“The gentleness of treating the violin includes elegance”
Tra i violinisti che nel secolo scorso hanno scritto pagine decisive nella storia dell’ interpretazione, Henryk Szeryng occupa una posizione di primissimo piano. Nato il 22 dettembre 1918 a Żelazowa Wola, il paese polacco vicino a Warsaw che diede i natali anche a Chopin, da una famiglia benestante di origine ebrea, ricevette le prime lezioni di violino a sette anni. Il suo primo insegnante fu Maurice Frenkel, che era stato assistente di Leopold Auer a St. Petersburg prima dell’ inizio della Prima Guerra Mondiale. Su raccomandazione del celebre Bronislaw Huberman, nel 1929 fu mandato a Berlino per studiare con Carl Flesch, leggendario virtuoso di origini ungheresi e insegnante tra i più reputati, i cui testi didattici costituiscono ancora oggi uno dei punti fermi nella didattica del violino e che ebbe tra i suoi allievi molti celebri strumentisti come Ida Haendel, Szymon Goldberg, Ginette Neveu e Ivry Glitis. Szeryng ha descritto gli anni della sua formazione con Carl Flesch in un’ intervista rilasciata nel 1987 al giornalista australiano Paul Treuthardt, che trascrivo qui di seguito.
H.S. I studied with Carl Flesch for 4 years, between 1928 and 1932. During autumn, winter and spring he taught in Berlin, whilst during summer he held classes in Baden-Baden, where he had a residence. Also studying with Carl Flesch at that time were, among others, Arrigo Pellicia from Italy, Roman Totenberg from Poland, Henri Temianka, Josef Wolfsthal (he became later first concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic and professor at the Hochschule Berlin), Max Rostal, Ginette Neveu, Ida Haendel and Ricardo Odnoposoff.
To study with such an eminent teacher has a great impact on a young student. Not only can you get so much advice from him, but you can also enrich your knowledge by listening to his truly brilliant students.
Classes were held in a very peculiar way, which was characteristic of Flesch. Be it at the Hochschule in Berlin, or in Baden-Baden, we never had private classes. We, that is all the students who wanted to study with him, had to submit ourselves to the presence of at least 20 fellow students. That already created the atmosphere of practically a concert hall. Even tackling a new piece where you had barely put on your bowings and fingerings caused a tremendous feeling of responsibility and nervousness.
Flesch had a tremendous sense of humour, especially at the expense of the students. I do not think he really appreciated when somebody else’s sense of humour would involve his person. I tried it a couple of times, but was prudent enough (in time) to avoid major clashes. Although I must say that occasionally, we did not see eye to eye…
You could ask me, how dare you not to agree with a master who was at that time in his late fifties and I was in my early teens. The reason being that, when I was terribly young, I was also terribly outspoken. I said openly when I did not like a fingering suggested by the teacher and asked if we could not do something else, something different. This is where Flesch got actually in conflict with himself. On one hand, he said he wanted his students when they study new works, to try first their own fingerings. Later he would provide them with his. Also if they would feel different about nuances or tempi, they would not have to consider his. This was all very good and very promising, until it came to the hour of truth. When in the end, on the other hand, he did not take very well to students shunning his fingerings or bowings, or his way of playing. Yet, I think he meant well.
He went to great lengths in order to explain how the teacher should not influence the student, how he should safeguard the total freedom of his personality. The teacher should eradicate shortcomings or faulty aspects, but be very careful, not to go too far and take away the student’s personality. I think that these were beautiful ideas and concepts and I agree now totally with them. The only thing was that he did not entirely respect his own ideas… It was always touch-and-go.
P.T. What was it that made him such a great teacher then?
H.S. First, he was – I think- the first one who took all the good things from Leopold Mozart, Schradieck, Sevcik and Kreutzer. He took the very best in exercises, in technical studies, in everything that had a definite purpose of developing for instance the fingers of the left hand, giving them speed and yet the independence of the fingerings, the shifting and reaching the highest positions. For the right hand, he also probably took was what already available and added some very valuable exercises in order to develop the right arm. The right arm is the violinist’s pedal and lungs. The bow makes us breath, sing and do the phrasing.
Flesch also was the first one not to rely on approximate notions about violin technique. He analyzed it in such a thorough, meticulous way that there was nothing left to chance. His “Art of Violin Playing” in two thick volumes, is definitely a masterwork and a milestone. It is so exhaustive that there is none comparable.
I don’t believe that one has ever been confronted with a work of violin playing bearing such a weight, such a knowledge, such an analytical aspect. A literary aspect also, discussing styles and composers and very, very useful advice and tips on how to avoid having a neighbour complaining about your violin playing; or what to drink after a concert in order to have a nice sleep without getting intoxicated by alcohol. His speciality was a mixture of mineral water and white wine. This again, is very individual.
P.T. Was he in fact a great violinist himself?
H.S. He was also a great violinist. His playing was excellent, secure, perfect. Each time he took his instrument and played a work for a student to explain his remarks on the student’s performance, you would have said that he must have been practicing at least for a week or a fortnight. This was part of his greatness.
But… he had a slow vibrato and recommended a fast one. He was very much against an excess of slide, but when he played, he used it. Flesch’s personality was highly interesting, because it was made of complexes. When he made his big career in the early years of this century and during World War I, his was a rather very virtuoso playing, almost gipsy, according to eye and ear witnesses. His repertoire included the concerto by Ernst, the f-sharp minor by Wieniawski and of course, Paganini’s first concerto. Gipsy airs by Sarasate, this sort of highly flamboyant repertoire, also Hungarian music (Flesch was originally Hungarian). His virtuoso playing was highly effective and brilliant.
It became clear only when he decided to develop more time to his teaching duties that his great love and devotion belonged to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.
P.T. When you say you are not following exactly every fingering, is there something overall about them?
H.S. Absolutely. Flesch was very concerned about the violin and the proper functioning of the left and the right hand. His logic was irrefutable; with his very cultured mind, he had a special tendency towards solving mathematically and logically the problems of fingerings.
P.T. Was that new, or had this been done before?
H.S. No, this was definitely new. You see, we do not know which fingerings Paganini used; they must have been sensational, because of the results. I would not even dare question the excellence of his fingerings. But then, for so many decades people were using comfortable fingerings, avoiding the semi-position or the second and fourth position. The comfort was in the first and third position, as a rule. Flesch did away with this. I feel that he put the wisdom and the science of fingerings at the service of music.
P.T. This mathematical approach, is it something that other people have followed?
H.S. Absolutely, I think we are all following it. In many aspects, Flesch was a great innovator.
His main concept was that a student should play at least a movement of a work, sonata or concerto, a big chunk of music, in a row. He did not believe in distracting the student, he definitely didn’t aim at making him or her more nervous than he already was. He thought that for the continuity, for the overall meaning of the work, it was better not to interrupt. This was very pleasant.
While the student was playing, he was making notes, very quickly in his own signs; almost shorthand, but very easy to explain, very logical – here again! Then he analyzed with the student what he had to criticize in front of all the fellow students.
This was the usual procedure: had he heard an excellent performance, he would say well, I think that this was an excellent performance. Then, he would ruin the praise by mentioning the shortcomings. But in all truth I must confess that he was fair. There were students, he liked better, others best. He was human, after all. I would not hesitate in saying that he was one of the greatest pedagogues of all times. Whenever an analytical thinking is in order, I feel you could not have done better than Flesch.
We respected him, we were slightly scared of him, but not one of us would question the mastery of his teaching.
From Flesch I learned the trade of being a violinist, of how to develop a clear way of conveying my ideas through technique.
Poco dopo aver terminato gli studi con Carl Flesch, il giovane violinista polacco esordì in pubblico a Warsaw, il 6 gennaio 1933, eseguendo il Concerto op. 77 di Brahms con la Orkiestra Symfoniczna Filharmonii Narodowej diretta da George Georgescu. Subito dopo, Szeryng si trasferì a Parigi per proseguire gli studi di violino con il leggendario Jacques Thibaud e di composizione con Nadia Boulanger al Conservatoire National Superiéur, terminati nel 1937 con un Premier Prix. Grazie ai buoni uffici della Boulanger, il giovane musicista fu presentato ad alcune tra le personalità più eminenti dell’ ambiente musicale parigino, come Heitor Villa-Lobos, Alfred Cortot, Manuel Ponce, Igor Stravinsky e Maurice Ravel.
Allo scoppio della Seconda Guerra Mondiale, nel 1940, Szeryng, che parlava correntemente sette lingue, si arruolò come ufficiale di collegamento e interprete nelle forze armate di liberazione del suo paese comandate dal generale Wladyslaw Sikorski, presidente del governo polacco in esilio. Oltre a svolgere le sue mansioni di servizio, Szeryng tenne oltre 300 concerti per le truppe alleate in tutto il mondo e accompagnò il generale Sikorski come assistente personale in numerose missioni diplomatiche. Nel 1942 una di queste missioni lo portò in Messico, dove il presidente polacco cercava di ottenere asilo per 4000 ebrei polacchi profughi di guerra. Il Messico accettò di accogliere questo gruppo e Szeryng, profondamente commosso dall’ umanità dimostrata dal governo di quel paese, vi ritornò l’ anno seguente e accettò l’ invito ad assumere la direzione del dipartimento di violino alla Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Dopo aver concluso nel 1945 i suoi compiti militari, il violinista assunse l’ incarico. Tre anni dopo, il governo messicano gli conferiva la cittadinanza del paese come riconoscimento per i suoi meriti artistici e culturali. Per tutta la sua vita successiva Szeryng, che a metà degli anni Cinquanta ritornò a risiedere a Parigi, viaggiò con un passaporto diplomatico messicano come rappresentante culturale ufficiale del paese.
Henryk Szeryng svolse la maggior parte della sua attività artistica in America Latina fino al 1950, quando incontrò a Città del Messico il grande pianista Artur Rubinstein, come lui polacco di origini ebree. Tra i due artisti nacque un’ amicizia profonda che durò per tutta la loro vita. Così Rubinstein ricordava il loro primo incontro, in un articolo apparso sul Los Angeles Times in occasione della scomparsa del violinista.
Szeryng concertized some but concentrated mainly on his university work until 1950, when he attended an Artur Rubinstein performance in Mexico City.
He rushed backstage afterward to congratulate his fellow Pole, who was so impressed by the outpouring of emotion that he invited Szeryng to his hotel room for some impromptu music.
“He played Bach sonatas,” Rubinstein recalled many years later, “and reduced me to tears.
“Real music lovers want emotion–great moments–which Szeryng’s playing gives them,” Rubinstein said.
Rubinstein presentò il violinista al suo agente Sol Hurok, che rapidamente lo lanciò nel grande circuito concertistico internazionale. La sua collaborazione con Rubinstein e con il grande violoncellista Pierre Fournier è documentata da alcune incisioni che sono considerate autentici punti di riferimento nel campo della discografia insieme ad altre registrazioni come quelle delle Sonate di Mozart con Igrid Haebler e dei Concerti mozartiani con Alexander Gibson, quella del Concerto di Brahms con Pierre Monteux e le due incisioni delle Sonate e Partite di Bach, ancora oggi considerate versioni di riferimento insieme a quella di Nathan Milstein. A questo link si può trovare la discografia completa di Szeryng, che fu uno dei violinisti più registrati della storia e più volte insignito di riconoscimenti prestigiosi tra cui sei Grand Prix du Disque, il Grammy Award, due Edison Awards, il Golden Record.
Henryk Szeryng morì improvvisamente a Kassel, per un’ emorragia cerebrale, dopo aver tenuto un concerto la sera del 3 marzo 1988. In quell’ ultima esibizione aveva eseguito il Concerto op. 77 di Brahms, lo stesso brano con cui aveva debuttato più di cinquant’ anni prima. Fu sepolto a Montecarlo, dove si era stabilito negli ultimi cinque anni della sua vita. Sulla sua pietra tombale sono incise le battute conclusive della Ciaccona di Bach, nell’ edizione da lui stesso curata.
Come tutti i virtuosi della scuola francese, Szeryng era un formidabile colorista, dotato inoltre di quel suono grande e di quel fraseggio aristocratico che erano tra le caratteristiche peculiari dei grandi virtuosi della vecchia scuola. Io lo ascoltai dal vivo per la prima volta a Treviso nel 1974, nel Concerto di Mendelssohn insieme all’ Orchestra da Camera di Padova e poi a Venezia nel 1976 con le tre Sonate di Brahms eseguite insieme a Eugenio Bagnoli. Ricordo ancora la bellezza magnetizzante delle sonorità, oltre alla nobiltà e al tono ispirato del suo fraseggio ampio e classico, caratteristiche basate su un virtuosismo tecnico di altissima scuola. Sono sempre stato un ascoltatore appassionato dei suoi dischi, che ancora oggi si impongono per la perentorietà assoluta di un tono interpretativo sempre coinvolgente e di classe cristallina. Come conclusione di questo breve ritratto, vi propongo due documenti della grande arte di questo indimenticabile violinista. Il primo di essi è un’ esecuzione del Concerto di Beethoven registrata nel 1979, con la Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken diretta da Hans Zehnder.
Questa è una formidabile lettura del Concerto di Tschaikowsky eseguita a Tel Aviv nel Bronislaw Huberman Festival 1983, con Zubin Mehta sul podio della Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Per chi volesse approfondire ulteriormente la conoscenza di Henryk Szeryng, riporto in conclusione una breve bibliografia.
- Robert C. Bachmann, Henryk Szeryng, in A l’écoute des grands interprètes, Editions Payot, Lausanne 1977, pp. 175–192.
- Boris Schwarz, Henryk Szeryng, in Great Masters of the Violin: From Corelli and Vivaldi to Stern, Zukerman and Perlman, London, Robert Hale, 1983, pp. 347–349
- Henry Roth, Henryk Szeryng, in Violin Virtuosos, From Paganini to the 21st Century, Los Angeles, California Classics Books, 1997, pp. 176–185
- Jean-Michel Molkhou, Henryk Szeryng, in Les grands violonistes du XXe siècle. Tome 1- De Kreisler à Kremer, 1875-1947, Paris, Buchet Chastel, 2011, pp. 197–202