BEETHOVEN:  Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61  (British Symphony Orch/Bruno Walter)  MOZART:  Violin Concerto No. 4 in D, K. 218 (London Philharmonic Orch/Sir Thomas Beecham
Joseph Szigeti, violinist

NAXOS 8.110946 (B) (ADD) TT:  66:56

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Szigeti (1892-1973) was a patrician artist among bygone virtuosi of every kind, shape, color and size. His mission was musical expressivity rather than tone and technique per se, which is not to say that his interpretations were ever impersonal. He was a pupil of Jen÷ Hubay, Hungary's most famous violin pedagog after the departure of Leopold Auer for tsarist Russia. But friends of Szigeti, whose vibrato grew wobblier and whose tone hardened in middle-age, lamented that he began lessons too early—before an adolescent spurt of growth that gave him hands more suitable for the cello than the violin. When years of adaptive cramping produced excruciating arthritis, it was too late to change—unlike Menuhin, another child prodigy, whose problems were intellectual rather than physical; he was so fluent as a youth that technique was, in effect, the product of rote. Once he began to question why he did what he'd been told to do, Menuhin's control (of pitch in particular) became increasingly erratic. But he could produce a mellow tone, whereas Szigeti's suffered to an extent that caused friends to weep.

These recordings were made, however, before the decline (which his Library of Congress Beethoven sonatas with Claudio Arrau in 1944 painfully documented - musically powerful but tonally ravaged). Even later, his musicianship was so persuasive, so spot-on, that no one since has played the Busoni Violin Concerto or Second Sonata, for example, as eloquently or insightfully (formerly available on a CBS/Sony Masterworks Portrait CD). In his prime and after, Szigeti retained only one mannerism inherited from previous generations: the occasional use of portamento—slides from note to note that were believed to heighten expression. You hear it periodically on this disc in the Beethoven, otherwise much more assured than Szigeti's 1946 remake with Walter and the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra (shortened to NY Phil a decade later by Bernstein and the marketing department). In 1932, leading an ad hoc London orchestra, Walter conducted with muscle missing from most of his terminal recordings with the Los Angeles-area Columbia SO. But his interwar habit of changing tempi not just within a movement but sometimes within a theme-group, even a phrase, is plain to hear in the first exposition, before Szigeti's entrance.

The Beethoven sound tends to edginess on top but is true to 78-rpm source material from the period, and not inappropriate. Mozart has more body—for my taste too much bottom, typical of EMI Columbias in the '╬30s, to compensate for the limited frequency output of home-reproducers. What's offputting, however, is Beecham's brusqueness; usually his Mozart was affectionate, even when overblown sonically or precious in slow movements and minuets. Despite Szigeti, serving as a model for such later masters of style as Arthur Grumiaux, Sir Thomas unbends only in the slow movement. Curious. What Mark Obert-Thorn and Naxos need next to do, though, is restore Szigeti's early version of the Brahms concerto with Sir Hamilton Harty conducting. The Columbia/CBS/Sony remake in Philadelphia with Ormandy was a league-leader in the '40s (Ormandy was a Hubay pupil, too, before taking up the baton)— perhaps the best concerto recording of Szigeti's post-prime period. But the earlier one, if it can yield sound comparable to the results on this disc, is essential for today's generation to hear, along with the greatest of all Szigeti's concerto recordings: Prokofiev No. 1, with Beecham and the prewar LPO.

R.D. (Sept. 2001)