Joseph Szigeti is one of the giants among violinists of the twentieth century. After outgrowing the status of a youthful prodigy, he eschewed the virtuoso repertory for the likes of the classics of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms; yet he championed contemporary music, too. His performances of the two works on this disc demonstrate his strengths and weaknesses.
This 1951 recording (originally issued on Columbia Records) of the first of Brahms' three violin sonatas is the first Szigeti and pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski made together. Subsequently, over the next 10 years they recorded the remaining two Brahms violin sonatas.
At his best, Szigeti's performances of the Romantic repertoire produce a warm, rich, sensuous tone. However, he was also known to sometimes produce a tone that lacked requisite beauty. This sonata performance is one of those instances where his playing fails to adequately reflect the sonata's lyric, reflective mood. The violin sound is too strident and the recorded sound is somewhat constricted and not adequately warm. Horszowski playing lacks the passion and involvement necessary for a convincing Brahms performance.
This reading of the Piano Quartet, however, is another story. Completed four years prior to the first violin sonata (although it took two decades to fully realize), this quartet is one in which an atmosphere of despair permeates the four movements (much of it was conceived while the composer's friend and mentor Robert Schumann had attempted suicide and subsequently was admitted to a mental asylum).
This recording of the Piano Quartet was made at the famous Casals Festival in Prades during the summer of 1952 and has the spirit of a reunion of old friends. Here, Szigeti's tone is appropriately warm, rich, and sensuous, and he plays with the passion and grandeur for which he is known when at his best. Violist Milton Katims, cellist Paul Tortelier, and pianist Myra Hess complement Szigeti with their involved musical partnership. The instrumental balance and recorded sound is appropriate to the work performed. Szigeti plays a Guarneri violin.