Zoltán Székely

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Zoltán Székely, violinist: born Kocs, Hungary 8 December 1903; married (one son); died Banff, Alberta 5 October 2001.

Zoltán Székely was a distinguished violinist who became known internationally as a soloist, chamber musician and teacher. He was also a gifted composer whose works included a string quartet and a duo for violin and cello. His arrangement for violin and piano of Bartók's Romanian Dances became one of the most popular in the repertoire.

Székely was born in Kocs, Hungary, in 1903 and showed early talent for the violin. He was accepted, as one of its youngest students, into the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, where he was a pupil of Jenö Hubay for violin and Zoltán Kodály for composition.

He graduated at 18 having been awarded the Maestrodiplom and shortly afterwards gave a series of sonata recitals with the composer Béla Bartók. The two men became close friends and henceforth Székely was a tireless promoter of Bartók's music at a time when it achieved little popularity in the music world in general.

It was Székely who commissioned Bartók's Second Violin Concerto and gave the premiere with the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Willem Mengleburg in Amsterdam in 1939. A recording was made of that live performance which was recently played on the radio. The distinguished violinist and teacher Yfrah Neaman, who happened to hear the broadcast, told me that for him it was quite a revelation:

This concerto is normally played in the rugged Magyar style where the violence and protest is expressed quite strongly. I was very surprised to hear a performance that was so much more mellow

and lyrical than the way in which we are accustomed to hear it. Personally I found it enchanting.

Although he was an accomplished soloist, chamber music was Székely's real love. He succeeded Sándor Végh as leader of the Hungarian String Quartet soon after its foundation in 1935 and very soon it became one of the most celebrated quartets in Europe. Although their main repertoire was based on the standard quartet literature, they also played many works by contemporary Hungarian composers, the most important of which were the six quartets by Bartók, which was due to Székely's close association with the composer.

In the late 1930s the quartet was based in the Netherlands and during the Second World War they found themselves trapped. They went into hiding and spent the time perfecting the entire cycle of Beethoven quartets; as a result they became highly regarded for their interpretations of these works. In 1950 Székely moved to the US and the quartet took up a two- year residency at the University of Southern California. They made several return visits to Europe, where they continued to achieve their former success but were finally disbanded in 1970.

Székely was also a skilled teacher and in 1973 he was appointed artist-in-residence at the Banff School of Fine Arts at the Banff Centre, Alberta, Canada. He gained such a reputation that he was named Alberta's violinist-in- residence, and travelled throughout the length and breadth of Canada, teaching in every province. He continued to teach well into his eighties and it is well known that many distinguished soloists from Europe regularly crossed the Atlantic in order to have instruction from him. His lessons covered every aspect of musicality and technique and it was said that as a teacher he was "a fount of wisdom" who could solve any problem.

As a man he was kind and generous towards his colleagues and attracted their admiration for his superb playing. Musicians respected his judgement because they recognised his innate musical integrity. He never tried to please the masses by sacrificing his own high standards.

Margaret Campbell