Notes and Editorial Reviews
Violin Sonata No. 10.
Violin Sonata in A,
Violin Sonata No. 3
Joseph Szigeti (vn); Mieczyslaw Horszowski (pn);
Myra Hess (pn)
BIDDULPH 80228, mono (72: 46)
As Eric Wen’s notes point out, Szigeti recorded only Beethoven’s First (1946), Fifth (1953), Sixth (1953), Seventh (1949), part of the Eighth (1928), part of the Ninth (1911), and 10th Violin Sonatas in the studio (besides the live performances with Claudio Arrau of the entire set at the Library of Congress in 1944 and the Ninth in his landmark recital with Bartók). The violinist wrote a short booklet on the sonatas and served as one of their most thoughtful exponents during his career, so it’s no surprise that the sixtyish Szigeti could still offer audiences plenty about which to think in April (18 and 19) 1951 and January 29, 1952 (apparently he recorded the work in three sessions). Over the years, I’ve come to overlook easily Szigeti’s progressively aberrant tone production; but Columbia’s engineers (mono—Columbia ML 4642) presented his sound so close up and captured it with such great fidelity in the 10th Sonata that it sounds (at least in these transfers by David Hermann) more sumptuous than brittle: thick and rich in the slow movement and, as usual, sharply articulated in the Scherzo. Of course, listeners will be beset by an occasional bit of extraneous noise and the almost ubiquitous wobble, but the general vitality of the performance (exemplified in the flinty finale) makes those drawbacks seem like quibbles. When Szigeti strikes an accompanying chord (such as those in the finale), he can penetrate to the deepest levels of a listener’s awareness, and when he sings, as in the slow movement, few violinists can match his expressiveness; finally, when he plays passagework, as at the finale’s end, he can usually find meaning in the superficially most routine sounding running passages. Those more accustomed to his performances with Arrau should find Biddulph’s remastering comparatively lifelike in tone (for both violin and piano). He also played more angularly and took generally quicker tempos with Horszowski; many may still prefer his live performance with Arrau.
Szigeti made only one recording of Schubert’s Sonata in A Major (released in mono as Columbia ML 4717), when, as in the case of his studio recording of Beethoven’s 10th Sonata, he had almost reached the age of 60 (June 1952). Columbia’s recorded sound seems less sharply defined than that of the Beethoven Sonata. Szigeti played Fritz Kreisler’s miniatures in the 1920s with haunting nostalgia, so he clearly wasn’t a stranger to Schubert’s Viennese style, which Kreisler would ultimately inherit (and, some might contend, either trivialize or apotheosize, depending on their sympathy with his artistic goals). In Schubert’s Sonata, in any case, Szigeti can imbibe the style at its purest; and, of course, that doesn’t imply, for him, kitsch in the opening movement or cut and thrust in the Scherzo. The same combination of fibrous strength and deep-running emotional currents that flowed together in Beethoven’s almost pastoral Sonata dominates the Schubert Sonata as well. And Szigeti’s tone remains focused and comparatively steady throughout. He and Hess seem well matched in their preference for sweetness without treacle and with strength without inflexibility.
Szigeti recorded Brahms’s Third Sonata twice, once with Egon Petri in 1937 (originally issued by Columbia and transferred to compact disc on Andante 2991, 25:4, and on Classica d’Oro 2016, 26: 5). This later one, according to Wen, constituted Szigeti’s last appearance on Columbia (ML 5226). Its technical and tonal characteristics, as well as the recorded sound, come closer to those of Beethoven’s Sonata than to Schubert’s, though the intervening four years had produced a slight hesitation between passages and notes. Mieczyslaw Horszowski served as Szigeti’s partner in many of his later Columbia recordings (and in the Mozart sonatas that would be released on Vanguard in the middle 1950s), although Carlo Bussotti also worked with him. His performance with Petri (with a less abrasive remastering on Andante—but neither that nor Classica d’Oro’s version seems to be available any longer) sounds tonally more seductive and his manner, less beset by technical deficiencies. Still, the slow movement’s double-stops in Columbia’s recording with Horszowski sound as rich and enveloping as the textures of a string quartet (a critic once described Kreisler’s double-stops that way)—even if the single notes tend to flop around timbrally a bit. (Remember, however, that Milstein and Rosand maintained their tonal opulence much later.)
Szigeti inveighed late in his life against performances that had grown to resemble so much computer output. Those who seek to communicate primarily through burnished tone and unvarying technical command—at the expense of analysis and personality—might do well to reconsider their priorities, although it’s by no means clear that Szigeti could forge a similar career with a similar musical personality nowadays. In the 1940s, audiences could see him in the movie
, and as odd as his close-to-the-side bow arm might look to modern audiences, his interpretations generally strike me as possessing a steely modernity tempered with sentiment—interpretations of a kind that presaged the exciting exploratory sense of the period-instrument movement, though Szigeti had received the most traditional of musical educations (playing the virtuoso warhorses under Hubay). Biddulph’s collection shows how effectively Szigeti had transcended his formative influences and that he remained intellectually (musically) vital into his early sixties (the last pages of the Brahms Sonata give incontrovertible testimony to that). Strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham