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Joseph Szigeti
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

Sonata No. 1 in F minor Op. 80 (1946)
Sonata No. 2 in D Op. 94 bis (1944)

Duo Concertante (1932)
Russian Maiden’s Song – Mavra; Parasha’s Aria arr. Dushkin (1922)
Josef Szigeti (violin) with
Joseph Levine (piano) in Sonata No. 1 recorded 1949
Leonid Hambro (piano) in Sonata No. 2 recorded 1945
Mitchell Miller (oboe), Robert McGinnis (clarinet), Bert Gassman (English horn) and Sol Schoenbach (bassoon) conducted by Stravinsky in the Pastorale recorded in 1946
Igor Stravinsky (piano) in the Duo Concertante and Russian Maiden’s Song recorded in 1945 and 1946 respectively
BIDDULPH 80204-2 [73.43]

Biddulph is back. After a period of inactivity, the label that gave Vengerov his first commercial disc, that branched out from historic violin to piano and orchestral recordings, and that kept violin fanciers ever intrigued, has now inaugurated its rebirth. Who else should it turn to but that sinewy intellect of the string world, Joseph – or Josef or many years ago Joska – Szigeti, subject of some of the label’s first ever releases. In new livery – suitably violinistic – they concentrate on Szigeti’s 1945-49 recordings of Russian literature, ones that have proved in the past elusive and difficult to track down.

Szigeti’s recording of the First Violin Concerto of Prokofiev with Beecham is a benchmark interpretation and one of his greatest recordings. I’m sure that for many it occupies the same kind of place as Oistrakh’s or Heifetz’s readings do in the later Concerto. Less well known perhaps is his championing of these sonatas. He recorded the first with Joseph Levine, as here, and then a decade later with Balsam. Likewise the Second Sonata was recorded with the fine pianist Leonard Hambro and then again in the 1959 sessions with Balsam. In the First, Szigeti is forwardly recorded and one can hear that sometimes rather coarse and brittle tone as he negotiates Prokofiev’s complex technical and expressive demands. Someone like Oistrakh lavished far greater tonal heft and expressive reserves on this music but there’s no doubting Szigeti’s control of architecture or local detail. His bowing does come under pressure in the Allegro brusco and at some moments so does his intonation but he reconciles the rhetoric here as few do – the tensile and the lyric – and also the moments of rusticity and dance embedded in the score. The troublesome Hubay bowing does let him down occasionally and there is, at moments, some distinctly unlovely playing. His Andante redeems much; well-shaped, full of momentum and direction, never sectional, linearity in action, no great tonal intensity – a profile both reflective and withdrawn. Szigeti and Levine are rather quicker than the more avuncular Oistrakh and Frieda Bauer in the finale and they cultivate real drive, not troubling to italicise little lyric details and the ending is first class.

The Second Sonata is an Oistrakh-inspired violin version of the work originally written for flute and piano. It doesn’t bear quite the weight of demands of the earlier sonata and Szigeti, recorded four years earlier, sounds rather more comfortable. Once again the original recording level was skewed in favour of the string player but Hambro emerges with witty credit and Szigeti deadpans through the Scherzo, and is unlingeringly charming in the Andante.

Coupled with Prokofiev is Stravinsky. There’s an evocative Pastorale with some impressive collaborators and an affecting Russian Maiden’s Song. The most important of the Stravinsky items though is the Duo Concertante and this recording with the composer as accompanist replaced the Samuel Dushkin-Stravinsky recording made for Columbia in 1933. Here one finds Szigeti full equipped to meet intellectual challenges. He lavished considerable delicacy and understanding on the two Epilogues and in the faster music his wiry, abrasive, resinous tone – uneasy and unsettling sometimes – acts as a fine contrastive tool, whether intended or not. His Gigue is full of rhythmic control and he lavishes some very expressive portamenti in the Dithyrambe where his tone is not too astringent, even if the lower strings can deaden rather.

The recordings catch the presence of the originals well. Notes are interesting – with quotations from the violinist and from Roland Gelatt as well as producer Eric Wen’s own sleeve notes. If I might make the habitual trainspotter’s plea I must note that there are no matrix or issue numbers given and I hope their omission doesn’t reflect a new policy. Otherwise, a warm welcome back to this innovative and important label and its first new release.

Jonathan Woolf



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