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Joseph Szigeti (violin)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major K218 (1775)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Violin Concerto in D major Op. 61 (1806)
Joseph Szigeti (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Beecham (Mozart)
British Symphony Orchestra/Bruno Walter (Beethoven)
Recorded 1932-34
NAXOS 8.110936 [66.56]


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Two of Szigeti’s greatest concerto recordings were recorded in London between 1932 and 1934, when he was at something like his prime, and are conveniently harnessed in this super-budget Naxos ‘Great Violinist’ release. The Mozart is one of three recordings made with the LPO and Beecham – the others were the Mendelssohn and Prokofiev 1 – and the conductor’s contribution to this Mozart performance is characterized by note writer Tully Potter as "brusque … and slapdash." Presumably therefore Szigeti’s marvellous performance worked in spite of, not because of, the conductor – not an argument I would be prepared to follow too far. In fact Beecham’s accompaniment is perfectly acceptable and animates Szigeti’s sometimes miraculous playing to a large degree. The violinist is stylish and aristocratic in equal measure, utilising the Joachim cadenzas, reaching a peak in the slow movement, a benchmark performance by which I judge all other recordings. He vests the lyric phrases with a chaste intensity seldom experienced in Mozartian concerto performances. The contrastive material is charmingly intensified by Szigeti, rather than being allowed to dissipate, Beecham encouraging orchestral pizzicati that are properly energetic and characterful. Throughout the conductor offers warm and generous support. Szigeti’s elastic phraseology comes to the fore in the Rondo finale, panache and elegance co-existing in perfect accord. Of the musicians of Szigeti’s generation probably only Thibaud was as elegant and convincing a Mozartian and when the Frenchman was finally taped in the D major, off-air in 1951 with Enescu conducting, his technique had long since withered leaving behind just the wonderful instinct for phrasing.

Szigeti recorded the Beethoven Concerto three times, twice with Bruno Walter conducting. The 1932 Walter recording was followed by a New York Philharmonic one in 1946, the trio being completed by the Dorati accompanied LSO recording of 1961, by which time the violinist had been in long and steady decline (horror stories of the violinist’s frailties have emanated from the LSO Dorati/Menges sessions of 1959/61). The 1932 performance is a thoroughly impressive one though not without its idiosyncrasies. One of the most obvious is Walter’s highly subjective handling of the orchestral introduction, his frequent intemperate accelerandos invariably accompanied by an increase in orchestral volume, none of which ideally prepares for the violinist’s broken octaves entry. There is also some booming bass in the acoustic of Central Hall, Westminster, which can occasionally serve to cloud and occlude the lower string line. But it is to Szigeti that we must turn to appreciate the true stature of the reading – his portamenti are expressive, his line fuses animation with relaxation, whilst conveying all the while a sense of involving depth. In the Larghetto, moments of pregnant expressive meaning are infused with subtly increased vibrato usage and colour, his portamenti beautifully apt and clear, those "backward" portamenti for which he was (in)famous always constructively employed. His correlation of individual episodes here is of the highest architectural acuity and his playing of singular beauty, even if tonally he lacks precisely that quality; at moments such as this it’s of little account. His Rondo finale is full of fresh air, with some deliciously quick and easeful slides accompanying him, and a sense of conclusive surety and delight in the playing.

The transfers have been well handled by Mark Obert-Thorn. As for the performances – well these are indispensable cornerstones of a collection, and not just a historical collection.

Jonathan Woolf

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