Brahms The 21 Hungarian Dances arranged by Joachim

David Oistrakh said that Oscar Shumsky was "one of the world's greatest violinists". Fritz Kreisler said that he would become one of the finest violinists of the century. Leopold Stokowski called him, "the most astounding genius I have ever heard", and in 1925, when Shumsky was only 8 years old, Stokowski invited him to play the Mozart 5th Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra. After graduating from the Curtis Institute Toscanini invited him to join the NBC Symphony Orchestra and William Primrose asked him to lead the Primrose Quartet, saying he was "one of the greatest virtuosos I have ever heard". In 1981 he returned to the concert hall and the studio, making his last recording in 1993, when 76 years old. On top of all that, he conducted, taught and co-directed, with Glenn Gould, the Stratford Festival in Ontario, playing duo works with Gould and trio works when joined by Leonard Rose.


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This disc continues Nimbus’ astute mining of the rich vein of recordings that constitutes MusicMasters back catalogue. The original release dated from 1998 but as with so many of those recordings was not widely available in the UK. It is a glorious disc and one of the jewels in the Nimbus Shumsky crown. As it happened this was a CD that I had managed to miss until now and as a huge admirer of the playing of that master musician it has given me unalloyed pleasure. It is not clear from the liner-notes whether the original release was also the year of recording because if it was that would mean Shumsky was 81 at the time. Safe to assume it is a late recording given that nearly the entire catalogue of Shumsky discs come from the remarkable Indian Summer he experienced both in the concert hall and the recording studio in the last fifteen or so years of his life. Never an artist to be driven by commercial imperatives his recorded legacy is a sometimes frustrating (only in terms of what he did NOT record) combination of the mainstream – Bach and Mozart concerti – and the obscure – Weiner Sonatas and Rode Caprices to name but two. But the unifying link with all his recordings and music-making as a whole was a burning conviction he had in the music he performed. He shared with the greatest violinists of the past that ability to lavish on any piece that drew his attention the same extraordinary musicianship and technical brilliance be it a Kreisler miniature or the Bach Chaconne.

To my mind Shumsky was one of the truly great players and genuinely a genius. By that I mean a peerless technique but allied to a musical mind intuitively able to illuminate and bring insights to music in a way that eludes all but the greatest. Take any of these 21 Hungarian Dances. I have to put my hand up straight away and say these works have never particularly engaged me. Let’s be honest they were cash-cows for Brahms written to placate his publisher Simrock who wanted to fill a lucrative gap in the domestic music-making market with some fashionably nationalistic music. Brahms was too fine a composer and craftsman to produce anything poor but they have never enthused me in the way that Dvorák’s Slavonic Dances do – until now. Recently I reviewed the Joachim Hungarian Violin Concerto and noted that it isn’t really that idiomatic either. But put Brahms and Joachim together add a catalytic Shumsky and suddenly this music bursts into life with Magyar spirit in abundance. I do not have a clue how ‘authentic’ are Brahms’ melodies but Shumsky makes them sound idiomatic. If he really was 81 when this was recorded the playing is nothing short of remarkable. This is playing where flair and control go hand in glove. Every dance is chock-full of musical and technical risk-taking but such is his stature that from where I am sitting everything is a triumphant success. This is playing where there is no obsession with antiseptic perfection; I’m sure there are some faceless competition winners out there who might be able to play these pieces with even more technical perfection but with a fraction of the ‘rightness’ on display here. Try the very first track – a G minor Allegro Molto. It is impossible to quantify the microscopic variation in attack, bends into notes, rhythmic rubati – the sum effect is one of absolute rightness. A bit like jazz – it’s a ‘feel’ thing – when it’s right you know it! The liner-notes explain how Shumsky met accompanist Frank Maus while on a concert tour in Europe. Ever one to put great importance on a close collaboration and musical respect he asked him to go to the States to record this disc. Maus is not the most flamboyant player but he is superbly attuned to every subtle twist and turn that Shumsky takes and their mutual brilliance is the way in which these ebbs and flows never sound mannered or forced but completely natural and spontaneous. Even in an old war-horse like the 5th Dance they are able to find a light and shade and freshness that belies the piece’s familiarity. In Shumsky’s hands these pieces positively bristle with personality – I must admit I had rather dismissed these transcriptions as being of little more than functional reworkings of existing pieces. How wrong Shumsky proves me to be; and so rather neatly I come back to my perception of genius and my fervent reassertion that this IS playing of that calibre.

No one is pretending this is music of momentous importance but as a life-enhancing disc featuring playing with as much character as you are likely to hear in many a year this is hard to beat. The liner is interesting but minimal, the disc is short value at fifty one minutes by modern standards, the recording is technically good although not exceptional (the piano is somewhat recessed for music of such fire and the recording perspective changes as though recorded at different sessions) but frankly who cares about any of that when you are in the presence of playing of such stature. For anyone who loves this composer a compulsory purchase as indeed it is for connoisseurs of the art of playing the violin.

Nick Barnard Read


This set of the Hungarian Dances was made in 1998, when Shumsky would have been eighty-one, and it demonstrates that he retained that fabled technique almost to the very end. He died in 2000. As with so many other MusicMasters discs on Nimbus recording details such as this are sketchy, to say the least, and we can’t be sure as to the recording location(s) involved. (see below)The acoustic is a touch billowy for my taste, and there was, from the sound of it, more than one session involved to tape the entire set of twenty-one. Still – what playing!

I needn’t reprise my admiration for the violinist but shall register, once again, my disappointment that more of his London concerts were not preserved. His Barbican Elgar Concerto was astonishingly good. Equally evidence does exist of his Brahms Concerto – you can see the film on YouTube – and the sonatas have recently been released by Nimbus, which means that his Brahms discography is now happily extended one way or another. Let’s also not forget the fabled Primrose Quartet recording of the Op.67 Quartet; Shumsky was the first violinist in that august foursome.

Richness of tone, timbral variety, sleights of bowing sophistication, rapidity of expressive gestures, a kaleidoscopic control of rubati, and an ethos of absolute conviction mark out these performances. Sample the masculine traversal of the First in G minor to savour its passionate climax. Or try the control and relinquishment and re-establishment of the metric pulse in the succeeding D minor with its elements of pathos as well as its bristling projection. All these are characterised with commanding eloquence. The noble patina of the Fourth in B minor with Shumsky’s pleading effusions and whistling insouciance spiced with melancholy, attests to an all-round encapsulation of these little emotional dramas. In the famous Fifth he evinces fire and energy. In the no-less attractive Seventh in A major we find droll raillery dispatched with nonchalant elegance and variegated tone; charm in abundance. The Tenth is a kind of Hungarian hoe-down spiced with knowing rubati by Shumsky and his able collaborator Frank Maus. The subtle evocations of the D minor (No.11) are duly explored whilst the youthful brimstone of the G minor (No.16) respond finely to the undiminished fire of the veteran fiddler. There is pathos in the Magyar-Semitic caste of No.17, and sonorous expressivity in No.20 in D minor. The pirouetting and effortless sounding E minor brings home the goods in resounding style.

I hadn’t encountered these performances before, which makes their appearance here so welcome a surprise. And surprises of this kind can’t come along too often.
Jonathan Woolf

Adrian Farmer of Nimbus adds:

The recording of the Brahms Hungarian Dances were made in the ballroom studio at Wyastone Leys by Nimbus. The two day session proved to be the last recordings Shumsky made with us. I don't have an exact date to hand, because we have no documents relating to the session in the files, but late 1980s would be about right. Prior to release our wonderful but often stormy relationship with Oscar came to an end and we gave him the Brahms tapes as a parting gesture of goodwill. He passed them to MusicMasters, and through this circular route, 20 years on, they have found their way home to Wales. I produced all of Oscar's Nimbus sessions and never ceased to marvel at his consumate command of the instrument. The session that most stays with me was the first - the Ysaye Solo Sonatas NI 5039 - he simply stood, relaxed and motionless and delivered these monstrously diffcult pieces with no apparent strain and with very little request for help from the editor's razorblade. He was a master.




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