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Joseph Szigeti (violin)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Sonata No.1 in G Op.78
Joseph Szigeti (violin); Mieczyslaw Horszowski (piano)
Piano Quartet No.3
in C minor Op.60
Joseph Szigeti (violin); Milton Katims (viola); Paul Tortelier (cello); Myra Hess (piano)
Recorded 1951-52
BIDDULPH 80212-2 [65.27]

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Szigeti made some of the greatest recordings of the Brahms Concerto and the Op.108 Sonata ever committed to disc. The first was with the Hallé and Hamilton Harty and the second with Egon Petri. It’s perhaps less well known that post-War he recorded a cycle of the sonatas with Mieczyslaw Horszowski that spanned the 1950s, starting in early LP mono and ending in stereo. Biddulph have here given us the First, taped in 1951, and maybe the rest of the cycle will emerge in due course. These come from a period that is, with good reason, the least well documented of Szigeti’s legacy. The problems that increasingly (if inconsistently) attended to his playing are well known to his admirers and cannot be gainsaid. So those who are familiar with Szigeti from roughly 1927-38 should not expect to find this noble musician untarnished and the list of deficiencies that one must inevitably note should be seen in the context of his waning control and illness.

The First Sonata is a noble carapace of a reading illuminated especially by Horszowski’s ever-sensitive pianism. They recorded together frequently and his supportive sensitivity offers a tissue of coherence and imagination. So, it’s true, does Szigeti but his playing is but a ghost of his prime. There are frequent intonational slippages, the vibrato is now woefully slow (and thus incapable of rapid inflection) and the tone is terribly thin and starved. Columbia also had the bad idea to record him up close – maybe as a result of an endemic lack of projection – so these faults are magnified. Szigeti suffered from diabetes and I believe, later on, Parkinson’s Disease – and there are signs here of that dreaded enemy, bow shake (not to labour the point but try 6.50 in the first movement; it’s generally on sustained notes, exacerbated by the low Hubay bowing arm.) The legato of the slow movement is compromised by all these frailties. The phrasing itself in other circumstances would be luminous but the melancholic direction is not sustained by technical competence and there’s no allure or vibrance to Szigeti’s tone. The measured finale comes off best – though he’s not able to “lift” the rhetoric with any athleticism and the roughness of the playing becomes wearying.

Though the Piano Quartet was recorded the following year he had some stellar support and the advantage of being tonally submerged – also, it’s true, of the famous Prades acoustic, which always tended to be rather distant and none too clear. This is a serious but songful reading in which his colleague Myra Hess, whom he’d known by then for over forty years when they’d performed together in turn-of-the-century London, is commanding and powerful. Katims and Tortelier shepherd Szigeti with considerable delicacy; their playing may be ultimately tonally incongruous but one doesn’t notice too often. Hess leads in the Scherzo, whilst Tortelier proves nobly aloof in the slow movement, warmly expressive enough to cover the thinness in his violin partner’s playing. Measured but involved the string players’ intonation does waver now and then in the finale but the gains are ones of commitment and drama.

The transfers have presumably used (Biddulph doesn’t say or give source material) the original LP pressings. These sound well enough though iniquities of balance in the Sonata and distance in the Quartet are inherent. This is very much for Szigeti completists – I’m not aware of any previous reappearances of this Op.78 Sonata; to those for whom the ubiquity of those fabled older recordings might encourage a purchase I would just urge respectful, understanding caution.

Jonathan Woolf


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