Joseph Szigeti (violin)
The Mercury Masters
Eloquence 484 3756 [6 CDs: 298]

Szigeti’s discographic Last Will and Testament took place between 1959 and 1961 for Mercury. Using either two Schoeps microphones for the chamber music or three for the concertos, the company continued its high audio standards, with results that are immediate and clear. And that is where the good news largely ends.

Szigeti was at the end of his career as a recording artist though he clearly wanted to carry on into the 1960s. He also wanted to backfill his catalogue, recording things he’d never previously, such as Brahms’ Second Sonata and to make his final statement on Brahms’ and Beethoven’s Concertos, as well as revisiting on disc, after decades, Prokofiev’s First Concerto recorded in the 30s so memorably with Beecham.

It was much too late. His vibrato, inherently slow, had become woefully so, and there are times when he is incapable of bowing steadily – try passages in Brahms’ Horn Trio, saved from oblivion by John Barrows and Horszowski. His intonation is also frequently tattered and listening to the Second Violin Sonata is a salutary experience. It’s a standard critical line that his phrasing remained elevated, and his instincts were noble and true and so, doubtless, they were but without a technique to support them they’re not much use.

For the Brahms Concerto he was joined by the LSO and Herbert Menges whose sister, Isolde, was an almost exact contemporary of Szigeti. True, some of his phrasing is indeed refined but the vibrato is canyon-wide and his tone is abrasive, the passagework all too often laboured, frequently awkward, and intonation approximate. He plays the Joachim cadenza but it’s painfully clear that he lacks physical power. Menges and the LSO provide excellent support.

The two Prokofiev sonatas follow on CD 3, Artur Balsam accompanying in the Fine Recording Studios in New York City. He’d recorded No.1 with Joseph Levine back in 1949, a decade earlier. He’s now slower, inevitably, in three movements and there are some accomplished passages but he’s not able to maintain them and his intonation is all over the place. The Second Sonata was a remake of his recording with Leonid Hambro but it lacks brio and is similarly littered with ponderous shifts.

Antal Doráti was on the podium for the Beethoven Concerto, and he proves admirable throughout, but from the rather feeble broken octave entry onwards, Szigeti is prey to the physical ailments that so sabotaged these sessions and his earlier recordings collected in Sony’s box (review). He plays the Busoni cadenza but the playing throughout is sketchy, there are fingerboard incidents, the vibrato is uncontrolled and intonation painful. He was now not far short of 69 and it’s better to remember him in this work from the recordings with Bruno Walter. Recorded over several days in June 1961 it was released in May 1964, by which point Mercury was eyeing up Szeryng for their remake.

The heroic nature of Szigeti’s undertaking – he suffered multiple illnesses – must be tempered by the realisation that he wanted these recordings to be made. It’s on record that he even stood the orchestra lunch or dinner and was exceptionally generous toward them. In the Prokofiev First Concerto, again with Menges, he can find his way around the Vivacissimo start in the central movement but comes unstuck in its tricky slow passagework. He’d recorded Stravinsky’s Duo Concertant in 1945 with the composer. There are ways in which the work suits his resinous tone but the recording is ruined by his unsteadiness, despite the best efforts of pianist Roy Bogas.

The last disc is an all-sonata one with Bogas again. Much as one may want to hear him play Honegger’s First Sonata, notably the mournful threnodic intensity at the start of the finale, it’s all too often a head-in-hands experience. The Debussy sonata, earlier recorded with Bartók in 1940 and Foldes the following year, is rather better. It was typically brave of him to essay Ives’ Fourth Sonata but it required a player with resilient tonal qualities and as in the Cowell he’d recorded, which you’ll find in that Sony box, the results are mediocre at best. The Bartók Second Sonata wasn’t to be released until 2013 when it finally appeared courtesy of Philips in Japan.

Original Jackets are employed but in this case it’s not too profligate; perhaps two discs might have been saved, had Eloquence followed the lead of other labels – say EMI’s ‘Icon’ series – and filled each disc to the brim. 

Tully Potter’s notes cover Szigeti’s life excellently but pointedly, and deftly, he refrains from commenting on the performances. Remastering is in the hands of Tom Fine, whose work proves outstanding, as one would expect.

What can one possibly say about this very attractively documented, sturdy 6-CD set with splendid colour photographic reproductions and full discographic details for each session? I suppose it depends on your pain threshold. At least, though, all the Mercury recordings are gathered in one box; they are very hard to source elsewhere and, to be frank, there’s a reason for that.

Jonathan Woolf 

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CD 1
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Horn Trio in E flat major, Op.40
Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op.100
John Barrows (horn): Mieczysław Horszowski (piano)
Recording Location: Fine Recording Studios, New York City, New York, USA, 24 March 1959 (Violin Sonata) and 26 & 27 March 1959 (Horn Trio)

CD 2
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op.77
London Symphony Orchestra/Herbert Menges
Recording location: Watford Town Hall, London, UK, 26 & 28 June 1959

CD 3
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Violin Sonatas No. 1 in F minor, Op.80
Violin Sonata No.2 in D major, Op.94
Artur Balsam (piano)
Recording Location: Fine Recording Studios, New York City, New York, USA, 7, 8 & 10 December 1959

CD 4
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op.61
London Symphony Orchestra/Antal Doráti
Recording Location: Watford Town Hall, London, UK, 17–20 & 22 June 1961

CD 5
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op.19
London Symphony Orchestra/Herbert Menges
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1972)
Duo Concertant
Roy Bogas (piano)
Recording Locations: Fine Recording Studios, New York City, New York, USA, 17 March 1959 (Stravinsky); Wembley (Brent) Town Hall, London, UK, 15 & 16 June 1960 (Prokofiev)

Arthur Honegger (1892-1955)
Violin Sonata No. 1, H17
Anton Webern (1883-1945)
Four Pieces, Op. 7
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Violin Sonata in G minor, L140
Charles Ives (1874-1954)
Violin Sonata No. 4
Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Violin Sonata No. 2, Sz 76
Roy Bogas (piano)
Recording Location: Fine Recording Studios, New York City, New York, USA, 12 & 13 March 1959 (Honegger, Webern, Debussy, Ives) and 16 March 1959 (Bartók)