|About this Recording
8.110973 - PROKOFIEV / BLOCH: Violin Concertos (Szigeti) (1935, 1939)
Great Violinists • Joseph Szigeti
Prokofiev • Bartók • Bloch
Almost alone among the leading violinists of his era, Joseph Szigeti cultivated the friendship of contemporary composers and championed their music. He was among the first to perform the Debussy and Ravel Sonatas, and pieces by Honegger, Roussel, Milhaud and Stravinsky were in his repertoire. He promoted sonatas by Bloch and Cowell and the concertos by Busoni, Casella, Berg and Martin. This disc reflects three of those creative friendships, and in addition the Prokofiev Concerto No. 1 is conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, with whom Szigeti had a particularly long collaboration in the concert hall. Each of these works was closely associated with Szigeti, and in each case his recording was the first ever made. It was through such 78rpm discs that millions of people across the world, who never had the chance to see the great violinist in the flesh, made contact with his persuasive musicianship. Generations were introduced to such works as the Bloch and Prokofiev Concertos through the magic medium of the gramophone, and in this way some quite challenging pieces became modern classics. Were it not for Szigeti, we should also have fewer recordings of Bartók and Stravinsky as pianists: both composers were persuaded into the studio by the prospect of working with such a sympathetic musician.
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, Deszö Szigeti (1880-1963), had studied with Hubay and was a leading orchestral player in Paris and New York, even making a few solo records, another uncle was a double-bass-player, and Uncle Bernat gave Jóska, as he was known to family, friends and his early audiences, his first lessons. From the age of eleven to thirteen Szigeti was under Hubay’s 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 for Joachim, instinctively deciding not to study with the old man, although he always had the low bow arm of that school – Joachim had been Hubay’s first major teacher.
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 Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the New Symphony Orchestra under 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 Harty’s D minor Concerto and made his first records. 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 stage – 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. On the other hand, he knew how to intensify the vibrato so as to point up a climax in the music. He was a master of ‘creative tension’. Although a gentle person off stage, he had a reputation for breaking strings when he got carried away.
From 1917 to 1924 Szigeti taught in Geneva. In 1922 he played with the Berlin Philharmonic under Fritz Reiner and from 1924 he was a regular visitor to the Soviet Union and England, but it was his Philadelphia début in 1925, with the Beethoven Concerto conducted by Leopold 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 Hubay’s 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 most frequent 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 Bartók’s For Children, which they played in recital and recorded as Hungarian Folk Tunes. In 1931 the violinist 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 America. In 1940 Szigeti emigrated with Wanda to the United States, where he and Bartók gave a recital at the Library of Congress and with Benny Goodman performed and recorded Bartók’s trio Contrasts, which the violinist and clarinettist had already introduced in 1939 with Endre Petri. In 1944, with Claudio Arrau, Szigeti presented the cycle of Beethoven Violin 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 man’s virtuoso’. He was adept at flattening his intonation for a more pathetic effect in relaxed or soulful passages, then tightening it for up-tempo or marcato sections; he never tuned sharp to cut through the orchestra. He made a lovely sound but the musical line and rhythmic pulse came first with him; his tone was rarely noticeable for its own sake. 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.
Prokofiev’s First Concerto, written in 1917, had to wait rather long for its première, which took place at the Paris Opéra on 18th October 1923, with Marcel Darrieux as soloist and Serge Koussevitsky conducting. It received a condescending response from the French, but Szigeti was in the audience and saw its potential. On 1st June 1924 he played it at the International Society for Contemporary Music festival in Prague, with Reiner conducting. That was the beginning of the concerto’s acceptance, although Nathan Milstein and Vladimir Horowitz had achieved a success with a violin-and-piano version in Moscow, and once Szigeti had given the Leningrad première, it was not long before his admirer David Oistrakh also took up the cudgels for it. Connoisseurs have difficulty in choosing between these two violinists’ interpretations, but Szigeti got off the mark first in the studio and his recording had the field to itself for some years.
Bloch’s Concerto, with its allusions to Native American and Eastern music, was actually written for Szigeti and he introduced it on 17th December 1938 with the Cleveland Orchestra under Dimitri Mitropoulos. He also played it in Bloch’s home town of Geneva and we have live recordings of the British première, with Beecham and the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 9th March 1939, as well as the Dutch première, with Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orkest, from 9th November 1939. The studio version here was made after the Paris première, which featured the same orchestra and conductor. As a recording, it is one of the best of Szigeti himself, even though the orchestra is a little recessed, and Charles Munch, a former violinist, is a formidable accompanist. Bloch, who had not played the violin for years – he had studied with Ysaÿe – took up the instrument again while writing the Concerto so as to ensure the violin part was idiomatic. He was most concerned that the soloist should not pull the music about too much, and in Szigeti he found his perfect player.
Bartók’s Portrait has a strange history. In 1907-8 he wrote a two-movement concerto for the violinist Stefi Geyer, with whom he was madly in love. She never played it, although she hung on to her copy. Unwilling to waste the music, Bartók took the first movement and titled it ‘Une idéale’, his positive view of Geyer; then, as an opposing companion piece, he orchestrated a piano Bagatelle which used the same motifs, calling it ‘Une grotesque’. Both pieces, showing what he thought of the woman who had spurned him, were published as the Portrait, Op.5, in 1911, but Bartók let his close colleague Imre Waldbauer introduce the concerto movement under that title in Budapest on 12th February 1911. The complete diptych was performed on 20th April 1916, with István Strasser conducting the Budapest Opera Orchestra and Emil Baré playing the solo in ‘Une idéale’. Szigeti included the first part at his farewell concert in Budapest in 1939, with the composer present, and recorded it after the war with the great conductor Constant Lambert. (The recording was intended for a Béla Bartók Society project which Walter Legge of Columbia was trying to set up, on the lines of the pre-war Society issues.) The situation was further complicated when the complete concerto was released after Geyer’s death. It was first given in Basel on 30th May 1958 by Hans-Heinz Schneeberger, with Paul Sacher conducting the Basel Chamber Orchestra, and was published as the Violin Concerto No.1.
The Prokofiev and Bloch concertos were transferred from American Columbia pressings, (“Full-Range” label discs in the first case, “Microphone” label copies in the second). The Bartók came from an English Columbia pressing. Because the Bloch was recorded in a cramped, dry studio, I have added a small amount of digital reverberation in order for the listener to be better able to focus on the performance rather than on the sonic deficiencies of the original recording.
Mark Obert-Thorn is one of the world’s 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.
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