Henryk Szeryng (violin)
Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Violin Concerto No 2 in B major, Sz.112 (1938)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Violin Concerto No 1 in A minor, BWV 1041 (c.1730)
Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937)
Violin Concerto No 2 in A minor, Op 61 (1933)
Benjamin Lees (2024-2010)
Violin Concerto in C (1958)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op 77 (1878)
Radio Filharmonisch Orkest/Willem van Otterloo (Bartók)
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet (Bach, Szymanowski)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Erich Leinsdorf (Lees)
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Wolfgang Sawallich (Brahms)
RHINE CLASSICS RH-027 [74 + 67]
There’s a glut of live recordings by Szeryng and Ferras at the moment and guess what? They’re both represented in the latest tranche of releases from Rhine Classics. If this is tricky for the purchaser it’s punishing on the critic, who has to sift and consider, as I have to, whether anyone really needs yet another Szeryng-Brahms concerto and questions of similar philosophical magnitude.
However, this programme apparently contains four performances new to CD; the only one that has been issued before is the Szymanowski Concerto. I’m in no position to doubt this, as Szeryng’s surviving corpus of off-air recordings is so large and seems to be getting larger by the week. This twofer begins, however, with Bartók’s Concerto in B major, in a Dutch performance of 1962. The Radio Filharmonisch Orkest under Willem van Otterloo provides the orchestral support. Szeryng was to record the work with Haitink and the Concertgebouw in 1970 so it’s clearly of some interest to hear him at the start of the decade playing with such clarity, directness, and warmth. The first movement cadenza is dispatched with flair, after which he phrases with genuine tenderness. Subtle in the Andante tranquillo section of the second movement he is strongly resinous in the ensuing Allegro scherzando striding eloquently to the return of the tempo primo. In the wide-ranging finale Szeryng proves an adroit guide, varying the depth and width of his vibrato and playing with near-faultless eloquence.
Some conductors have a way of sabotaging their soloists in Bach concertos. Szell did it for Szigeti and here, Ansermet – lumpy, lethargic, almost defiantly sluggish – tries to do the same to the A minor, recorded with the Suisse Romande in Geneva in October 1963. Try as Ansermet might, however, with each entry Szeryng steps up a gear, deftly refusing the offered tempo and using dynamic shading and supple colouration to make his point, not least in the slow movement. A triumph of the soloist’s art. Ansermet redeems himself in the Szymanowski No 2, recorded at the same concert. Szeryng left behind a Philips LP with Jan Krenz directing the Bamberg Symphony but this is a worthy addition, its incisive tempi, and rich sense of characterisation paramount in its success. He uses Kochanski’s cadenza, of course, his pizzicati are rounded and alive and his dance imperatives in the finale are vivid.
This is apparently the first appearance of the première performance of Benjamin Lees’ concerto with Erich Leinsdorf directing the Boston Symphony in 1963. It’s the only work to be heard in stereo. It’s possible that you may have come across Elmar Oliveira’s Artek CD (review ~ review) but to hear the premiere is something of a privilege, not least because Szeryng is on record as having confessed it was the most difficult work that he played. There’s lyricism here but it’s guarded, with the first two movements, being essentially slow, leading the way for a taut, fast finale. Its rhetoric vaguely echoes Prokofiev but there are more granitic outbursts from Lees than Prokofiev would have sanctioned. Szeryng plays it with fearless bravura – punchy, pungent and refined when the occasion demands. One can almost feel him count the bars in the perilous finale.
And so to the Brahms, recorded at the United Nations in 1967 with Wolfgang Sawallich and the Vienna Symphony. Szeryng takes broadly similar tempi to those he was
to take when he recorded the work with Haitink and his consistency remained deeply impressive. Some might feel that his first movement remains a little magisterial (for which, read ‘slow’) but he plays with exceptional clarity and directness. In the slow movement Sawallich seems to encourage a kind of wind band sonority before Szeryng’s initial entry – either that or the Vienna Symphony was being undisciplined – but the very best playing comes in the finale. Here Szeryng whips up a storm, tapering his phrase ends with joyful freedom, playing with caprice and spontaneous-sounding bravura. Just how spontaneous it was is doubtful but it sounds spontaneous and represents some of Szeryng’s best and most communicative Brahms playing I have heard.
Do you need another Szeryng-Brahms - that was my initial question. Well, possibly you do and if you get this, you will also therefore get previously unreleased performances of high stature and eloquent intelligence. Good sound, too.
25 June 1962, live, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam (Bartók); 9 October 1963, live, Victoria Hall, Geneva (Bach, Szymanowski): 8 February 1963, live, Symphony Hall, Boston (Lees): 24 October 1967, live, UN General Assembly Hall, New York (Brahms)
Published: October 5, 2022