By Sasha Margolis
Arthur Grumiaux may have been the most elegant violinist of the twentieth century. He certainly enjoyed one of its premiere solo careers. Emerging after World War II, at a time when Heifetz was king and established stars Menuhin, Szigeti, and Francescatti were being joined on the international scene by Oistrakh, Stern, and soon, Szeryng, Grumiaux stood out for a unique combination of qualities: unfailing sweetness and warmth of tone and ease of execution, along with utter sincerity, beautiful and long-range phrase-shaping, and an ability to respond to any emotional subtlety the music he was playing held in store.
Born in 1921 in the Belgian town of Villers-Perwin, Grumiaux studied with Alfred Dubois, an Ysaÿe pupil whom he would succeed as professor at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels. Spending the war in occupied Belgium, Grumiaux chose not to play in public, so as to avoid having to perform for Nazi occupiers. After the war, he quickly rose to fame. The BBC chose him to broadcast the new Walton Concerto in 1945. In 1951 he made a US debut, and in 1954 gave the rediscovered Paganini Fourth Concerto its “second world premiere.” Having established himself a worthy heir to bygone Belgian violin greats Charles de Bériot, Henri Vieuxtemps, and Ysaÿe, Grumiaux was made a baron by King Baudouin in 1973. He died of a stroke in 1986, at only sixty-five.
Grumiaux wasn’t just a superlative violinist. He studied composition with violinist-composer George Enescu, and was such an accomplished pianist that he once recorded sonatas of Mozart and Brahms, playing both parts. But in his musical life, he was largely connected with other people. He was friends with Oistrakh and Menuhin, and had ongoing musical relationships with pianists Clara Haskil, Györgi Sebők, and Istvan Hajdu and string-trio partners Georges Janzer and Eva Czako, with whom he formed the Grumiaux Trio.
Thanks to another long-standing Grumiaux relationship, with Philips Records, we are still able to hear many of his performances today. They cover an extraordinary range of repertoire: almost every major Romantic concerto and showpiece, the French and Viennese sonata repertoires, encores, solo Bach and works of Corelli and Telemann, and—unusually for a major soloist—a great deal of chamber music. (Grumiaux’s repertoire of newer concertos seems to have been limited to Walton, Berg, Stravinsky, and Bartók.) He made few recordings that weren’t first-rate—his playing is clean, warm, and heartfelt, insightful and intelligent, at times driving, and lacking nothing except perhaps, in pieces such as Tzigane and Zigeunerweisen, a certain fire and impulsiveness.
But he was perhaps best known for his Mozart, and it’s here that a string lover’s Grumiaux collection should begin. The A major Concerto with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony shows all the characteristics that made Grumiaux’s Mozart so enchanting—bright sound, crisp articulation, sparkling bow-strokes, and something more: perfect sympathy with Mozart’s magical blend of joy with a knowing humaneness. (The D major and G major concertos are, not surprisingly, just as wonderful.)
Grumiaux had a special rapport with pianist Clara Haskil, until her death in 1960. (Haskil was a fine violinist, and the two sometimes switched parts in rehearsal.) No team has played Mozart and Beethoven sonatas better. A wonderful example is Mozart’s Sonata in F, K. 376. And Grumiaux’s sympathy with Mozart extended to larger chamber-music settings. Not to be missed is the G minor Quintet, K. 516, performed by the Grumiaux Trio with the additions of Arpad Gérecz and Max Lesueur.
Grumiaux’s major concerto recordings compare favorably with anyone’s. But the Beethoven is perhaps the best match for his bright intensity of sound, technical ease, musical sensitivity, and energetic bowing. (Live video shows Grumiaux using extraordinary amounts of bow for this piece.) Among his three studio recordings, the version with Alceo Galliera and the New Philharmonica Orchestra may be the best.
Similarly satisfying are Grumiaux’s interpretations of French repertoire. His Saint-Saëns Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso has all the suavity, sentiment, rhythmic incisiveness, and generosity of tone anyone could ask for.
Grumiaux’s encores don’t always match the level of such masters as Kreisler and Heifetz. But in a piece like the Romance by Johan Svendsen, his sincerity, sweetness, stylish rhythm, and subtle slides are irresistible.
Finally, Grumiaux’s Brahms Horn Trio with Sebők and Francis Orval shows him for the musical giant he was. In a work that can sound awkward and elusive, this trio plays with utter naturalness.
Tune in every week for more recommendations from Sasha Margolis on the essential string recordings that belong in every well-rounded collection.
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