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Joseph Szigeti
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Sonata No.3 in C for solo violin BWV 1005 [24.05]
Violin Concerto in G minor BWV 1056 restored G. Schreck from Clavier Concerto in F minor BWV1056 edited Szigeti [11.55]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)

Violin Sonata in D Op.1 No.13 [14.14]
Giuseppe TARTINI (1692-1770)

Violin Sonata in G Op.2 No.12 [7.08]
Violin Concerto in D minor [13.12]
Joseph Szigeti (violin)
Carlo Bussotti (piano)
Columbia Symphony Orchestra/George Szell
Recorded 1954 (except the solo sonata, recorded 1949)
BIDDULPH 80217-2 [71.13]

Biddulph is doing sterling work restoring to the catalogue some of Szigeti’s least well-known recordings. This makes for essential, though often uncomfortable, listening for his many admirers because the focus inevitably falls on the LP discs of the 1950s; ones that show considerable decline in his playing. I’ve written about the graphic manifestations of this before in a previous Szigeti/Biddulph release so won’t labour the point here - review.

We have a mix of Baroque sonatas and concertos. The Handel and Tartini sonatas were stereo remakes of 78 sets Szigeti had recorded many years before. I cleave to the 1937 Handel as one of the most life affirming and exciting performances of a Handel sonata I know but the remake shows all too coolly the erosion of his technique. He’s fortunate that Carlo Bussotti takes the ear with his playing – no subservient lamb, he – and is almost over recorded. There are too many incidents of desiccated tone, bowing accidents, trembling, compromised intonation and woefully slow vibrato to make this anything other than a sad and tattered remnant. The Tartini is rather better, the phrasing luminous in the opening Adagio (few fiddle players could phrase like him in such works, even given that he lacked an opulent tone) but the presto demands cause problems.

The little Tartini Concerto was a favourite of his – you can see him essaying it in a Canadian television performance on VAI – and it too has some uncomfortable moments though generally his playing here is in less stark relief and he emerges creditably. Not a comment that could be levelled at his accompanist George Szell, who sounds to have been in a thoroughly bad mood here and in the Bach Concerto (I’ve adjusted Biddulph’s notes to show its exact origin). This performance is also on Naxos. As I wrote in my review of this performance there – and nothing has modified my view; we have the God-awful George Szell conducting the G minor/F minor Concerto. The gimlet-eyed Hungarian conductor must have been in an especially tough mood as he leads his compatriot through a galumphing, miserable reading. Szigeti exhibits some serious bowing arm defects, as was often the case in these, his declining years and his unevenness and unsteadiness is accompanied by a tonal shrillness. I don’t know what to say about Szell’s marshalling of the orchestral pizzicato figures except that they’re truly terrible and that Szigeti’s downward portamenti sound rather forced. The original recording hardly modifies the stultifying, remorseless heaviness of the undertaking. Of the two transfers I much prefer the Naxos.

The most valuable work here is actually the solo Bach which predates the complete set of Sonatas and Partitas Szigeti recorded in the 1950s. These are noble remembrances, compromised by the playing but ultimately illuminating of a great Bach performer’s Last Will and Testament. It’s a pity, as Tully Potter says in his notes, that Szigeti didn’t record them all in his prime – at around the same time Casals was recording the Cello Suites. He left only two from this period. In 1949 he recorded the Third Sonata, in C. Certainly there are problems in bow sustenance and some attacks are inclined to be brittle, but the playing throughout shows the best qualities Szigeti brought to this repertoire – a masculine strength coupled with powerful intellect; tone subservient to textual meaning, as it were. And a worthy resurrection; in fact the principal attraction of this disc.

As ever Biddulph dispense with matrix and original issue numbers. Recommended principally for the Bach sonata.

Jonathan Woolf

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