BRAHMS:  Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77 (rec. Dec. 3/5, 1928)
Joseph Szigeti, violinist;  HallÈ Orch/Hamilton Harty, cond.
MENDELSSOHN:  Violin Concerto, Op. 64 (rec. Sept. 27-28, 1933)
Joseph Szigeti, violinist; London Phil. Orch/Thomas Beecham, cond.

NAXOS 8.119948 (B) (ADD) TT:  64:12


BEETHOVEN:  Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61 (rec. June 16,17 & 22, 1936)
Fritz Kreisler, violinist; London Phil. Orch/John Barbirolli, cond.
MENDELSSOHN:  Violin Concerto, Op. 64 (rec. April 8, 1935)
Fritz Kreisler, violinist; London Phil. Orch/Landon Ronald, cond.

NAXOS 8.110959 (B) (ADD) TT: 69:48


The leading violin teachers in Central and Eastern Europe during the second half of the 19th and first third of the 20th centuries were not Russian, Viennese or German but Hungarian-born: Joseph Joachim, Jen– Hubay, and Leopold Auer. Joachim migrated to Germany by way of Leipzig and Vienna, while Auer went east to Russia, where their very different "schools" of playing prevailed. But Hubay stayed in Budapest, where Szigeti became his most famous pupil (although others included Franz von Vecsey, Emil Telmányi, and Eugene Ormandy, then still Jen– Blau). A previous review of Szigeti's prewar Beethoven concerto addressed the cause and consequence of arthritis that attacked his violin playing before the age of 50. But in his 30s he was perhaps the greatest musician among violin players between wars, to which this Mendelssohn in particular attests, even were there not the sentimental contrast of Fritz Kreisler, whose second recording of it (again in London), just two years after Szigeti's, makes it sound like salon music.

Beecham and Szigeti were felicitous partners (despite my disliking Sir Thomas' accompaniment in the Mozart concerto on that earlier Naxos CD, with Beethoven), who scaled two peaks: this patrician performance of Mendelssohn, both subtle and incisive, and the Prokofiev First Concerto, to this day nonpareil. Szigeti played Joachim's cadenzas as if Mendelssohn himself had written them, and overall lent the concerto a stature and dignity that too many performances since 1933 have turned into treacle. Solo-wise, the Brahms of 1928 is hardly less authoritative, although Sir Hamilton Harty and the HallÈ Orchestra of Manchester—Britain's best until Beecham founded (and partly funded) the LPO in 1932—were no match for Ormandy's 1945 Philadelphians in the Szigeti remake for American Columbia (by which time, however, intonational as well as tonal problems were obtruding). However, HallÈ's solo oboe is a blessed surprise in the slow movement, with none of the nasal vibrato that Leon Goossens practiced and passed on, like a virus, to Brit oboists ever after.

The problem that Marc Obert-Thorn faced in his startlingly fine transfer of Brahms was the disparity of pitches from side to side on the original 78s. You'd never know, though, from the pains taken to match them. And his remastering in the two Kreisler concertos is rock solid. But those performances are for fans of the Kreisler style, which favored portamento playing and a gemütlichkeit that sounded best in salon pieces during his later years. He was 60 when he redid the Mendelssohn with Sir Landon Ronald, founder of the Malcolm Sargent school (whose place no one has taken, although plenty of British conductors have proved to be as mediocre; just as no one has replaced Arthur Fiedler on this side of the Atlantic). In Beethoven, with the soloist's own cadenzas, 36-year-old John Barbirolli was Kreisler's conductor, on the threshold of being eaten alive by the New York Philharmonic in Toscanini's wake—a solid piece of work, respectful of his Holy-Ghost soloist but not slavish. Still, you have to be a Kreisler fan of whom there were millions transatlantically in his prime years, before young Jascha Heifetz, Auer-trained, turned his laser-beam technique on a repertory larger than Kreisler ever imagined much less addressed.

Conclusion? Don't deny yourself Szigeti, but buy a really good Sacher torte with the $7 you'd spend on Kreisler.

R.D. (March 2002)