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(1903 - 2001)

Zoltán Székely’s name will always be associated with that of Béla Bartók. Generations of young violinists will have played his arrangement of Bartók’s Six Romanian Dances and Székely gave premieres of several of Bartók’s works. He was also the illustrious leader (after Sándor Végh gave up the post) for over thirty-five years of the Hungarian String Quartet, a group that was to be one of the great and enduring ensembles of the middle of the twentieth century and one that will always be linked to Bartók’s name, giving premieres of and recording all of his string quartets.

A violin pupil of Jenő Hubay at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, Székely was also a significant composer: whilst studying with Zoltán Kodály he completed his Op. 1, the Sonata for Solo Violin. Most notable of his later compositions is a string quartet in eight movements (1937), which finally received its premiere in Banff, Canada in 1999 in a performance by the New Zealand String Quartet (which numbered two of his ex-pupils among its members).

The last twenty years of Székely’s career were spent in Canada where he held the post of Alberta’s violinist-in-residence, acting as a role model for many aspiring musicians and frequently travelling around the province in uncomfortable conditions to further this aim.

Székely’s performance style has a pure, clean edge to its sound which, from an early stage, took on many of the now familiar hallmarks of twentieth-century violin playing. It is his appealing depth of tone and gritty integrity of interpretation that define the many recordings of the Hungarian String Quartet. Their account of Kodály’s Quartet No. 2 from 1959 testifies to the qualities of this ensemble, a performance in which Kodály’s folk-inspired work, whilst perhaps lacking the ultimate innovative edge of Bartók’s seminal six quartets, is richly united with the Romantic aesthetic. The result is a language well suited to the quartet’s rich and powerful tone.

Although perhaps best remembered as leader of this great ensemble, Székely was also a popular and highly successful solo artist. His world premiere performance of Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in 1939 with Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (recorded live) is of obvious historical significance and demonstrates a warmth of emotion and fluidity of sound that are not often associated with this work. He also produced a deeply-felt recording (1942) of Glazunov’s Violin Concerto in which his bright sound is suitably counterpoised with darker hues in this sometimes brooding, sometimes dazzling work.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)

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