Henryk Szeryng was one of Carl Flesch’s star pupils, and the butt of one of Itzhak Perlman’s best jokes. Whenever he listened to a performance on the radio, Perlman said, and couldn’t recognise the fiddle player, he knew it had to be Szeryng. He added that the playing was invariably ‘good’, but the implication was that there was something anonymous about it.
Whatever one’s view on the matter, Szeryng was an outstanding player. This re-release of his Concertgebouw recordings from 1973 and 1976 is therefore welcome. He left behind two other studio recordings of the Brahms. The first was with that great Brahmsian, Pierre Monteux, and the second was with Antal Dorati. His only recording of the Mendelssohn was also with Dorati, in London with the LSO.
His Brahms is impressive in its way. His opening movement is leisurely, with rubati stretched to an elastic extent at points. This can be admirable, as his sense of phrasing is so acute, but there are times when it leaves the orchestra in the lurch and their pizzicati, for example, can sound sludgy at the chosen tempo. He is technically precise and tonally eloquent, though there is nothing unduly personalised about his sound production. There are very few signs of portamentos, for example, the playing remaining businesslike and committed.
It’s certainly a far superior performance to that of the Mendelssohn, which receives a very deliberate and patient interpretation, strongly at odds with the perceived athleticism of the music. It’s a consistently mellow – detractors will prefer ‘cautious’ – view, and one to which Haitink doggedly accedes. The opening movement is a long time ending, the slow movement gracious but a touch heavy, and the finale low key.
Haitink made a rather more recommendable recording of the Brahms with the esteemed leader of his orchestra, Hermann Krebbers. But if it’s Szeryng you want, then the Concertgebouw/Philips sonics are first class, and Newton has done a solid job with the package. My own preferences in the Szeryng stakes are Monteux for Brahms and the alternative Dorati for Mendelssohn, though it strikes me that Szeryng was never especially convincing in this last work, and in that respect he’s far from alone.