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Johan Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Violin Concerto No 1 in A minor, BWV 1041
Violin Concerto No 2 in E major, BWV 1042
Concerto For 2 Violins, Strings & Continuo in D minor, BWV 1043
Peter Rybar (violin: BWV1043)
Collegium Musicum Winterthur/Henryk Szeryng (violin)
rec. 1965
Reviewed as download

As I mentioned in a previous review of these works, I unashamedly prefer traditional instrument recordings over period performances but have catholic tastes when it comes to those which I favour, ranging from choosing the cool, silky, lyricism of Grumiaux to the ideal combination of strength and precision of Oistrakh to the lush Romanticism of the teenage Mutter and Karajan.

Henryk Szeryng is closer in sound and style to the Gallic school of playing typified by Grumiaux and is in many ways a similar artist; not flashy or virtuosic so much as poised and elegant – qualities which are immediately apparent in the opening of the A minor concerto. Indeed, the delicacy of Szeryng’s playing contrast noticeably the rather strident, even aggressive accompaniment of the Collegium Musicum Winterthur which comes over as a little harsh in this vivid, forensically pellucid transfer by HDTT. The sound is remarkably bold and present for a recording over fifty years old, despite a hint of overload, and there is plenty of bass weight.

Szeryng, directing from the soloist’s platform, for the most part chooses stately tempi – rather more so than Grumiaux; in fact, he takes longer over every one of the nine movements here in a reasonably well-filled recording at 51 minutes (some HDTT issues can be disconcertingly brief). This results at times in a slightly lugubrious feeling despite the sweetness of the playing and a comparison of overall timings is quite revealing; differences in timings between Szeryng and Grumiaux range from one to two minutes– quite a lot in what are relatively short works:

  Szeryng Grumiaux
BWV1041 15:31 13:56
BWV1042 18:40 16:48
BWV1043 16:25 15:29

I definitely prefer the latter’s lighter, sprightlier manner which better brings out the dance roots of the music, especially in the jig of the last movement of the A minor - although given that there is still debate over whether Bach’s instruction “Allegro assai” means “very fast” or “rather fast”, that makes allowance for Szeryng’s choice of pace. In the end, however, the music itself seems to dictate a quicker approach. There is affection a-plenty but a lack of spring in the opening of the E major concerto. Nonetheless, I like the depth sound provided by the accompaniment and Szeryng’s playing is immaculately tuned. The melancholy beauty Adagio emerges intact (well, almost: there is some uncorrected tape slur starting at 6:09) but the second “Allegro assai” finale is a little torpid, needing an injection of “period awareness” urgency, methinks.

The “Double Concerto” is a little lighter and faster on its feet, perhaps because Szeryng’s partner, the Swiss Peter Rybar, urged him on somewhat. The centrepiece, literally and figuratively, is, of course, the Largo; it is beautifully played but the slight wiriness of the sound and emotional restraint militate against it weaving the velvety magic I hear in versions by Mutter and Accardo, the Oistrakhs – even in mono - or, above all, Grumiaux and Krebbers, whose recording for me offers every advantage of perfect pacing, sensuous yet refined playing and Philips’ warmest sound.

I still derive much pleasure from these accounts but can see no reason to prefer them over my established favourites.

Ralph Moore

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