Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Complete sonatas and partitas for solo violin
CD 1
Sonata in G minor, BWV 1001 [17:04]
Partita in D minor, BWV 1004 [31:59]
Sonata in C major, BWV 1005 [23:45]
CD 2
Partita in B minor, BWV 1002 [31:22]
Sonata in A minor, BWV 1003 [23:17]
Partita in E major, BWV 1006 [19:40]
Oscar Shumsky (violin)
rec. 1979, UK? ADD
NIMBUS NI2557 [72:48 + 74:19]
This is a reissue of Shumsky's analogue recording of over 30 years ago - released by Musicmasters (ASV) in 1979. The first thing to say unequivocally is how good the sound is for all that. It's certainly more 'restricted' than we might want now: less spacious and reverberant but in no sense claustrophobic. Although one would want such a reduction in sound-stage to concentrate our listening on the instrument, there is nevertheless a certain distance between microphone and violin. This has the result of seeming to capture a 'limited' performance, as much as a concentrated one.
Then, let's be grateful that there is now such an accessible and pleasing recording by Shumsky (1917-2000), one of the legendary violinists from the last century. His famed meticulousness and attempt at perfection is unlikely to fail to inspire. At the same time it may come across as a little too perfect, too much of an intention to do due homage to this great music at the expense of expressiveness. Contrast the approach taken in the interpretation of Rachel Podger (Channel Classics 24982), for example, where latitude works consistently well with a conviction that Bach's notes are sacrosanct.
It's almost as though Shumsky sees each movement as a problem to be solved, a hill to be climbed. Then he unobtrusively demonstrates how the expertise in whose tradition he knows he is squarely placed has solved it. The andante from the second (A minor) Sonata [CD.2 tr.11], for instance, is deliberate and paced - not that it lacks all life. But, perhaps, that such life is in a glass case close by.
On the other hand, when this measured and considered exposition is followed by the allegro, Shumsky's precision and self-denial win us straight back over … "I may be in a great tradition, I may be ultra-competent to the tips of my smallest fingernail", he seems to be saying, "but I will not flaunt it. It's all in the service of something greater. And something which we all implicitly know is greater without any need for self-promotion or exaggeration." This is most welcome. The point is further made in the way the very next movement (of the third Partita's preludio [CD.2. tr. 13] exudes authority). The order on these CDs is G minor Sonata, D minor Partita, C major Sonata; B minor Partita, A minor Sonata, E major Partita. Yet it's an unselfconscious authority, and a quiet and generous authority that comes as much from love of the music as from gesture. Again, that's as it should be.
Shumsky's tone, intonation and attack are considered and contained. There is nothing wild or wayward. Yet, knowing what we do now about period instruments, the unnamed violin played throughout seems a little less (a little 'thinner') than the essence of all violins everywhere, which we might otherwise expect. But this is standard for the time and should not put us off. Just that it might not be expected. In other words, this recording is not a shining, slightly echoing and ultra-forward one, in which one can almost hear the varnish on the violin vibrate. But it nevertheless makes us listen to the music itself, and its player.
Were this recording being contemplated today, Shumsky might have taken some of his tempi differently… less contrast between fast and slow movements, for example, in order to heighten the tension. As it is, we tend to consider Shumsky's conception perhaps a little didactic and demonstrative in the best senses of those words. Not lacking in life, but as a result never really 'driving' the work in ways we have become used to in the last few years. He has, perhaps, a less overt awareness of the work's overall conception. Is more concerned with the particularities of each portion thereof.
To put it equally positively, for all Shumsky's preference for few and superbly-crafted recordings, this account of the pinnacle of the solo violinist's repertoire runs the risk, perhaps, of being thought 'exemplary', understated, even - on first hearing. Until you realise that its very neutrality is a completely legitimate way of bringing out the work's magnitude. It won't be everyone's favourite interpretation precisely because at least some measure of excitement, bravura or brilliance has now become the norm. But as an account that exemplifies the best and most solid from another age, it has a lot going for it.
Mark Sealey
A dependable and highly competent account of the Sonatas and Partitas … see Full Review