S0446. JOHANNA MARTZY, Vol. II, w.Jean Antonietti (Pf.): Sonata in B-flat, K.454 (Mozart), Live Performance, 14 Nov., 1955; w.Nussio Cond. Radio Svizzera Italiana Orch.: Concerto in D (Beethoven), Live Performance, 1954. (Canada) Doremi 7778. - 723724018822
“The mystique of the lovely Hungarian violinist is growing — even though she's been dead for more than twenty years.
Imagine a violinist of great beauty and charisma whose artistic pedigree dates back to the legendary Hungarian Jenö Hubay. Johanna Martzy passed away from cancer in 1979 almost unnoticed - particularly in the United States, where she had performed with the New York Philharmonic in the late 1950s, but thereafter was an unobtrusive visitor to North America. Though only 54 when she died, she hadn't recorded commercially in decades. Her period in the limelight was brief. Taken for granted then, she's venerated now. Martzy and others from the past are being rediscovered, appreciated in ways they weren't went alive - no doubt because the traditions they came from, many now gone, can be heard and identified more clearly.
Posthumous careers such as Martzy's germinate unpredictably, often from the second-hand LP record market. The first Martzy CD release in the West came in 1994 with her Brahms and Mendelssohn concerto performances on Testament. Then from smaller labels came a flood of previously unreleased material. The Doremi label has a series of live recitals taped in Canada.
Slowly, Martzy's biography has emerged: her birth in Transylvania, education in pre-war Budapest, the devastating death of her second husband, the false accusations about her political affiliations and her decision to leave EMI rather than grant sexual favors to its chief, Walter Legge. If that doesn't draw you in, the photographs of Martzy will: she was a slim, fine-featured woman, her hair always tied up in a bun, the violin never far from her hands, her eyes often distant and quite sad. Music lovers aren't supposed to be entranced by such superficialities, but that's just what makes these posthumous reputations.
A total of three Martzy performances of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto are extant (the third is a rare live performance with Otto Klemperer), and they're valuable for charting her range of interpretation from year to year in a particular masterpiece, much the way you would if you heard her in the flesh over a number of years. In a way, a career of many decades is distilled down to a few years.
Johanna Martzy's was a deceptive talent. The tone was filigree and silvery, but not particularly beautiful. The vibrato was quick and applied with a spareness that never allowed room for sentimentality. Tempos were swift and straight-ahead with no lingering. In later years (the 1970s), the tone grew a bit leathery but the tempos were more elastic, but in her prime, her playing had a coolness bordering on severity. The soul of her art was her coloristic expressiveness, delivered with such precision and discretion that each phrase became a tiny, and rich, world of its own. Once you've appreciated that quality, the ear can't help seizing on it even in her most ensemble-minded, self-effacing chamber recordings, such as her performances of Beethoven's Piano Trio #1 and Dvorák's ‘Dumky’ Piano Trio with István Hajdu and Paul Szabo. All of this is encased in a sense of line that's marvelously expansive, unbroken and buoyant. Martzy's expressive parameters were narrow, but they couldn't have been more resolutely defined. She had a quality of inhabiting a piece from the inside and saw little need to embellish the surface; to the jaded or inattentive ear, her interpretations can seem to lack incident. Skeptics, however, need only listen to her EMI recordings of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, music to which her severity couldn't have been better suited. In fact, Bach seems to be the defining composer of her aesthetic.
Most puzzling of all are her two EMI recordings of the Mendelssohn concerto. Though it's always tempting to declare the suppressed version to be superior, this time it's really true. The commercially released version conducted by Paul Kletzki emphasizes the music's classical qualities to the point of slickness. Sawallisch is far more attuned to the music's darker underpinnings, inspiring a concentration from Martzy that reminds you - if any doubt remained - that this is a great violinist, albeit one who perhaps didn't know what collaborators were best for her. Might that be the core reason her career never developed?”
- David Patrick Stearns