PROKOFIEV: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D, Op. 19. BARTÓK; Portrait, Op. 5 No. 1. BLOCH: Violin Concerto in A minor.
Joseph Szigeti, violinist; London Philharmonic Orch/Thomas Beecham, cond. (Prokofiev, rec. Aug. 23, 1935); Philharmonia Orchestra/Constant Lambert, cond. (Bartók, rec. June 22, 1946); Paris Conservatory Orch/Charles Munch, cond. (Bloch, rec. Mar. 22-23, 1939)
NAXOS 8.110973 (B) (ADD) TT: 63:57

Under a pile of recently posted CDs from R.B. I found this Naxos treasure with a 2003 copyright (although no listing as of March 1, 2004 on a random search of websites). Both recordings are classics of prewar-2 concerti that Szigeti not only championed but in the case of Bloch premiered (at Cleveland in December 1938, with Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting) and first recorded at Paris a few months later with Charles Munch leading the Conservatoire Orchestra. Mark Obert-Thorn, who had previously remastered this performance for Pearl, writes in a Naxos note that he “added a small amount of digital reverberation” because it “was recorded in a cramped, dry studio.” How different things were then, compared to the cavernous sound of so many postwar Paris recordings from the Salle Wagram.

The Bloch is a big piece – here just under 35 minutes, although a minute-plus longer in a broadcast from Amsterdam later on in 1939, available on Andante (and formerly on Music & Arts). It lacks the melodic afflatus of Schelomo or Baal Shem, although the middle Andante has a Hebraic cantillation that earmarks it as a work by Bloch. Otherwise the concerto is sturdy, serious, structurally solid and musically forthright, yet not a barn-burner that brings audiences to their feet cheering. Szigeti plays in his trademarked patrician style, never for a moment vulgar although he did retain portamento in his playing. Munch was still a comparative newcomer on the podium after years as concertmaster at Leipzig under Furtwängler, but already a master of the baton as evidenced by the coherent and cooperative playing of that often-anarchic Conservatoire orchestra. Obert-Thorn’s expertise makes the sound altogether natural for its period.

The Prokofiev, completed in 1917 after two years of work but not performed until 1922, and not at all liked when new, found an ardent early champion in Szigeti, whose recording with Sir Thomas Beecham and the freshly minted London Philharmonic of 1935 was the first. But let me quote Irving Kolodin’s review in his New Guide to Recorded Music (the first revised edition of 1946): “Of all the Szigeti recordings, this is perhaps the triumphant demonstration of his virtuosity, taste, and musicianship. The playing is remarkably poised and sonorous, set against a perfectly proportioned background provided by Beecham. The reproduction is excellent.”

Amen, and a bow to Obert-Thorn for his immaculate transfer. But let’s not overlook Szigeti’s 1946 recording of what then was called Portrait, Op. 5, No. 1 – in fact the first part of a two- movement concerto composed for a violinist who bewitched Bartók but didn’t return his ardor, or the music. To the original “Une ideale” he appended an orchestrated piano bagatelle using the same motifs which he called “Une grotesque.” Both were published as Portrait. What Szigeti recorded in 1946 with Constant Lambert conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra was “Une ideale.” After the violinist’s death the complete concerto was released, published as Concerto No. 1 in 1958, and premiered as such in Basel.

R.D. (March 2004)