About this Recording
8.110979 - BACH, J.S. / TARTINI: Violin Concertos (Szigeti) (1937-1954)

Great Violinists • Joseph Szigeti
Bach • Tartini

This disc contains much of the baroque music that we have on record from the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti. Added interest is lent to the programme by the presence on the Bach Double Concerto of the Hungarian violinist and teacher Carl Flesch (1873- 1944). This project came about because Flesch was living in London at the time: it is his one large-scale recording – otherwise, apart from short pieces, we have only sonatas by Handel and Mozart and some concertos taken down off the air. Tartini’s Concerto in D minor was the only concerto by the Italian violinist/composer that had any currency in the ‘good old days’. Szigeti, who wrote his own cadenzas, recorded it twice (this version being the better) and Peter Rybar made a famous early LP. Wolfgang Schneiderhan’s version had limited circulation. While Bach’s Double Concerto has been a staple of the catalogues since the pioneering acoustic discs by Kreisler and Zimbalist (with string quartet), the solo Concerto in D minor was an unusual choice for a 78rpm recording. Scholars had long suspected that some Bach keyboard concertos were arrangements of works for more ‘singing’ instruments, and in the early days of the baroque revival various versions were made. Adolf Busch and his father-in-law Hugo Grüters prepared a transcription of the D minor Concerto which Busch played all over Europe. His friend Szigeti attended at least one performance of this arrangement, in Switzerland, so perhaps it was the spur for the Hungarian to take up the Reitz edition. Although Szigeti recorded the concerto again with Casals conducting, this 1940 version is to be preferred. Szigeti also recorded a transcription of the slow movement of the F minor Concerto and later set down the whole work; and between them, these recordings help to make up for the lack of Szigeti versions of the orthodox Bach solo Concertos.

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 bassist, 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 Bach’s 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 Beethoven’s 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 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.

It has to be admitted that none of these recordings is up to the standard of Szigeti’s best work, although his own playing is mostly marvellous. The Double Concerto is a particular disappointment, in view of its importance vis à vis Flesch. Walter Goehr conducts squarely and has not rehearsed his pick-up string group thoroughly: the ‘Double’ was a repertoire piece in London, heard every year at the Proms, usually played by the sisters Jelly d’Arányi and Adila Fachiri, and perhaps Goehr thought he could get away with a run- through. Flesch is past his prime and even the sound quality is poor (the present transfer is the best ever made). Goehr is little more of an inspiration in the Tartini, but his insensitivity pales into insignificance when compared with the brutality meted out to the F minor Concerto by George Szell. As the accompanying ensemble is made up of members of Szell’s regular Cleveland Orchestra, appearing under a nom de disque, it is all the more regrettable that the result is so dogged and heavy. The support group in the Bach D minor Concerto also needs some explanation. The New Friends of Music, organised by Ira Hirschmann, used to put on series of chamber concerts every season in New York. Most of their artists, and many of their subscribers, were immigrants or refugees from Europe. Sometimes an orchestra was brought together, and it is this rather motley band that is conducted here by Viennese-born Fritz Stiedry (1883-1968). Szigeti’s vital, vibrant playing knits it all together.

Tully Potter

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