> Berl Senofsky and Gary Graffman [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Berl Senofsky and Gary Graffman in Concert at the Library of Congress
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Violin Sonata No 2 in A Major Op 100
Serge PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

Violin Sonata No 1 in F Minor Op 80
Berl Senofsky, violin
Gary Graffman, piano
Recorded in concert at The Library of Congress 14 March 1975
BRIDGE 9118 [57.09]

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Berl Senofsky, who died very recently, was born in Philadelphia in 1925. Of Russian émigré stock – his father had studied with Leopold Auer – Senofsky studied with the dean of American teachers, Louis Persinger, and subsequently with Ivan Galamian at Juilliard. He came from a remarkable generation of American born players – his contemporaries included Oscar Shumsky, Sidney Harth, Aaron Rosand, David Nadien and the slightly younger Joseph Silverstein. Between 1950 and 1955 he was Assistant Concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. Next to him in the leader’s chair sat Joseph Gingold. Senofsky sensationally became the first American winner of the Queen Elizabeth Violin Competition in Brussels – beating, in the terminology of such things, no less than the superb Russian player Julian Sitkovetsky as well as such well-known violinists as Viktor Pikaisen and Alberto Lysy. He began to appear with leading orchestras, toured the Walton Concerto with the composer conducting during an extensive Australasian tour – a superbly deadpan colour photograph of the two men arm in arm, encumbered with pipes, is reproduced in the booklet – and a strong career beckoned. Somehow it never quite happened for Senofsky despite a few discographic triumphs. The Brahms Concerto with the Vienna Symphony under Moralt on Epic both underlined his solid position on the European continent and ironically reflected the pattern of an earlier recording of another leading American player, Albert Spalding, who had, towards the end of his career, also recorded Brahms in Vienna.

With Graffman, his partner at this Library of Congress recital and whom he’d met first in 1952, he set down the Brahms Op 87 Trio and Beethoven Kakadu Variations – with cellist Shirley Trepel – in 1965, in addition to their earlier 1961 disc pairing the Debussy Sonata of 1917 and the Fauré No 1. Elsewhere he appears but rarely on disc, emphasising the importance of this 1975 survival. He did record the Brahms No2 and Strauss - with Vanden Eynden on Phonic, as well as sonatas by Branco and Goldman but these were on obscure labels and all but invisible. Currently some CDs on the Cembal d’amour label are devoted to off-air performances and a tape of his prize winning 1955 Queen Elizabeth Debussy has circulated. In his later years he turned more and more to chamber music and to teaching – he was at Peabody for many years and a greatly admired figure.

For the Brahms Sonata, rather airlessly recorded, the two men begin in appropriately interior fashion; their ensemble is good, with Graffman perhaps a little too prominent in the balance. This is a relaxed and unhurried interpretation with Serofsy’s trademark fast vibrato prominent. In the first movement there are moments when he sounds as if he is having some problems with his right arm and whilst his attacks and accents are bold and strong they can also coarsen somewhat under pressure. The second subject of the slow movement is very deliberately phrased with Graffman italicising the piano writing rather too broadly for my liking and Senofsky, though a tonalist of distinction, can be rather portly and stolid in passagework. He certainly doesn’t convince me at this somewhat distended tempo and whilst his lyric intensity can’t be doubted the ardour is rather hobbled here. He commands a wide range of shadings and colours even with his fast vibrato – an idiosyncratic one not always easily suited to romantic music – and in the finale employs some succulent intensification but whilst the depth of tone he elicits is good there is a real lack of necessary momentum from both men that, for me, sabotages the performance.

The Prokofiev is rather better. Graffman is idiomatic and technically adroit infusing his part with manifold skill and insight. The opening Andante assai sees Senofsky poised and vigorous with no loss of subtlety. He is powerfully energised in the fiendish Allegro brusco second movement, a few patchy moments apart – especially expressive from 5.50 and in the slow movement Senofsky, muted, whilst hardly a match for Oistrakh, exemplifies why he was so admired with some burnished playing. Their ensemble, with those tempting, teasing accents and rhythmic dislocations in the Allegrissimo, survives scrutiny – Graffman releasing left hand accents with insouciant address. As the movement draws to a close Senofsky’s vibrato becomes more problematically oscillatory but it is attractively scaled and a worthy reminder of his art.

The disc concludes with a stage-announced performance of Brahms’s Sonatensatz, a good performance. Altogether this is an admirable tribute to a fine violinist. With Graffman he had a collaborator of instinctual understanding and if neither of the major performances are world shattering they still shed serious light on Senofsky’s artistic profile and that is entirely right and proper.

Jonathan Woolf

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