Measure by Measure

The Cult of Johanna Martzy

Forgotten at her death, yet treasured for her recordings

By Sudip Bose | January 18, 2018
From Legendary Treasures: Johanna Martzy, Vol. 3 released on Doremi Records
From Legendary Treasures: Johanna Martzy, Vol. 3 released on Doremi Records

The mere mention of the name Johanna Martzy is sure to light up the eyes of any devoted record collector. Not necessarily because the Hungarian violinist was one of the most accomplished artists of the 20th century, but due to the scarcity of her commercial recordings: some 10 studio albums from the 1950s that, over the years, have attained mythical status. During a period of obsessive record collecting more than a decade ago, I would salivate at the sight of those LPs on eBay, though the absurd prices they commanded were well beyond my means. Even today, with Martzy’s discography (including many recently issued radio and live recordings) available on CD, those original LPs are still wondrous, chimerical things. Just this morning, I saw her recording of the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 4 selling for $500, a disc of short pieces by Ravel, de Falla, and Szymanowski for $999.99, and an album of Bach for $899. By comparison, Martzy’s recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto seemed like a perfect steal at $140.

Martzy’s career blazed for an all-too-brief time—but for a series of unfortunate events, she might be far better remembered today, even mentioned in the same breath with the greatest instrumentalists of the last century. She was born in 1924 in what is now the Romanian city of Timișoara, then Hungarian Temesvár. As a young girl, she journeyed to Budapest to study with the violinist Jenö Hubay, continuing her work at the Budapest Academy at the age of eight. In 1943 she made her debut, with the Budapest Philharmonic and guest conductor Willem Mengelberg. She married a fellow musician, Béla de Csilléry, the following year, though her newlywed period was marked by instant upheaval, with the Nazis occupying Hungary in 1944, deporting Hungarian Jews or relocating them to ghettos. Martzy, a Jew, feared the worst, so she and her husband escaped, making it only as far as Austria before they were sent to an internment camp. There they remained for the duration of the war.

With this harrowing experience behind her, Martzy settled in Geneva and embarked on a torrid international career, performing with many of the great orchestras of the world, establishing a formidable partnership with the pianist Jean Antonietti, and entering the recording studio, where she produced those treasured accounts that would form the basis of her legacy. These include a storied version of the Dvořák Violin Concerto, with Ferenc Fricsay and Berlin’s RIAS Symphony Orchestra; Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin; the Brahms Violin Concerto, with Paul Kletzki and the Philharmonia Orchestra; and all of the violin and piano works of Schubert. The decade of the 1950s was fruitful, but far from smooth. The violinist and the conductors with whom she collaborated occasionally clashed, and then there was a most unsavory episode involving EMI’s noted record producer, Walter Legge, who supposedly made romantic advances that Martzy refused. Whether this led to the termination of Martzy’s professional relationship with EMI cannot be established, though soon enough, her recordings were removed from the company’s catalog. To make matters worse, Martzy found herself caught between eras; the inauguration of the stereophonic age meant that her mono records made with other companies (such as Deutsche Grammophon) would no longer be available in stores.

In 1959, Martzy was scheduled to appear at the Edinburgh Festival as a soloist with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. The ensemble, however, refused, accusing her of having supported, during the Second World War, the government of Miklós Horthy, the former regent of Hungary and Nazi pawn. The accusation was pure nonsense, likely a form of retaliation for something Martzy had said in the aftermath of the ill-fated Hungarian uprising of 1956: no longer, she had declared in a newspaper interview, would she perform anywhere in Soviet Eastern Europe.

It’s hard to determine to what degree Martzy’s career suffered from these political and personal conflicts. By this time, she had had her first marriage dissolved and married her patron, the Swiss publisher and violin collector Daniel Tschudi. After the birth of their daughter, she played less and less, though she did continue to tour well into the 1970s—even breaking her vow never to appear in the Eastern Bloc: in 1969, she performed in Budapest, so that she could attend to her ailing mother. It was then, however, that Martzy contracted hepatitis. Her last concert appearance was in 1976, and just three years later, at the age of 54, she died of cancer at a hospital in Zurich.

She remains an elusive historical figure, her life’s story suggesting more questions than answers, yet her recordings leave no doubts about her considerable artistry. In her interpretive approach, Martzy seems ahead of her time, very much a contemporary violinist. Whereas many of her colleagues played with dripping sentimentality, employing expressive slides, thick vibrato, and excessive tempo changes within a line or phrase (known as rubato), Martzy was interested only in communicating a composer’s intent. She had no time for indulgence or virtuosity for its own sake. Perhaps because of this consummate fidelity to whatever score she was playing, because of her refusal to highlight herself, Martzy has been accused of austerity and dryness. Yet listen to her soulful, idiomatic accounts of the Dvořák Concerto (there’s a live recording available, as well as the famed studio version), and you will hear a violinist animated by both fire and passion. In some ways, her Brahms Concerto with Kletzki is even more impressive: dramatic, lyrical, and mysterious. The first-movement cadenza shows her conquering the most virtuosic passages, yet for me, it’s the quiet lines that follow this cadenza—airy, delicate, utterly pure—that are even more impressive. And like her Dvořák Concerto, Martzy’s Brahms is almost symphonic in the way she integrates her lines with those of the orchestra. Some concerto performances sound like wars between soloist and accompanist; Martzy’s are noble collaborations through and through.

Among her chamber music recordings, her readings of Schubert’s Rondo Brilliant and Fantasy are especially appealing, with an underlying melancholy not usually associated with this music. And her recordings of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas are, to me, among the best, philosophical and introspective in the slow movements, concentrated and forceful in the fugues. Listen to her full-bodied Chaconne—15 minutes of controlled intensity, of carefully calibrated tension and release—and marvel at the masterly way she shapes those polyphonic lines. To convincingly play these unaccompanied pieces of Bach, the closest thing in the repertoire to sacred music, the violinist must become unobtrusive, to the point of sublimating the self in an act of communion with the composer. This is precisely what Martzy does. Listen to the purity of her tone. Note her impeccably good taste, and the way she renders so many expressive states within the context of a single movement. She just might be the greatest violinist you’ve never heard of.

Listen to Johanna Martzy play the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor, a recording made in the mid-1950s:

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