Arthur Grumiaux

It was Arthur Grumiaux’s grandfather, who ran a sheet music shop, who started him on the violin before he was four and introduced him to the concert stage a year later, thus precipitating another twentieth-century violinist’s long and illustrious career. The next year Grumiaux was admitted to the Charleroi Conservatoire where he studied violin and piano with Fernand Quinet and took first prizes in both instruments when he left aged eleven. His proficiency in the two instruments, mirroring that of Kreisler, Heifetz and Enescu before him, was later demonstrated in (now reissued) recordings of Brahms’s Violin Sonata No. 2 and Mozart’s Violin Sonata K. 481, where he plays both parts.

Further violin studies followed at the Brussels Conservatoire where a huge commitment was demanded of Grumiaux as he was tutored by Alfred Dubois, a pupil of Eugène Ysaÿe. He became Dubois’s assistant teacher and later succeeded him as professor of violin. He also studied composition privately for a season with George Enescu in Paris, thus gaining an enviable all-round musical education from some prominent figures all of whom were steeped in the values and training of the previous century. Grumiaux placed great importance on phrasing and tone in his own teaching, drawing on the example of artists such as Ysaÿe and Sarasate. Henryk Szeryng is said to have admired his vibrato.

Grumiaux went into hiding during World War II, after the Nazis offered him a position as concertmaster of a leading German orchestra. As a result, his performing career was interrupted, although as soon as the war ended he was spotted by Walter Legge, musical director of ENSA (the Entertainments National Service Association). Legge arranged a European tour and several recording sessions for him, which brought him to great prominence once again.

His recordings are in many ways Grumiaux’s greatest work, since he gained a rather unfavourable reputation in live concerts for unreliability, either due to defects in his playing in this environment, or his tendency to cancel appearances. They reveal a sophisticated and in many ways quite subtle musical personality. Henry Roth alleges that, in spite of his apparent admiration for the playing of both Ysaÿe and Sarasate, his approach is in many ways quite divergent from either of theirs. This depends very much upon context. His records from the 1940s and early 1950s (including the 1946 Bach ‘Double’ with Pougnet) certainly suggest something of the style of these earlier players, although Sarasate’s approach, which perhaps seems progressive today only because it is more stylistically recognisable than Joseph Joachim’s, is not really a notable influence in my view. Ysaÿe’s playing is suggested, albeit rather remotely, in repertoire such as Debussy’s Violin Sonata (recorded c. 1951).

This, by reason of a fast vibrato and the rather idiosyncratic approach to intonation that this produces, strongly hints at the survival of the Franco-Belgian school’s influence into the first decades of the twentieth century. His 1951–1952 Pièce en forme de Habañera by Ravel and Bartók’s Six Romanian Dances display stylistic versatility, the former exuding suave charm, the latter full of gypsy-like fire. The Stravinsky Violin Concerto (1951) again shows traces of a style more common two or more decades earlier; this impression is enhanced by the rather rough-hewn playing from the Kölner Rundfunk Sinfonie Orchester under Ferenc Fricsay which, along with Grumiaux’s bright and almost strident tone (especially evident in the slow movement), creates a stark, almost grotesque landscape which suits the piece well. By contrast, his 1966 recording of the same work (Concertgebouw Orchestra / Bour) is much softer-edged, and this is not simply down to a more modern mode of recording—Grumiaux’s phrasing is less accentual and dissonances are treated in a more understated manner. Although this latter performance is a very good one, the earlier one is, in my view, more charismatic.

A number of recordings made in 1957 included here suggest a quite rapid adjustment in Grumiaux’s performing style. Although Romantic mannerisms such as the portamento are scarcely ever in evidence in even his earliest renditions, a cooler, more objective approach (which will be the more recognisable side of Grumiaux to many listeners) becomes very quickly established at this time. This makes performances such as Corelli’s ‘La Folia’ Sonata and Beethoven’s ‘Spring’ Sonata sound in many ways much more modern (although as one might expect, neither the Beethoven nor Corelli have any concessions to what we now regard as period style) with stable tempi, continuous and, by now slightly less frenetic vibrato, a fondness for off-string bow strokes (as in the Scherzo of the Beethoven) and a slightly hard, even metallic timbre. These performances are thus conventional by later twentieth-century standards, although Saint-Saëns’s Introduction et Rondo capriccioso evidences warmth and fire, counterbalanced by a wonderful sense of youthful high spirits, and is one of Grumiaux’s more effective recordings as a result.

Grumiaux made more than 150 recordings, of which this is a very small sample, but they testify to a very mature and considered interpreter: one who has played an important rôle in shaping modern ideals of violin virtuosity.

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