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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor Op 108 (1888)
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Violin Sonata in A Major (1886)
Henryk Szeryng, violin
Mindru Katz, piano
Recorded privately June 1973
CEMBAL D’AMOUR CD 105 [53.06]


Henryk Szeryng seems to polarise opinion fourteen years after his death in 1988. For some his stylishness, his tonal qualities without exaggeration and his stylistic aptness are benchmarks. For others his is the kind of musicianship that slides too frequently toward blandness. Even a practitioner as genial as Itzhak Perlman can show his teeth when confronted by the Szeryng conundrum, frequently having noted that whenever he hears a recording by a fine violinist whom he can’t recognise it has to be Szeryng. By which he means, I suppose, a generic tonal response, a fatal lack of distinguishing individuality, maybe also the idea that Szeryng seldom if ever commits musical solecisms or, its inevitable corollary, fails to scale the heights either.

But it’s highly unusual to find a musician who responds promiscuously to the whole body of the literature. Why should a violinist who plays Brahms well necessarily play Szymanowski equally well? Szeryng had, on disc at least, a wide range of interests – amongst the expected Bach, Beethoven, Mozart (he was a frequently exalted Mozartian) and Brahms and the sugar-coated delights of his Kreisler (one of the best Kreisler albums around) there are nuggets galore – Ponce, Chávez, Halffter-Escriche, Khachaturian and Martinon, all of whose concertos he played and recorded, commercially in the main, or otherwise. Whatever position one takes regarding him, pro or contra (or indeed neither) there is luckily plenty of recorded evidence upon which to reflect. Here is yet more, a collaboration between violinist and Mindru Katz, taped whilst they were both on tour in England in 1973. It seems they were touring separately but, having met before in Israel and having kindred interests, they spontaneously set down these two sonatas for their own pleasure, and the recording derives from the pianist’s widow.

I admired them but was seldom moved by them. The Brahms opens pliantly, fluently, but quite slowly, with occasionally some understandably tentative ensemble. The slow movement witnesses some emotive intensificatory gestures from Szeryng and a dramatically withdrawn slow central section whilst in the third movement Katz is playful and delightful and Szeryng aristocratically deadpan and superbly sanguine. The Franck is a big performance, alive to the complexities of projection and interiority of design. The close of the third movement Recitative-Fantasia is the highlight, playing of especially and treasurably tender intimacy such as is not often encountered.

Szeryng recorded the three Brahms Sonatas with his one-time sponsor and long time admirer Arthur Rubinstein (RCA, 1960). This Katz recording of the D minor is more sheerly affectionate than the Rubinstein traversal and in addition Szeryng never recorded the Franck – which is one reason at least why his admirers will want the disc. The sound is excellent.

Jonathan Woolf



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