César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Violin Sonata (1886) [27:45]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Violin Sonata No.1 in A major Op.13 (1876) [23:59]
Joseph Fuchs (violin)
Artur Balsam (piano)
rec. May 1953, New York

These 1953 sonata recordings appeared on Brunswick, Decca and the DG LP labels in their time, and now reappear on Forgotten Records, the French company responsible for releasing an enviable trawl of the 1950s back catalogue, and whose praises I have sung before.

Fuchs (1899-1997) was one of America’s elite concertmasters, as well as a recitalist and concerto player. Readers may well be aware of a number of his recordings. I reviewed the Beethoven sonatas (review review) now on three Naxos discs, all available separately, as I have the Lopatnikoff Concerto, and Scheherazade, made in Cleveland with Rodzinski.

His most distinctive feature as a violinist was his extremely fast vibrato, which always gave his playing an incisive intensity, one that, admittedly, could occasionally border on the militant. But like so many leaders or concertmasters he had a crisp and decisive rhythmic sense, and was seldom inclined to indulge rubato for its own sake. This lent his performances a crystalline, forward-moving brilliance.

When it came to the Franco-Belgian repertoire, which is what we have here, Fuchs proves to be a commanding presence. He is greatly helped by pianist Artur Balsam, an outstanding musician in his own right, and one who enjoyed congenial collaborative engagements with many of the finest string players of the day. Their Franck is finely scaled, and lacks idiosyncrasies. Which is not to say that it’s dull – not at all – rather that they play from inside the music without drawing undue attention to its more oratorical moments. It’s the pianist who has technically the harder job, one for which Balsam is excellently equipped. Fuchs’ vibrato sounds quite tense in this performance, but his expressive shifts are subtly done. There’s plenty of pathos in the Recitativo-Fantasia, and rich finger position changes too, which underlie it. Fuchs’ electric trill can be savoured in the finale. He’s somewhat less impressive in the Allegro second movement, which sounds a touch smeary. And, throughout, the speed of his vibrato limits tonal variety, so that the performance, whilst exciting, is somewhat one-sided.

Fauré’s sonata suffers similarly. It’s vibrant, youthful, masculine playing but lacks the relaxed lyricism that Jacques Thibaud brought to it, that raffiné quality that fuses sensuality with artless phrasing. Sometimes, indeed, Fuchs is inclined to be too artful, as the first movement shows from time to time. The slow movement is certainly very introspective and affecting, whereas the scherzo – an Allegro vivo – is crystalline, brilliantine and breathlessly fast. Attractive though this will be to admirers of the violinist – and Balsam proves no less fine here, stylistically and digitally – there’s something a little too unremitting about Fuchs’s playing for too much of the time in this repertoire.

Fuchs remained an admirer of this sonata. At a New York recital given in December 1974 he performed it with Joseph Villa, and it was released on VAI (VAIA 1190). The contours of the music-making remain the same, though at 75 his mechanism has inevitably slowed.

The expert transfers show the performances in the best light. There are no notes, as is habitual, but I doubt they’d be necessary for admirers of the two musicians.

Jonathan Woolf

Expert transfers show raffiné performances in the best light.