In an age of great violinists, Joseph Szigeti was a giant; and unlike some of his peers, he did not content himself with repeated performances of the same pieces all the time. He sought out composers who were writing interesting new music, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bloch, Kodály and Bartók, and propagated their works through his devoted performances. Szigeti was the most distinguished of a line of superb violinists taught by Jenö Hubay. Born József Szigeti in Budapest on 5th September 1892, he was brought up in the Carpathian area of Hungary at Máramaros-Sziget, from which his family, originally called Singer, took their name. His father led a café band, one uncle, Deszo Szigeti (1880-1963), had studied with Jenö Hubay and was an established orchestral violinist in Paris and New York, even making a few solo records, another uncle was a 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 Joseph Joachim, instinctively deciding not to study with the old man, although he always had the low bow arm of that school Joachim had been Hubays first major teacher. Szigeti did perform a number of Joachims cadenzas, however, as he does in both concertos 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 with 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 Concerto in D minor and made his first records. They reveal a typical Hubay disciple, with a brilliant but brittle technique. He used very 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 he spent 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 those of 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. Szigeti also 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, which Szigeti and Goodman had already performed 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 when he was at his peak. Mozarts Violin Concerto in D major, K.218, was one of three major recordings he made with Beecham, who had been one of the first musicians to impress him in his London period. Truth to tell, Beecham, the supposed Mozart lover, serves up an accompaniment that is brusque in some places and slapdash in others; but while Szigeti is playing, all is sweetness and light and the two clearly get on well. How beautifully the violinist sings his phrases, yet he never lingers to make a point. Because his playing is so stylish, it ends up saying more by saying less, and the episodes in the finale are delightfully delineated with the minimum of fuss. Those who have been collecting this series of Great Violinists can compare this performance with one set down more than a decade later by Jascha Heifetz with the same conductor (Naxos 8.110960). In the Beethoven Concerto, it is possible to compare Szigeti directly with his post-war self, as he made a second recording with the same conductor, Bruno Walter. This 1932 performance wins on every score. Szigeti himself is in better trim, the recording is better balanced and even though Walter has the famous New York Philharmonic-Symphony for the later version, he actually does better with the pick-up British Symphony Orchestra. Not that Walter is the ideal accompanist, and he has changed tempo several times before Szigeti even enters with Beethovens broken octaves. Thereafter, though, the violinist takes charge. The greatest interpreters of this concerto, Kreisler, Busch, Huberman, Milstein, Menuhin, Kogan and Perlman, always touch us most at three points: during the G minor episode and then again after the cadenza in the first movement; and in the central Larghetto. Szigeti is of that exalted company, one of the few who can make the Larghetto sound really profound, rather than a mere intermezzo. In the finale, the soloists gently buoyant sense of humour and his sheer joy in making music prevail.