"There is no substitute for perfect intonation", said Joseph Szigeti. Well you cannot say fairer than that. Those familiar with recordings made of Szigeti in his prime will know that this was not just an implied idle boast about his own playing. Unfortunately though, occasionally, in his later performances Szigeti's legendary intonation and technique deserted him and this is evident in recordings he made from about 1940 onwards. The two concertos on this disc, recorded in the early 1930s, are a reminder of what Szigeti was capable of and why he was so greatly admired.
Szigeti was something of a violinists' violinist and his influence was still felt well after his death at over 80 in 1973. Arnold Steinhardt, first violinist of the Guarneri Quartet, for example, was an admirer. On vibrato: "Szigeti would sometimes purposely withhold vibrato from a single note; he magnified the expression by, as it were, cooling it off. This was highly unusual and very personal". On sliding: "Szigeti had a most expressive way of sliding, especially when, on occasion, he would drag his finger down a tone. It sounded like a cry or a lament; it was natural, very vocal - and heart-rending". And on innovation: "I learned a lot about creative practice from Szigeti. His mind was alive and teeming with inventive ideas. He would never just routinely practice an awkward shift … He was always experimenting and would often practice the same passage with different fingerings".
Szigeti was born into an era of change in terms of violin playing style. He straddled the earlier time when vibrato was used only as a rare expressive device and a later time when it became embedded practice. In addition, the common habit of sliding between notes in certain contexts was gradually being dropped during his career. His playing is therefore very much of its time in that it retains elements from the past but, as his admirers would say, avoided some of the excesses of what is now contemporary practice.
Naxos has chosen a concerto coupling that not only provides a vehicle for showing the finer aspects of Szigeti's playing but are interesting and enjoyable performances in their own right. Beecham's Mozart was legendary and his handling of K.218 here is typical. Although the orchestral playing can be a little ragged at times, there is that characteristic poise in the springy step. What really matters though is how at one Beecham and Szigeti are stylistically and this is what makes for such a satisfying performance. The andante in particular is beautifully shaped by Beecham and it is here, and also in the slow movement larghetto of the Beethoven concerto, that Szigeti's tonal purity is heard to best advantage. I found listening to the Beethoven larghetto particularly refreshing. Here is a movement that at worst can be made to sound like a sentimental interlude between the outer movements. Szigeti, ably abetted by Bruno Walter, invests it with a stillness that lends it a particular kind of intensity not often heard.
As far as the technical wizardry side of things is concerned anyone who has heard Szigeti's recording of The Flight of the Bumble Bee will have no doubt about his virtuosity and the Joachim cadenzas in both concertos on the disc well show off this aspect of his playing. Incidentally, Szigeti recorded the Beethoven Concerto again with Bruno Walter fifteen years later in 1947 and the playing is demonstrably less secure.
This disc is not just an historic account of one man's
playing in two major repertory works. Even now, dozens of recording
later, the performances, well recorded for the time and expertly transferred,
still stand up. There may be a little untidiness and interpretative
mannerisms (for example, marked slowing for second subjects - both conductors
do it) that take getting used to but here are two great conductors and
a violinist in self effacing performances where the music is clearly
coming first above all other considerations. A refreshing experience
in our competitive, commercial world.