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Getting to know Szigeti

I had the very great pleasure of being on Radio 3’s Record Review this morning with Andrew McGregor (thankfully pre-recorded, as I hadn’t done one before).

I’d been asked to talk about new box sets of Joseph Szigeti and Max Rostal. I’d heard plenty of Szigeti before – he was one of the players that Steven Isserlis had chosen when he guest edited the ‘great players’ issue of The Strad for me.

But this box set was a chance to listen quite comprehensively to his playing (albeit on recordings made in the second half of his life) and to fall completely in love with it. It also led me to his book, Szigeti on the Violin, which is wonderful – charming, self-deprecating, articulate, wise, nerdish, and incredibly modern. He tackles some of the big issues of his time, and it turns out that many of them are still current.

Here are just a few of his thoughts:

Attention to detail

‘It is likely that the reader whose spectre has been haunting me will find that I am stressing on too many minor points, in fact, trivia. To him I would point out that in our craft it is often our fingerings, bowings and manner of pointing up rhythmic aspects of the work, our individual tone and our way of singing a tune, the meaningful articulation of a phrase or passage, that constitute our unmistakable ‘handwriting’, as his characteristic brushstroke sets a painter apart from others of his century or his school or period. And this is the one thing that seems to many observers to be lacking in the present crop of extremely brilliant violinists, the average of whose performing prowess is undoubtedly higher than it was a few decades ago.’


‘Should the reader find that the question of intonation, the basic and all-important question in our art, is conspicuous by its absence in these pages, I would disculpate myself with one single sentence – a slogan if you like – one that I borrowed from an advertisement for a brand of mattresses in America: ‘There Is No Substitute For Sleep. Buy X’s Beauty-Rest Mattresses.’ Applied to the subject of our book it would turn out less terse: ‘There Is No Substitute For Perfect Intonation’.

Beauty of tone, perfection of technique, sense of style, the faculty of transmitting the essence, the poetry, the passion of a musical composition, all these gifts will be of no avail if the cardinal virtue of perfect intonation is missing. So let me repeat: There Is No Substitute For Perfect Intonation.’

Kreutzer Studies

‘The Kreutzer Etudes were a key influence in the formation of my equipment. They are considered by some nowadays as a stepping-stone that one uses but can later afford to discard. I see this when finished virtuosi and prize winners at international competitions come to consult me. When I suggest that they play one of these etudes from memory and improvise one of the innumerable variants that every violinist should be able to invent for himself when he encounters some difficulty in one of the masterpieces, old or contemporary, there is a blank look on their faces. To them Kreutzer means something long forgotten in their past.

But when, in the 1930s, while taking the cure in an Austrian spa, I dropped in on Arnold Rosé, an old master, Mahler’s concertmaster and one of the great quartet leaders of the turn of the century, I found him with the Kreutzer Etudes propped up before him on the mantelpiece, practising them. At that time he was well over seventy.’

Violin competitions

‘The young artist, instead of gambling on debut recitals in the music centres, nowadays prefers to play the ‘game of chance’ at some of the international contests which proliferate, and the knowledgeable minority therefore also withdraws from the concert hall. Those who used to be the ‘kingmakers’ in the concert hall and whose voice used to be heard at committee meetings of orchestras, chamber music societies and so on, can no longer exercise their self-appointed role of talent ‘discoverers’ and no longer go to these introductory recitals. ‘

‘It is hardly necessary to point out that this gamble on the unforeseeable chances at competitions is incompatible with the slow maturing either of the performing personality or of the repertoire’

‘It is hardly necessary to point out that this gamble on the unforeseeable chances at competitions is incompatible with the slow maturing either of the performing personality or of the repertoire. Going from one competition to another, preparing the different morceaux imposés – Tchaikovsky or Paganini, Rachmaninoff or Chopin, Sibelius or Bartók, or Wieniawski – whether one has an affinity for the patron saints of these events or not cannot be conducive to a development which only contact with the public, its resonance, its rejections, can bring about. On the contrary a tendency to use gramophone recordings of the test pieces by illustrious interpreters as a crutch is an almost inevitable consequence of relaying on competitions, with their mechanics of evaluation, instead of on the ‘vox populi’.

‘Out of these competitions a new type of semi-professional has grown up, neither fish nor flesh, not content with the pleasures of playing chamber music with friends’

‘Out of these competitions a new type of semi-professional has grown up, neither fish nor flesh, not content with the pleasures of playing chamber music with friends, like his counterparts of forty or fifty ears ago, but seeking a professional label. Aimless young men, young women with private means, having graduated from some conservatory with a diploma or scholarship, they take private lessons, and encouraged by their teachers, go from one competition to another, preparing morceaux imposés beyond their technical means. If they are lucky enough to gain a fourth or fifth prize, or an eleventh or twelfth, as they may, all too often every one of a large number of prizes is awarded, however low the level of performance, they can call themselves ‘lauréat du concours X’ or ‘a prize winner of the 19—competition at X’. Any violinist who has served on a jury and seen, as I have, what pitiful figures these consolation prize winners cut in the competitions will be worried by this habit of misleading self advertisement. We have no ‘Food and Drug Act’ to warn the consumer. Ineffectual teachers can go from one teaching appointment to another, distorting performances can be given on false authority, engagements made under false pretences.’

‘The teenage prize-winner of a competition who is given a contract there and then to record the contemporary work with which he won the prize under the baton of its composer and gets from the recording company the sensation-promoting press and radio ‘treatment’ has certainly found a short cut which all his talented classmates will dream about and aim for. It will be useless to preach to them about the advantages of slow maturing, about going – in Schnabel’s phrase – ‘the way of most resistance’!’

Summer courses

‘European and Americans pin their hopes on competitions and so-called ‘master classes’ and ‘summer courses’ of a few weeks’ duration in different countries and under various teachers, who, by the nature of things, can do no more than point out generalities and are forced to ignore basic problems: they are what could be called guest teachers of guest pupils.

Of course, the results of such two or three-week ‘workshops’ depend to a great extent on the devotion and pedagogic flair of the master teacher and also on the attitude of the young people who sit at his feet. In some of these summer courses and master classes – and in their reduction ad absurdum, the one-afternoon master class given by the world-famous figures to gatherings of 300 or more, the photographer’s camera and the television producer play too preponderant a role, so it seems to me.’


‘No doubt the availability in recent years of Urtexts and facsimiles of some manuscripts, like those of the Bach Solo Sonatas, has brought us many insights and a degree of assurance in some doubtful cases. But it has also bred a type of ‘know-all’ who – armed with a Photostat or a facsimile – will cry sacrilege every time he meets with a trill that the composer did not mark in the manuscript, forgetting that such trills and other embellishments were taken for granted in his time and were, consequently, often not notated by the composer. They will also question, or protest against, any deviation from the solemn, ponderous tempi of the ‘Victorian-organist’ and the bowings that used to be considered in keeping with the style of every one of the three great Bach Violin Fugues. They will not admit that each of these is a law unto itself and that what is right for the G minor Fugue will be out of place in the singing flowing fugue in C Major.’


‘One of Ysaÿe’s biographers tells how Eugene’s father Nicolas – who was his first teacher – admonished him at the age of five or six with a furious ‘What! You already use vibrato? I forbid you to do so! You are all over the place like a bad tenor. Vibrato will come later, and you are not to deviate from the note. You’ll speak through the violin.’ This was in 1863 or 1864 approximately; and listening to the beuatiful, chaste, close vibrato on his 1912 Columbia USA recording I feel that this paternal admonition bore fruit in Ysaÿe’s unthrobbing lovely cantilena as I still remember it. Who knows how our universally praised recordings will sound to turn of the 21st century ears?’

His disappointment on hearing Leopold Auer

‘I had the rare privilege of hearing Leopold Auer in December 1913 in St Petersburg when he played the Beethoven Concerto under Willem Mengelberg’s direction. I am reluctant to set down my own rather less positive – though admittedly vague – memories of this courageous deed on the part of a master nearing seventy. Of course my youthful unreasonableness must have been responsible for my feeling of disappointment and frustration: I must have expected – without formulating this expectation to myself, of course! – the teacher of Elman, Heifetz, Zimbalist (all of whom I had heard by that time) to outdo them all, not only in the indefinable qualities of wisdom, style and ‘format’ but also in tone, technical perfection and elan.’

‘This juvenile anticipation was of course absurd; the robustness of Mengelberg’s orchestral frame only emphasised the thinness and carefulness of the obviously nervous old master’s playing. In fact, paradoxically enough, the characteristics to the ‘Auer School’, or rather of what these extraordinary young virtuosi have led us to consider its characteristics, were just what I missed in Auer’s playing.

With hindsight can we not ask ourselves whether our conception of the Auer School does not owe its existence to the unique and individually differentiated gifts of this triumvirate (Elman, Heifetz, Zimbalist) rather than to some ‘new approach’ on the part of the master himself? Even the so-called Russian bow hold which Carl Flesch attributes to Auer (or rather to his outstanding disciples) does not seem to represent Auer’s intentions entirely. The neat ‘genealogical tables’ showing how 20th-century violinists descend from this or that illustrious ‘chef d’école’ of the past are not as dependable as the authors of these books would like to make them seem. Even ‘the rare privilege’ of hearing some great representative of our art – in his declining years, it must be added – does not always enable the listener to pass on to future generations impressions that fix the place and rank and distinguishing features of players who belong to the history of violin playing.’

There are also wonderful chapters about various technical issues about playing – all still relevant – and I thoroughly recommend it, alongside the new CDs:

Here are some of the great musicians who have been inspired by him, and here is a wonderful interview with him from the BBC archive:

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