Henryk Szeryng seems to polarise opinion fourteen years
after his death in 1988. For some his stylishness, his tonal qualities
without exaggeration and his stylistic aptness are benchmarks. For others
his is the kind of musicianship that slides too frequently toward blandness.
Even a practitioner as genial as Itzhak Perlman can show his teeth when
confronted by the Szeryng conundrum, frequently having noted that whenever
he hears a recording by a fine violinist whom he can’t recognise it
has to be Szeryng. By which he means, I suppose, a generic tonal response,
a fatal lack of distinguishing individuality, maybe also the idea that
Szeryng seldom if ever commits musical solecisms or, its inevitable
corollary, fails to scale the heights either.
But it’s highly unusual to find a musician who responds
promiscuously to the whole body of the literature. Why should a violinist
who plays Brahms well necessarily play Szymanowski equally well? Szeryng
had, on disc at least, a wide range of interests – amongst the expected
Bach, Beethoven, Mozart (he was a frequently exalted Mozartian) and
Brahms and the sugar-coated delights of his Kreisler (one of the best
Kreisler albums around) there are nuggets galore – Ponce, Chávez,
Halffter-Escriche, Khachaturian and Martinon, all of whose concertos
he played and recorded, commercially in the main, or otherwise. Whatever
position one takes regarding him, pro or contra (or indeed neither)
there is luckily plenty of recorded evidence upon which to reflect.
Here is yet more, a collaboration between violinist and Mindru Katz,
taped whilst they were both on tour in England in 1973. It seems they
were touring separately but, having met before in Israel and having
kindred interests, they spontaneously set down these two sonatas for
their own pleasure, and the recording derives from the pianist’s widow.
I admired them but was seldom moved by them. The Brahms
opens pliantly, fluently, but quite slowly, with occasionally some understandably
tentative ensemble. The slow movement witnesses some emotive intensificatory
gestures from Szeryng and a dramatically withdrawn slow central section
whilst in the third movement Katz is playful and delightful and Szeryng
aristocratically deadpan and superbly sanguine. The Franck is a big
performance, alive to the complexities of projection and interiority
of design. The close of the third movement Recitative-Fantasia is the
highlight, playing of especially and treasurably tender intimacy such
as is not often encountered.
Szeryng recorded the three Brahms Sonatas with his
one-time sponsor and long time admirer Arthur Rubinstein (RCA, 1960).
This Katz recording of the D minor is more sheerly affectionate than
the Rubinstein traversal and in addition Szeryng never recorded the
Franck – which is one reason at least why his admirers will want the
disc. The sound is excellent.