The virtuoso who just gave away his best violins

February 28, 2018 by norman lebrecht


Tully Potter has written a nice piece about Henryk Szeryng’s appetite for owning some of the most cherished violins, and his habit of just giving them away.

Szeryng’s Stradivari was the 1734 ‘Hercules’, once owned by Eugène Ysaÿe but stolen from the Green Room at the Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg in 1908, while Ysaÿe was on stage playing his Guarneri. In 1925, having surfaced in a Parisian dealer’s shop, the Strad was acquired for the Alsatian violinist Carl Münch, then concertmaster at the Leipzig Gewandhaus and later famous as the conductor Charles Munch, by his wife. Szeryng originally borrowed the ‘Hercules’ from Munch for some performances of the Schumann Concerto and bought it from him in January 1962 for $40,000.

Gary Graffman, who appeared several times with Szeryng at the Library of Congress in Washington, recalled: ‘He travelled with two violins, a Strad and a del Gesù, and my wife had to sit backstage cradling whichever one he wasn’t using.’ …

To his pupil and protégé Shlomo Mintz, Szeryng gave a fine old French fiddle by Jean-François Aldric, of which he said that it was ‘quite extraordinary’ and Mintz had often been asked if it was a Strad. To his student and teaching assistant in Mexico, Ecuadorean-born Enrique Espín Yepez, a professor at the National Conservatory, he gave his 1801 violin by the Cremona maker Giovanni Battista Ceruti. …

Read on here.


Comments (18)

  1. Daniel Poulin says:

    It was during the 70’s. Mr.Szeryng was touring Canada and he was my guest on a weekly TV show for the French CBC in Winnipeg,Manitoba. He insisted of having his violin with him even if he was not asked to play during the interview. I remember the producer telling him the violin could safely remained in the control room where someone would keep an eye on the precious instrument. “Merci bien, mais je préfère le garder près de moi”, politely but firmly said the Polish musician. He was fluent in many languages; his French was as beautiful sounding as the music he played later that night with the local Symphony Orchestra.

    1. James says:

      I was a member of the Winnipeg SO and played on that concert. Comment below speaks of HS as pompous. I wouldn’t go that far, but I remember how he totally controlled the rehearsal, stopping us repeatedly to make points of balance, tempo, rhythm etc while our conductor George Cleve (a very fine one) stood by and sheepishly did everything Mr. Szeryng told him to. I’ve never experienced a soloist taking charge in that manner.
      Of course and understandibly, the performance was very fine.

      1. Daniel Poulin says:

        By any chance do you remember what was on the program? I keep thinking it was a Mozart Concerto, but I’m not so sure…

        1. James says:

          It was the Brahms, in 1969. He did the Sibelius in 1970 and Mozart 5 in 1973.

          1. Daniel Poulin says:

            I interviewed him in 1973, so it was the Mozart. I think Piero Gamba was the conductor of the WSO then, unless Cleve was guest conducting that night.

  2. Ferenc Gabor says:

    As I remember well, H. Szeryng gave his beautiful Pajot bow( very havy for the violin) as a gift, to the principal Viola player of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Daniel Benjaminy! Mr. Benjaminy played this bow till his death in the late 80’s.

  3. Ruben Greenberg says:

    A fine piece of writing, which is what one would expect from Tully Porter. I recall Szeryng as being rather a pompous man with one or two screws missing, but this article has made me see the great violinist in a different light.

    1. Lady Weidenfeld says:

      Thank you Norman for posting this excellent piece by Tully Porter and I am glad this has made Mr. Greenberg see Szeryng in a different light because what ever could have been perceived superficially as pomposity or dotty is nothing compared to the generosity, warmth and kindness of this man. He was a very dear and cherished friend to whom I owe everything, forcing me at a very young age to move to Madrid from London where I was working with his concert manager and living with my parents, to take up the job which he had organised with the biggest agency in Spain and South America. It was the last thing I wanted to do and it turned out to be the best, not only for my working life but for the rest of my life as everything good and extraordinary sprang from that decision. He was immensely caring with his friends, immensely generous helping young artists and giving them advice, and a friend I miss to this day. By great providence I saw him in Vevey where he performed just ten days before he died so suddenly in 1988 and during dinner I did thank him for all he had done for me and what it meant to me. Thank goodness I didn’t delay that thank you any longer…

    2. Nick2 says:

      A number of musicians will agree with Ruben Greenberg’s initial view. No doubt Szerying was a great violinist but he was far from the easiest soloist to work with and there was definitely an unpleasant streak about him. In the 1970s he was engaged by BBC Television Scotland for a studio performance of The Four Seasons with the young ensemble, Cantilena, made up of musicians from the Scottish National Orchestra and directed by its Principal Cellist, Adrian Shepherd. At the end, instead of shaking hands with Shepherd or even having the grace to acknowledge his position, he went straight over to the harpsichord player, requested her to stand and join him in taking his bows as though she was the ensemble director. It was a deliberate and nasty insult.

      1. Bill says:

        Interesting view there. I too suffered under him in Scotland at that time. 10 minutes into the rehearsal the lighting was finally right for him and then he treated players and conductor alike with apparent contempt. He then forced the principal bassist to play a very unusual bowing in the solo passage at the start of the last movement of the Sibelius concerto.
        Everything was done with coldness and lack of communication. Needless to say the audience loved him.
        Nice to see that he actually did have a human side but there’s no excuse for rudeness in my book.

  4. John Borstlap says:

    This reminds me of the fateful day when I coincidentally sat down on a Cremona viola worth almost one and a half million. Who lets such things laying around without a guardian??! Another time I sat down on a sopranino recorder which was so small that I only noticed when I got up again. That was the moment I was ordered to follow a weight watchers programme and have my eyes checked. Not to speak of all those players forgetting their trombone on the tube or in the train, or the double bass we found here after a week following a rehearsel by the [redacted] ensemble. So much for live music! it makes players’ mind confused and distracts them from the real concerns of the world.


  5. Jan Kaznowski says:

    Mr Szeryng apparently made a lot of his wealth through real estate deals and in fact gave away a lot of his concert earnings to charity. I really miss his playing. Saw him many times in London

  6. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    In May 1983, he appeared as soloist with the Curtis Orchestra in Evian (at the Casino!). He played Mozart Adagio in E major and Rondo in C major PLUS the Berg Concerto. Two students were selected as understudies for rehearsals in Philadelphia and a performance there. Szeryng refused to play a “run-out” concert in Thonon and gave the students a chance to perform. He “kindly” sat in the first row during the concert and gave them detailed critiques afterwards. He was very popular with the students and he seemed to genuinely appreciate them. He also had great contempt for the conductor and was very difficult at rehearsals, often leading with his bow in tutti passages behind the conductors back. Needless to say, the students followed him and ignored the person on the podium.

    He held court at both lunch and dinner in the dining room of L’Hotel Royal, often inviting students to join him as he regaled everyone with stories of his fascinating life. He enjoyed having the students call him Ambassador Szeryng which most shortened to Mr. Ambassador.

    Occasionally difficult, always brilliant as a performer, unforgettable as personality.

    1. Richard says:

      I forgot how beautifully he played the Berg, which I only knew from his recording. As for live performance, his was the most memorable I’ve witnessed of the Beethoven.

      1. Rodney Friend says:

        In Lenny’s Harvard Lectures (‘unanswered question’) he demonstrates a bit of Berg concerto, and of all the many, many recordings he could have chosen, including his own with Stern, he used the Szeryng one.

  7. Andrew Condon says:

    I just checked out Itzhak Perlman’s quite amusing comments on Szeryng in the excellent film The Art of Violin, where in describing different violinist’s sound he says that Szeryng “sounded like everybody”. Listening to a recording, Perlman says: “Who is playing? I don’t know who it is – must be Szeryng. Its good!”

  8. margaret koscielny says:

    Maurice Ravel Sonata for Violin and Violoncello Leo Koscielny – cello 1957/3/7

    Zoltán Kodály Duo for Violin and Violoncello, Op.7 Leo Koscielny – cello 1959/5/23

    These two performances by Szeryng and my uncle, Leo Koscielny are evidence that Szeryng had great depth in his playing. The pathos in those performances by two survivors of WW2 seems a summation of all the horrors of that time.

  9. Jan Kaznowski says:

    Hi Margaret, I was very recently listening to your uncle play cello in Schoenberg ‘Ode to Napoleon’.

    Such splendid playing. Thanks for sharing details of his work with Szeryng.

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