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currently listening to …

2nd June 2004 permanent link

Zoltán Székely performing the 1939 premier of Bartok’s violin concerto. Sound quality is dreadful – lots of surface noise from the original 78 recording and the orchestra mostly pretty muffled, which is a pity, because it’s the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and they’re normally very good. But it sounds like a fun piece of music and the violin playing – not surprisingly since it’s Székely – is great. Székely was less well known as a soloist than as leader of the Hungarian Quartet, one of the great chamber music ensembles of the mid 20th century.

Thinking about Székely’s recorded legacy (and others of his generation, see below), I wonder if there will ever be anyone like him (them) again. The Hungarian Quartet are best known now for their 1950s recording of Beethoven’s string quartets – still one of the best recommendations for a good complete Beethoven set. Haydn and Schubert performances that I’ve heard by them are stunning too. But Székely also liked, and was noted for playing, ferociously avant garde new music by his friend Bartok: this violin concerto was written for him, and the Hungarian Quartet also recorded Bartok’s complete string quartets (recently re-released cheaply on CD, and sitting in my bought-but-not-yet-listened-to pile)

Now, far be it from me to suggest that nobody writing “classical” music today is in the same league as Bartok (look at the trouble I got into the last time I implied anything like that); but I do think it’s fair to say there aren’t that many current top flight performers who are at the forefront of avant garde/experimental contemporary music and making excellent recordings of older music. People seem to specialise in one or the other, quite possibly to the detriment of both. Cue deluge of emails/weblog postings proving me wrong.

An example, possibly, of contemporary music and older music cross-fertilising one another when played by people who are at the forefront of both: last week I was listening with a friend, who knows a great deal more than I do about these things, to 1960s recordings of the Borodin Quartet playing Tchaikovsky and a soviet composer I don’t write about any more. Both wonderful; the Tchaikovsky wonderful in a modern-sounding way that I really have a hard time imagining anybody actually having thought of in the middle of the nineteenth century. It sounded to me very obviously like Tchaikovsky played by people who spent a lot of time playing contemporary soviet music, and much the better for it. Or perhaps not. I am not a musician, I just try to describe what I think I’m hearing. My friend didn’t disagree.

Update: A casualty of war? I have listened to quite a lot of 1930s recordings. Most of them sound obviously “historical”, but I’ve never heard one quite as bad as this. When I asked about it on, somebody said the reason is that the original Dutch radio master tape is lost. The CD releases were done from Székely’s personal copy of the record, which presumably had been played rather heavily. Hmm, 1939 recording, master tape lost or destroyed? What happened to Holland shortly after 1939?

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