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Johann Sebastian BACH

Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra BWV1043 (1717-23) [15.39]
Carl Flesch (violin)/Orchestra/Walter Goehr
Violin Concerto in D minor (restored Reitz from Clavier Concerto in D minor BWV1052) [23.06]
New Friends of Music Orchestra/Fritz Stiedry
Largo from Clavier Concerto in F minor Arioso BWV 1056 [3.41]
Orchestra/Walter Goehr
Violin Concerto in G minor (restored G Schreck from Clavier Concerto in F minor BWV1056 edited Szigeti) [11.48]
Columbia Symphony Orchestra/George Szell
Giuseppe TARTINI (1692-1770)
Violin Concerto in D minor (edited Pente, arranged Szigeti) [13.04]
Orchestra/Walter Goehr
Joseph Szigeti (violin) with accompaniments as above
Recorded 1937, 1940 (Bach D minor) and 1954 (Bach G minor)
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110979 [67.19]

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One of the most vibrant and life-affirming recordings of a Handel sonata in the inter-war period was Szigeti’s. He remained in the main an expressive and convincing romanticised exponent of baroque repertoire, amongst so much else. However, not all his recordings were so successful. This disc collates some of the most problematically recorded discs in some of the most problematic interpretations. The results are illuminating more for Szigeti’s own playing than as cohesive statements in their own right. I agree with sleeve-note writer Tully Potter’s trenchant comments on these matters.

Szigeti recorded a series of baroque works with Walter Goehr in 1937. The Tartini features a clattery and over-recorded harpsichord and the accompaniment is stolid. Szigeti’s tone is characteristically silvery, seldom starved at the top, never opulent. He’s at his best in the slow movement, which is expressive without ostentation, but there is some roughness in his bowing of the small third movement cadenza and the playing here is inclined to be rather sticky. The Bach Arioso, from the Clavier Concerto in F minor, is taken from a noisy sounding shellac but has an affecting simplicity. The Double Concerto with Carl Flesch was a well-known failure. It’s difficult to believe that this was an Abbey Road venture so boxy is the sound quality. Potter says this is the best transfer it’s received and again I agree. It’s superior to the Pearl, which is not as clear and has a bigger ration of surface noise and a big improvement on the LP transfers I have, which were unacceptably murky and ill defined. As a performance we find that the two soloists don’t make an especially alluring pairing tonally, and that Goehr’s accompaniment is over emphatic and rather unsubtle. The soloists do at least attempt to inject some expression in the slow movement but they’re up against some plonking accompaniment from the ad hoc band.

The restored D minor Concerto was put on disc in New York and suffers another recording limitation – it was a real 1940 American Columbia shocker, horribly blowsy and coarse sounding. Some diminuendi and moulded phrasing lead one to hope that this might be stylistically a more musical, less clod-hopping accompaniment, than Szigeti received from Goehr but it turns out to be an illusion. This is still heavy, rough and approximate. Szigeti’s intonation wanders in the slow movement (admirers will note that this is “expressive intonation”). Finally we have the God-awful George Szell conducting G minor Concerto. The gimlet-eyed Hungarian conductor must have been in an especially tough mood as he leads his compatriot through a galumphing, miserable reading. Szigeti exhibits some serious bowing arm defects, as was often the case in these, his declining years and his unevenness and unsteadiness is accompanied by a tonal shrillness. I don’t know what to say about Szell’s marshalling of the orchestral pizzicato figures except that they’re truly terrible and that Szigeti’s downward portamenti sound rather forced. The original recording hardly modifies the stultifying, remorseless heaviness of the undertaking.

So, some severe caveats about the performances. As for the transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn we find he is in competition, at least retrospectively, with some earlier examples on the Biddulph label (LAB064) made by ... Mark Obert-Thorn. That Biddulph shared the Tartini, Bach Arioso and D minor Concerto with this Naxos. The Biddulph retained a fairly high ratio of surface noise, which Obert-Thorn has here tamed but at considerable cost to the higher frequencies. The Arioso is much improved on the Biddulph; it sounds re-pitched and subject to much more sensitive restoration than the earlier transfer. The Bach Double is, as I said, its best incarnation on disc. But the Tartini and the D minor are different. Some will appreciate the quieter surface sound but I found that the effect is to make congested and boxy recordings even more so and to lose the treble openness that at least gave some life to them. The lax orchestral accompaniments allied to too much filtering on these two works mean that this disc should be viewed with care.

Jonathan Woolf


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