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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64 (1844) [26:59]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D Op.77 (1878) [39:51]
Joseph Szigeti (violin)
New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra/Bruno Walter (Mendelssohn), Dmitri Mitropoulos (Brahms)
rec. February 1941 (Mendelssohn) and October 1948 (Brahms)
MUSIC AND ARTS CD1197 [67:55]

Fortunately Szigeti left behind a number of performances of the Brahms Concerto, some commercial and some recorded off-air. According to taste one can go for the Hallé/Harty, Philadelphia/Ormandy and the stereo LSO/Menges from the commercial discs, and the Boston/Munch and this NYPSO/Mitropoulos from the live broadcast material. All repay the closest scrutiny because despite the pronouncements of current proponents of binary oppositions in music making, players such as Kreisler, Huberman and Busch did not possess hegemony in the Brahms.
The Brahms finds Szigeti with Mitropoulos, the conductor who apparently held Szigeti in higher esteem than any of his contemporaries. Let me say at once that this is a performance that affords manifold insights into the musicianship of two great musicians. True, the recording exacerbates the tensile and razory quality of Szigeti’s tone but this was a constituent of his playing and the insights revealed by him are legion. Foremost among them is his considered approach to portamentos and expressive finger position changes. In the Harty recording the tension between the pervasive sliding of the Hallé strings and Szigeti’s more sparing use of the device generated a fruitful if sometimes incongruous tension. Here many years later in New York we find that the device is very much less in evidence in the orchestral ranks. Mitropoulos directs and sculpts a powerful and incisive orchestral sound world; he’s slower and steadier than Harty’s more fluid and spontaneously romanticist approach.
The finale in particular shows just how commanding this pairing can be. Szigeti’s playing is masculine but sensitive; downward portamenti are employed for significant expressive intent. Just once one senses he might become derailed but he recovers. There is a little damage to the source material – a few acetate ticks and from 2:45 the sounds starts to crumble, though Ward Marston has done his best to mask it. There’s some hum audible as well so I’d recommend taking down the bass frequencies.
We know Szigeti best in the Mendelssohn from his 1935 Beecham recording, multiply reissued over the years. In strictly temporal terms this one with Walter differs hardly at all though there are certainly differences in attack and both conductors take intriguingly personalised views in the finale – Beecham giving a dramatic kick, Walter bringing out capricious Midsummer Night’s Dream wind tracery. The recording is rather boxy and Szigeti is well forward in the balance, which because of his particular tonal qualities means that this is an occasionally abrasive ride. The brief audience coughs and chuffing on the original acetates are not intrusive though they’re both audible. Szigeti’s bowing at the start of both the opening movement and the finale is not beyond reproach but otherwise this is an impressive reading, and one interpretatively consistent with that which he gave with Beecham a few years earlier.
Ward Marston’s transfers do well with the source material. The Brahms was once on AS disc 518 where it was coupled with the Szigeti/Mitropoulos Mozart K216 Concerto – an enviable all-Mitropoulos conducted disc. The Marston sound is not radically different – in fact the differences are small, though his small restoration of the finale crumble in the Brahms is good.
Talking of good there’s a long and admiring note from Abram Chipman. And of course Szigeti admirers should not hesitate to add this disc to their collection.
Jonathan Woolf



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