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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Sonata in D major Op. 12 No. 1 (1797-98)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Violin Sonata in G major Op. 78 (1878-79)
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Partita BWV 1004
Henryk Szeryng, violin
Eugenio Bagnoli, piano
Recorded Ascona, September 1975
AURA 203-2 [76.11]

Piero Rattalino, one of Italy’s premier writers on the piano and pianists in general, writes many of Aura’s sleevenotes. In general his writing runs the gamut from bizarre to affectionate with all stops in between. Here he relates the story of how, having booked Henryk Szeryng for a concert engagement and gone backstage to greet him beforehand, Rattalino twice found the Polish born violinist had been drinking. Rattalino avers that Szeryng "knew how to stop one glass short of disaster" which is fortunate for the reputation of a musician who still, fourteen years after his death, occupies a curious mid-ground between admiration and indifference. This Ascona concert which dates from September 1975 – and it’s rather typical of the eccentric note writer that whilst he happily spills the beans on a violinist’s Dutch courage he doesn’t go in for biographical data – finds Szeryng essaying the Three Bs. He was then fifty-seven and his hard route to international acclamation lay behind him.

He made only one commercial recording of Beethoven’s Op. 12 No. 1 Sonata, with Ingrid Haebler for Philips, and similarly he made only one disc of the Brahms Op 78 with his admirer and effective sponsor, Artur Rubinstein. Other performances of his Bach have however surfaced and the Partita appeared on EMI and associated labels, and another performance on DG with a 1961 live Melodiya doing the rounds as well. This Ascona concert is a serious-minded but not aloof recital and many of Szeryng’s aristocratic qualities are on show. The opening movement of the Beethoven is buoyant and jovial with Eugenio Bagnoli proving an engaging partner. As ever with Szeryng clarity and precision are hallmarks of his playing, with a vibrato generally under control at all times. Elegance informs the variational second movement and a sense of undeviating aplomb in the finale albeit there is one very brief moment of blasting on the tape. Overloading – if that’s what it is – does resurface in the first movement of the Brahms from 4.50 onwards, but it relents and the problem is fleeting; a hazard of the live performance. Bagnoli shines in the slow movement and is both simple and affectionate. Szeryng varies his vibrato usage noticeably here and I found his emotive phrasing somewhat forced. Intonation comes under very slight pressure as well and some rather unusually declamatory passagework at 3.05 decorates a movement in which the violinist shows he is still more than adept at blanching his tone without losing vibrance. The finale returns to the verities of the opening movement – a sanity and clarity that doesn’t preclude depth but equally never forces itself on the listener, never projects unreasonably expressive weight. At moments Bagnoli sounds a mite hesitant at some points but this is otherwise a sound reading, enlivened by the circumstances of its performance. Szeryng was a master Bachian. His preserve in the Partita is cogency, architectural certainty, rhythmic acuity, textual accuracy and romantic sensibility. True he splits the occasional note – in the Chaconne – but his attacks are strong, his dynamics well terraced and his sense of the dynamic variance of phrasing is strong.

This is not the first Szeryng issue in Aura’s continuing series but it is an impressive one. It captures an artist of maturity and the recital is an example of rapport between violinist and pianist. If I still want to know the identity of Rattalino’s eminent French violinist who was so drunk that he slid his bow underneath the strings of the violin or the conductor who threw himself off the rostrum in an alcoholic stupor, I will still want to listen to this recital considerably more – Szeryng, as ever, is an excellent guide to the repertoire.

Jonathan Woolf


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