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Reprinted with permission from Fanfare Magazine.

Mozart: Sonatas for Violin and Piano - Oscar Shumsky, Artur Balsam REVIEW

Mozart: Sonatas for Violin and Piano - Oscar Shumsky, Artur Balsam REVIEW

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MOZART: Sonatas for Violin and Plano

Oscar Shumsky, Violin; Artur Balsam, Piano


In every way this is a magnificent set. Among Mozart's instrumental music, these sonatas are often overshadowed by his concertos, symphonies, quartets, and quintets. Yet they abound in marvels and expressive intensity that are clearly products of the same far-reaching creative imagination and sophisticated artistic control. Nearly all the qualities that contribute to Mozart's greatness exist in these works-- rich, almost sensual melody, harmonic daring, chromatic shadings that are at once bold and graceful, and motifs pregnant with developmental possibilities that are fully realized. Still, with all their variety, these sonatas have a seeming ease and poise that stem from Mozart's ability to express the most sophisticated musical idea in the most simple terms. There is, for example, a remarkable passage in the first movement exposition of K. 378 in which the tonality glides swiftly through a series of keys without resolving on (or in) any of them. It is as if we are passengers on a musical spaceship, unfettered by harmonic gravity; we move along through a kind of cosmos, but do it so easily, we are almost unaware of any motion. Then there is the slow movement of K. 481, which, after its simple song-like beginning, grows dark and complex with a rich chromaticism and an alternation of major and minor tonalities that foreshadows Schubert. Or there is the magnificent opening of K. 306 with its simple violin arpeggios counterpointed to the grandiose broken chords of the piano, a counterpointing that suggests the large-scaled pomp of Mozart's Paris Symphony (K. 297). And one could go on citing what seems like an almost endless string of creative miracles.


Clearly such music makes extraordinary demands on performers, not necessarily in technical matters (although many passages are quite demanding technically), but in purely musical matters, for these sonatas require an intellectual and emotional response that will clarify their infinite variety. More than any other performers I have heard, Shumsky and Balsam accomplish this. Among other violinists who have recorded these works, Shumsky comes closest to Szigeti. like Szigeti he reveals the motific structure of the music and italicizes its harmonic movement. Both violinists achieve this clarification and emphasis with a biting, acerbic tone that neither excessively prettifies melodies nor glosses over significant passages. But Shumsky, unlike Szigeti at the late stage of his career when he recorded this music, has far greater control both of his bow and of his left hand so that one can listen to his playing without suffering the occasional will-he­make-it anxiety one experiences in listening to Szigeti. Indeed, Shumsky suggests a younger Szigeti, the Szigeti at the height of his powers in the thirties. Balsam is equally accomplished. In the many pass­ages in which the two performers are exchanging parts, Balsam takes the lead when necessary, becoming at other times the perfect accompanist. He eschews excessive pedal, thus giving individual lines a clarity and his tone a dryness that are wholly appropriate. And, like Shumsky, he is a master of suggesting the dramatic undercurrent that ripples through so many of these sonatas.


By any standards this is an extra­ordinary album. It offers, by the way, more music than Szigeti's "complete"set, including some minor unfinished sonatas and two sets of variations for violin and piano. Those who already own recordings of Mozart's violin and piano sonatas or think they know the music well owe it to themselves to hear this one. Those looking for the ideal stereo recording (Szigeti's is in mono) need look no further, for that recording has arrived.




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