partita for solo violin No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004. And thus, the list of her admirers, friends and acquaintances is very long. The list not only includes names of people who have become famous in the meantime like Prof. Aurèle Nicolet, Lord Yehudi Menuhin, Leo Brouwer or Julian Bream, but also artists who were already fabulous at that time like Arthur Rubinstein, whose piano recital at the 30th International Festival in Strasbourg on June 15, 1968 she contrasted with a guitar recital that was payed much attention to two days later.

It is not by accident that in the programs of her first concerts we can find the name of the composer who will be the in center of her nearly unexhaustible repertoire later on. While her very first concert in Gera was a solo work, that is J.S. Bach´s prelude and presto in a minor, next time - merely thirteen years old - she already played the Arioso of Bach´s St. John Passion (BWV 245) in a big orchstra. Ever since Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy rediscovered the St. Mathew Passion (BWV 244) in 1829, the interpretation of Bach´s works has been subject to permanent change during the last 170 years. The scope ranges from Leopold Stokowski´s great orchestra arrangements with a romantic style like the famous organ toccata to Pablo Casals's lyric version of the cello solo suites all the way to the dry, academic performance of today´s artists. Influenced by neither of these ways, Barbara Polášek found her own way and caused her former teacher Andrés Segovia (who, being a Mediterranean musician, tended to prefer the romantic side, and, aiming at impact, compiled and rearranged his suites from several works of Bach's) to admit without envy that she was a great interpreter, especially regarding Bach. And still today she is the only guitarist to play Bach suites from memory all night long. After a solo recital at the London Wigmore Hall in 1966 Jack Duarte described the phenomenon in the magazine Banjo-Mandolin-Guitar (Vol. LXIV No. 740, December 1966). When the artist played Bach's prelude and fugue in A minor, the concert properly caught fire. Music had become vital like never before. Despite its precision the music was glowing, full of tension from the beginning to the end, wrapped in wonderful timbres. That´s what Andrés Segovia was talking about.

To Barbara Polášek, pushing the popularity of the classical concert guitar in Germany has always been beyond all question. On the one hand she manages to do so by playing concerts, concentrating on the Munich area with orchestras like Kurt Redel's Orchestra pro Arte, Karl Richter's Bach Orchestra und Hans Stadlmair´s Chamber Orchestra since the 1970s. She was one of the first guitarists to play chamber music, together with her musician collegues from great Munich orchestras: the Seitz-, Endres-, Keller- and Sinnhoffer-Quartets, as well as with Gerd Starke, Karl Bobzien and the singers John van Kesteren, Edith Urbanczik and Kieth Engen. Since that time she plays all incidential guitar parts at the Bavarian State Opera, lastly in Werner Henze´s Young Lord. Today she mostly plays with violoncello player Christoph Probst, her son from her second marriage, who was a long term student of Jan Polášek´s. On the other hand she also and especially pleads for the classical guitar by means of her educational activities. She has been a lecturer at the Richard-Strauss-Conservatory for 36 years, and at the University of Music in Munich for 2 years. At that, she proves to be able to enthuse young people into her subject and to pass on to them artistic impulses, which they can feed on for the rest of their lives. Her strong way of playing, completely identifying with the musical piece to be interpreted, surely gives an example for the rising generation. However, equally important is her understanding of different opinions and her concern not to regard herself to be the only decisive measure.

In the summer of 1969 Barbara Polášek arranged an international guitar festival with contest in Munich, along with other guitarists like Oscar Caceres, Uruguay, the late Prof. Karl Scheit from Vienna and the founder of the international guitar contest of the French Broadcasting Companies (ORTF), Robert J. Vidal. In the spring of 1969 an advance notice indicated that according to statistics a vast majority of musical youth was interested in guitar music, but was geared to superficial easy listening rather than taking a leaf out of somebody´s book. Under the direction of world-famous educationalists and artists the Munich festival not only introduced teaching methods and literature, but also arranged exhibitions and lectures on manufacturing guitars and guitar accessories as well as on history and development of the guitar. Besides, you could listen to concerts for solo guitar or along with orchstra and chamber music. Despite all efforts it took another seven years until the concert guitar was allowed at the Munich ARD contest in 1976. Barbara Polášek was responsible for the compulsory program and the composition of the jury, for which she was able to acquire the famous Cuban guitarist Leo Brouwer and again Robert J. Vidal. She has also been available as a juror at many other contests. At the renowned ORTF contest she has been a member of the jury more often than anybody else. And that is where famous guitarists like Jaoquin Clerch, Costas Cotsiolis, Alvaro Pierri, Manuel Barrueco, Roberto Aussel, Betho Bavezac and Sergio and Eduardo Abreu drifted past her analyzing ears. During the last few years you could also meet her at youth contests in Alessandria and Bari, Italy, at the Concorso Internazionale di Chitarra "Mauro Giuliani" as well as in Germany.

Source: Hermann Hauser Guitar Foundation Website (Article from Gitarre & Laute, January 1999; Author: by Gabi Eisenreich)
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (July 2008)

Barbara Polášek: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works

Links to other Sites

Barbara Polasek (Hermann Hauser Guitar Foundation)


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