The Hungarian violinist, Johanna, Martzy, received instruction from Jenö Hubay before entering the Budapest Academy of Music at age 10. She made her debut in Budapest when she was 13, and graduated from the Academy in 1942.
After winning 1st prize in the Geneva Competition in 1947, Johanna, Martzy toured widely; first played in England in 1953 and in the USA in 1957. She acquired a fille reputation as a soloist and chamber music artist.
Johanna Martzy passed away from cancer in 1979 almost unnoticed - particularly in the USA, where she had performed with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in the late 1950’s 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; her dénouement was long..
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 1970’s), 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 zeroed in on 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 L.v. Beethoven's Piano Trio No. 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 gussy up 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: prior to the period-instrument movement, most performances of these masterpieces have moments of heavy weather, of too much sound being crowded into too small a space. And there are easier things in the violin repertoire than sustaining the repeat-laden dance movements. Martzy's recordings are the exception, her precision of tone addressing the problems of the former, her long sense of line carrying her through the latter.
There are downsides to her approach. Cerebral but not intellectual, Johanna Martzy is mostly incapable of projecting the charm of Mozart. In her until-recently-suppressed recording of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 with Wolfgang Sawallisch, she seems relieved to hit the cadenza, in which she can throw off the responsibility to ingratiate. Most puzzling of all are her two EMI recordings of the Felix 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. Wolfgang 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?
Posthumous careers such as Martzy's germinate unpredictably, often from the second-hand LP record market. Her EMI and Deutsche Grammophon LPs, dating from the 1950s, now go for as much as $500 a disc. Perhaps in response to that, Japanese EMI released the six-disc "Art of Johanna Martzy" in 1988. The first Martzy CD release in the West came in 1994 with her Johannes Brahms and F. Mendelssohn concerto performances on Testament. Then from smaller labels came a flood of previously unreleased material. The England-based Coup d'Archet delivered five discs of European radio releases that were hard to get in the USA (though some have turned up on Amazon.com). The Doremi label has a series of live recitals taped in Canada, though only Volume 1 is currently available. Meanwhile, Japanese EMI re-released its Martzy CD box with an added bonus: two long-suppressed recordings from 1954 of the violinist playing F. Mendelssohn and Mozart with Wolfgang Sawallisch, made amid quarrels about tempo and other matters.
Johanna Martzy’s solo J.S. Bach, which has acquired iconic status, is well played technically and very satisfying. Deploying the sturdy rhythm and glowing tone that are features of all her recordings, she gives balanced, middle-of-theroad interpretations, unhurried and free of self-indulgence. The three original LP’s were well received on both sides of the Atlantic. In America the New York Herald Tribune chose the set as one of its recordings of 1956. In England Edward Greenfield of The Manchester Guardian remarked on Martzy’s ‘luscious vibrato’ but was not bothered by it; and on a later occasion he preferred her set of the Sonatas and Partitas to that of Jascha Heifetz. Desmond Shawe-Taylor of The Observer recommended her recordings ‘for sound musicianship and sustained sweetness of tone’. Interestingly, the question of her vibrato was also brought up by Schonberg after her New York début: ‘Her Bach was anything but purist and “classic” in conception. She approached the music with decisive rhythm and a good deal of vibrato (perhaps a little too much vibrato, in the slow movement; but this is a question of taste).’ Although he was writing about a concerto – and his remarks are borne out by live Martzy recordings of the Bach solo concertos - the points he makes are equally applicable to her unaccompanied Bach. Her interpretations are directly in the tradition of Hungarian fiddlers such as Szigeti, Telmányi and Varga: her native flair and unshowy virtuosity make up for any ‘romantic’ habits in her playing.