Johanna Martzy

Johanna Martzy represents the youngest generation of violinists taught by Jenő Hubay, who was head of the Budapest Academy and a surviving link with nineteenth-century playing. Her style, characterised by an exceptionally broad tone and rich vibrato, is not necessarily an embodiment of Hubay’s influence, but comparison is natural and Hubay’s playing, certainly when he recorded in later life, does have similar attributes. Equally, parity with other famous Hubay pupils such as Joseph Szigeti is striking.

Winning the Geneva Violin Competition in 1947 sparked a meteoric career of recording and touring in the West. It is alleged that Martzy, a strikingly beautiful woman, left EMI because Walter Legge attempted to manipulate her personal charm to his own ends; but whether this explains the mysterious suppression of her recordings during her lifetime is hard to ascertain. She died when only in her fifties, having succumbed to cancer.

Martzy’s style in the selections here epitomises its time. At this point the old aesthetic of selective vibrato, elastic tempi and unabashed portamenti had been replaced by one favouring a lush, almost continuous vibrato that even pervaded passagework—a stylistic trait popularised by Fritz Kreisler. At the same time steady tempi, a tendency only to slow down (rather than also to speed up) for expressive purposes, and often-large forces had created a heavier, if more deep-toned, sound. Martzy exploited such characteristics to the full, irrespective of repertoire, style, or period; it would be at least another quarter century before eyebrows would be raised at this kind of performance. Her interpretations of Baroque repertoire in particular are, to modern ears, rather an acquired taste. Bach’s E major Concerto (from her US début appearance in 1957) is solid and stately in the outer movements with enormously rich solo and orchestral sounds, Martzy enlivening the texture with much vibrato in rapid passagework, passing notes and figuration as much as in sustained tones. The slow movement, for all its inauthenticity of sonority, is imbued with the kind of impassioned poignancy that inhabits Hubay’s own performance of eighteenth-century music: a deeply-felt emotiveness transcending barriers of style (and, incidentally, rather obscuring the Baroque ambience of the movement).

The live 1960 performance of Beethoven’s Sonata, Op. 30 No. 3 is similar in character. Martzy plays the outer movements with great charm and liveliness (the crisp articulation of the finale is especially effective) but the rather wobbly vibrato on the top Gs in the first subject is over-done. The slow movement has something of the sugary sweetness of the famous Kreisler/Rupp performance of almost thirty years earlier, although Martzy gives less sense of participating in a duo ‘conversation’.

This pattern—in which live performances, for all their technical blemishes, are more vivid than studio performances—is maintained in comparing the live 1954 recording of Mendelssohn’s Concerto with the first issued LP of Dvořák’s Concerto from the previous year. The Mendelssohn sounds lighter and nimbler, more liable to take risks (as in the rapid and exciting finale) than the studio recording of the Dvořák which returns to the heavy, if resonant, qualities observed elsewhere. The Dvořák, however, wears this mantle well and is unquestionably a great performance, Martzy’s sheer depth and richness predominating in the thicker textures compared to Mendelssohn’s more transparent orchestration. Her Duo Concertant (live, 1960) balances Stravinsky’s erudite referential modernism with a heartfelt post-Romantic gloss, significantly less dense-toned than Dushkin’s otherwise not dissimilar approach to this music.

Martzy’s discography, mainly of established mainstream works, suffers rather today from dated recording techniques and editing preferences; in my view her live performances sound infinitely more exciting than her studio work. Perhaps this accounts for her relative obscurity. This said, and with due allowance being made for different notions of taste over time, her performances are clearly of sufficient quality to merit inclusion here.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)