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New releases help cement the legacy of Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti never became a household name. But many music lovers, like our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz, regard him as the greatest classical violinist in living memory. He died in 1973 at the age of 80. Many of his earlier recordings were never transferred to CD. But within the last year, the Sony and Pristine audio labels have released three new sets with more on the way. Here's Lloyd's review.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSEPH SZIGETI PERFORMANCE OF SCHUBERT'S "PIANO SONATA NO. 17 IN D MAJOR, OP. 53, D.850, 'GASTEINER SONATE': IV. RONDO. ALLEGRETTO MODERATO")

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: That was an excerpt from a 1933 recording of a Schubert Rondo by the Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti. There's no violinist I love more. Even in that brief fragment, you can hear him make his violin both sing and speak. He captures Schubert's mood swings from the playful to the suddenly, if only momentarily, heartbreaking. No violinist I know has a greater emotional range in Bach or Mozart, but also in music by his contemporaries like his countryman Bela Bartok. They made some stunning recordings together including the first recording of Bartok's "Contrasts" with the legendary jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman. It's included in Sony's 17-disc Szigeti box of all of his American recordings on Columbia.

Maybe the single most enchanting piece in that whole set is Szigeti playing Stravinsky's brief "Pastorale" with the composer conducting and Mitch Miller, of "Sing Along With Mitch" fame, on the oboe.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSEPH SZIGETI, IGOR STRAVINSKY, MITCHELL MILLER, ROBERT MCGINNIS, BERT GASSMAN AND SOL SCHOENBACH'S "PASTORALE, SONG WITHOUT WORDS FOR VIOLIN AND WOODWIND QUARTET")

SCHWARTZ: The French label Pristine Audio has already released the first two of what will eventually be four sets of Szigeti's European recordings. Here are some of Szigeti's most masterful performances. There's his sublime Bach "Double Violin Concerto" with his elder countryman Carl Flesch. It's the music George Balanchine used for his beloved ballet "Concerto Barocco." There's Szigeti's profound performance of what is usually regarded as a minor work, Mozart's "Violin Concerto No. Four" with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Sir Thomas Beecham, and the first of Szigeti's three recordings of the Beethoven "Violin Concerto" from 1932, with Bruno Walter conducting the British Symphony Orchestra. It's the most beautiful performance of it I've ever heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRITISH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA, BRUNO WALTER AD JOSEPH SZIGETI'S PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "VIOLIN CONCERTO IN D MAJOR, OP. 61")

SCHWARTZ: Two pieces in the big Sony box in their first appearance on CD make me especially happy, Prokofiev's two gorgeous violin sonatas. Here's the beginning of the Sonata in D.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSEPH SZIGETI AND LEONID HAMBRO'S "SONATA NO. 2 IN D MAJOR, OP. 94A")

SCHWARTZ: Even the slightest of Szigeti's performances take my breath away. And the most ambitious of them are overwhelming. I hope these new and superbly produced recordings return one of the 20th century's most important artists to the attention and admiration he deserves.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is the poet laureate of Somerville, Mass. His most recent book is called "Who's On First?: New And Selected Poems." He reviewed new sets of recordings by violinist Joseph Szigeti on the Sony and Pristine Classical labels. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the challenge, exhilaration and heartbreak of operating on the brains of children. Our guest will be the pediatric neurosurgeon Jay Wellons. His new memoir is about struggling to save kids suffering from illness and injury and helping their parents cope with the trauma of seeing their children in mortal danger. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARL FLESCH, JOSEPH SZIGETI AND WALTER GOEHR'S PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "CONCERTO FOR TWO VIOLINS IN D MINOR, BMV 1043")

GROSS: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARL FLESCH, JOSEPH SZIGETI AND WALTER GOEHR'S PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "CONCERTO FOR TWO VIOLINS IN D MINOR, BMV 1043") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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