Shumsky (Violin) Live at Berkeley Biddulph

Oscar Shumsky (violin)
Live at Berkeley
Robin Sutherland (piano)
rec. live, 25 January 1980, Alfred Hertz Hall, University of California at Berkeley
Biddulph 85030-2 [88]

Shortly before Oscar Shumsky’s recital comeback in the early 1980s, he was taped in recital at the Alfred Hertz Hall, University of California at Berkeley and this 88-minute disc captures the event in excellent fidelity. Shumsky was joined by pianist Robin Sutherland. By one of those odd coincidences, I’ve just finished reading Roy Malan’s biography of Shumsky’s teacher, Efrem Zimbalist, in which Sutherland is mentioned in glowing terms. He and Malan recorded Zimbalist’s Violin Sonata and Sutherland played his Piano Concerto in concert (maybe it was recorded?). In any case, Sutherland more than justifies his reputation in this Shumsky recital – he’s crisp, clear, rightly assertive when required but at all times sympathetic to his partner.

The concert begins with Alexander Siloti’s arrangement of Bach’s Sonata in E minor in which Shumsky’s burnished tone, calibrated vibrato usage and varied bowing weight are each salient features of his art. Expression is buoyant and masculine, with subtle rhythms and no gestures that draw attention away from the music making. The year before, Shumsky had been taped playing the Beethoven Kreutzer Sonata live from Wolf Trap with Earl Wild, a hugely characterful collaboration of two ex-NBC players (review), and the meeting with Sutherland is perhaps less volatile and explosive than that one but no less musical or convincing. Phrasal fluidity with a never sagging pulse marks out the performance and the sonata is grandly conceived, though without melodrama. Accompanying figures, whether the violinist’s or the pianist’s, are properly scaled and Shumsky’s tonal breadth in the slow movement is superbly conceived. Just as an aside, you can see his teacher, Zimbalist, with Harold Bauer, perform part of the slow movement in a famous Vitaphone film on YouTube. 

I’m not much into Prokofiev’s Sonata for Solo Violin but if anyone were to convince me of its musical merits it would be Shumsky. He finds its good humour – not least in those tremolando episodes in the first movement – as well as the dolce intimacies of the slow movement, and the crisp attacks of the finale. Tartini’s ‘Devil’s Trill’ sonata follows and is full of strong personality with only microscopically small imprecisions. Sweepingly confident but in no way self-regarding Shumsky marshals his tone colours in exemplary romantic fashion. Kreisler’s cadenza is commandingly dispatched.

Which leaves just the two encores. Beethoven’s Romance No.2 can join the one he made with the Philharmonia and Andrew Davis on Sanctuary. Perversely, perhaps, I like a piano-accompanied recording better as it allows the piano to dovetail with the violin in a way that keeps ennui at bay. The Mozart-Kreisler Haffner Serenade is pertly and virtuosically accomplished.

There are three works here that Shumsky never recorded commercially, as the violinist’s son Eric writes in his booklet notes: the Bach, the Kreutzer and Prokofiev. His notes are illuminating and there are four full colour pages devoted to Shumsky’s 1905 Rocca violin on which he played during the concert. This is a superbly preserved recital of a great musician.

Jonathan Woolf  

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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Violin Sonata in E minor, BWV1023 (arr. for Violin and Piano by Alexander Siloti)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major, Op. 47 ‘Kreutzer’ (1803)
Romance No.2 in F, Op.50 (1803)
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Sonata in D major for solo violin, Op. 115 (1947)
Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770)
Violin Sonata in G minor ‘Devil’s Trill’ GT 2.g05; B.g5, (arr. for Violin and Piano by Fritz Kreisler)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Serenade No. 7 in D major, K250 ‘Haffner’ – Rondo (1776) arr. for Violin and Piano by Fritz Kreisler