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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
CD 1
Violin Sonata No.1 in G, op.78 (1879) [24:54]
Violin Sonata No.2 in A, op.100 (1886) [19:09]
Violin Sonata No.3 in D minor, op.108 (1888) [20:46]
CD 2
Viola Sonata No.1 in F minor, op.120/1 (1894) [20:58]
Viola Sonata No.2 in E flat op.120/2 (1894) [18:12]
Oscar Shumsky (violin and viola)
Leonid Hambro (piano)
rec. details not given (c1991) DDD
reissued from the MusicMasters catalogue
NIMBUS NI 2513/4 [64:47 + 39:07]

Experience Classicsonline

Shumsky never recorded the Brahms Violin Concerto commercially, though TV film exists of his performance. Violin fanciers had quivering fingers set on 'record' when he played it on the BBC many years ago and I should know as my own calloused fingers were poised to plunge and capture the great man in action. Some hardy souls have uploaded their VHS copies onto YouTube. I think it's less well known however that he set down the Violin sonatas and Viola sonatas for MusicMasters in 1991 and these performances have now been revivified by Nimbus.

It was always a perplexing matter as to why Shumsky was one of that rare breed who, once he had made his belated and feted reappearance on the international scene, was so seldom asked back by orchestras. I understand that his tart and abrasive manner may have had something to do with it, but playing of his exalted level comes very seldom in one's listening experience. Maybe he was out of kilter with some elements of the public. I remember hearing his American colleague Aaron Rosand at his last Wigmore Hall appearance in London. The stranger sitting next to me turned at the interval and asked what I thought of the violinist so I gave him a more than favourable summary. The man's brow darkened. 'I don't like his tone or his playing', he said and turned away, and that was that. Perhaps he'd have preferred Midori.

Not much of which has anything to do with these late, patrician readings. Nobility courses through the veins of Op.108 - tone and phrasing - and even at 74 Shumsky gives younger players a master class in rubato usage and phraseology. His near contemporary Leonid Hambro demarcates the left hand accents of the slow movement punctiliously whilst Shumsky gauges the rise and fall of the lyric line with great wisdom, reserving greatest weight of tone and bow pressure for the optimum time. Both men catch the gutsy wit of the Scherzo and stake out the finale's geography with practised assurance. It's true that Shumsky's intonation is not infallible and his tone can become pinched from time to time but these are minor glitches amongst the panorama that unfolds.

The G major and A major share these virtues and abundance and also, it's true, some technical failings as well already alluded to as well as a lack of tonal body. Ensemble however is excellent, the double stopping in the Adagio of Op.78 on the money, whilst the piano's bass tolling is memorably insisted upon by Hambro. In the lyrically settled Op.100 things are first class, the lyric warmth conveyed with nobility but no hint of glutinous over vibration, albeit the slowing vibrato makes itself heard most especially in the sonata's finale where tone colours could be better varied.

Some may not know that Shumsky played the viola - though his son Eric does - but as he shows here he most certainly did. He was once an august member of William Primrose's quartet and I think it's to that great Scotsman that we can best ascribe the strongest influence on his viola playing. The tempi are remarkably similar - Primrose recorded I with Kapell and II with Gerald Moore and both with Firkušný. If you admire, say, Rivka Golani's playing (with Bogino, Conifer CDCF199) you will find Shumsky almost brusque in comparison. But this kind of 'alto' toned viola playing aligns well with Primrose's own, albeit the myriad colours and virtuosic panache of Primrose are a very different thing from Shumsky's own playing, which can sound rather more one dimensional. But it does share that same tensile-expressive curvature, that unsentimental affection, the subtlety of metrics and rubati.

This is one for Shumsky's admirers. It's not without its faults but it enshrines playing of rapt wisdom and assurance, and fortunately captures both Shumsky and his excellent colleague Hambro well.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Bob Briggs


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