Johanna Martzy: the Violinist Revered by Vinyl Lovers

October 9, 2019, 2:11 PM · In May 1959 I had the good fortune to be invited to a South African Broadcasting Corporation studio recital by the visiting eminent Hungarian violinist Johanna Martzy.

Johanna Martzy
Violinist Johanna Martzy (1924-1979).

The program included the G Major Sonata, Op 30, No 3 by Beethoven, Ravel’s Piece en Forme de Habanera, Arabesque No 1 by Martinu, Falla’s Spanish Danse, Notturno e Tarantella by Szymanowski, Brahms Sonata in D Minor (Op 108) and the A Major Sonata by César Franck.

1959 Martzy SABC Recital Program
Program of South African Broadcasting Corporation studio recital, May 10, 1959 signed by Johanna Martzy. Items from this very broadcast surfaced on a DOREMI CD issued 55 years later. (From the Michael Brittan Collection)

As I listened, absorbed in the playing, I could not have conceived at the time that some of these South African broadcast recital tapes would surface fifty-five years later on CD. I could not, of course, have envisioned digitized recordings of any sort, let alone versions of Martzy’s celebrated playing. Nor that they would be issued for the benefit of ardent 21st-century collectors of her recorded works – collectors hungry to supplement the meagre musical fare of a limited Martzy discography.

I also could never have imagined at the time that I was in fact seeing and hearing Johanna Martzy at the zenith of what would turn out to be a foreshortened artistic career. It’s not often that a violinist would have an illustrious but relatively brief career, only to fade from the scene and be forgotten, but then find posthumous fame as collectors with an ear for great fiddle playing begin to cherish the artist’s limited supply of original vinyl recordings.

Angel Schubert
Angel LP pairing two Schubert works – the Rondo Brilliant in B Minor and the lovely Fantasia for Violin and Piano in C Major. Johanna Martzy here appears with erstwhile piano collaborator Jean Antonietti. (From the Michael Brittan Collection).

This latter-day movement among collectors started in the land of the rising sun with Japanese production of a six-CD set entitled The Art of Johanna Martzy.

The movement flared and quickly gained momentum. It spread to South Korea where a thirteen-disc box set of CD’s was issued covering her complete DG and EMI vinyl output. All the while, her recordings gathered cult-like adherents. Johanna Martzy recordings became hot property. In the UK, long-forgotten performances were issued under the Testament label, and six CD’s of live recordings were issued by Coup d’Archet some years ago but are now hard to find.

In a 2018 piece in The American Scholar entitled The Cult of Johanna Martzy, Forgotten at her death, yet treasured for her recordings, Sudip Bose writes poignantly of the life, musical exceptionalism and travails of this extraordinary violinist of the 20th century. He also notes that her original commercial recordings include only ten studio albums from the 1950’s which, over the years, he describes as having attained "mythical status."

Further musical appreciation and details of her recordings are to be found on the Bach Cantata Website, where EMI and Deutsche Grammophon LPs were said to be changing hands at $500 a disc, at least in 2017. An indication of sustained demand can be gauged from idle browsing of eBay and Amazon.

Johanna Martzy was born 95 years ago this month -- on October 26th, 1924 into a musical family in Timisoara, Romania. Details of her resumé as might be gleaned from a cursory search of the internet are as sparse as her recordings, and sometimes conflicting. Fortunately, her South African appearances provide supplemental information which can be judiciously redacted from the concert program notes.

Within two years of starting study of the violin at age six, she travelled to Budapest to play for Jenö Hubay. According to the program notes, Hubay is reported to have remarked: "If you continue to play, you must play as the first ten, not as the first fifty violinists. If you do not, it will be only your own fault. God has given you all that you need." (As an aside, many published biographical details suggest that Martzy studied with or under Hubay, but the 1959 program notes do not make this specific claim.)

Martzy was subsequently accepted to the Budapest Academy of Music (now the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music) where Hubay was on the faculty. (Notable students of Hubay over the years include Joseph Szigeti, Eugene Ormandy, Jelly d’Arányi, Zoltán Székely and Emil Telmányi). At the Academy, Martzy studied under Nándor Zsolt and Gabriel von Wayditch. A succession of awards followed. At 16, she won the Remènyi Prize, at 17, the Hubay Prize. She graduated in 1942 from the Academy, being awarded the Dipl?me de Virtuosité. In 1943, she appeared with the Budapest Philharmonic under Willem Mengelberg and, in 1947, won the Concours International in Geneva, which propelled her career. Concert engagements followed, both in recital and with major orchestras throughout western Europe.

(BELOW: Martzy performs the Dvorak Violin Concerto with RIAS Symphonie Orchester Berlin in 1953.)

Martzy settled in Switzerland and first performed in England in 1953. Her initial appearances in the United States occurred in 1957. with the Cincinnati Symphony, Denver Symphony and New York Philharmonic orchestras. A second tour of the U.S. took place during the 1958/59 concert season, ahead of her South African tour. She again visited the U.S. in 1960, but thereafter, in the words of the Bach Cantata Website, she became an "unobtrusive visitor to North America," with few additional commercial recordings to her name. She had meanwhile married her Swiss patron, the publisher, amateur violinist and violin collector, Daniel Tschudi (her second marriage, the first having been dissolved) and had a daughter. It’s possible that marriage to Daniel Tschudi removed some of the financial imperative associated with a hectic professional career, while family life no doubt took some measure of toll on her public performing and recording schedule.

Johanna Martzy died of cancer on August 13, 1979, in Switzerland. She was just 54 years old and had been in the public eye among the front rank of violinists for all too brief a period. As a mark of how far she had drifted out of the spotlight in the United States, her death is said to have gone largely unnoticed. Glenn Gould, the maverick pianist extraordinaire and sometime provocative music writer, said of Johanna Martzy: "… an artist who has always seemed to me to be, at least in North America, the most underrated of the great violinists of our age." (p. 253, The Glenn Gould Reader, by Tim Page, 1985.)

As implied earlier, her career was not without hardship and controversy. In 1944, the Nazis invaded Hungary. Martzy, who was Jewish and newlywed, fled with her husband, only to land in an internment camp in Austria where the couple spent the remainder of the war. As reported in The American Scholar article, once back on the concert circuit she occasionally had differences with conductors with whom she was collaborating. Then, in an incident reminiscent of recent harassment knavery in artistic circles, she may have compromised a marketing relationship with EMI when she reportedly shunned the advances of their prime record producer. Whether coincidental or not, her recordings ceased to appear in their catalog.

The SABC broadcast recital in 1959 was one of two Johanna Martzy concerts I attended in Johannesburg. The other was a recital presented by the local Musica Viva Society at the Great Hall of the University of the Witwatersrand. I was able to meet her in person at these performances. On both occasions she was accompanied by local pianist and pedagogue, Adolph Hallis.

1954 Musica Viva Recital Martzy
Signed concert program from a Johanna Martzy recital in Johannesburg, May 14, 1959. (From the Michael Brittan Collection).

Although I was present during the 1959 studio recordings, the 2014 CD containing the 1959 studio broadcast items, Legendary Treasures, Johanna Martzy, Vol 3,) relieves me of the taxing obligation of trying to summon detailed personal recollections of Martzy’s wonderful playing from the recesses of my memory. To the rescue comes not only the treasured strains of Martzy’s playing transported magically by magnetic and digital time machine from the 1959 SABC studio direct to the CD’s, but with the added benefit of trenchant 21st century musical appreciation in the form of expert reviews. In MusicWeb International, Recordings of the Month, October 2014, this two-CD release is summed up as "A feast for violin buffs".

Expressing a measure of his enthusiasm, reviewer Stephen Greenbank writes: "In the Szymanowski Martzy conjures up a smoky, exotic flavour in the Notturno, with the Tarantella being rhythmically incisive. She achieves pinpoint intonation, with the playing showcasing her accomplished technical wizardry. The de Falla has real Iberian zest and the Bartók Romanian Dance (supplementing the printed program) true gypsy swagger. It is regrettable that only the last three movements of the Brahms exist (the Allegro was included in the recital program), yet there is a complete version from October 1953 on Tahra (TAH 553) … with [pianist Jean] Antonietti. Martzy’s Brahms is noble, big-boned and architecturally well thought out."

In The Strad (February 2015, p 89), reviewer Tully Potter wrote of these 1959 recordings as follows: "Szymanowski’s Nocturne and Tarantella, a Martzy speciality, has admiral tonal control, variation and virtuosity; Martinu’s First Arabesque is infectious with resolute rhythm; Ravel’s Habanera has lovely tone, … and the Falla-Kreisler Spanish Danse is a delight. The sole let-down of this 1959 South African radio recital with Adolph Hallis is that Brahms’s D Minor Sonata lacks its Allegro: the rest has power, intensity, rhythmic subtlety, even charm."

As was customary when I attended such concerts, I had Martzy sign the concert programs, as well as the sleeve of the LP of her seminal 1958 recording of the Brahms concerto with Paul Kletzki conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.

1958 Martzy Brahms LP
The celebrated 1958 Brahms Concerto recording under the Columbia label with Johanna Martzy and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Paul Kletzski, the sleeve of the LP signed by Ms Martzy. This is an unusual South African pressing of the Columbia record with a "J" (for Johannesburg?) added to the 33 JCX 1165 ID number. (From the Michael Brittan Collection)

Sudip Bose, in The American Scholar article, describes this recording as "dramatic, lyrical, and mysterious." Providing further insight into her artistry, he continues: "The first-movement cadenza shows her conquering the most virtuosic passages, yet … it’s the quiet lines that follow this cadenza—airy, delicate, utterly pure—that are even more impressive. And like her Dvorák Concerto, Martzy’s Brahms is almost symphonic in the way she integrates her lines with those of the orchestra. Some concerto performances sound like wars between soloist and accompanist; Martzy’s are noble collaborations through and through."

The two violins used by Johanna Martzy at the time of her South African tour were a 1733 Carlo Bergonzi and a 1733 Stradivarius, formerly owned by Fritz Kreisler (between 1914 and 1936) and Bronislav Huberman (between 1937 and 1947). Her previous instrument had been a violin attributed to Carlo Tononi, acquired for her when she was 13 by her mother from the Budapest violin shop of Mihály Remènyi (descendent of another famous Hungarian violinist, Eduard Remènyi). The Stradivari had been purchased by Daniel Tschudi (as noted above, second husband of Johanna Martzy) in Geneva in 1956 for SFr120,000. Its provenance shows it as owned by Tschudi until its sale by Sotheby’s in 1979, apparently after Martzy’s death.

The Bergonzi, however, was her favored instrument for her recordings and most of her concerts through 1956 (according to Glenn Armstrong, Coup d’Archet, 1997). This instrument had been purchased by Tschudi in Zurich in 1936. At the time he was 28 years old, heir to a Swiss publishing house, and knew a good violin when he saw one. Tschudi was sufficiently enamored with the instrument to have published an illustrated booklet on it in 1942 limited to 150 copies. Martzy began using the Bergonzi during a performance of the Brahms concerto in Luzerne on December 15th, 1950, when the Tononi suffered a "freak accident" Martzy switched to the Bergonzi, which Tschudi happened to have brought along to the concert as a backup.

If one wished to capture the essence of Johanna Martzy’s playing, the Bach Cantata Website perhaps does it more succinctly than most: "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." Fortunately, for lovers of top-drawer violin playing, her artistry and neglected legacy have gained fresh currency through the medium of vinyl and digital technology.

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October 9, 2019 at 07:48 PM · Very interesting contribution, thank you.

October 10, 2019 at 12:46 AM · Thank you for that beautifully written and scholarly treatise, Mr. Brittan. The part that I'm sure many of us would love to learn more is the decision of this venerable musician to discontinue her public performing career, beyond what you have reasonably speculated. Are there no interviews upon which we can draw to satisfy this curiosity?

October 10, 2019 at 02:54 AM · Listening to her Chaconne right now. Definitely worthy of reverence, on vinyl or youtube.

October 10, 2019 at 05:30 AM · I just listened to the Dvorak linked in the article above. A discovery.

October 10, 2019 at 05:42 AM · Thank you for the comments. To find out more detail on Johanna Martzy's abbreviated career would require a major research effort delving through the press and magazine coverage of her era. Ill health was certainly an unfortunate factor in the latter years.

October 10, 2019 at 08:36 PM · What ravishing playing - GORGEOUS!

Every moment filled with beauty.

(While some don't appreciate that quality as being of special value on its own, I most certainly do!)

Thanks VERY much for your detailed post, giving joy by inspiring us to listen this wonderful musician.

October 11, 2019 at 12:46 PM · I was amazed at the beauty and power of the clip attached to this article. I had only known her as a name before. Now I will search out her recordings.

October 13, 2019 at 07:05 PM · Absolutely beautiful and compelling playing. She was unknown to me. Really stunning.

October 14, 2019 at 03:37 AM · Thanks for the introduction to an historically fine performer. Wish I'd heard her . . .

October 16, 2019 at 01:24 AM · Thank you all for your comments. Johanna Martzy was indeed a great artist. How lucky we are that we can still enjoy her celebrated recordings.

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