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Johannes BRAHMS (1770-1897)
CD 1
Violin Sonata No.1 in G, op.78 (1806) [24:54]; Violin Sonata No.2 in A, op.100 (1806) [19:09]; Violin Sonata No.3 in D minor, op.108 (1806) [20:46]
CD 2
Viola Sonata No.1 in F minor, op.120/1 (1806) [20:58]; Violin Sonata No.2 in Eb, op.120/2 (1806) [18:12]
Oscar Shumsky (violin and viola); Leonid Hambro (piano)
Recording details not given (c1991) DDD
reissued from the MusicMasters catalogue
NIMBUS NI 2513/4 [64:47 + 39:07]

Experience Classicsonline

David Oistrakh said that Oscar Shumsky was "one of the world's greatest violinists". Fritz Kreisler said that he would become one of the finest violinists of the century. Leopold Stokowski called him, "the most astounding genius I have ever heard", and in 1925, when Shumsky was only 8 years old, Stokowski invited him to play the Mozart 5th Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra. In that same year Shumsky started his studies with Leopold Auer. After graduating from the Curtis Institute Toscanini invited him to join the NBC Symphony Orchestra and William Primrose asked him to lead the Primrose Quartet, saying he was "one of the greatest virtuosos I have ever heard". In 1981 he returned to the concert hall and the studio, making his last recording in 1993, when 76 years old. On top of all that, he conducted, taught and co-directed, with Glenn Gould, the Stratford Festival in Ontario, playing duo works with Gould and trio works when joined by Leonard Rose. What a pedigree and what a violinist, and I was looking forward to hearing these works played by such an experienced hand.

Unfortunately, these recordings failed to deliver on their potential. Brahms is a romantic - some might say too romantic - composer, and his works are steeped in the romantic tradition. Although none of the three Violin Sonatas is of any great length there is much in them and they make a fine set, with a gentle first, a more complex second and a soaringly lyrical third. They require a grand manner, a big tone and broad view. Shumsky and Hambro can certainly play the notes but I don't feel that they have any special affinity with the music. For instance, the opening of the third sonata, where the initial theme soars high above the piano, is simply too earth-bound. It fails to energise. Likewise in the finale, a very fast dance in duple time, and which contains some of the biggest gestures of the three works, there isn't the elevation and breadth to do full justice to Brahms's ideas. Shumsky is happier in the more restrained and relaxed opening movement of the 1st Sonata because he can allow the music to breathe and make his way through the phrases in a leisurely fashion.

One of the reasons for my dissatisfaction is the recording, which I assume was made about 1991, that being the copyright date on the rear inlay. It is boxy and confined and everything emerges sounding exactly the same. It is bland and there is no bloom to the sound, and the piano is placed backward in relation to the violin so that much of the accompaniment is lost. There is also little dynamic variety and the violin sounds thin and somewhat reticent.

I am sorry to say that these performances don't engage me anywhere near as much as the marvellous recording of all three Sonatas by Josef Suk and the late, great, Julius Katchen (Decca 00289 466 3932). If you want to hear something very special you must go to Emil Telmányi and Georg Vasarhelyi in their classic 1930s accounts of the first two Sonatas: Danacord DACOCD 343, coupled with the FAE Scherzo and Hungarian Dance No. 1 (arranged for violin and piano). These are masterly interpretations. I once had the very great honour to be invited to take tea with Telmányi at his home - he was 90 years old at the time. As we listened to the 78s of the 1st Sonata, with his wife sitting next to the record player in order to be able to change the sides of the discs, the great man gave me a master-class in how to interpret the music, how to bow it, how to achieve every nuance possible and really bring the music to life. It was the kind of information which should be made available to all violinists - a memorable afternoon. For the 3rd Sonata, you can't do better than go to David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter, recorded live at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in December 1968 (Melodiya CM 02257-58). This is a grand and romantic interpretation, which, admittedly, may not be to everyone's taste, but has the right approach and a wide range of dynamic and emotion.

Nothing can hide the fact that the two op.120 Sonatas are not string works. They don't sound as graceful as they do in their original versions for clarinet, nor do they have the dynamic range - the mellow-voiced viola is no match for the clarinet when being declamatory. Shumsky seems to be more comfortable in this music but again the recording is boxy with the piano so far back as to be insignificant in places.

It's hard to believe that these are digital recordings, for they have none of the sparkle or bite one would expect, but then neither do the performances. For these two works I think you'd be better served by any of the very good recordings with clarinet. If you must have the works with viola then you cannot do any better than the recent Hyperion recording with Lawrence Power and Simon Crawford-Phillips (CDA 67584, coupled with the Trio, op.114 with Tim Hugh).

Bob Briggs

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