Joseph Szigeti: The Mercury Masters – Works for Violin by Brahms, Prokofiev, Beethoven, Honegger, Webern, Stravinsky, Ives, Bartok, Debussy – Eloquence

by | Apr 18, 2023 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Joseph Szigeti: The Mercury Masters – Works for Violin by Brahms, Prokofiev, Beethoven, Honegger, Webern, Stravinsky, Ives, Bartok, Debussy – Eloquence 484 4756 (1/12/23) (6 CDs: 4 hrs 58 mins, complete content listed below) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

The art of Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti (1892-1973) has been well documented on Biddulph, Sony, and Pristine Audio labels, and here by Eloquence, which restores the sessions Szigeti made 1959-1961, perhaps the last few years that his elegant tone and fiery technique had not dissipated. Never the veritable, perfect mechanism that Jascha Heifetz presented. Szigeti brought a wiry tone, nervous vibrato, and tonal warmth, if not pitch-accuracy and rhythmic stability. Szigeti made recordings of Bloch and Berlioz with luminaries Munch, Mengelberg, and Lambert. His friendship with Bela Bartok and with members of Ferruccio Busoni’s inner circle led to major collaborations in Europe and America, especially in New York, 1941, in collaboration with Egon Petri and Dimitri Mitropoulos. On private record labels, performances exist of his playing the Alban Berg and Frank Martin concertos. Szigeti’s cycle of Beethoven violin sonatas with Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau at the Library of Congress set a fine standard of excellence for future reference. A progressive bone disease, aggravated by arthritis, severely affected his later career, and he labelled his Vanguard documents of Bach at the end his “posthumous records.”  

CD 1: This collection opens with the 24 and 27 March1959 Brahms works in collaboration with pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski and horn player John Barrows. The Brahms 1865 Horn Trio opens with Szigeti’s piercing intonation in the Andante that sets a tragic tone that saturates the rendition, given that the music of the third movement Adagio mesto, meant to serve as dirge for the composer’s mother’s death. Horn player John Barrows (1913-1974) intones in potent form, his attacks in the Scherzo and rounded phrases in the last two movements authoritative, making us wish that British virtuoso Dennis Brain had left a commercial recording for comparison. (A live concert performance exists with Max Salpeter and Cyril Preedy.) The Brahms A Major “Thun” Sonata, elegantly realized, complements the other two violin sonatas included in the Sony set: Joseph Szigeti: Th Complete Columbia Recordings. The indestructible Mieczyslaw Horszowski (1892-1993) provides seamless collaboration, his legatos the product of studies with Theodor Leschetizky. 

CD 2: The 1878 Brahms Violin Concerto (rec. 26 & 28 June 1959) features Szigeti’s working with conductor Herbert Menges (1902-1972), who despite a long career in theater and symphonic music, survives on record almost exclusively as an accompanist to such luminaries as Szigeti, Lympany, Solomon, Cherkassky. Janis, and Tortelier. The LSO resonance, particularly in the strings, winds and brass is excellent, and Menges knows how pace the large Brahms periods of the Allegro non troppo for ideal, dramatic effect. The Szigeti Guarnerius “Pietro of Mantua” intones in smooth form, a sweetly lyrical, yet brittle, sound guided by a plastic rubato and tasteful portamentos. Szigeti lingers his entry into the main theme, his trills molded in slow, etched motion. The LSO provides its own luster to surround Szigeti for the lilting theme and its sequences over string pizzicatos. At moments, the gravel in Szigeti’s tone increases the severity of the tension in the lines as they move to several gripping climaxes. After the Joachim cadenza, Szigeti and Menges sail into the coda with lustrous finesse. 

The F Major Adagio bears no credit for the principal oboe, but the introductory passage was so beautiful at the premiere that Sarasate claimed the violin had no music to play. When Szigeti does play, the effect is tearful without bathos. The Rondo has the benefit of Szigeti’s natural, gypsy flair, slashing and etched with a defined sizzle. The coda enjoys a blistering energy, touched by hues of romantic nostalgia, an authentic reading of this epic concerto.  

CD 3: Szigeti maintained a strong professional and personal relationship with Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), having been the first to record the D Major Violin Concerto (with Sir Thomas Beecham, 1935). The two Prokofiev violin sonatas owe their inception to David Oistrakh, despite the fact that the Op. 94 first had its incarnation as a flute sonata. Szigeti made recordings of the two for Columbia in 1945 and 1949, with Joseph Levine and Leonid Hambro. Here (rec. 7, 8 & 10 December 1949) he enjoys the able assistance of Artur Balsam (1906-1994) in both works.

The F Minor Sonata, composed 1938-1946, exudes an unnerving, dark gloom, very much the product of WW II and its repercussions.  The keyboard part functions like a passacaglia, over which the violin intones figures Prokofiev described as “wind in a graveyard.” The second movement, Allegro brusco, projects a spiky percussion in C, the keyboard hammering relentlessly. The music becomes even more cacophonous as it develops, now into a circus context in bravura figures and askew lyricism for both instruments. Szigeti mutes his Guarnerius for the Andante in F Major, a luminously diaphanous, magical moment, allowing for extended, emotional repose. In a feverish panoply of buzzing and percussive colors, the finale, Allegrissimo – Andante assai, will make its playful, rhythmically complicated and poignant way back to the first movement’s “graveyard,” in cyclic retrospection, passing through its major mode to conclude in F Minor. 

The Violin Sonata in D evolved from the flute sonata Prokofiev originally conceived for flute virtuoso Georges Barere, whom he knew in his Paris days, 1922-1932. David Oistrakh encouraged the transcription, coveting the work’s classical lyricism. Szigeti’s brittle application of the opening, Moderato, themes proves angularly diaphanous, touched by gentle moments of irony. The A Minor Scherzo enjoys an effervescent energy, propelled by interval leaps and quick shifts in register, aptly executed. The slow movement, Andante, relatively brief, allows us to make favorable comparisons between Prokofiev and Mozart. The middle section conveys the soft magic of the composer’s Cinderella ballet. The last movement, Allegro con brio, rather mercurial in temperament, projects a robust, martial, Russian health and fervor. Balsam’s keyboard work emerges as quite virtuosic in its own right. Each return of the initial tune encourages increased energy from our principals, so the coda, unsurprisingly, comes at white heat.

CD 4: Joseph Szigeti joins Hungarian conductor Antal Dorati (1906-1988) for a performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61 (rec. 17-20 & 22, June 1961). The first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, evolves as a study in lyric expression, emphasizing Beethoven’s individual note values in slides and scales, the broad tempo often delivered marcato. Both Dorati and Szigeti firmly establish dynamic pulse and balances, but this classical formula does not impede the scale of presentation, and the periods often swell into a majestic canvas. The degree of intimacy Szigeti manages proves no less arresting. The excellent sonority from the LSO must bow to the abilities from the production team, led by Wilma Cozart Fine. The fascinating, partially accompanied cadenza, by Ferruccio Busoni, culminating in a series of trills, solo and accompanied, leads to a thoughtful, exalted coda. 

The F Major Larghetto possesses an aerial quality, Szigeti’s flute tone in high dudgeon. Dorati creates a lush texture for Szigeti’s support, and their transition to the G Major middle section casts a tenuous, nervously enchanted spell. Szigeti and the French horn principal, over muted strings, bring us to the diminuendo prior to the brief cadenza in double stops. And then to the Rondo: Allegro, a combination of robust athletics and danced, sugary sweetness. The various bow applications lend a pert color to the martial procession, the work with Szigeti and the LSO bassoon ear catching. Once more, Szigeti’s idiosyncratic tone color imparts Hungarian hues to the interplay of violin and woodwinds, with Dorati’s acceleration to the tiny solo cadenza prior to the figures by which the dance resolves its impetus in firm resolution. 

CD 5: From 17 March 1959 and 15-16 June 1960, Szigeti performs, respectively, the Stravinsky Duo Concertant and the Prokofiev Concerto No. 1 in D Major. Both works had previous recordings by Szigeti: the Prokofiev with Beecham in 1935, the Stravinsky with the composer at the keyboard in 1945. Several violinists demurred to perform the D Major Concerto before concertmaster Marcel Darrieux played it with Serge Koussevitzky in Paris. Szigeti took up the modernist, dazzling work in 1924. The Stravinsky work, penned in 1932 Berlin for violinist Samuel Dushkin, fits attractively into the composer’s neo-Classic period, invoking antique musical forms. Szigeti has Roy Bogas for his collaborator, a fine pianist who had studied with the wife of grand virtuoso Moritz Rosenthal. 

The Prokofiev First Concerto brilliantly combines an other-world ethereality with a spiteful sense of musical irony, what Szigeti called “fairy-tale naivete and daring savagery.” In retrospect, it seems odd Szigeti never took up the eminently lyrical Second Concerto in G Minor. The opening Andantino with Menges has a wonderful tension, both dainty and aggressively muscular, especially as the composer sets his angular theme in variation. Szigeti’s raucous, cutting-edge tone only exacerbates the unease this music generates. The intonation of the LSO winds and strings, courtesy of producers Harold Lawrence and Wilma Cozart Fine, set the music quite before us in dazzling Technicolor. Szigeti’s high harmonics at the last page, in concert with the orchestra harp, produces a world of far away, if not of long-ago. The second movement, Scherzo: Vivacissimo, still manages to shock and assault our conservative prejudices with its rasping harmonies and slicing metrics, a virtuoso romp for all participants. The last movement, Moderato, sets a gentle, colorful canter in which Szigeti weaves a kind of dream vision. The music arrives at restrained, passionate climax, and then it dissolves into fragments of the opening movement, under which the new rhythm still throbs. Soon, the whole liquifies and invites contrary impulses high and low, bass winds, brass, and harp. Szigeti shrieks and careens in the manner of a violin-turned-kaleidoscope. Yet, the music invokes a serenity almost unimaginable except from the pen of a lyric genius of iconoclastic nature. 

Stravinsky has Greek poetry in mind as he proceeds on the course of the Duo Concertante. Bogas and Szigeti perform rapid, repeated notes in the Cantilene, set in ternary form. The two instruments collide more than they collaborate. Double stops mark Szigeti’s central section. There follow two Eclogues, poems popularized by the poet Virgil. In Eclogue I, Szigeti creates a drone effect that leads to some choppy figures in both parts that may remind listeners of the violin part in L’Histpoire du Soldat.
Eclogue II, more serene and slow, allows some conversational dialogue between the instruments. The fourth movement, a bouncy Gigue, enjoys the triplet figuration of the Italian Baroque, although as the music proceeds, the instruments engage in polyrhythmic display in different meters. The last movement, Dithyrambe, pays homage to the poetic measure in Greek tragedy – mentioned by Nietzsche – a lyrical moment that Szigeti and Bogas share of exalted beauty.   

CD 6: The final disc of the collection testifies to Szigeti’s commitment to the avant-garde music he championed along with classical repertory. The impetus for much of this music derives from Schoenberg and Debussy, the former the instigator of a new system of musical expression, and the latter who liberated musical color from formal schemes. Arthur Honegger’s 1918 three-movement Sonata No. 1 (rec. 12-13 March 1959) has Szigeti and Bogas in moody reflection in the opening Andante sostenuto, especially as Honegger, a member of Les Six, took influences from Debussy and Fauré. Three ideas provide the matter for this movement, which achieves a potent verve that one finds in cabaret life. The Presto indulges in counterpoint, beginning with resonant chords from the piano and then slashing melodic tissue and brisk bowing from Szigeti. The fifty-second finale, Bewegt, opens ff, then dwindles away after two measures. The remainder is meant to sound as a whisper, which is the way, according to T.S. Eliot, the world ends.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) had intended to write six sonatas prior to his fatal cancer, diagnosed in 1909. The Violin Sonata in G Minor is the third of the set, the last he finished. Despite the ravages of WWI and his illness, the piece radiates light and a feeling of joy. Marked Allegro vivo, the first movement shuns bravura display, and its intimacy derives mainly from the raspy violin of Szigeti, although the keyboard’s arpeggios convey a dream landscape. The second movement, Intermède, balances the instruments in a sort of improvisation. A cross between a light scherzo and a lilting andante, the music as played by Szigeti casts a skittish playfulness. After a quick allusion to movement one, the Finale presents a gigue that insinuates past erotics. Bogas’ bell tones entice us at once. Szigeti invests a lively energy into this collaboration, and the work reveals only the elusive mystery of Debussy’s late creations. 

Charles Ives (1874-1954) created his Violin Sonata No. 4 from materials gathered 1911-1916. The intended subtitle, “Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting” meant to invoke tunes heard around Danbury, Connecticut, the various activities and services at a boys’ summer camp. The opening Allegro depicts the marching boys, who sing as they increase their speed and sing out of tune. The long Largo – Allegro second movement remains relatively subdued, concentrating on “Yes, Jesus Loves Me.” Nature sounds from the piano noisily intrude on the piety, offering a chance for fun and recreation. Evening sounds quiet down the occasion, the hymn’s having returned and concluding with a palatable “Amen” The Allegro last movement combines song and march, also a mix of levity and piety, embracing “We shall gather at the River” as it motto theme. 

Bela Bartok (1881-1945), devoted friend and fellow musician, often collaborated with Szigeti, in particular, their concert at the Library of Congress remains a preserved monument. Szigeti shares with colleague Yehudi Menuhin a passionate commitment to Bartok’s music. The Sonata No. 2 (rec. 16 March 1959), composed in 1922, calls for a true virtuoso violinist, often called upon to intone without vibrato. Purportedly written in C Major, that tonality is “severely compromised. The piece is cast in two continuous movements, utilizing the full chromatic scale in unique sound blends. The first movement, Molto moderato, has an eerie, improvisational reminiscence of a Romanian hora lunga but in tortured figures. The ensuing lengthy Allegretto ensues without pause, the piano chords inviting a pizzicato response from Szigeti. A splashy, invasive dance opens up, a real contest between the instruments. Szigeti and Bogas manage to create a compelling listening experience, earthy and emotionally insistent. Bartok would appear to crown the musical efforts of Joseph Szigeti, music’s refined statesman of the violin.

—Gary Lemco

Joseph Szigeti: The Mercury Masters

BRAHMS: Horn Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 40; Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 100; Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77;
PROKOFIEV: Violin Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 80; Violin Sonata No. 2 in D Major, Op. 94b; Violin Concerto no. 1 in D Major, Op. 19; 
BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61; 
STRAVINSKY: Duo Concertant; 
HONEGGER: Violin Sonata No. 1; 
WEBERN: Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 7; 
DEBUSSY: Violin Sonata in G Minor; 
IVES: Violin Sonata No. 4; 
BARTOK: Violin Sonata No. 2 

Performing Artists:

Joseph Szigeti, violin
John Barrows, horn
Mieczyslaw Horszowski, piano
London Symphony Orchestra Herbert Menges (Brahms and Prokofiev)
Artur Balsam, piano (Prokofiev)
London Symphony Orchestra/ Antal Dorati (Beethoven)
Roy Bogas, piano (Stravinsky, Honegger, Webern, Debussy, Ives, Bartok)


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