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Johannes BRAHMS (1833 – 1897) arr. Joseph JOACHIM (1831 – 1907)
21 Hungarian Dances [51:24]
Oscar Shumsky (violin); Frank Maus (piano)
rec. no recording dates or venues given; MusicMasters Inc. 1998
NIMBUS NI 2552 [51:24]

Experience Classicsonline

This disc continues Nimbus’ astute mining of the rich vein of recordings that constitutes MusicMasters back catalogue. The original release dated from 1998 but as with so many of those recordings was not widely available in the UK. It is a glorious disc and one of the jewels in the Nimbus Shumsky crown. As it happened this was a CD that I had managed to miss until now and as a huge admirer of the playing of that master musician it has given me unalloyed pleasure. It is not clear from the liner-notes whether the original release was also the year of recording because if it was that would mean Shumsky was 81 at the time. Safe to assume it is a late recording given that nearly the entire catalogue of Shumsky discs come from the remarkable Indian Summer he experienced both in the concert hall and the recording studio in the last fifteen or so years of his life. Never an artist to be driven by commercial imperatives his recorded legacy is a sometimes frustrating (only in terms of what he did NOT record) combination of the mainstream – Bach and Mozart concerti – and the obscure – Weiner Sonatas and Rode Caprices to name but two. But the unifying link with all his recordings and music-making as a whole was a burning conviction he had in the music he performed. He shared with the greatest violinists of the past that ability to lavish on any piece that drew his attention the same extraordinary musicianship and technical brilliance be it a Kreisler miniature or the Bach Chaconne.
To my mind Shumsky was one of the truly great players and genuinely a genius. By that I mean a peerless technique but allied to a musical mind intuitively able to illuminate and bring insights to music in a way that eludes all but the greatest. Take any of these 21 Hungarian Dances. I have to put my hand up straight away and say these works have never particularly engaged me. Let’s be honest they were cash-cows for Brahms written to placate his publisher Simrock who wanted to fill a lucrative gap in the domestic music-making market with some fashionably nationalistic music. Brahms was too fine a composer and craftsman to produce anything poor but they have never enthused me in the way that Dvorák’s Slavonic Dances do – until now. Recently I reviewed the Joachim Hungarian Violin Concerto and noted that it isn’t really that idiomatic either. But put Brahms and Joachim together add a catalytic Shumsky and suddenly this music bursts into life with Magyar spirit in abundance. I do not have a clue how ‘authentic’ are Brahms’ melodies but Shumsky makes them sound idiomatic. If he really was 81 when this was recorded the playing is nothing short of remarkable. This is playing where flair and control go hand in glove. Every dance is chock-full of musical and technical risk-taking but such is his stature that from where I am sitting everything is a triumphant success. This is playing where there is no obsession with antiseptic perfection; I’m sure there are some faceless competition winners out there who might be able to play these pieces with even more technical perfection but with a fraction of the ‘rightness’ on display here. Try the very first track – a G minor Allegro Molto. It is impossible to quantify the microscopic variation in attack, bends into notes, rhythmic rubati – the sum effect is one of absolute rightness. A bit like jazz – it’s a ‘feel’ thing – when it’s right you know it! The liner-notes explain how Shumsky met accompanist Frank Maus while on a concert tour in Europe. Ever one to put great importance on a close collaboration and musical respect he asked him to go to the States to record this disc. Maus is not the most flamboyant player but he is superbly attuned to every subtle twist and turn that Shumsky takes and their mutual brilliance is the way in which these ebbs and flows never sound mannered or forced but completely natural and spontaneous. Even in an old war-horse like the 5th Dance they are able to find a light and shade and freshness that belies the piece’s familiarity. In Shumsky’s hands these pieces positively bristle with personality – I must admit I had rather dismissed these transcriptions as being of little more than functional reworkings of existing pieces. How wrong Shumsky proves me to be; and so rather neatly I come back to my perception of genius and my fervent reassertion that this IS playing of that calibre.
No one is pretending this is music of momentous importance but as a life-enhancing disc featuring playing with as much character as you are likely to hear in many a year this is hard to beat. The liner is interesting but minimal, the disc is short value at fifty one minutes by modern standards, the recording is technically good although not exceptional (the piano is somewhat recessed for music of such fire and the recording perspective changes as though recorded at different sessions) but frankly who cares about any of that when you are in the presence of playing of such stature. For anyone who loves this composer a compulsory purchase as indeed it is for connoisseurs of the art of playing the violin.
Nick Barnard

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