For the past two or three years, German classical music label Deutsche Grammophon has been quietly releasing some rather deluxe vinyl box sets of their catalog cornerstones. One of which; Herbert Von Karajan’s recording of Brahms’ Four Symphonies, has already received a review in Audiophilia. Now again, the historic label has reissued one of its classic recordings, the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, recorded in 1967 by Polish-Mexican violin virtuoso Henryk Szeryng.
I must admit I approached these deluxe vinyl reissues by DG with trepidation. My previous purchase of a vinyl reissue by this label, Rafael Kubelik’s 1974 outing of the Dvořák New World Symphony, had been a digital disaster. The vinyl was quiet enough, but the digital mastering of the original analog recording left much to be desired. Talking to other collectors, it seems most of DG’s reissue catalog is filled with these rather subpar mastering jobs. While it is true that Deutsche Grammophon has never been the last word in audio fidelity like its peers in Decca and RCA, it is safe to say that their reissue series had done little justice to what were in many cases, perfectly fine recordings. That said, these deluxe limited edition pressings seem to be in a different category entirely. With lacquers cut at Emil Berliner studios from the ‘original tapes’ (whether that means original master tapes, or original session tapes, I do not know), these are presented as true AAA analogue endeavors for the collector, rather than casual listener. With that in mind, let’s examine this specific recording.
Henryk Szeryng was one of the leading international violin virtuosos of the 20th century. He is regularly compared to masters like Jascha Heifetz and David Oistrakh in terms of his influence and impact on the instrument and its performance practice. He was no stranger to Bach’s 6 Sonatas and Partitas when he recorded this set in 1967, having already recorded a mono version back in 1955. The recording brings with it an authority of a mature musician who has spent many years in meditation with this music.
Sitting down with my violinist colleague Eva, we put the second sonata in A minor (BWV 1003) on my Rega Planar 3, and immediately we were struck with the raw power and sound Szeryng was able to project from the first bow stroke. His tone was full and rich with incredible forward drive, fitted with a healthy dose of vibrato (now very out of fashion in Bach performance). In the opening Grave the voicing was elegant, intonation was inhumanly perfect, and dynamics were dramatic without sacrificing any of the rich tone. Moving on to the Fuga, however, one is immediately met with the harsh reality of the time in which this was performed. Music scholarship has come a long way since 1967, and with it, performance practice of Baroque music has changed dramatically. While Szeryng manages to perform this fugue with technical mastery, the slow romantic tempo, and ‘vertical’ phrase directions bog it down when compared to the lighter playing popular today.
Moving on to the Partita No. 2 in D minor (BWV 1004), the opening Allemande, a German dance commonly used to open suites, sprung to life with a brisk tempo, highlighting Szeryng’s technical mastery. The following Courante however, suffered from the previously mentioned tempo problems. Eva turned to me and groaned ‘Oh, God this is slow’. The Partita continued with an extra-romanticized Sarabande, weeping and sighing with a vibration and color one would expect in a Brahms sonata. Beautifully executed, but perhaps a bit dated in approach.
Do all of these interpretive decisions detract from the beauty and virtuosity of Szeryng’s performance? Not really, but they portray an experience that is more Szeryng than Bach. Fans of old school Baroque performances from the likes of Karl Richter and Janos Starker will ultimately eat up the warm, rich playing Szeryng provides here, but those accustomed to a lighter, quicker style more in line with current historically informed performance practice, would do better with a more modern rendition.
As mentioned earlier, Deutsche Grammophon was always a middling label in terms of sound quality. A step above the likes of Columbia and the disaster that was EMI’s American label; Angel, DG has some very nice sounding recordings in their catalog, especially the early stereo ‘Tulip’ pressings from the tube era, but they were constantly outperformed by the likes of Decca, RCA, EMI, and even Philips. While I have not heard the original German 1968 ‘white circle’ pressing of this recording, I have enough of them to have a basis to compare with. This 180 gram pressing done by Pallas is dead quiet and flat, and the sound seems to me to be of a high quality by DG standards.
The recording presentation is intimate, like that of a small recital hall or large salon. I can just imagine sitting in a grand parlor in Vienna listening to Szeryng glide through the flurry of Bach’s score with a stern ease. Eva, who is much more attune to violin tone than I, commented that while she wasn’t totally convinced she was listening to a live performance, she noted how the full resonance of the performer’s violin was represented in its reproduction. She even pointed out that she could tell what specific strings the performer was using based on the color represented. Soundstage is difficult to talk about in a solo instrumental recording, but my KEF LS50’s placed Szeryng square in the front center of my listening space, it definitely did not sound as if it was emanating from the L+R placement of my speakers.
Overall, this is an excellent set to recommend to audiophile’s looking to add a solo violin recording by one of the leading performer’s of the 20th century. Certainly the best option for in-print editions available on vinyl. Analog purists may also opt for recordings by Nathan Milstein, whose mono recording on Capital (PCR 8370) is a sought-after, rare pressing, or Arthur Grumaix on Philips (02205.1 L). The interpretive issues, however, would largely remain due to the date of these recordings. For a more ‘historically informed’ performance of this set, I received constant recommendations for Rachel Podger’s 2002 rendition on Channel Classics. While the Red Book CD sound may not be what everyone here is looking for, the performance on Baroque Violin, would be a stark contrast in performance styles. For something more in the middle, Isabelle Faust’s 2010 series on Harmonia Mundi has faced universal praise. Faust performs Bach with a healthy mix of light period style, with modern strings and tunings, which perhaps makes her set the most accessible to all listeners.
These 6 short works by perhaps the greatest composer to ever live, have received countless performances committed to disc over the years, and the options can be overwhelming. For the vinyl-centered audiophile, this excellently executed reissue by Deutsche Grammophon, a numbered, limited edition housed in luxurious box with complete liner notes, could be a hugely rewarding listening experience in artistic mastery, as long as one keeps in mind the time period in which it was recorded, and doesn’t expect, or require a completely ‘period-correct’ performance practice.