I never got to see Tibor Varga (1921-2003). He was due to conduct in London but died shortly before the engagement, so the recordings he made as violinist and also as conductor are the focal points of my interest - and as collectors of his discs will know a healthy series was put out by Claves.
There are three studio performances in this Meloclassic release, all from Frankfurt and preserved by Hessischer Rundfunk. The important news is that the Bartók solo sonata is new to his discography, which is all the more valuable given the esteem enjoyed by his LP recording of the Second Violin Concerto with Fricsay in Berlin for DG, one of the classic accounts. The other major work is the Beethoven Concerto, though here other survivals do exist – the Summit LP with Horvat conducting the Zagreb Philharmonic is one, though there’s also an Oryx in which Varga is accompanied by the Berlin Pro Musica.
This October 1949 Frankfurt Beethoven performance is not without its ancillary demerits. The winds take a while to settle down and there is a big cushioned but booming bass line. Varga’s opening broken octave run is slightly nervous and his characteristic vibrato, which is very fluty, is prominent, especially on held notes where it oscillates quite dramatically: it will give problems for those uninitiated in his playing.
Varga’s approach is succulent and sweet, his Hubay-derived slow vibrato lending an even more pleading quality to the playing; Endre Wolf, his fellow Hungarian, Hubay student never had the same problem. He makes quick, sleek portamenti and his bowing is quite brittle in the cadenza. The slow movement is prayerful, but the nannying vibrato remains problematic. True, this is very communicative and expressive playing and phrased with songful warmth with happily fast, almost electric velocity trills. There is plenty of tonal colour to be heard, as well, but it is a touch over-heated in places and the extensive cadential passage is out of scale. I must note here that because edit points are introduced, the move from this passage to the finale has been compromised; the movement ends, the studio acoustic is replaced by a dead edit and then the studio acoustic resumes and things start up again for the finale but things are killed stone dead for a brief while. The finale itself is of a piece, though here the personalisation is not without engagement. I’ve not mentioned the conductor, Winfried (or as the documentation has it, Winfrid) Zillig (1901-63). I always thought his first name was Winfried but I stand to be corrected. He is competent, but either because of a faulty perception of balance - or because of the studio engineers - the bass line is over-prominent, and their pizzicati boom volcanically. Zillig, by the way – the digipak notes are exclusively about the soloist – was Erich Kleiber’s assistant at the Berlin Staatsoper (1927-28) and then at a series of orchestras in the country, including Essen. He was director of Frankfurt Radio (1947-51). He was also a composer but recorded little; some Mahler and Schoenberg, principally, for DG.
There’s a bare two-second pause after the Concerto before we are plunged into the Romance in F major — January 1950, with Zillig again — where Varga’s tense sound and sweetly lyric conception create an atmosphere tending to the excessive. The following year, in June 1951, Varga returned to the Frankfurt studio to unleash his performance of Bartók’s solo violin sonata, Sz.117. Here the playing is quite mesmeric, if one accepts its brittle and rather abrasive quality too. His conception is formidable and very fast. This performance pre-dates Ivry Gitlis’s famous commercial reading, and isn’t quite as fast, but at 22 minutes Varga’s is certainly amongst the fastest on record. There are moments of awkwardness, both phrasal and technical, and the tremulous bowing that is so distinctive a feature of his art is very apparent in the Melodia.
For precision, clarity and absolute purity of intonation, Varga would not win many awards here; but for blistering involvement and rugged, pregnant intensity of expression he stands high.
Given all the above this is very much an artist-led release but for those attuned to Varga’s aesthetic there is a great deal to stimulate and intrigue, indeed excite.
Masterwork Index: Beethoven violin concerto