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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K219 Turkish [30:05]
Violin Sonata No. 32 in B flat, K454 [19:28]
Violin Sonata No. 35 in A, K526 [18:46]
Oscar Shumsky (violin)
Leopold Mittman (piano)
The Little Orchestra Society/Thomas Scherman
rec. c.1956 (concerto) and c.1950 (sonatas)

Oscar Shumsky (1917-2000) will mainly be remembered for the many distinguished recordings he made for Nimbus in the 1980s - fruits of an Indian Summer. Of Russian-Jewish lineage, his star never shone as brightly as that of David Oistrakh, Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman or Nathan Milstein. Yet he was the proverbial ‘all-round musician’, his career embracing teaching, playing chamber music and conducting. His solo career was somehow squeezed into this demanding schedule. He made his concert debut at the age of seven with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski, who declared him ‘the most outstanding genius I have ever heard’. Kreisler, too, was impressed when the boy played from memory the great man’s cadenza to the Beethoven Concerto, reconstructing it in his mind after hearing Kreisler play it on just two occasions. In 1925 he became Leopold Auer’s pupil at the Curtis Institute, moving on to Efrem Zimbalist when the great pedagogue died in 1930. He later joined the Primrose Quartet as first violin, and was also invited by Toscanini to join the NBC Symphony. During World War II he served in the US army. After the war, as well as teaching, he worked with Glenn Gould, co-directing the Stratford Festival in Ontario. Then in the 1980s he decided to make a comeback, resumed his concert-giving and returned to the recording studios.

The recordings here were made in the 1950s, before his ‘wilderness years’. They went unnoticed at the time and have never received the recognition they deserve. The concerto appeared on both a Music-Appreciation Record (MAR 5613/105613) and a World Record Club LP (TT-14). On both occasions it was paired with the Symphony no. 35 in D major, K385 Haffner with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Alfred Wallenstein. The two sonatas derive from a rare Allegro LP (AL 97). Shumky later re-recorded all the works here when he made his ‘comeback’. It’s useful to be able to reappraise these earlier takes in light of the re-makes.

I have never enjoyed Shumky’s digital recording of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K219 Turkish which he made with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Yan Pascal Tortelier in April 1983. I have no issue with Shumsky’s excellent playing, but the violin sound is swamped by the over-resonant acoustic of the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh. This is further compounded by the soloist and orchestra being recessed. This earlier recording is far preferable on every front. Shumsky’s playing is technically accomplished, and he brings elegance and refinement to the score. There’s also a freshness and spontaneity to his Mozart playing, and the music is never allowed to sag in any way. There’s heartfelt tenderness in the slow movement, with Shumsky savouring the lyricism of Mozart’s writing. In the finale, he pulls off the contrasting Turkish section with rhythmic audacity. Thomas Schermann is a sensitive conductor, offering sympathetic support.

When it comes to the sonatas, I’m pleased that Shumsky and Mittman included the lesser known K526 to pair with the best known K454. In the 1970s, the violinist recorded a complete cycle of the Violin Sonatas with the pianist Artur Balsam, which has had several incarnations, most recently on a 4 CD set from Nimbus (NI 2562/65). Whilst I greatly appreciate and admire the Shumsky/Balsam collaboration, I welcome these two alternatives from the early years of the violinist’s career. Leopold Mittman is every bit as engaging as a partner. All the elements which make a successful Mozart performance are present. The players imbue their readings with grace and charm. There is much excitement in the allegro movements, with seductive eloquence and rapt intensity in the andantes. Shumsky achieves a rich, warm tone, and intonation is pristine throughout.

These Mozart recordings will be greatly appreciated by violin mavens, and they have scrubbed up well in the re-mastering process. However, I did notice that the two Sonatas are pitched fractionally sharp.

Stephen Greenbank
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf



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