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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Violin Concerto no. 4 in D, K. 218 (1)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Violin Concerto in D, op. 61 (2)
Joseph SZIGETI (violin), London Philharmonic Orch/Sir Thomas Beecham (1), British Symphony Orch/Bruno Walter (2)
Recorded 8.10.1934, Abbey Road Studio no. 1 (1), 14.4.1932, Central Hall, Westminster (2)
NAXOS Historical 8.110946 [66.56]


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What a range of transfer techniques Naxos seem to be using. Having praised their Moiseiwitch and protested vigorously about their Schnabel (Beethoven Concertos 3-5), praise seems in order here again. Some swish remains and it sounds a little as if Mark Obert-Thornís method is simply to put the discs on a period player with a fibre needle and record them like that. If so, there could be worse ways of doing it. Beechamís orchestra sounds a little crumbly but the violin is somehow lifted from the context and has a wonderful speaking quality. Strangely, the slightly earlier Beethoven recording is better still, with fuller orchestral sound. Though I was born well into the LP era, there were still people around in the late fifties who had only 78 equipment (just as some today have not yet got into CDs) and this is the 78 sound as I remember it.

The career of Joseph Szigeti (1892-1973) lasted a little too long for its own good and in my college days his name was a by-word for slovenly, swoopy, portamento-ridden playing. In vain did our elders and betters tell us that his playing was far different in his prime, but, as can be heard here, our elders and betters were quite right.

In terms of portamenti thereís not much to offend modern ears and I can think of some present-day practitioners who might well use more, even in Mozart and Beethoven. When I said above that the recording gives his violin a wonderful speaking quality, it was implicit that this quality came first of all from the violinist, and it is above all for the very human, vocal manner of his playing that these performances are valuable. I was surprised to find Tully Potter, in his informative notes, turning critic and commenting that "Truth to tell, Beecham, the supposed Mozart lover, serves up an accompaniment that is brusque in some places and slapdash in others". Frankly, I could only find admiration for the lightness of touch which with which Beecham supports Szigeti in tempi which (especially in the last movement) could all too easily have lapsed into heaviness. I think the main theme in the last movement really is too slow for an Allegro, for all the performersí grace, but otherwise this is a beautiful performance.

Iím not so sure about the Beethoven. Certainly, Szigetiís speaking quality gives a meaning to many passages where it sometimes seems that the violinist is practising his arpeggios while the orchestra plays a tune, but it doesnít quite all add up. Both Szigeti and Walter change tempi fairly freely, not necessarily at the same points with the result that the first movement appears to be a rather sprawling structure. On the other hand, they do seem to respond to each other at least on a phrase-by-phrase basis and the performance has the spontaneity and humanity for which both artists were renowned. Perhaps it is better to view this as a snapshot of a great violinist playing the Beethoven rather than a great performance of the Beethoven.

Myths are funny things. There are some early recordings which really do seem not to have been matched artistically since, there myths which require imaginative listening to understand what the fuss was really about, there are others again which donít confirm their legendary status at all. This is really none of these. It would seem to suggest that fine performances then and fine performances now were not so unrecognisably different. "Great performers" in the popular mind is sometimes synonymous with "dead performers". Yet a comparison of this with recent versions by, say Perlman (to choose one out of many) would tend to suggest there is more community and continuity of feeling between the public of the 1930s and our own nearly three-quarters of a century later than we might suppose. And itís marvellous that such well-sounding recordings exist to prove the point.

Christopher Howell


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