In a generation defined by standards set by Jascha Heifetz, where does Henryk Szeryng’s technique and style fit in?

By Sasha Margolis

Henryk Szeryng, born a century ago this year, belonged to an almost impossibly gifted generation of violinists that included such luminaries as Yehudi Menuhin (1916–99), Isaac Stern (1920–2001), Arthur Grumiaux (1921–86), and Leonid Kogan (1924–82), along with Ruggiero Ricci (1918–2012), Ginette Neveu (1919–49), Ivry Gitlis (b. 1922), and Josef Hassid (1923–50). With the exception of Menuhin, all were born in the years just following Jascha Heifetz’ 1917 US debut—these artists came of age in a violinistic landscape dramatically altered by Heifetz’ asteroid-like impact.

Before Heifetz (1901–87), the greatest stars of the violin would charm and seduce their audiences, show off when the music demanded it, and in the most exalted repertoire, plumb the deepest of musical depths. After Heifetz, audiences expected not only charm and sensuality and profundity, but also perfect accuracy and intonation, along with the ability to be great in every kind of repertoire. Szeryng himself put it best: “With his advent, such things as faulty intonation, slovenly playing, erratic rhythms, and erroneous textual readings were rendered archaic and no longer tolerated by the critics and the public.”

As if Heifetz were not enough to contend with, Nathan Milstein (1904–92) came along in the 1920s to provide another, less supercharged example of violinistic perfection. In 1923, the great pedagogue Carl Flesch published his Art of Violin Playing, codifying some of the new expectations while helping provide the means to meet them. Meanwhile, in a Russia closed off from the West since 1917’s other revolution, a hothouse species of violin art took root, conditioned like Flesch’s method on absolute instrumental mastery. At the first great international competitions, the Wieniawski in 1935 and the Ysaÿe in 1937, David Oistrakh (1908–74) emerged as the premiere poet of this new Russian school, matching skills with Flesch students including Neveu and Hassid.

Jascha Heifetz. Photo © Library of Congress

Jascha Heifetz. Photo © Library of Congress

Szeryng was a Flesch student, too, but he did not emerge until the mid-50s, when pianist Arthur Rubinstein discovered him toiling in Mexican obscurity. By the time Szeryng made his New York debut in 1956, a still younger generation was already making its mark, in the person of Michael Rabin (1936–72), Ivan Galamian’s first great student. In contrast, Yehudi Menuhin had already been an international star for some 30 years. Nonetheless, Szeryng would carve out one of the premier careers of his era, proving to be perhaps the most well-rounded and cosmopolitan violinist of his generation.

It is instructive to compare Szeryng and Menuhin, who were in many ways perfect opposites. Menuhin was one of history’s great prodigies, a fundamentally open and intuitive player, who some listeners felt came close to the divine—as if he didn’t just perform music but “channeled” it. Szeryng, on the other hand, was a meticulous planner, who conductor Yoel Levi once called “the best-prepared musician with whom I ever worked.” Daniel Heifetz, who studied with Szeryng, believes that “there was something very self-protective about him, which in some ways came through in his playing, when it was just so completely controlled.” A telling detail is revealed by Charles Castleman, who considers Szeryng one of his primary coaches: “Before a concert, he’d count the number of steps from backstage to where he was going to stand.”

“Though Szeryng was a master of timing, he tended to take his time at the ends of phrases and between them, rather than bending in the middle.”

Menuhin was fully capable in his youth of the most devilish virtuosity. But he was a throwback in his lack of a systematized technique, a flaw that Ysaÿe famously pointed out when the young prodigy played for him, and one that forced him to retool his playing in later years. Szeryng had no such weakness—Oistrakh claimed that Szeryng’s Tchaikovsky concerto was, on a technical level, superior to his own. Szeryng’s playing mechanism, shaped by Flesch, never declined in old age, as did Menuhin’s or (arguably) Stern’s or even Oistrakh’s. (It didn’t hurt that he was a fanatical practicer all his life.)

Menuhin had an instantly recognizable tone, deeply personal at all times. From the first note he played, his vibrato communicated a kind of emotional involvement that seemed to transcend the specific music he was playing. In this, he resembled the older generation of Fritz Kreisler (1875–1962) and Mischa Elman (1891–1967), and a few peers such as Hassid and Gitlis. Szeryng’s playing was not, to the ears of many listeners, so instantly recognizable. Itzhak Perlman has likened him to a chameleon: “He sounded like everybody—good.”

Pianist Gyorgy Sandor (left), Gail Rector (president of the University Musical Society), and Henryk Szeryng at a UMS concert on July 24, 1978

Pianist Gyorgy Sandor (left), Gail Rector (president of the University Musical Society), and Henryk Szeryng at a UMS concert on July 24, 1978

But Szeryng was hardly alone in sounding less personal than Kreisler or Menuhin. Connoisseurs may be quick to recognize the playing of Oistrakh or Grumiaux or Stern. But their artistry is vested less in a typical “sound” than in their approaches to phrasing, bow strokes, even rhythm. It is no coincidence that these artists were the greatest performers of the sonata repertoire, while Szeryng and Grumiaux were the greatest in Bach.

If Szeryng was a chameleon, it may have been a result of his cosmopolitan pedigree. A brilliant linguist with homes in Paris and Mexico, Szeryng had absorbed, directly or indirectly, the Russian influence of Leopold Auer (Heifetz’ teacher), Flesch’s Central European approach, and the esprit of French violinist Jacques Thibaud. To his own mind, Szeryng was a proponent of the French school, which he identified by its gentle approach to the instrument: “I did not believe in hitting the violin with too much violence. I think it should be treated lovingly.” Even Szeryng’s spiccato was unusually horizontal, and in general, he avoided fast-bow accents, preferring to shape the music with subtle dynamic changes—or as Martin Beaver, another Szeryng student, recalls, by “not vibrating certain notes for emphasis. Sometimes you could hear these notes just sort of sticking out, and you knew that it was all deliberate. There was nothing left to chance in his playing and his expression.”

Though Szeryng thought himself stylistically French, in the opinion of Daniel Heifetz, “he transcended that. He was greater than that.” Heifetz considers Oistrakh the violinist whom Szeryng most resembled, in terms of sheer musical greatness, despite obvious differences. But to Beaver, Szeryng’s approach to tone production links him most closely with Grumiaux: “They’re closely related, in terms of their appreciation of that kind of aristocratic sound and warmth.” Meanwhile, Castleman identifies the slightly younger Christian Ferras as a fellow violinist with whom Szeryng shared something crucial, a balletic and fundamentally French approach to rhythm.

Szeryng’s rhythmic integrity was extraordinary, his exactitude unswerving. And though he was a master of timing, he tended to take his time at the ends of phrases and between them, rather than bending in the middle. Recognizing this, an early reviewer wrote: “This young man has the gift of sustaining an unbroken line . . . he manages to restrain the ardent impulse of the moment, so that the innate skeleton of the work is never distorted.” This approach, however, for all its breadth and profundity, may be a
double-edged sword. Some audiences may prefer ardent impulses and slightly bent skeletons. Certainly, American audiences never embraced Szeryng as they did Isaac Stern, who displayed a more overt eagerness to communicate this way.

According to Daniel Heifetz, Szeryng “was frustrated that his acclaim in Europe as one of the greatest of the century was not equaled in America. But at the same time, I saw ways in which he behaved toward conductors, which many conductors found very frustrating. He shot himself in the foot. But in America, he was absolutely in the stratosphere along with Isaac Stern, in terms of his playing and artistry.”

Whether because of career difficulties, or because he was too much a connoisseur’s violinist—or because of changing tastes in the playing of Bach, whose music he was so closely associated with—Szeryng’s is not the first name many fans now think of when remembering great violinists of the past. He made some 250 spectacular recordings, which more than reward the curious listener. His legacy also includes the revival of Paganini’s Third Concerto, a piece he played in breathtaking fashion. And he left behind a few students he regarded as his “heirs,” including Gérard Poulet in France, Enrique Espín Yépez in Mexico, and Emile Tassev in Belgium. If his fingerprints as a teacher are not more visible nowadays, perhaps it is because his teaching, like his playing, was simply great, without being idiosyncratic. When Daniel Heifetz returned to show his former teacher Galamian the bow hold Szeryng had just taught him, he reports, “Mr. Galamian just looked at me, and said, ‘Oh no, Danny. I taught you that.’”