Piero Rattalino, one of Italy’s premier writers on
the piano and pianists in general, writes many of Aura’s sleevenotes.
In general his writing runs the gamut from bizarre to affectionate with
all stops in between. Here he relates the story of how, having booked
Henryk Szeryng for a concert engagement and gone backstage to greet
him beforehand, Rattalino twice found the Polish born violinist had
been drinking. Rattalino avers that Szeryng "knew how to stop one
glass short of disaster" which is fortunate for the reputation
of a musician who still, fourteen years after his death, occupies a
curious mid-ground between admiration and indifference. This Ascona
concert which dates from September 1975 – and it’s rather typical of
the eccentric note writer that whilst he happily spills the beans on
a violinist’s Dutch courage he doesn’t go in for biographical data –
finds Szeryng essaying the Three Bs. He was then fifty-seven and his
hard route to international acclamation lay behind him.
He made only one commercial recording of Beethoven’s
Op. 12 No. 1 Sonata, with Ingrid Haebler for Philips, and similarly
he made only one disc of the Brahms Op 78 with his admirer and effective
sponsor, Artur Rubinstein. Other performances of his Bach have however
surfaced and the Partita appeared on EMI and associated labels, and
another performance on DG with a 1961 live Melodiya doing the rounds
as well. This Ascona concert is a serious-minded but not aloof recital
and many of Szeryng’s aristocratic qualities are on show. The opening
movement of the Beethoven is buoyant and jovial with Eugenio Bagnoli
proving an engaging partner. As ever with Szeryng clarity and precision
are hallmarks of his playing, with a vibrato generally under control
at all times. Elegance informs the variational second movement and a
sense of undeviating aplomb in the finale albeit there is one very brief
moment of blasting on the tape. Overloading – if that’s what it is –
does resurface in the first movement of the Brahms from 4.50 onwards,
but it relents and the problem is fleeting; a hazard of the live performance.
Bagnoli shines in the slow movement and is both simple and affectionate.
Szeryng varies his vibrato usage noticeably here and I found his emotive
phrasing somewhat forced. Intonation comes under very slight pressure
as well and some rather unusually declamatory passagework at 3.05 decorates
a movement in which the violinist shows he is still more than adept
at blanching his tone without losing vibrance. The finale returns to
the verities of the opening movement – a sanity and clarity that doesn’t
preclude depth but equally never forces itself on the listener, never
projects unreasonably expressive weight. At moments Bagnoli sounds a
mite hesitant at some points but this is otherwise a sound reading,
enlivened by the circumstances of its performance. Szeryng was a master
Bachian. His preserve in the Partita is cogency, architectural certainty,
rhythmic acuity, textual accuracy and romantic sensibility. True he
splits the occasional note – in the Chaconne – but his attacks are strong,
his dynamics well terraced and his sense of the dynamic variance of
phrasing is strong.
This is not the first Szeryng issue in Aura’s continuing
series but it is an impressive one. It captures an artist of maturity
and the recital is an example of rapport between violinist and pianist.
If I still want to know the identity of Rattalino’s eminent French violinist
who was so drunk that he slid his bow underneath the strings of the
violin or the conductor who threw himself off the rostrum in an alcoholic
stupor, I will still want to listen to this recital considerably more
– Szeryng, as ever, is an excellent guide to the repertoire.