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Henryk Szeryng (violin)
The SWR Recordings
rec. various locations, 1956-1984
SWR MUSIC SWR19092CD [5 CDs: 348:41]

But for a chance encounter with Arthur Rubinstein in Mexico in 1954 following a guest performance the pianist gave, Henryk Szeryng’s name would have been consigned to oblivion. His rise to fame was unusual. A gifted pupil of Carl Flesch, he’d fled to London in 1939, where he was supported by the Polish Prime Minister in exile Wladyslaw Sikorski before both relocated to Mexico. He fell in love with the country and accepted a professorship at the Faculdad de Música of Mexico City University. He took Mexican citizenship in 1946. With all thoughts of an international career put to one side, the Rubinstein encounter was to change all that. The two formed a close friendship and Szeryng’s career took off.

This tranche of broadcast recordings spans almost thirty years from 1956-1984 and has been remastered from the original SWR tapes. According to the excellent discography of Tadaharu Tanomura, all of the works included here are also represented by commercial studio inscriptions, though I’m making first acquaintance with Szeryng’s interpretation of the Szymanowski Second Concerto. The composers of the various works are chronologically sequenced over five CDs.

I’m pleased that the SWR archive is turning up Szeryng recordings, as his reputation has waned somewhat since his death in 1988. One reason may be that he never cultivated an individually distinctive sound, instantly recognizable, that couldn’t be mistaken for any other. I am here thinking of his colleagues like Heifetz, Menuhin, Oistrakh and Stern, who still remain popular. I remember watching a documentary in which Itzhak Perlman made the tongue in cheek remark that if he heard a recording of a violinist and didn’t recognize who it was, he assumed it must be Szeryng. Nevertheless, in my humble opinion he can be counted among that elite group of twentieth century violinists who can be termed ‘great’.

Szeryng’s Bach is refined and aristocratic but may not necessarily appeal to those who favour the authentic instrumental performances. Here the tempi are broader, and the orchestral sound weightier, with articulation less crisp. Nevertheless, the outer movements sound lively and fresh, and the central slow movements are fervently expressive. If I have one quibble it would be that I would have liked the soloist to have been more forwardly profiled in the mix.

Mozart's Complete Concertos for Violin and Orchestra that the violinist recorded with Alexander Gibson and the New Philharmonia are, together with the Grumiaux cycle, one of the finest I’ve heard. This set includes Nos. 3, 5 and No. 7 in D major K271a, the latter of doubtful authorship. Szeryng’s stylish and idiomatic performances are fresh and invigorating, with slow movements flowing with natural phrasing and grace. The tempi set by Paul Sacher (No. 3), Ernest Bour (No. 5) and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (No. 7) seem just right.

I’ve always enjoyed Szeryng’s Beethoven Concerto recordings, especially the versions with Schmidt-Isserstedt and Haitink. This version with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrucken under the distinguished baton of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski dates from 1956. All the qualities I admire in Szeryng’s playing are to be found here, beautiful tone with a rich bloom, warm expressiveness, flawless intonation and stunning technical prowess. The Brahms Concerto is equally compelling. This time it’s Ernest Bour at the helm of SWF-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden in a performance from 1961. The violinist made three commercial recordings of the Brahms Violin Concerto. The earliest dates from June 1958 with Pierre Monteux and the London Symphony Orchestra, then there’s a traversal from 1962 with Doráti. The latest was set down in April 1973 with Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw and is my least favorite for its lethargic tempi and lack of immediacy. This 1961 peformance stands favourably with the excellent Doráti version. There’s a compelling fusion of potent drama and beguiling lyricism. Bour is an inspirational conductor and brings out the best in his soloist. In both concertos Szeryng employs the Joachim cadenzas.

Szeryng was a determined champion of the Schumann Violin Concerto throughout his career and made a commercial recording of it with Antal Dorati and the London Symphony Orchestra in 1964. This recording with Ernest Bour at the helm of the SWF-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden isn’t, in my view, on a par with the version on Hanssler Classic I reviewed  back in 2015. Again, the orchestra is the same but the conductor there was Hans Rosbaud. Although an earlier recording, dating from 1957, the sound quality is infinitely preferable. This 1971 airing sounds muddy, resulting in a lack of orchestral detail. In the five-movement version of Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, Szeryng captures to perfection the Spanish flavour in seductive fashion. Suave and alluring, there are some stunning bow effects and deft glissandi along the way. The sparking finale sets the seal on a captivating reading. The Sibelius Concerto is the highlight of the set for me. In superb sound, Szeryng is partnered by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrucken and Hiroyuki Iwaki, a conductor whose name I don’t recognize. All concerned are acutely sensitive to the ebb and flow of the music. The intensely fervent slow movement cannot be bettered and the finale, whilst not the most punchy, is delivered with verve and vigour. Iwaki is wonderful throughout, and this is a textbook reading of soloist and conductor striving for a singular purpose.

Berg dedicated his Violin Concerto, a work of haunting lyricism, “To the Memory of an Angel” (Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler, who died in 1935 at the tragically early age of 18).  Szeryng’s interpretation is both effective and convincing, as is conductor Ernest Bour’s way of shaping the music. The soloist’s vast palette of colour serves this music well. The tragic climax at the end makes a striking impact with Bach’s chorale nothing less than a stroke of genius. I’m not drawn to Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto as much as to the First. I find it poetically less generous and less fairytale fantasy. Yet, it does have its folky elements. Szeryng makes a good job of it though, surfing the highs and lows with intelligence and great musicality. Skrowaczewski underlines the colourful array of instrumentation and proves to be an inspirational force.

All in all, this is playing distinguished by refinement, elegance and polish. Sound quality is fairly consistent throughout, and will handsomely repay repeated listening. The only recording which I found slightly problematic, as I’ve already stated, is the Schumann Concerto. Christoph Schlüren has contributed a helpful liner.

Stephen Greenbank

Bach, Johann Sebastian
Violin Concerto no.1 in A minor, BWV1041
Violin Concerto no.2 in E major, BWV1042
Beethoven, Ludwig van
Violin Concerto in D major, op.61
Berg, Alban
Violin Concerto 'To the memory of an angel'
Brahms, Johannes
Violin Concerto in D major, op.77
Lalo, Edouard
Symphonie espagnole in D minor, op.21
Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus
Violin Concerto no.3 in G major, K216
Violin Concerto no.5 in A major, K219 'Turkish'
Violin Concerto no.7 in D major, K271a
Schumann, Robert
Violin Concerto in D minor, WoO23
Sibelius, Jean
Violin Concerto in D minor, op.47
Szymanowski, Karol
Violin Concerto no.2, op.61
Participating artists:

Kammerorchester des Saarlandischen Rundfunks/Karl Ristenpart
SWF-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden/Paul Sacher/ Ernest Bour/Rolf Reinhardt
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrucken/ Stanislaw Skrowaczewski/Hiroyuki Iwaki

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