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Zoltán Székely and the Hungarian String Quartet
Historical recordings and previously unissued public performances, 1937-1968.
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Quartet K 456 ("Dissonant") (*Menton Festival, 13 July 1958) [25.08]
Quartet in D minor K 421(Rec. for HMV in London 1946) [25.45]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Quartet No. 14 in D minor ("Death and the Maiden") (*Menton Festival, 22 July 1958) [37.42]
Quartet No. 15 in G Major, Op. 161 (*Menton Festival, 22 July 1958) [39.31]
Quartet No. 14 in D minor ("Death and the Maiden") (Chamber Music Society LP CM-17, rec. 1952) [35.50]
Josef HAYDN (1732-1809)

Quartet in C major Op 74 No 1 (*University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 5 July 1950)
Quartet in D Major Op 64 No. 5 (*University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 1951)
Quartet in D Major Op 64 No. 5 (from 78s) (Rec. for HMV in London, 1946)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Quartet in C, Op. 59 No. 3 (*Menton Festival, 21 July 1961) [25.52]
Quartet in C# minor, Op. 131 (*Menton Festival, 21 July 1961) [34.25]
Quartet in F Op. 59 No. 1 (*Budapest, Academy of Music,20 Dec. 1968)[38.54]
Zoltan KODÁLY (1882-1967)

String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10 (Concert Hall Soc. LP CHS-1157, rec. 1952) [17.13]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)

Fifth String Quartet (*Menton Festival, July 1961) [30.42]
Sixth String Quartet (*Menton Festival, July 1961) [28.23]
Third String Quartet (*Budapest, Academy of Music. 20 Dec. 1968) [15.03]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Quartet in A minor Op. 51 No. 2 (Budapest, Academy of Music. 20 Dec. 1968) [31.12]
Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768)

Sonata II in G (from Sonate XII di Violino e Basso (osia di Cimbalo e violoncello)) (Amer. Decca 78 G-25877). Zoltán Székely with Géza Fried, piano [8.19].
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Quartet in D Major, Op. 11 (Concert Hall Soc. LP CHS-1183, rec. 1952) [25.10]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

Quartet in F Major, Op. 96 ("American") (Concert Hall Soc. LP CHS-1157, rec. 1952) [26.10]
Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)

Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op. 82 (Dutch Decca 78 set X-10110, rec. 1942).[20.56] Székely, with Hague Residence Orchestra conducted by Willem van Otterloo
Cinq Novellettes pour Quatuor d'archets, Op. 15 (Concert Hall Soc. LP CHS-1183 rec. 1952 [28.31]
Edouard LALO (1823-1892)

Guitarre (Dutch Decca 78 set X-10110, rec. 1942) Székely with Jean Antonietti, piano.[3.27]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Quartet in A minor, Op. 41 No. 1 (*University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 1 July 1951) [21.35]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 (*University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 1 Aug. 1951) [22.22]
Hungarian String Quartet – [1] Székely--Moskowsky-Koromzay-Palotai. [2] Székely-Moszkowsky-Koromzay-Magyar. [3] Székely-Moskowsky-Halleux-Palotai. [4] Székely-Kuttner-Koromzay-Magyar. * Public performances. Technical reconstruction (2004) by Maggi Payne. Issued with the kind cooperation of Prof. Gabriel Magyar and the Székely Estate.
MUSIC & ARTS CD1161[8 CDs: 78.41 + 75.27 + 77.47 + 73.46 + 77.39 + 68.27 + 78.52 + 74.30]

As I write this review thoughts turn to the Record of the Year. The reason is the comprehensiveness of the enterprise, the appearance of live and recorded performances either never available or seldom if ever re-released, the small but pertinent snippets of interview material interspersed throughout, the characteristically fine notes by Harris Goldsmith (surely one of the most articulate and knowledgeable experts in the field) and above and beyond these the quality of the music making.

An in-depth survey might prove repetitious, so august is the playing, so a few indications of the kind of thing you can expect might be in order. The Mozart Dissonance Quartet comes from a Menton Festival performance of 1958; the quartet had made some well-known London discs for Walter Legge between 1946 and 1949, including the Dissonance and they shouldn’t be confused. We do have the 1946 D minor K421 to remind us of those sometimes stormy sessions. There’s passing ambient noise live in 1958 but a forward and lyrically flowing slow movement, phrased with unselfconscious purity of line. The finale is full of verve and judicious weight distribution and balance. There are two versions of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, one a Concert Hall LP of 1952 and the other from the same festival that gave us the Dissonance The live performance is if anything even more intense and expressive than the studio one, slower all round and more warmly vibrated. The slow movement unfolds with the most wonderful feeling and eloquence. To finish the first disc we have a 1950 live Haydn Op.74 No.1. There are a few passing bumps in the recorded sound but no doubting the classical credentials that the Hungarians display here and in Mozart. Fluid, elegant and stylish this is Haydn playing of timeless generosity and perception. There are two performances of the Op.64 No.5 quartet as well. One is from a 78 set made in 1946, the other from a Californian live concert given five years later. The only point of departure between them is the speedier slow movement in 1951; otherwise these are once more virile and effortlessly sprung Haydn performances.

The second disc gives us more Schubert. Alongside the commercial Death and the Maiden there is a Menton Festival performance of the late G major Quartet, and it receives a traversal of towering control in which architectural cogency is allied to expressive means to optimum effect. There’s precision and verve in the Scherzo, with the viola and cello lines singing out well; the few intonational blips earlier hardly begin to efface music making of this quality. Beethoven occupies the greater part of the third disc in the form of the third Razumovsky and Op.131. The former dates from 1961, the Menton Festival once more, and is a successful, warm reading, strong on motion and tempo relationships, and with a well-judged tempo for the Fugue. One appreciates the individual and corporate sonorities of the group even better in the C minor, which was taped the same day. This was the Székeley-Kuttner-Koromzay-Magyar quartet line up and one can appreciate the violist’s contribution here in particular as much as the corporate power with which the central slow movement is delineated. The first Razumovsky can be found on the fifth disc (Budapest, 1968) and it displays that special quality of refinement and strength that marks out their playing of Beethoven – to my mind more convincing than the Budapest Quartet’s rather smoother and more non-committal traversals. There’s absolutely nothing flabby or routine about the 1968 performances either – no sense that these are workaday matters.

The Hungarians were long associated with Kodály so it’s especially valuable to have this 1952 studio recording of his Second String Quartet, another ex-Concert Hall LP, and the earlier of the two recordings they left behind of it (the other dates from 1955). The original disc was rather subfusc but what emerges is the sheer communicative warmth of the ensemble and their rhythmic drive in the Allegretto of the multi-sectional second movement (of two); one can hardly imagine this being played better than it is – and the strong and direct links from composer to quartet make this compelling listening.

The Bartók recordings shouldn’t be confused with the 1962 DG cycle. These predate those powerful statements by a year and were taped once more at Menton in July 1961. The Hungarians had already recorded the Fifth and Sixth in London in 1946 but these live performances a decade and a half later are marvellous in their bewitching and evocative colour. Listen to the coil over the accompanying pizzicato figures in the finale of the Fifth for instance or Székely’s luxurious tone in the March themes of the Sixth, with its associated powerful inner voicings. The Third Quartet is on disc five and is one of the latest tapings, from Budapest in 1968, though there’s no great or noticeable improvement in sound quality between locations. If one listens to the second movement one can note that however vigorous the bowing, however powerful the attack, there is no sense of over-trenchancy or of any brittle tone intruding.

Brahms is here in the shape of the A minor Quartet Op.51 No.1. As with their Bartók there’s no rough-hewn approach, nothing sinewy; the bowing is of unanimity and controlled in the finale and earlier, in the slow movement, there’s a certain aloof distance that will appeal to those for whom Brahms can become over clogged. I happen to admire this approach though personally find other views more penetrating. The Tchaikovsky derives from another of their Concert Hall LPs of the early 1950s. The sound is a touch veiled but doesn’t dissipate the warmth of the reading. True it’s not as warm as the Oistrakh Quartet’s contemporaneous recording – but then it isn’t quite as primus inter pares as that one. There’s quite enough rusticity in the Scherzo to get things airborne but not so much that it becomes vulgarised (something of which this foursome are never remotely guilty) – and the finale’s delicious.

The Dvořák American was recorded in the same month as the Tchaikovsky and for the same label but this is something of a disappointment, one of the very few here. It is vitiated by a strange lethargy, an oddly static response, in the opening movement and the Lento becomes rather over-scrupulous, with debatable phrasing. Not a collector’s classic. Similarly the Debussy, live in 1951, takes a very bright and breezy approach indeed, not least in the Andantino, which remains objectified and dry-eyed. For all the implicit humour enshrined in the performance it’s not an especially compelling vision of the work, though it does remain a singular one.

After these rather underwhelming performances – and no one’s perfect – we are strongly back to form with Glazunov’s light-hearted Cinq Novellettes. The first recording of any snippet of these was by the London Quartet but here we have the full panoply of the Hungarians from LP. The Orientale has a delightfully rustic air and there’s a touchingly phrased Interludium in modo antico and a joyful All’Ungherese to finish. Admirers of the composer and also of the primarius of the quartet will note that Music & Arts has resurrected a very rare wartime set of the Concerto given by Székeley with the Hague Residence Orchestra conducted by Willem van Otterloo. I’ve no idea how many copies this sold in Holland in 1942 but it can’t have been that many. The copies used can be rather bumpy but it’s worth preserving because this is an unusually balletic and elegant performance of the concerto. It abjures the emotive red lining of a Heifetz or a Milstein and promotes tremendous sweetness of tone and a rather understated gentleness. There are no great emotive gestures to titillate the ear, instead a placid and feminine lyricism. An unusual view certainly - but a rare recording and full marks for digging it out.

This was a commercial Decca and there are other examples of Székely’s few commercial discs. There’s a good Lalo and a Porpora sonata unusual enough in c.1937. It’s a shame that the rest of his Deccas weren’t collated to give us a complete run. Still let’s end with the 1951 Schumann Quartet in A minor, a winningly cohesive view strong on mysterioso introductions and powerfully argued fugal passages. They are judiciously expressive with Schumann, flooding the Adagio with colour and deft tints, though never self-pitying ones. There’s plenty of rhythmic drive in the finale but also moments of chaste reflection. An excellent performance of a difficult work.

That’s it. One of my Records of the Year wrapped up this side of Christmas. You’ll find a mini biography of the quartet and its various personnel over the years and a great deal else. The duplications here encourage curiosity and contrast rather than confirming routine. The sound quality varies but is never less than acceptable. Terrific photographs as well. I know quartet records don’t sell well - but this one deserves to.

Jonathan Woolf



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