Polish-born violinist Henryk Szeryng was probably the finest product of Carl Flesch's legendary teaching career (other luminaries to emerge from his studio in the years between the two World Wars include Ivry Gitlis and Ida Haendel). Possessing an iron technique and a musical intellect of rare insight, Szeryng established himself as one of the pre-eminent concert violinists of the post-World War Two decades.
Szeryng was born in 1918 to a wealthy Polish industrialist whose wife had a great love of music. Studies on the piano were abandoned (at young Henryk's request) for the violin, though Szeryng was skilled at the keyboard for the rest of his life. Szeryng progressed quickly on his new instrument, and by age nine was sufficiently proficient to perform the Mendelssohn concerto for famed violinist Bronislaw Hubermann, a friend of the family. On Hubermann's advice Szeryng was sent to Berlin to study with Carl Flesch. The young violinist remained with Flesch until he was thirteen, and later declared that his technical prowess was solely due to that masterful teacher's influence. Two years later in 1933, Szeryng made his debut performance in Warsaw with the Beethoven concerto under Bruno Walter. That same year he embarked on a minor concert tour, soloing with orchestras in Bucharest, Vienna, and Paris.
Szeryng immediately took to the city of Paris and settled there for a period of further study and growth as a performer. While in Paris Szeryng developed a great affinity for the French school of violin playing, which he considered more elegant and refined than the German or Russian schools (it is at this time that he abandoned the so-called "Flesch" bow-hold, switching instead to the Franco-Belgian grip). While in Paris Szeryng came under the influence of legendary violinists Enesco and Thibaud, though, contrary to popular belief, he did not formally study with either. Szeryng also thought seriously about pursuing composition as a career, and for six years took lessons from Nadia Boulanger in Paris (1933-39).
At the outbreak of war in 1939 Szeryng enlisted with the Polish army (by then in exile in western Europe). Being fluent in seven languages, he was assigned to General Sikorski as a translator, with whom Szeryng helped to relocate hundreds of Polish refugees in Mexico. During the war Szeryng gave hundreds of concerts for Allied troops around the globe, and in 1943, during a concert series in Mexico City, was invited to take over the string department at the University of Mexico. Szeryng accepted the offer, and assumed his duties in 1946.
He spent the next ten years in Mexico teaching, and eventually took citizenship there. Performing infrequently (and then only locally), Szeryng was largely forgotten in the musical centers of Europe. A chance encounter with fellow Pole Artur Rubinstein in Mexico city convinced Szeryng to re-enter the musical scene (Rubinstein, who had previously never heard Szeryng play, was so impressed by the violinist that he immediately asked his own manager and impresario Hurok to begin booking concerts for Szeryng). A New York debut in 1956 immediately established Szeryng as a leading violinist of the day (coming as quite a surprise to a new generation of violinists who had been entirely unaware of Szeryng's existence), and for the next thirty years Szeryng divided his time between a globe-trotting concert schedule and his teaching duties in Mexico.
As a violinist Szeryng was unique--his patrician, aristocratic approach was unmistakable. Sometimes criticized for being too restrained, Szeryng was nevertheless quite capable of playing with warmth and fire when he felt compelled to do so (as in his magnificent performances of the Sibelius concerto). His excellent recordings include two full sets of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas (the second of which, one of the truly great recordings of the century, exerted an incalculable influence on the next generation of violinists), as well as the major violin concertos in the repertory (he has also championed and recorded the work of many composers from his adopted country of Mexico). Essentially a musical purist, Szeryng adheres closely to the original text in his recordings (the few exceptions, such as Szeryng's addition of a high D natural at the climactic moment of recapitulation in the Brahms concerto, remain inexplicable). In Bach Szeryng is not interested in reviving any authentic performance practices, but seeks rather to unlock the essence of the composer through modern mechanical means--his embellishments, finely crafted and elegant, never border on the self-indulgent. Recordings of the Beethoven and Brahms sonatas with Artur Rubinstein are particularly rewarding. Of note also is Szeryng's world-premiere recording of Paganini's E major Violin Concerto (No.3), which Szeryng himself reconstructed from parts held in the archives of the legendary Italian violinist's heirs.
Szeryng could at times be somewhat inconsistent. In live performances his calculated precision might turn cold, and in later years it is rumored that troubles with alcohol led to a somewhat deteriorated technical ability. Until his death in 1988 he traveled with a Mexican diplomatic passport, and was involved in various humanitarian projects through the United Nations-- Szeryng never ceased believing in music as a unifying, healing power.
© Blair Johnston /TiVo