Joseph Szigeti – violinist

0 of 5 stars

chamber music
encore pieces

Various artists

Reviewed by: Bill Newman

Reviewed: April 2002
CD No: ANDANTE 2991-2994 (4 CDs)

A glamorous hard-backed presentation to house four CDs, liner notes by experts of the calibre of Tim Page and Jed Distler, artist photos and contemporary montage all combining with the English-French-German texts – this is a fine way to establish excellent contacts with the Historic connoisseur-collector.

The transfer process used between 78rpm masters and CD is entitled CAP 440. Basically, it means that you will be listening to sound as near as possible to the original recording sessions with no loss of quality. CEDAR has always been capable of eliminating surface noises and those ’foreign-sounding’ signals that impede pleasure.

In the case of the great violinist Joseph Szigeti, who became my beloved personal friend and colleague during the last ten years of his life, Andante’s work is all to the good.

I first met Szigeti during 1959 at Mercury recording sessions at Watford Town Hall for the Brahms Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra under Herbert Menges. He immediately autographed my copy of his autobiography “With Strings Attached” and took me for dinner. Following the sessions, he wined and dined every member of the orchestra. A wonderful man and musician.

I had a fight with EMI, both as Mercury Classical label Manager (UK) and in my later position selecting material and supervising 78s-LP transfers of Szigeti for the HMV “Great Instrumentalist Series”. Szigeti had long retired from the performing circuit – he was diabetic and had the beginnings of Parkinson’s Disease. Mercury had signed him up without consulting the classical team of Cozart-Fine-Lawrence, but despite physical handicaps he became my musical God. With the aid of my EMI boss, Leonard Smith, who had supervised the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the British Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bruno Walter in 1932, my EMI confreres were overruled. This recording of the Beethoven, like all the following titles, is included in this Andante release.

Apart from the Beethoven Concerto, recordings of the Bach D minor (Stiedry), Tartini D minor, Bach ’Largo’ (from BWV 1056), the Mendelssohn and Prokofiev First Concertos (both with Beecham) and the Brahms Third Sonata (with Egon Petri) received their very first LP transfers under my supervision. I asked Szigeti to write up his musical memories for the LP covers, and I am truly sorry these have not been reprinted. What he didn’t discuss was his initial nervousness prior to the Beethoven sessions whereupon Len Smith told him to sit back and relax. This is still my favourite recording of the Beethoven alongside Huberman, Szell and the Vienna Philharmonic. Pureness of conception lies behind the success of the reading.

Szigeti always talked to me about discussions with Carl Flesch, where feeling for the height of the phrase was all-important, and the need to push ahead slightly into new contrasting motives. Although a basic pulse occurs throughout the first movement, one is aware of varied pulses that heighten the emotion. The slow movement is tender and innocent, and the ’Finale’ has a gentle, unsophisticated transit.

Working with Beecham gave Szigeti much pleasure. He sensed a consistency of approach. Although Beecham was not a Prokofiev conductor per se, one has to acknowledge experience gained when he conducted for Diaghilev at Ballet Russe performances. A certain Gallic charm also belongs to Szigeti’s mode of approach – bearing in mind Prokofiev’s French connections, and the way the violinist ’underplays’ the whole introduction, suggests the visionary intransigence and suggestiveness that travelled via Russia to France then on to England. Szigeti refused Prokofiev admittance to the playback room stating that he did not welcome alternative comments after completing the recording. “By that stage, ownership of the recording of his concerto had passed over to me!”.

Beecham and Mendelssohn is more familiar territory that suited both artists. Note how Szigeti’s eternally child-like and tender conception is matched by Sir Thomas’s lucid song-like accompaniment. There is also a much steadier pulse, as the overall mood within each movement hardly alters. Szigeti admired Petri’s musicianship enormously. “We made great music together,” he told me. Music lovers will also welcome the unobtrusive ’classical’ approach to Brahms. Then play, if you dare, the disgraceful Vengerov-Barenboim recording for an example of how to mutilate the composer’s music.

17th- and 18th-century classical composers became a Szigeti speciality along with commissions and premières. Bach and Beethoven became the subject of books for every violinist by Szigeti, and the last time I saw him he was lecturing students at University College London how to interpret Bach. Manoug Parikian assisted. It is obvious to me that Szigeti’s phrasing and painstaking observance of so-called original texts was exemplary.

I am pleased to ’re-discover’ Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite (selections) with son-in-law Nikita Magaloff – hardly mentioned in the autobiography – and the Handel Sonata in D. Elsewhere, there are choice items with that great Hungarian keyboard player Andor Foldes – Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances in G minor/E minor, Hubay’s (Szigeti’s teacher) ’Hungarian Rhapsody’ from Scènes de la Csarda” (a rarity), Kodaly’s ’Intermezzo’ from Hary Janos, Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No.5 and Bloch’s Baal Shem.

Without being dominated by Szigeti, I have the feeling that Magaloff (as a member of the family) adapted his own style to suit the elder statesman. Foldes, being the same nationality, would have embraced Szigeti’s extra-musical approach. Szigeti respected the ’little’ pieces just as much as the major works. He sought out their style. Then, we have the Miller’s Dance from Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat, Milhaud’s Saudades do Brasil Nos.7 & 10, plus Le Printemps, Paganini’s Caprices No.9, ’The Hunt’ and No.2, with marvellous clarity of bowing and fingerwork. The Falla is a 1940 recording with pianist Anton Farkas; the Milhaud pieces come from an early electrical session in 1927 with Kurt Ruhrseitz at Petty France, London. Despite an interval of 13 years, the sharpness of Szigeti’s accenting and mastery of rubato is unrivalled among violinists. Pianists just followed suit!

The highlights are the inimitable Bartók Contrasts with the composer and Benny Goodman, and those unequalled sessions with Stravinsky at the piano – Duo Concertant and Chanson Russe (Mavra) – from 1945/6. Throughout, there is this constant impression of authenticity and that penetrating, inspired re-evaluation in all possible musical considerations and deciding factors. The choice of the live, 1939 performance of Ernest Bloch’s Violin Concerto at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam under Mengelberg’s direction – in preference to Munch’s Paris Conservatoire commercial recording – is I think correct. The ’expansive’ Dutchman was a great collaborator-accompanist – witness many recorded performances with top personalities of the 40s and 50s – but if a second Szigeti compilation is decided on, the Munch version should be included.

Transfers meanwhile for the present Andante release gave me much satisfaction. All violinists, and these include the younger generation I spoke with in Spoleto last year, regard Joseph Szigeti as the giant among musician-performers.

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