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ClassicsOnline Home » BRAHMS / MENDELSSOHN: Violin Concertos (Szigeti) (1928, 1933)
By Jed Distler
Great Violinists Joseph Szigeti
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64
Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77
In music the race does not always go to the swiftest, the strongest or the nastiest, thank goodness. Throughout a long career, Joseph Szigeti, the most distinguished of a line of Hungarian violinists taught by Jenö Hubay, bore witness to the fact that a decent man can succeed in a competitive profession without being aggressive, seeking publicity or doing others down. When many of his rivals were succumbing to the temptation to show off their technical prowess, Szigeti carried on as he always had done. He played both beautifully and skilfully, as the performances on this disc attest, but with him the musical content of a piece came first. He was therefore able to please two distinct sections of the public, those who wanted to hear new music and those who wished to be reassured by the established classics. To the first group he played Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Busoni, Bloch and Bartók, to the second he offered Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms. It was partly owing to his efforts that by the end of his life, the two groups had merged and the new composers he had championed were themselves accepted as classics.
Born József Szigeti in Budapest on 5th September 1892, he was raised in the Carpathian area of Hungary at Máramaros-Sziget, from which his family, originally called Singer, took its name. His father led a café band; one uncle, Deszo Szigeti (1880-1963), had studied with Hubay and was a top-line orchestral violinist in Paris and New York, even making records, another uncle was a double bass player, and Uncle Bernat gave Jóska (as he was known to family, friends and early audiences) his first lessons. From the age of eleven to thirteen Szigeti was under Hubays tutelage and he left the Ferenc Liszt Academy in 1905 to make his Berlin and Budapest débuts. As Szulagi he played in a Frankfurt circus, then auditioned in Berlin for his compatriot Joseph Joachim, instinctively deciding not to study with the old man, although he always had the low bow arm of that school, since Joachim had been Hubays first major teacher. Szigeti did perform Joachims cadenzas, however, as he does in the Brahms Concerto on this disc.
Szigeti made his London début at the Bechstein (now Wigmore) Hall as a thirteen-year-old (the public was told he was twelve). From 1907 he was based in England and his concerto début was made in the Bach Concerto in E major and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the New Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Beecham. While in Britain, until 1913, he toured with Nellie Melba and John McCormack, met Myra Hess and Ferruccio Busoni, gave the first performance of Hamilton Hartys D minor Concerto and made his first records. They reveal a typical Hubay disciple, with a brilliant but brittle technique. He used little vibrato in those days and this was one technique he worked on, during the decade from 1913 when he was off the international scene, spending much of World War I in Swiss sanatoria with tuberculosis. Hubay equipped his students with a wide vibrato and Szigeti was influenced by this tradition in developing his own sound; he always vibrated rather slowly and this trait could make his legato sound slightly concave. Although a gentle person off stage, he had a reputation for breaking strings when he got carried away by the music.
From 1917 to 1924 Szigeti taught in Geneva. In 1922 he played with the Berlin Philharmonic under Reiner and from 1924 was a regular visitor to the Soviet Union and England, but it was his Philadelphia début in 1925, with the Beethoven Concerto conducted by Stokowski, that sealed his fame. Now known as Joseph to English-speaking audiences, he was a far more cultured artist than the Jóska who had left Hubays class with a tiny repertoire of virtuoso works. Based in Paris with his Russian wife Wanda and their daughter Irène, he was one of the busiest violinists of the interwar years, playing concertos, especially the Beethoven and Brahms, or appearing in recital with his piano partner Nikita Magaloff, who married Irène in 1939.
In the mid-1920s Szigeti became friendly with Béla Bartók and appeared with him in concert, introducing the Second Sonata to New York in December 1927, and he transcribed seven pieces from Bartóks For Children which they played in recital, and recorded, as Hungarian Folk Tunes. At Königsberg in 1929, with Hermann Scherchen conducting, Szigeti gave the first performance of Bartóks First Rhapsody. In 1931 he toured the Far East, causing a sensation in Japan, and in 1933 he appeared on the same bill as Benny Goodman and Fletcher Henderson. In 1938 he introduced Blochs Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra under Dimitri Mitropoulos. In 1940 Szigeti emigrated with Wanda to the United States, where he and Bartók gave a Library of Congress recital and with Benny Goodman performed and recorded Bartóks trio Contrasts, of which Szigeti and Goodman had given the first performance in 1939 with Endre Petri. In 1944, with Claudio Arrau, Szigeti presented the cycle of Beethoven Sonatas at the Library of Congress. He was the only great violinist of his generation to revive his career after World War II and he appeared a number of times with Artur Schnabel, but after 1950 his playing declined. He last appeared in London as a violinist in 1954, breaking a G string at his final concert. He settled in Switzerland in 1960 and died in Lucerne on 20th February 1973, having devoted his last years to competition jury work, writing and teaching.
Tall, courtly and courteous, Szigeti was the thinking mans virtuoso, among the first to perform the Debussy and Ravel Sonatas, as well as pieces by Honegger, Roussel and Milhaud. He promoted sonatas by Bloch, Ives and Cowell and the concertos by Prokofiev (D major), Busoni, Casella, Berg and Martin. His style of playing was old-fashioned, in that he used downward slides which often sat oddly on the contemporary music he played. Yet this portamento helped to give his playing a singing, breathing, easeful quality. He owned two Guarnerius violins, his main concert instrument being the Pietro Guarneri of Mantua formerly played by Henri Petri.
Szigeti recorded a number of concertos for Columbia in his prime, and the Mendelssohn Concerto was one of three collaborations with Beecham, who had been one of the first musicians to impress him in his London period. As with the Mozart Concerto in D major (Naxos 8.110946) we are able to make a direct comparison with Jascha Heifetz, who recorded the Mendelssohn sixteen years later with the same conductor (Naxos 8.110941). You could say that Szigeti represents the old world, all ease, lyricism and grace, while Heifetz, despite his Russian heritage, represents the new world, highly strung, blatantly virtuosic and rather fast in all three movements. The two mens viewpoints of the Brahms Concerto are closer to each other. Szigetis interpretation is intriguing for many reasons. He theoretically had links to the composer through Hubay and Popper but was never taught the score and did not acquire his first copy of it until the winter of 1905-6, when he had made his Berlin début. I plunged into the formidable and forbidding work without any guidance and with all the more recklessness and gusto, he recalled. The thirteen-year-old was at long last, so it seemed to him! on his own, faced with a man-sized task. The concerto itself was still making its way, having had a rocky start, although Joachims pupil Marie Soldat was performing it frequently. Szigeti soon became another of its champions and in 1924 was even able to give the Madrid première. He could not bring to it either Kreislers Viennese sweetness or Buschs huge tone and dramatic contrast; his approach lay somewhere between the two. As the twentieth century proceeded, this symphonic concerto was subjected to slower and more lugubrious performances, but its best advocates, Kreisler, Busch, Szigeti, Heifetz, Milstein and Kogan, did not linger overmuch. Szigeti made two superb recordings, the second in 1945 in fine sound, with the luxurious backing of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. This 1928 version is a little primitive in some ways but finds the soloist in his finest form, deploying his relatively small tone with rhythmic acuity and heart-warming lyricism. It is also good to hear how Sir Hamilton Harty and his orchestra knit the works many episodes into a cohesive structure, allowing Szigeti to soar but giving him something to play against. The all-important solo oboist is Alec Whittaker, who to Hartys dismay was to be poached by the new BBC Symphony Orchestra two years later. His playing is interesting because it represents a pre-Goossens, pre-Stotijn way of handling this infinitely tricky instrument.
A Note on the Recordings
As collectors of original shellac discs have long been aware, "78s" were very often recorded at something other than 78 rpm. Rarely, however, does one find such extremes of playback speed within a single set as are present on the 1928 Szigeti recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto, whose first side is correctly pitched at 77.0 rpm and whose second plays at 74.2, with the rest falling somewhere in between. Considerable care has been taken to ensure the proper speed for each side. The sound quality of the original recording is remarkably good for its vintage, and can be heard to best advantage in U.S. Columbia "Viva-Tonal" pressings, which were used for this transfer. The Mendelssohn, which presents no comparable pitching challenge, was transferred from similarly quiet U.S. Columbia "Royal blue" shellacs.
Mark Obert-Thorn is one of the worlds most respected transfer artist/engineers. He has worked for a number of specialist labels, including Pearl, Biddulph, Romophone and Music & Arts. Three of his transfers have been nominated for Gramophone Awards. A pianist by training, his passions are music, history and working on projects. He has found a way to combine all three in the transfer of historical recordings. Obert-Thorn describes himself as a moderate interventionist rather than a purist or re-processor, unlike those who apply significant additions and make major changes to the acoustical qualities of old recordings. His philosophy is that a good transfer should not call attention to itself, but rather allow the performances to be heard with the greatest clarity.
There is no over-reverberant cathedral sound in an Obert-Thorn restoration, nor is there the tinny bass and piercing mid-range of many authorised commercial issues. He works with the cleanest available 78s, and consistently achieves better results than restoration engineers working with the metal parts from the archives of the modern corporate owners of the original recordings. His transfers preserve the original tone of the old recordings, maximising the details in critical upper mid-range and lower frequencies to achieve a musical integrity that is absent from many other commercially released restorations.
The Naxos historical label aims to make available the greatest recordings in the history of recorded music, in the best and truest sound that contemporary technology can provide. To achieve this aim, Naxos has engaged a number of respected restorers who have the dedication, skill and experience to produce restorations that have set new standards in the field of historical recordings.
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