Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op.61 [44:33]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso Op.28 [9:20]; Havanaise, Op.83 [9:42]
Henryk Szeryng (violin)
Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire/Jacques Thibaud (Beethoven); Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française/Edouard Lindenberg (Saint-Saëns)
rec. January 1953, Palais de Chaillot, Paris (Beethoven); October 1951, Studio Magellan, Paris (Saint-Saëns)

It’s regrettable that the Polish violinist Henryk Szeryng seems to have vanished from collective memory since his untimely death in 1988. Although his sound was never particularly distinctive and instantly recognizable like that of Kreisler, Huberman, Heifetz and Menuhin, he can be counted among that elite group of twentieth century violinists who can be termed ‘great’.

The labels the violinist recorded for, most notably Philips (now Universal), have been strangely complacent towards his legacy. The Japanese, as is often the case, have led the way in promoting him, but their tempting releases are not that easy to access in the West, and often come with a hefty price tag. Sadly, Philips didn’t issue an ‘Original Masters’ box à la Grumiaux, Ricci and Schneiderhan.

Once again, Forgotten Records has come to the rescue. As far as I can ascertain, these 1950s recordings of Beethoven and Saint-Saëns have never previously made it on to CD. They’ve been digitally transferred and re-mastered from Odeon, CBS and Monitor LPs and, given their age and provenance, are in remarkably warm, clear sound.

Surprisingly, the violinist Jacques Thibaud is the conductor in the Beethoven Concerto. The recording is dated January 1953, a fateful year for him. On 1 September 1953 Thibaud and 41 others perished in a plane crash in the French Alps. Szeryng was to make two more commercial recordings of the Concerto: with the LSO and Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt (1965) and later with the Concertgebouw under Bernard Haitink (1973). This earliest recording has a more urgent feel to the opening movement, which was to become more leisurely with Schmidt-Isserstedt, and broad and spacious with Haitink. In all three recordings he employs the Joachim cadenza, which I personally find less attractive than the one by Kreisler. The qualities that attract me to Szeryng’s playing are all present in this 1950s traversal. The depth of musicianship, faultless technique and spotless intonation are a compelling feature, with playing totally devoid of mannerism and eccentricity. His tone is warm and seductive, and the employment of expressive slides and range of colour add to the allure. He plumbs the depths of the slow movement, which is ravishingly contoured and poetically phrased.

Two years earlier, Szeryng took the two Saint-Saëns pieces into the Paris studio with the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française and Edouard Lindenberg. The Introduction and Rondo capriccioso Op. 28 is a sparkling rendition, capped off with some impressive spiccato bowing towards the end. The ardently lyrical Havanaise stands comparison with the Heifetz version, especially the fluent double-stop passages, which Szeryng dispatches with impressive flourish, audacity and perfect intonation.

I’m most grateful that these truly captivating recordings, documenting Szeryng’s distinguished artistry, have been restored to circulation. Let’s hope the big companies will likewise address the gaping void.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf