Pietro NARDINI (1722-1793)
Violin Concerto in E minor [11:06]
Henry VIEUXTEMPS (1820-1881)
Violin Concerto No. 4 in D minor, Op. 31 [25:11]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Tzigane [9:38]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Violin Concerto in D minor [29:16]
Henryk Szeryng (violin)
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Hans Rosbaud
rec. 9 January 1955 (Nardini; Vieuxtemps); 9 March 1957 (Ravel); 8 March 1957 (Schumann)
Hans-Rosbaud Studio Baden-Baden
Henryk Szeryng can be counted among that elite group of twentieth century violinists who can be termed ‘great’. That said, since his death in 1988 at the age of seventy he seems to have faded from memory except amongst collectors. One of the reasons may be that he never cultivated an individually distinctive sound, instantly recognizable that couldn’t be mistaken for any other. I am here thinking of such fiddle players as Heifetz, Menuhin, Oistrakh and Stern, who still feature prominently on the violinistic radar. I remember watching a documentary in which Itzhak Perlman made a ‘tongue in cheek’ remark that if he heard a recording of a violinist and didn’t recognize who it was, he assumed it must be Szeryng. Yet, I have always greatly admired his playing and been an avid collector of his recordings for many years.

All the airings here were taken down from live sessions but on close scrutiny I could only detect the presence of an audience in the Nardini Concerto due to several bronchial interjections between movements. Welcome indeed are the Nardini and Vieuxtemps items as, although two performances of each are indexed in the discography/concert listings I have, I am almost certain that what we have here is new to CD. They provide the only examples of Szeryng’s take on these works on silver disc. The Ravel and Schumann, on the other hand, were both recorded commercially by the violinist, yet these live performances are again receiving their CD debut.

Pietro Nardini’s Concerto is beautifully melodic. I first became acquainted with it in Mischa Elman’s superb Vanguard recording with Vladimir Golschmann. Szeryng’s warm, seductive tone is ideally suited to this music. Intonation is pristine and phrasing is instinctive. The Ravel Tzigane showcases Szeryng’s dazzling virtuosity and is imbued with a true gypsy flavour.

Vieuxtemps’ Fourth Concerto has never received the enthusiasm meted out to the Fifth. Rarely recorded, it was Jascha Heifetz who put it on the map with his HMV recording of 1935 with the London Philharmonic under John Barbirolli (review). Szeryng’s performance displays a flawless technique and beauty of tone. He employs a range of expressive slides and position changes, tastefully executed. However, in the Scherzo he does not achieve the astounding quicksilver audacity of Heifetz. To me Heifetz owns this piece and I have yet to hear any violinist who can bring to the work the subtle nuances, wealth of imagination and range of colour that the Russian confers on it. There is, incidentally, on Youtube, a film of Heifetz doing an imitation of an inept student playing the first movement – hilarious and well-worth a watch.

The seldom played Schumann Concerto was championed by Szeryng throughout his career. He made a commercial recording of the work with the LSO and Dorati in 1964. His discography lists eight further performances between 1957 and 1980. Many regard the concerto as mirroring the composer’s mental health problems at the time of composition. I’ve always enjoyed this music and Szeryng delivers a convincing performance. The first movement is vigorous and lyrical. The slow movement in the Polish violinist’s hands is imbued with tenderness and is, at times, heart-wrenching. Although the finale’s polonaise theme is repetitive, the movement sparkles with energy, with Szeryng adopting a brisker tempo than most. Schumann’s orchestration of the concerto can sound clumsy and unimaginative but Rosbaud inspires the players in a sympathetic and positive way.

Hänssler Classic’s outstanding release will, I hope, keep the memory of this great violinist before the listening public. Each of the recordings is in excellent sound, with the balance between soloist and orchestra satisfactorily struck. Informative booklet notes in German and English offer useful biographical detail on the violinist.

Stephen Greenbank

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