A Friend, Connoisseur and Guide

In Vivian Liff’s passing, the NCPA lost its great patron and generous contributor to the creation of the Stuart-Liff Library. Chairman Khushroo N. Suntook remembers the authority on opera, renowned writer and music critic, and a dear friend.

At times, you seek solitude to be alone with your thoughts, to share personal moments with only yourself. I felt this today, the day of his funeral while standing next to Vivian’s portrait in our Stuart-Liff library, mumbling something about his incredible contribution to the art of singing, his astounding knowledge of singers, his fine circle of friends and about his willingness to share great moments—in the Opera House, in front of our various sound systems in many different places, in London, the Isle of Man, in Mumbai, in my home in the country or on board a luxury liner which stopped overnight inMumbai. And of course, at numerous meetings at the Recorded Vocal Art Society (RVAS).

Going back a bit, the 1950s were the heady years when John Freestone wrote a widely read column, Collector’s Corner, in the Gramophone. When during a weekend John offered to drive me down to meet Vivian Liff and George Stuart, celebrated record collectors living in The Commons at Tunbridge Wells, I jumped at the idea. I did expect a rather splendid mansion, but not what I encountered. I was ushered into a large, richly furnished room with plush Victorian sofas and armchairs, a grand piano and a mouthwatering 78-rpm playing machine, and more temptingly, a huge pile of 78 records he had just brought back from Paris. When I started looking through them, I realised this was no ordinary collection—Litvinne, Battistinni, Scotti, Fonos of great Italian and French artistes, all occupied pride of place in this latest acquisition.

Dinner after Lord Harewood’s talk at the Recorded Vocal Art Society with Mr. Suntook, Mr. Liff and Mr. Stuart in attendance

It was not so much the playing of the record, and appreciating the reproduction, as much as the acute perception of the minute points—the loss in pitch, possibly the wrong speed and so many other finer points of interpretation which sharpened your awareness of the item played. It was a remarkable critical faculty which made me so much more aware of what it was all about.

Vivian’s appreciation of this very quality saw his friendship with my dear mentor and friend, John, flower. He admired the meticulousness of Michael Henstock’s incredible attention to detail in two fine volumes of scholarship, on Fernando De Lucia and Fonotipia Records. His admiration for the labour of love Larry Lustig showered on his invaluable The Record Collector, and his admiration for Alan Bilgora’s enormous knowledge of the voice, particularly the tenor, were expressed several times. His friendship with many great personalities and artistes could be witnessed in the vast evidence in his homes.

As time took its toll, and memory started to fade (yet sparks could fly), he became gentler. Sad that life had decided to treat him so cruelly. Did it begin when his dearly beloved George passed away? It deeply affected him. There was a perceptible change in his demeanour, in his somewhat more subdued pattern of communication, and in so many different ways.

Since that day, nearly 50 years ago, when John became the initiator of what was to be my lifelong association with George and Vivian, they were incredibly kind. Vivian’s stupendous (and I use the word advisedly) generosity towards donating thousands of books, LPs and now, as a legacy to the National Centre for the Performing Arts, thousands of CDs and memorabilia, will never be forgotten.

This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the December 2020 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.