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Sandor Végh: Musicians’ musician and “chauvinist European” (©SFB Werbung/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

In 1971, a corpulent Hungarian violinist with a passing resemblance to Charles Laughton accepted an invitation to play Beethoven’s violin concerto in Truro Cathedral. It turned out to be a visit of great subsequent significance for thousands of musicians and a vastly larger number of listeners. He was enraptured by the wildness of the south Cornish coast and immediately saw its potential as a place for music-making and teaching. The following year, Sándor Végh, together with the man who had suggested that he come to Cornwall, Hilary Tunstall-Behrens, founded a master class seminar there which has endured, expanded and prospered to the present day.

Végh, then about 60, was always a musicians’ musician. Sir András Schiff, who collaborated with him over decades, called him an “Urmusiker”, one who in an age of mediocrity was “like a breath of fresh air”. Végh was taught by Jenö Hubay, who himself had learned with Vieuxtemps and played with no less a figure than Brahms. As a young man, Végh became close to Bartók, who paid him one of the great musical compliments of the 20th century. Végh asked him why the scores of Bartók's string quartets contained so many detailed instructions, since they felt so instinctive. Bartók replied: “Ah, that is for ignoramuses, not people like yourself who have this natural musicianship and understanding.”

As a young man, Végh was given a decisive piece of advice by the great singer Chaliapin: “You can sing well on the violin, but you don’t speak enough.” Végh only understood this remark much later when the cellist Pablo Casals revealed to him the art of playing parlando. Music has many voices, and singing is only one of them; there are numerous other modes of narration and communication. This idea became close to the heart of Végh’s playing and teaching style. The pianist Susan Tomes (formerly of Domus and the Florestan Trio) listened to him performing a Bach partita towards the end of his playing career, and wrote about it in her perceptive book Beyond the Notes. “It was partly an illusion caused by his ‘speaking’ tone on the violin, and partly it was the very real contours of his sound, like the contours on a map, but I felt that instead of listening to music I was listening to information, and that I could not afford to miss a single link in the sense of it. I had no urge to drift in and out of the music as I so often do. It was like being lost in a maze, and hearing someone explain, just once, the way out of it.”

Végh had initially played in the Hungarian Quartet before founding in 1940 the quartet which bore his name. The Végh’s recordings of the Beethoven quartets (still available) capture the extraordinary and sometimes elusive characters of these 16 masterpieces as successfully as any recordings before or since. They had a tremendous following among discerning critics in the 1970s, and it was reputedly the Végh Quartet’s recording of late Beethoven which, together with other examples of terrestrial music, travelled on the Voyager 1 craft into interstellar space.

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