Obituary: Szymon Goldberg
Monday 16 August 1993
SZYMON GOLDBERG had the rare distinction of being internationally acclaimed both as a virtuoso violinist and conductor. His teacher, Carl Flesch, considered him one of the violinists who had come closest to achieving the perfect balance between technique and interpretation.
Szymon Goldberg was born in 1909 in Wloclawek, in central Poland, and had his first lessons at the age of seven with Mieczyslaw Mihalowicz in Warsaw. The following year, his family moved to Berlin, where he became a pupil of Flesch. He made his debut in Warsaw in 1921, when he was only 12, but acting on Flesch's advice he waited until he was 15 before attempting a debut with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Here, he distinguished himself by playing - in one evening - three of the most demanding concertos in the repertoire, the Bach E major, Joachim's Hungarian, and the Paganini No 1.
Although, following this accomplishment, Goldberg made several successful solo concert tours, Flesch considered it important for him to gain some orchestral experience; so at 16, he became leader of the Dresden Philharmonic. As a result he was noticed by Wilhelm Furtwangler, who offered him the leadership of the Berlin Philharmonic, a post he held from 1929 to 1934. During this time, Goldberg continued his solo appearances and also played in a trio with Paul Hindemith and Emanuel Feuermann, as a replacement for Joseph Wolfsthal who had died suddenly at the age of 31 from the effects of influenza.
When the Nazis came to power, the Berlin Philharmonic was obliged to dismiss all its Jewish members, and although Furtwangler tried hard to intercede on his behalf, Goldberg was given no choice but to concentrate on a solo career abroad. With the pianist Lili Kraus as his partner in sonata recitals, he played all over Europe, Japan, China and the Dutch East Indies, and in 1938 he made a highly successful American debut.
In 1942, when appearing in Java, he was taken prisoner and interned by the Japanese until 1945, after which he resumed his career and extended his touring to Australia, South Africa and the Americas. For 15 years he was a faculty member of the Aspen Festival, where he formed the Festival Quartet with the pianist Victor Babin, the viola player William Primrose and the cellist Nikolai Graudan and, as such, they made a number of fine recordings and concert appearances. In 1955, Goldberg took up a new challenge as a conductor, when he was appointed Music Director of the newly founded Netherlands Chamber Orchestra. Here, he achieved international success as a soloist-conductor in violin concertos and concerti grossi and included not only the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart but also orchestral works by modern composers, particularly Bartok and Hindemith. He later appeared as guest conductor with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra and the orchestras of Boston, Chicago and Cleveland.
In his Great Masters of the Violin (1984), Boris Schwarz wrote: 'Goldberg is a masterful violinist whose sole concern is the interpretation of great music, to the exclusion of all virtuoso frills. His technique is flawless, his tone warm and pure, his sense of style and his musical taste exquisite. His peformance style stresses refinement, intimacy and noble intensity equally evident in the classical repertoire and modern works.'
Goldberg made some fine recordings, the most memorable being the Mozart Violin sonatas with the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu. Goldberg also found time for teaching and held important posts in the Juilliard School, Yale University and the Curtis Institute, Pennsylvania, and in 1953 became an American citizen. He also lived for some time in London and in 1987 finally settled in Japan.
As a man he was well liked and greatly respected by his fellow musicians. Professor Yfrah Neaman told me: 'He was never a man for small talk. If he gave an opinion it was only after he had given considerable thought to the matter, and as a result his judgement was never questioned.'
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