Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Decca Release of Szeryng’s Philips Recordings

Henryk Szeryng arriving at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol in 1964 (photograph by Harry Pot, from Wikimedia Commons, made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication)

It has been almost two months since I filed my first report on Decca’s release of a 44-CD box set collection of all of the recordings that violinist Henryk Szeryng made for Philips, Mercury, and Deutsche Grammophon (DG). Readers may recall that I began with the earliest recordings in the box, dating back to 1962, when Szeryng made his first recording with Mercury. I then said that I would follow with the Philips recordings, the first of which was made in 1966, and then conclude with the DG sessions, which began in 1968. However, while only eight CDs were recorded on the Mercury label, the Philips sessions account for the first 29 CDs in the box. Since there has been a lot on my plate over the last two months, I have been proceeding more slowly than I would have liked.

As was the case with the Mercury recordings, the closest that any of these albums comes to chamber music are recital selections for violin and keyboard accompaniment. (Note the use of the noun “keyboard,” rather than “piano.” I shall return to address that distinction.) All other albums involve Szeryng performing with an orchestra; and I have to say that, while Mercury drew upon the consistently impressive work of Antal Doráti and Gennady Rozhdestvensky, there was more variability in the stylistic and expressive approaches of the conductors recording for Philips.

In the context of my own tastes and preferences, I would say that the most compelling of the orchestral recordings are those that Szeryng made with Bernard Haitink conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. That means duplications of concertos that had been recorded with Doráti: the Opus 77 by Johannes Brahms, the Opus 35 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and the Opus 64 by Felix Mendelssohn. However, I see nothing wrong with having two recordings, each of which offers its own characteristic approaches to interpretation, particularly when such frequently-performed concertos are involved.

On the other hand I have never been an enthusiastic fan of Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields ensemble that he founded. This is particularly the case where the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is concerned, and the content of one of the CDs duplicates the three Bach violin concertos found on one of the Mercury CDs. The Philips recording, however, includes a “bonus track” in the form of the second (Air) movement from the BWV 1086 orchestral suite in D major. August Wilhelmj arranged this movement, transposing the score down so that the melodic line could be played entirely on a violin’s lowest string; and Wilhelmj called his arrangement “Air on the G string.”

This gave Szeryng the opportunity to play the melodic line as a solo. Given that Wilhelmj made that arrangement in the late nineteenth century, it is no surprise that Marriner overloaded the accompanying instrumentation; and he took the same approach with the concertos (as well as those on his “Brandenburg” concerto album). None of this will go down well with those who prefer to listen to their Bach in a more intimate “Collegium Musicum” setting, which is how Mercury recorded the Bach concertos.

Far more preferable are the first four CDs in the box presenting works that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed for violin and orchestra (including the K. 364 sinfonia concertante, which also features solo viola work by Bruno Giuranna). Alexander Gibson is the conductor on all of these albums, leading the New Philharmonia Orchestra. Nevertheless, Gibson was clearly attentive to stripping down his string section to suit the rhetorical stance of each Mozart selection; and Szeryng’s polished account of the solo lines always fit into that context as a hand fits into a well-tailored glove.

Where keyboard accompaniment is concert, Szeryng’s primary accompanist is pianist Ingrid Haebler. However, the partnership is not a consistent one. Where the ten sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven and four sonatas of Franz Schubert are concerned, the chemistry between the two of them could not be better. On the other hand there are four CDs of sonatas and variations by Mozart, which, more often than not, come across as heavy-handed. Whether this is a matter of Szeryng reverting to Wilhelmj’s brand of rhetoric or Haebler trying to get the most out of a modern grand piano may never be resolved; but, where my own tastes in Mozart are concerned, I shall probably seek out other pairings of violinist and accompanist.

On the other hand there are also two CDs of the six violin sonatas by Bach, BWV 1014–1019. For these recordings Szeryng is accompanied by Helmut Walcha at a harpsichord. These provided me with my first encounter of Walcha on harpsichord, since I know him far better through his Bach organ recordings. Nevertheless, it is clear that Walcha knew how to establish the appropriate “period spirit” for these compositions; and, respectively, Szeryng consistently knew how to fit into the context that Walcha established.

Overall, while the may be a hit-or-miss consistency to the performances that Philips recorded, the misses are few enough to make this portion of the collection generally enjoyable.

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