By Sasha Margolis
Joseph Szigeti was an unusual superstar. The Hungarian violinist, born in 1892, wasn’t blessed with a glamorous sound or a thrilling vibrato. He didn’t have Kreisler’s charm, Heifetz’s electricity, or Elman’s emotiveness. He did possess elite violinistic and musical qualities: impeccable intonation, virtuoso facility, a varied vocabulary of characterful bow strokes, and a high degree of elegance. But what most shaped Szigeti’s career were more human characteristics: integrity, curiosity, and sheer dedication to the hard work of practicing.
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Szigeti’s integrity impelled him to limit himself to music he found meaningful, to the exclusion of what might be popular. Though he came of age in an era when recital programs were expected to include concertos and plentiful musical bonbons, and encountered presenters who told him things like, “your Krewtser sonata bores the pants off my audiences,” Szigeti sold audiences and presenters alike on sonatas and unaccompanied Bach, meanwhile giving serious thought to the makeup and order of every program.
His curiosity led him to seek out music of living composers, which he’d practice for years in order to achieve mastery. He recorded Bartók and Stravinsky with the composers at the piano, and popularized music his colleagues considered too thorny to attempt, especially Prokofiev’s First Concerto. He received the dedication for Bartók’s First Rhapsody and, with Benny Goodman, co-commissioned Bartók’s Contrasts. His playing of Bach’s unaccompanied G minor Sonata inspired Ysaÿe to compose his own Solo Sonata No. 1 in G Minor. He also premiered concerti by Casella, Frank Martin, and Bloch, who wrote: “Modern composers realize that when Szigeti plays their music, their inmost fancy, their slightest intentions become fully realized, and their music is not exploited for the glorification of the artist and his technique, but that artist and technique become the humble servant of the music.”
According to pedagogue Carl Flesch, Szigeti was “extraordinarily lovable as a human being,” and “adroit both culturally and socially.” But he acquired his culture the hard way. Raised in the Carpathian Mountains among a clan of fiddle-playing uncles, at eleven Szigeti became a student of Jenö Hubay, in whose class, he would later write, there existed “an atmosphere of such puerile technical rivalry, we were… completely absorbed by the externals of our craft.” Szigeti attributed this situation not to Hubay, but “above all, to our parents who generated such unhealthy impatience…” This impatience led Szigeti to launch a solo career at just thirteen.
Out in the wider world, hearing Ysaÿe, Kreisler, Elman—players with exciting new approaches to sound and interpretation—he realized his own playing was old-fashioned and provincial. He found musical mentors, especially the pianist Ferrucio Busoni, with whom he studied Bach’s Chaconne. And he worked to modernize his tone, which in maturity was beautifully noble, if prone to occasional rasping and scratching from excessive proximity to or distance from the bridge. Szigeti also suffered from a quite slow vibrato. But for most listeners, these flaws didn’t distract from his compelling musicality. For several decades mid-century, Szigeti was among the best-compensated and most-requested soloists, excelling in a distinct repertoire of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, various works of Hungariana, and music of living composers—as attested to by his recorded legacy.
Two early recordings of Hubay pieces, The Zephyr and Waves of Ballaton, display Szigeti’s technical skill and mastery of the Hungarian salon style. Collaborations with Bartók in that composer’s more elemental Hungarian idiom include a historic Contrasts, played with Goodman, and a thrilling First Rhapsody and atmospheric Second Sonata, part of a full recital Szigeti and Bartók gave at the Library of Congress, which also includes a spontaneous, creative Beethoven “Krewtser.” Szigeti often recorded Beethoven sonatas with great pianists of the day. An A Minor, Op. 23, with Arrau, is sharply etched and arrestingly dramatic. In Op. 96, Szigeti and Schnabel create extraordinary colors together, moving and phrasing as one.
Szigeti’s Chaconne, though laden with slides and vibrato not to modern tastes, is compelling in its rhythmic power, and intriguing in its bow-stroke choices. The Beethoven Concerto, with Bruno Walter and the British Symphony, shows Szigeti at his best, fully present, engaged in musical details at the minutest level, and again making brilliant character choices with his strokes. Other standout concerti are the Bloch with Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw, as intense in its cadenza as it is plaintively-colored in its Andante; an assured and elegant Mozart D major with Beecham and the London Philharmonic; and a Prokofiev First, again with Beecham and London, that is crystal clear in its shaping and characters, and completely convincing for listeners of any era.
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