Notes and Editorial Reviews
Joseph Szigeti (vn); Bruno Walter, cond;
Dimitri Mitropoulos, cond;
MUSIC & ARTS 1197, mono (67:55) Live: New York 2/2/1941;
Joseph Szigeti recorded the Mendelssohn Concerto only once in the studio: with Beecham and the London Philharmonic Orchestra that took place in 1933, when he had not quite reached Jack Benny’s permanent age of 39. In his live performance with Bruno Walter eight years later, there’s only an occasional hint of the wobble that afflicted his tone in later years, leading my father to describe it as “sick” when I first heard Szigeti’s later recordings. “Sick” or not, there was nevertheless something in that sound that could captivate a young imagination. Even the latest recordings, from his sixties, became treasures; and no matter how many by “better sounding” violinists I may have acquired, it was Szigeti’s to which I turned most frequently for sheer listening pleasure. Abram Chipman observes in his comprehensive and insightful notes that Szigeti’s recording of Ravel’s Sonata still stands as the model for many critics; I’ve never heard any to equal it, though recently several have approached it. That’s why opportunities to hear Szigeti in his earlier recordings become increasingly important: for years, the later, palsied sound represented Szigeti for many listeners who may never have given his musical intelligence a fair chance. Take the way Szigeti plays the accents in the middle section of Mendelssohn’s slow movement: they spike a passage that too often sounds blandly ingratiating. Or listen to his hushed transition into the first section’s restatement. Listen, for that matter, to how he soars in the restatement itself. Chipman cites a colleague’s suggestion that Szigeti simply added more “ingredients” than did his colleagues. Of course, tonal beauty in the traditional sense unfortunately didn’t seem to be one of them. Jascha Heifetz, less than a decade younger than Szigeti, played this Concerto with electrifying verve (and the older Ysaÿe had already showed how fast the finale could be taken). But nobody could get under the skin quite so easily as Szigeti often did—and he did so in this reading of the Mendelssohn Concerto. The recorded sound, raspy and full of extraneous noise, seems almost irrelevant (both performances appear in transfers by Ward Marston). Henry Roth mentioned only the studio recording with Beecham, and considered it “affectionate” but not really “beautiful.” The same might be said of this later one, but only if “beautiful” in this case connotes a lush tone and a restricted accentuation rather than interestingly personal. I’d prefer “stimulating” or “fascinating” to “affectionate.”
The Brahms Concerto from 1948 (earlier releases have been listed on AS Disc and on Iron Needle) falls between readings with Harty (1928), Ormandy (1945), and the mono/stereo version on Mercury with Menges (1959). The recorded sound, markedly superior to that of the Mendelssohn Concerto performance, reveals true richness not only in the orchestral strings but also in Szigeti’s tone. Szigeti would turn 46 a month later, but his control of vibrato in the first movement sounds secure except in long held notes (like the double stops that have been suggested as Brahms’s tribute to Viotti’s 22nd Concerto). Those, like Henry Roth, who complain about Szigeti’s orchestral support in Harty’s version should find in both the orchestral playing and the conductor’s sympathy with the soloist a more satisfying disposition of the component elements (although Harty could hardly be described as anything less than an empathetic collaborator—he had even written his own violin concerto for Szigeti about 20 years before the Brahms recording). Better the recorded sound may be, but there’s still noise at the opening of the Adagio (while the oboe plays what Sarasate called the only good tune). None of that affects the enchanted way in which soloist and orchestra bring the movement to a conclusion. This passage should fit absolutely anyone’s definition of beauty. And the finale’s coda has the traction of a dozen locomotives (it’s clear from the thunderous applause—cut off for what appears to have been a radio announcement—that the audience thought so too).
No matter what recordings a collector may have acquired of the Mendelssohn and Brahms violin concertos or by Joseph Szigeti, this one belongs among them. And Chipman’s notes could hardly be better, either in his discussion of Szigeti’s style, in his survey of Szigeti’s recordings in general, or in his detailed discussion of these performances. A superb release, urgently recommended.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham