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Inspired by Szigeti

Research on Joseph Szigeti for BBC Radio 3’s Record Review took me back to some old interviews I did when I was at The Strad, where he regularly came up in musicians’ ‘favourite violinist’ lists. Here are some of the reasons why

Leonidas Kavakos

‘After Kreisler the most significant artist is Joseph Szigeti, because of all the historic violinists, Szigeti would be the one who today could play in the same way as he played then and still be considered a contemporary violinist. That’s because his playing had a more symphonic approach. It couldn’t be any different, when he was so close to Bartók and so involved in the research and sources of music. I recently had a chance to see a pile of programmes from New York from the beginning of the last century, from different artists, up to the Second World War. With all the recitals that were happening in the city, it was amazing to see the recital programmes of Menuhin, Kreisler and Szigeti. At that time, Szigeti was playing a programme of Bach and Stravinsky piece, or Busoni sonatas, while Menuhin was playing the Mendelssohn Concerto in recital. Szigeti was not only bringing new music into existence in his recitals, but finding combinations that are contemporary and interesting even today. It’s amazing when you think that Kreisler was writing and playing Liebesleid at the same time that Sziget was playing short pieces from Hungary. He was also one of the most important Bach interpreters and was busy playing all sorts of contemporary music. He was very much ahead of his time in terms of programming.

That’s what puts Szigeti so high up for me. I know it’s not an obvious choice and people will ask, ‘Isn’t Heifetz your idol?’ Szigeti wasn’t as strong as Heifetz violinistically, but the way he expressed himself on the instrument was as a voice that came from the sources, from the folk music. He had the ability to see the overall spectrum on which every composer stands. I have all his recordings: his recital with Bartók is legendary. Everyone should have it. It confirms to me that one should not only look for wonderful violin playing. Of course htat has to be there, because without it one cannot touch greatness. But for those who have that, there is something more, and Szigeti had it.’

Kyung Wha Chung

‘He opened up a wider vision of violin playing. He put a Chinese poem in front of me. I had read a lot as a child, but coming from him it was different. I felt as if I had been in a great ocean, working so hard to learn this instrument, and then suddenly he said, “Yes, you have to have that, but this is something else, this is what you have to do.” So whenever I travelled I would go to a museum, and do anything I could to connect artistically, diligently, passionately. Little by little things came together. Travelling and putting things together became like a puzzle. When Szigeti opened that Chinese poem, he triggered something and it was enough.’

Maxim Vengerov

‘When I left the class of Zakhar Bron at the age of 16, Heifetz was my main influence, but I found other people that I started to admire, such as Joseph Szigeti. His Brahms Violin Concerto demonstrated different playing again: more intellectual. There was a true essence and great musicianship, and a sense of chamber music. In Heifetz’s recordings all you hear is the violin – the orchestra is not that important, but with Szigeti there is a different sense of music making altogether.’

Mitsuko Uchida

‘He influenced me a lot as a musician. I believe in honesty, and honesty towards the composer, and never to give up trying to get close to the core of the music. That’s why I love Joseph Szigeti. People complain about his vibrato and his intonation, but for it is such beautiful, musical intonation. People complain about Enescu’s Bach for being out of tune, but I don’t. The intention is clear and for me that’s more important. I hate people who play smack centre in tune. On a stringed instrument? Give me a break! On a piano we have no option, but when you are a string player and you have smack-centre intonation like an accurately tuned piano? No, thank you!’

Arnold Steinhardt

‘Sometimes he’d go out of his way to put in a fingering that you’d think was loony. If he wanted a husky effect, then for a passage that you’d normally play on the D or A string, he’d have you play way up on the G string, because it gave an unearthly sound. It was a very important concept, apart from the specific suggestions: you have to be resourceful and inventive in fingerings. I came from teachers who said, ‘Here are my fingerings – just copy them.’ Ivan Galamian, my teacher before Szigeti, who was the most renowned teacher in the world at that point, would hand every student the same fingerings whether they were six feet tall or five feet, and whatever their hand and arm lengths. Szigeti wasn’t like that at all. It opened up a huge world. To this day, when I open a piece of music and think of fingerings, I can feel Szigeti behind my shoulder whispering to me: ‘That’s too standard, look at something that gets more into the essence of the music.’

‘There’s a picture of the two of us where you see these tall guys standing next to one another. Szigeti shouldn’t have played the violin – he should have been a violist. He looked awkward when he played. It didn’t bother him at all, though. It wasn’t so much his height as his arm length that began to catch up with him as he got older, so he was very much into ways to solve these problems.’

Ida Haendel

‘My father always wanted to become a musician, but was prevented, so he was very ambitious and he developed my talent and encouraged me. His dream was for me to study with another great musician – Joseph Szigeti. This didn’t happen because when we came to England from Poland, Szigeti announced he was going to America and we remained in Europe. He and Enescu were the two great influences on my musical life.’

By way of contrast, here is a less-enamoured quote from Nathan Milstein’s autobiography:

‘I admire the way Bartók, who was a brilliant pianist, plays on his recording of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata with Joseph Szigeti. Bartók interprets the music extravagantly, more so than Szigeti, and he’s right: you can’t play Beethoven too academically; it becomes dry and uninteresting. It’s like spaghetti. When I order spaghetti in a restaurant, I always ask the waiter not to drain it completely, to leave some of the water; it mixes with the butter and cheese, and it’s terrific. But Szigeti was reluctant to play Beethoven ‘wet’.’

‘Szigeti, whom I knew well, was an incredibly cultured musician. Actually, his talent grew out of his culture. In Gstaad we had neighbouring chalets and I would hear Szigeti practising, playing the same three notes over and over stubbornly. I couldn’t understand what he was trying to achieve, but Szigeti apparently had his own ideas. I always admired him, and he was respected by musicians. In his late years, he finally go the appreciation he deserved from the general public as well.’

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