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Brahms Shumsky 850072
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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D, Op 77 (1878) [42:10]
Oscar Shumsky (violin)
Philharmonia Hungarica/Uri Segal
rec. 1984, Kreis Recklinghausen, Marl, Germany
BIDDULPH 85007-2 [42:10]

This is a rather special musical document. Before receiving the disc, having not thought too hard about the recording’s origin, I assumed it would be an archive/historical performance by the great Oscar Shumsky quite possibly in relatively modest sound. But no, this turns out to be a proper digital studio recording dating from the glorious Indian Summer of Shumsky’s solo career. It is worth reiterating just what an impact the sixty-four year old Shumsky had on the Classical Music community in the UK when gave his London debut in the early 1980’s. This was not just a question of another fine violinist, but here was someone playing with a style and technique that harked back to an earlier age of genuinely great violinists and great musicians. Given the age he was when he returned to the concert hall and recording studio, it is not a surprise that his later recorded legacy is relatively small. Also, Shumsky never sought to record ‘big’ works just because he ought to, instead preferring to perform music that intrigued or engaged him. Hence his discography includes set of studies by Rode and Kreutzer (the cornerstone of any aspiring young violinist’s study – but not played like they are by Shumsky!) but no Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky or Brahms concerti.... until now.

In an introductory note in the liner, Shumsky’s son Eric relates how this recording was made in 1984, two days after a concert performance by the same artists under studio conditions with Shumsky donating his fee to make the recording possible. Two other facets of Shumsky’s personality are worth noting here. As described by his close friend Eric Wen on the Shumsky Music website, “As a musician, Oscar Shumsky was intensely focused. He was intolerant of showmanship; for him, music was not entertainment, and he abhorred the showbiz antics that characterized many musical performances in the late 20th century. His artistic demands could sometimes intimidate colleagues and students, and his uncompromising attitude would occasionally work to his disadvantage. As Eugene Drucker [Shumsky pupil and member of the Emerson String Quartet] remarked: "I will never forget his uncompromising personal integrity, his continual quest for musical substance rather than surface gesture, his encyclopedic knowledge of the violin repertoire and his magnificent command of the instrument. There will never be another like him."

Part of this “uncompromising attitude” was that Shumsky sought kindred spirits to make music with – he was not interested in perceived status or global acclaim. There remains a bit of a mystery as to why this recording did not emerge sooner. Given that the unedited master tapes remained with Shumsky from the day of the recording until they were found in his possessions after his death, it must be assumed that he himself owned the copyright of the tapes and that this was in essence a self-funded project. I am not sure that Shumsky simply “forgot” that the recording existed. I wonder if by his own phenomenally high standards, he felt as if he could have done better and as such did not want to sanction the disc’s release. If this seems unlikely given the magnificence of this performance it is worth considering the following; Shumsky’s early ‘new’ recordings were for Nimbus including a stunning set of the astounding Ysaye six solo sonatas. But by all accounts these were not wholly happy sessions with Shumsky believing he could play them better still. Listening to that disc from the distance of nearly forty years, that seems remarkable – by any standard (except Shumsky’s!) they remain one of the great recordings. However, without a recording company telling Shumsky what he had to do perhaps he simply chose not to proceed with the release of a performance he believed did not show him at his absolute best.

But by the standards of the rest of us mere mortals this is a very fine performance. At the time of the recording Uri Segal was the principal conductor of the Philharmonia Hungarica. In many ways this was the ideal ensemble to accompany the Brahms concerto consisting as it did of expatriate Hungarians working in West Germany (as it then was). Certainly the tonal warmth of the orchestra is a perfect complement to Shumsky’s rich and rock-solid tone. Throughout this performance there is nothing exaggerated or excessive. But that was always Shumsky’s way. He was not a musician prone to grand effect or display for display’s sake. On YouTube there is a video of him in this same concerto from the 1987 Proms with the great Mariss Jansons and the BBC Welsh SO. The video/sound quality is very poor given its VHS source but you get an absolute sense of Shumsky’s approach with no physical or musical mannerisms getting in the way of him communicating with players and audience alike.

Another characteristic audible throughout the “new” recording here is the actual sound Shumsky makes. I assume he is playing his preferred ‘Rode’ Stradivarius and the power and intensity he is able to generate is remarkable. But this is not the super-polished chromium-plated cloned playing that is relatively common today – Shumsky sought to rediscover the music with each performance and this could lead to occasions when inspiration did not burn as brightly or minute performing flaws could be heard. In this performance such passing moments do occur in part exaggerated by a rather close positioning of the solo violin and an early digital recording that gives a slightly hard-edged glare to the sound particularly in the highest registers. But against this are so many occasions by those little expressive emphasises or rhythmic freedoms that cannot be taught or quantified that in the hands of a master stamp a performance with an individual genius. Shumsky’s tempi are often at the more expansive end of the range – in the comparative versions I have to hand only Nikolaj Znaider with Gergiev in Vienna favours such a generally broad approach. The first movement trenchant and weighty but with beautifully contrasted second subject material. The second movement Adagio a genuine highlight with a stunningly poised oboe solo passed onto the solo violin where Shumsky plays with an old-fashioned expressive freedom that I find utterly compelling. In fairness a direct comparison again highlights the slight glare in the older digital recording compared to the plush warmth afforded Znaider on RCA. The Hungarian-tinged finale Allegro giocoso ma non troppo vivace again lies at the slightly slower end of the general timing which is roughly 8:00 - 8:30. Shumsky finds an earthy hearty ruggedness that is surely the spirit Brahms sought. At the same time he performs the complex filigree passage work with a playfulness that captures the giocoso spirit that crucially balances the mood of this movement. Aside from the huge technical demands of this music finding that critical balance eludes many a fine player – but not Shumsky. Segal and the Philharmonia Hungarica are attentive and sensitive accompanists throughout.

At just over forty minutes for a ‘full’ CD this might seem like short shrift but such is the value and importance of this recording as a document of one of the great 20th Century violinists that such considerations pale to insignificance. An indispensible disc for connoisseurs of the art of the violin.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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