> Szigeti: Mendelssohn - Brahms [WH]: Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in E minor, op. 64 (1844)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Violin Concerto in D, op. 77 (1879)
Joseph Szigeti, violin
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Beecham (Mendelssohn) Hallé Orchestra/Hamilton Harty (Brahms)
Recorded September 1933 at Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London, UK (Mendelssohn) and December 1928 at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, UK (Brahms)
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110948 [64.12]


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The Brahms concerto opens with a surprise, a pronounced portamento between the third and fourth notes of the orchestral introduction which is only the first in a series of similar slides from the orchestral strings. Many of these seem pasted on, neither very effective from the expressive point of view nor even always particularly logical in the string players’ technical context. Szigeti indulges in slides too, but they seem far more spontaneous coming from the soloist than they do from the massed strings. Apart from this the only other aspect of these performances likely to seem strange to listeners with little experience of historical recordings is a certain freedom of tempo and pulse. Here again, the purpose of many of the small variations in tempo, some of which last only for a bar or two, is often difficult to fathom. I’m thinking of the first movement in particular, here; the slow movement and finale contain much less of this. Indeed, apart from the actual sound of the playing, these two movements could easily come from a more recent interpretation. The crucial oboe solo in the slow movement gives little pleasure: the sound of the instrument is crude and harsh compared to modern playing, and even the player’s way with phrasing seems laboured and unrefined. Szigeti’s reading of the solo part is masterly, though, at once humble – he remains at all times at the service of the composer – and full of character. Few soloists manage this particular balancing act so well. His reading of the work is convincing too. Only in the finale did I think a slightly slower tempo might have brought out a little more Hungarian flavour. The crucial passage immediately following the first movement cadenza is marvellously done. The gentle return of the opening theme is slowly, patiently transformed into the passionate, even tempestuous music with which the movement closes. This is extremely beautiful and moving.

If anything, though, I enjoyed Szigeti’s reading of the Mendelssohn concerto even more, and certainly a good deal more than Kreisler’s 1935 performance with Landon Ronald which I recently reviewed. He plays with greater technical assurance than Kreisler, for one thing, and his way with the music has a simpler, more spontaneous feel to it. The Mendelssohn is essentially a simple work of singing lines and this is exactly how Szigeti presents it, though he is not averse to a bit of expressive accretion when it suits him. His accompaniment – if one can call it that – of the first movement second subject, for example, a low held open G, is delivered with a large-scale expressive swell which will certainly not suit everybody but which I find most effective and well judged.

Beecham brings meaning and substance to the passage which links the first two movements in a most uncanny way. Szigeti takes more time than Kreisler over the slow movement, though one may argue that his tempo, though closer to what we are used to today, is a little slow for an andante, and portamento is once again very much, perhaps too much, in evidence here. Soloist and orchestra deliver a marvellously propulsive finale, deliciously light where required, and full of wit and good humour. Szigeti’s double stops in the final bars are thrilling.

I have no doubt that the sound, judged on its own terms, is excellent for its period, thanks in part to the remarkable restoration work of Mark Obert-Thorn. But compared to a modern recording the sound is execrable and it seems to me that the performances must have something very special about them to persuade the collector to listen repeatedly to them simply for pleasure. Readers will already know if they are likely to fall into this category, but my view is that if you can take the sliding Hallé strings and the sound of their principal oboe, these are both performances which are interesting in their own right as well as for historical reasons. More recent recommendations, of which there are a large number, seem irrelevant in this context.

William Hedley

see also review by Jonathan Woolf


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