Last week, I wrote about Ruggiero Ricci (who would have turned 100 this year) and his incomparable recordings of Paganini’s 24 Caprices. This week, I’d like to explore the life of another towering violinist whose centenary falls this year, one of the great aristocratic artists in the Romantic tradition: Henryk Szeryng.
Born on September 18, 1918, into a prosperous Jewish household in Warsaw, Szeryng began studying the piano at the age of five, switching to the violin not long after. Gifted as he was, he might well have followed in the path of his industrialist father, but for the intervention of the violinist Bronisław Huberman—a close friend of the Szeryng family who often spent evenings at the house discussing poetry and philosophy. Upon hearing the seven-year-old Henryk play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, he recommended that the boy continue his musical education in Germany. Szeryng studied with Willy Hess in Berlin (a difficult transition, given the boy’s rudimentary German), then with one of the most noted pedagogues of the day, Carl Flesch. Under Flesch’s tutelage, Szeryng matured, acquiring the solid grounding in violin technique that would serve him for the rest of his life.
He made his debut in January 1933, performing the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Warsaw Philharmonic, and he played the same work in Paris toward the end of that year. Despite this auspicious start, he felt that his education was incomplete, so he returned to France to enroll at the Paris Conservatoire. After earning his diploma, he remained in the capital to study composition, as did so many prominent 20th-century musicians, with Nadia Boulanger. Not surprisingly, Szeryng’s style reflected his influences—the rigor of the German school tempered by the suave elegance of the French.
In the fall of 1939, Szeryng met General Władysław Sikorski, the prime minister of the exiled Polish government, which had established itself in France soon after the September invasion of Poland. Sikorski saw in Szeryng a valuable asset: a cultured artist with refined diplomatic skills who by now could speak seven languages. The violinist agreed to become Sikorski’s interpreter and liaison, subsequently volunteering for the Polish Armed Forces in the West. During the Second World War, he performed some 300 concerts for troops throughout the world, all the while continuing his diplomatic work.
In the early 1940s, Szeryng accompanied Sikorski to Mexico City, with the intention of finding a new home for several thousand Polish refugees. The trip turned out to be a magnificent success. Not only did the Mexican president, Manuel Ávila Camacho, grant asylum to the refugees, he invited Szeryng to settle in the country. (By this time, the violinist had relocated to Rio de Janeiro.) This Szeryng did in 1943, moving to Mexico City and later accepting an appointment in the music department of the National University of Mexico. Before the decade was out, he had become a Mexican citizen.
He might have continued on in this way—teaching, doing humanitarian work, playing some 20 concerts a year in his adopted homeland—had it not been for a fortuitous encounter with Arthur Rubinstein, who had come to Mexico City to perform. Szeryng had gone to hear Rubinstein play, and afterward he hurried backstage, introduced himself, and praised the pianist in a torrent of Polish. Touched, no doubt, by the effusiveness of his countryman, Rubinstein invited Szeryng to his hotel the next day to play chamber music. Whatever expectations the pianist had were quickly surpassed. As Rubinstein would later say, Szeryng “played Bach Sonatas and reduced me to tears.” In an interview with The New York Times in 1978, Szeryng recounted that Rubinstein then “picked up the phone in his hotel suite—he didn’t really ask my permission—and called London and Paris and Berlin and New York. He said if I would go on the concert stage, he would give me his moral backing.” Thus was Szeryng’s late-blooming international career born.
And what a career it was. Szeryng specialized in all of the standard concerto and sonata repertoire, forming a formidable duo with Rubinstein and with another pianist, Ingrid Haebler, making numerous recordings treasured by collectors. His studio and live recordings of the Brahms Violin Concerto—the work with which he made his name and the last piece that he performed, shortly before his death in 1988—are among the most stylish available. His approach to everything he played was tasteful and lyrical, his tone sweet and round, his intonation impeccable, his musical intelligence probing, always keen. Listen to his Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, his Lalo and Schubert, his Mozart and Schumann, and you will hear these many felicities. But listen, above all, to the music that made Rubinstein weep: the Sonatas and Partitas by Bach. The violinist made two recordings of these touchstone works—in 1952 for Sony and in 1967 for Deutsche Grammophon.
Szeryng was my gateway to Bach. When I was a boy, my first violin teacher gave me two cassette tapes containing the 1967 account of the Sonatas and Partitas, which I happily wore out over the course of many years. The first recording we hear of a work tends to condition us for life. We judge every subsequent version against this virgin ideal. So it has been for me with Szeryng and Bach. The tempi, the phrasing, the shaping of the contrapuntal lines, the attacks and articulations—these seem eminently right to me, even as I have come to admire and love the interpretations of so many other artists. When I listen to Szeryng play the mighty Chaconne from the Partita in D minor—the summit of the solo violin literature—I always come away filled with reverence and awe. To be sure, fashions come and go, and historical research will always change the way certain pieces are played. Yet these recordings seem both timeless and unimpeachable. For me, Szeryng is Bach. It’s fitting that the violinist’s tombstone, located in a cemetery in Monaco, is inscribed with the last three measures of that mighty, heavenly Chaconne.
I remember watching a PBS special some years ago about the golden age of violin playing. At one point, Szeryng’s name came up, and Itzhak Perlman, perhaps inadvertently, seemed to dismiss his older colleague. If you happened to hear one of Szeryng’s recordings, Perlman said, without knowing the identity of the artist, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to figure out who it was. Indeed, certain violinists are recognizable at once—due to the way they vibrate, say, or slide from note to note, due to their sound, whether fleshy or thin, or the weight with which their bows make contact with the strings. Inimitability may be a component of greatness, and in the golden age of the violin, distinctive musical personalities abounded. Yet perhaps what makes Szeryng’s playing so striking is how little attention he called to himself, how few superfluous flourishes there were, how every interpretive decision appeared to be guided by an abiding fidelity to the score. A certain anonymity may have resulted, but there was also purity in his approach, an absolute willingness to subsume the ego for the sake of the composer. This was true of all the music he played, but it was especially true of his Bach.
Listen to Henryk Szeryng play Bach’s Chaconne, from the Partita in D minor:
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