Polish-born Henryk Szeryng was often characterized as a “patrician” violinist, but for good reason, as this monumental 44-CD boxed set from Decca makes abundantly clear. Collected here are the complete recordings Szeryng made for Philips, Mercury, and Deutsche Grammophon as soloist, recitalist, and chamber musician—a trove spanning 20 years (1962–1981) and containing most of the meat of his prolific recording career, though not all of it (he made some fine recordings for RCA and others in the 1950s).
The set was issued in 2018 to mark the centennial of Szeryng’s birth. For those who may have trouble placing him, a short biographical note: He studied in Berlin with Carl Flesch and made his debut in Warsaw in 1933. Fluent in several languages, he volunteered for the Polish army-in-exile in 1939 as a translator for General Sikorski, and during the war helped arrange for the emigration of 4000 Polish refugees to Mexico; he ultimately settled in Mexico himself, and in 1946 accepted a professorship at the University of Mexico. Szeryng’s self-imposed artistic isolation came to an end in 1953, when the great Polish-born pianist Arthur Rubinstein played some sonatas with him after a concert in Mexico City and realized that a world-class violinist was standing there right next to him. A brilliant recording of the Bach sonatas and partitas soon followed, and, with a New York recital in 1956, Szeryng’s international performing career was relaunched.
In concert Szeryng stood ramrod straight, his determination that the music should make the effect, not the performer, written on his face. In person he preferred to be addressed as Señor Embajador…and he was an ambassador, not just of Mexico, but of an entire era, and of a style of playing that is largely lost nowadays—passionate but with a controlled intensity, dry-eyed yet always in command of great tonal beauty. It is a joy to listen to this collection and be reminded of Szeryng’s expressive, wonderfully connected phrasing and his warm but never overwrought address.
The contents of the box are divided into three groupings: the recordings made for the Philips label (CDs 1–29, the core of the collection, spanning the years 1965 to 1980); those that appeared on Mercury Living Presence (CDs 30–36, all dating from 1962–65); and the recordings for Deutsche Grammophon (CDs 37–44, all but one recorded 1967–70 and including Szeryng’s splendid traversals of Bach’s six sonatas and partitas for solo violin and the complete Beethoven piano trios with Wilhelm Kempff and Pierre Fournier).
There’s some duplication of repertoire here, but in a set devoted to the artistry of a single individual that’s a plus. We get two accounts of the Beethoven concerto (from 1965 with Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt and the LSO, and from 1970 with Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw); two of Bach’s three concertos (the first set from 1965 with Szeryng himself conducting, the second from 1976 with Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields); two of the Brahms concerto (from 1962, with Antal Dorati leading the LSO, and from 1973 with Haitink and the Concertgebouw); and two of the Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn concertos (with Dorati and the LSO from 1962–64, and with Haitink and the Concertgebouw from 1976).
About the remastering there are some confusing statements printed on the last page of the booklet that accompanies the set, beginning with the line “All CDs newly remastered at 24bit/192kHz”—which is immediately followed by claims that CDs 1–29 (the Philips discs) and CDs 30–36 (the Mercury discs) have been remastered at 24bit/96kHz. Nothing is said about the DG recordings. In any case, it can’t all be true. I reached out to Thomas Fine, who is credited with remastering the Mercury recordings that were made under the supervision of his parents, Wilma Cozart Fine and C. Robert Fine, and got the following explanation: “CDs 35 and 36 (containing the Bach concertos from 1965 and readings of the Sibelius and Prokofiev G minor concertos with the LSO and Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, also from 1965) were recorded by Philips but first released by Mercury. So we remastered them and the CDs are packaged in the Mercury covers as released in the USA. We only had 2-tracks to work with. For the recordings made by the Mercury Living Presence crew, CDs 30–34 (containing concertos by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Khachaturian, Schumann, and Mendelssohn, plus two recital programs), I worked with first-generation 3-tracks. All the transfers I oversaw were 192/24.”
These MLP remasterings were clearly a labor of love for Fine and his associates, and they bring the work of Szeryng, Dorati, Rozhdestvensky et al. to vibrant life. The sonics on the DG-sourced discs are equally satisfying. But the Philips discs prove more of a mixed bag. While most sound excellent, the results achieved on the recordings made with Haitink and the Concertgebouw seem oddly uneven. Here the sound ranges from quite good, indeed, much better than on previous CD incarnations in the case of the Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Mendelssohn concertos from 1973–76 (the Mendelssohn particularly lovely, by the way, and Szeryng’s deliberate interpretation one for the ages), to downright disappointing for the Bartók Second from 1969.