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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN, L. van: Violin Sonatas (Complete), Vol. 1 (Fuchs, Balsam) - Nos. 1-4 (1952)
Described by Nathan Milstein as ‘the greatest American-trained violinist’, Joseph Fuchs had an immensely long career, continuing to give recitals at Carnegie Hall until he was 93. He was a soloist with every major American orchestra and made many important recordings, including the concertos by Hindemith and Vaughan Williams, as well as Mozart’s G major and Sinfonia concertante. For many years Fuchs had a duo with the pianist Artur Balsam with whom he made several recordings, including the Beethoven Violin Sonatas of which this disc forms the first of three volumes. Apart from being the first complete cycle on the new vinyl medium, this one set a high standard in quality of both recording and performance. In his review of the original LP release in the December 21, 1952 New York Times Harold C Schonberg wrote: “Fuchs and Balsam make a magnificent team… Both instrumentalists scorn effects of a superficial nature and probe directly to the music’s bone.These are strong, powerful, thoughtful performances that have the added virtue of being technically impeccable”.
By David Denton
Joseph Fuchs was regarded by other violinists as one of the most thoughtful musicians of his time, his long relationship with the pianist, Artur Balsam, creating this recording of the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas.
Born in New York in 1899, his career began in the bizarre circumstances of his parents being advised that their three-year-old son’s broken arm could be strengthened by playing the violin. Three years later it was realised he was a major infant prodigy. Yet that was not the end of the story, as in his thirties, and at a time when he was the Concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, he began to lose the use of his fingers, a chip of bone from that fall affecting the nerves leading to his fingers. A risky and experimental operation was followed by a very extended period of musical rehabilitation and retraining, Fuchs eventually decided to concentrate on solo work and teaching. It was a decision that took his career through to the age of 93. In that second stage he was to play with the great American orchestras, often championing concertos by lesser-known composers, though compared with other famous violinists he made few recordings. In 1952 he was asked to record this complete set of Beethoven Violin Sonatas for American Decca, the first cycle of the LP era. They were to demonstrate his innate musicianship, the long flowing melodic lines coloured by a tight and fast vibrato that warmed his elegant legato playing. Technically very assured, intonation in the centre of every note, the performances often creating drama. His partner also enjoyed a major solo career, and with Beethoven offering the keyboard so much activity, there is a combined strength in their playing. Try the happy opening to the Second Sonata (track 4) to sample the quality of playing, and while the sound needs your ears to adjust to the rather constricted quality, the transfer from immaculate original pressings is of outstanding quality. In sum these are performances you will be happy to return to.
Great Violinists • Joseph Fuchs (1899-1997)
BEETHOVEN: Complete Violin Sonatas • 1
My father, Joseph Fuchs, started playing the violin at four years old, quite literally by accident. When he was three, while playing with a friend, he fell off the family’s kitchen table and broke his left arm. When the cast came off, the arm was weak, and his doctor recommended that the boy take violin lessons to strengthen it. By the time he was six he was recognized as a prodigy, and was given a full scholarship to the Institute of Musical Art, today the Juilliard School, from which he graduated with highest honors at nineteen.
In his mid-thirties, towards the end of his twelveyear tenure as Concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, my father began to suffer a strange numbness in his left hand. In the midst of a performance he would sometimes be forced to play with only two fingers because the others would not respond. Soon he entirely lost the use of his fifth finger. Cleveland doctors were mystified, but finally, a New York neurologist concluded that a bone chip from the childhood fall was impinging on the ulnar nerve. The doctor told my father that an experimental “nerve transplant” operation to move the nerve from the back of the arm to the front was the only chance to prevent an imminent paralysis of the left hand.
I only understood the full story of the accident and its aftermath as a young adult, when I questioned my father about the long, vivid scar along his elbow, as well as the almost translucent web of skin between his thumb and index finger where muscle had atrophied, replaced by highly developed muscle elsewhere.
The doctors had warned him that the operation might not succeed, he told me, but not that he would need to retrain himself to play the violin if it did succeed. It took a year of persistent, arduous practicing to restore full strength and dexterity to his left arm. After his recovery he made a decision to seek a wider musical life. He returned to New York to launch the solo performance, recording, and teaching careers for which he is best remembered today.
Just as the original accident ignited my father’s career, its sequel, with its severe demands for retraining and the lifelong habits it re-enforced of continuous practice, may have played a rôle in his astonishingly long musical life. At 89 he offered a New York recital program composed entirely of difficult contemporary works. At his ninetieth birthday he was interviewed on television and radio as a rare example of the working nonagenarian. At 93, an age at which, as his greatnephew, a physician, joked, it would be a feat for most people to even get to Carnegie Hall, he gave his last Carnegie Hall recital. At 97, though in failing health, he continued to teach from home. One day, I listened in as he coached a Juilliard student and his accompanist in their performance of a Beethoven sonata. At one point in the first movement he clapped his hands to stop them. My father, whose memory of the violin literature was legendary, called out to the pianist, “There’s a Bflat missing in the left hand!”
The story is told of a wealthy American who went to the dentist. ‘You need a tooth filled,’ he was informed. ‘Would you like a local anaesthetic?’ To which he replied: ‘No, give me the imported one – I can afford it.’ Unfortunately the same attitude applied to violinists in America, particularly after Jascha Heifetz made his New York début in 1917. Already in the thrall of one Russian fiddler, Mischa Elman, American concert-goers decided en masse that there was something special about players from Odessa, Moscow or St Petersburg. Nathan Milstein found a ready market when he went to the United States; and after World War II, David Oistrakh and Leonid Kogan proved that the Russian school was still vibrant. Isaac Stern was all right – though trained in San Francisco, he had been born in Russia and his teacher was Russian. But where did all this leave the violinists who were born as well as trained in America? Joseph Fuchs, whom Nathan Milstein called ‘the greatest American-trained violinist’, was one of several superb home-bred artists who had to work hard to make their ‘voices’ heard above the hubbub of the Jaschas, Sashas, Mischas and Toschas (others were Oscar Shumsky, Felix Slatkin and – happily still with us – Aaron Rosand).
Born in New York City on 26 April 1899, Joseph Philip Fuchs came from a profoundly musical family: father Philip was an amateur violinist, sister Lillian (1902–95) was a superb violist and brother Harry (1908–86) an excellent cellist. Joseph had his first lessons at four from his father – therapy suggested by a doctor after the boy had broken his left arm – and then studied at the Institute of Musical Art (now the Juilliard School) with Louis Svecenski (1862–1926), who had been violist of the Kneisel Quartet. In due course Fuchs graduated to the class of Franz Kneisel (1865–1926), who represented the best of the Viennese school. Born in Bucharest of German parentage, Kneisel was taught at the Vienna Conservatory by Jakob Grün and Joseph Hellmesberger and moved to America in 1885 to lead the Boston Symphony, also founding his celebrated Quartet. As chamber musician, soloist, conductor and teacher, he had an incalculable influence on music in America.
Joseph Fuchs’s career was to bear an uncanny resemblance to that of his teacher, although to the occupations of concertmaster, chamber musician and teacher he added a soloist’s reputation. Graduating in 1918, in 1919 he made his first trip to Europe, meeting Busoni. On 12 November 1920 he made a successful home début at the Aeolian Hall in New York, critics writing of ‘artistic finish of style’, ‘musical intelligence’, ‘brilliancy and dash’ and ‘one of the most gifted young violinists who has appeared recently before this public’. In 1926 he became concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra and the Cleveland Quartet, displaying his prowess with a performance of the Brahms Concerto under the orchestra’s chief conductor Nikolai Sokoloff and attracting this comment: ‘He produces one of the most beautiful tones to emanate from a violin on a local stage for a long time.’ Three recorded souvenirs of this period are his solos on Artur Rodzinski’s recordings of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben and Till Eulenspiegel. In the late 1930s his career was almost ended by repercussions from his childhood injury, but he made a full recovery. Resigning in 1940 to give himself more time for solo work, Fuchs became an essential part of the New York scene. In 1941 he took over leadership of the Primrose Quartet from Shumsky – this ensemble sadly disbanded in 1943. In 1945 he gave the première of the concerto by Nikolai Lopatnikoff; and he and Lillian gave their first performance of Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante, which became one of their ‘signature’ pieces, along with the composer’s two Duos. Early in 1947, Fuchs and William Kroll founded the Musicians’ Guild, which presented first-rate programmes of chamber music for eleven seasons. The inaugural concert featured Bohuslav Martinů’s String Sextet, with the composer present – and hearing Joseph and Lillian Fuchs play Mozart’s B flat Duo in the same programme, Martinů was inspired to write his beautiful Three Madrigals for them: they gave the première of the pieces later that year. Among other works introduced by Joseph Fuchs were the concertos by Ben Weber, Mario Peragallo and Walter Piston.
Fuchs, who played on the 1722 ‘Cádiz’ Stradivarius, had an immensely long career, continuing to give recitals at Carnegie Hall until he was 93. He toured a good deal, appearing at the 1953 and 1954 Casals Festivals in Prades as well as in other European centres, South America, the Soviet Union, Israel and Japan. By the end of his life he had been a soloist with every American orchestra worth mentioning. Among his recordings were the concertos by Hindemith and Vaughan Williams, as well as Mozart’s Concerto in G major and three versions of the Sinfonia concertante with Lillian – one of them live, with Pablo Casals conducting. The Mozart Duos were recorded twice, the Martinů Madrigals once. In 1946 he became a professor at the Juilliard School – a post he kept until his death – and he was soon regarded as an important teacher whose career spanned 41 years well into his nineties.
In 1953 Fuchs was appointed professor of music at Yale University – a position he held until 1959. In honour of his own teacher, he helped to found the chamber music school Kneisel Hall in Blue Hill, Maine, where he taught from 1953 to 1968. He then founded the University of Maine School of Music in nearby Orono, Maine, where he taught for 21 years. Finally, in 1981, the Orono School moved to Alfred University in New York State where Fuchs was Artistic Director of the Summer Chamber Music Institute until he was 94. For his summer contributions to these institutions, he was awarded doctorates by the University of Maine and Alfred University. Fuchs died on 14 March 1997.
For many years Fuchs had a duo with the pianist Artur Balsam – in 1969 they introduced the revised version of Vaughan Williams’s Sonata to America and their recordings included the sonatas by Franck, Fauré (No.1), Strauss and Piston. Balsam was from the Polish school that gave us Chopin, Hofmann, Neuhaus, Artur Rubinstein, Friedman, Malcuzynski, Czerny-Stefanska and Zimerman among others. Born in Warsaw on 8 February 1906, he studied at the Lódz Conservatory – making his début in that city in 1918 – and the Berlin Hochschule; in 1930 he won the Mendelssohn Prize. In 1938 he began accompanying Nathan Milstein and in 1940 he followed the violinist to America. Among other string players he partnered were Busch, Francescatti, Goldberg, Menuhin, Morini, Nelsova, Shumsky and Szigeti. He appeared regularly with the Budapest Quartet. Balsam recorded all the piano sonatas by Haydn and Mozart; the violin sonatas by Mozart and Brahms (in addition to this Beethoven set); and the Beethoven cello sonatas. He was a member of the Albeneri Trio from 1960. Co-founder of Kneisel Hall, he followed Joseph Fuchs to Orono for two years, then returned to Kneisel Hall. His distinguished summer teaching career of 39 years also included spells at the Eastman School and the Manhattan School in his home town of New York, as well as the Philadelphia Music Academy and the University of Maine. He died in New York City on 1 September 1994.
The lovely recordings of which this disc forms the first volume were made in 1952 in New York for the American Decca label and issued on five LP discs. Over the course of several months in 1954 they were issued in Britain on the Brunswick label; and they stayed in the catalogue for a decade. Apart from being the first integral cycle on the new vinyl medium, this one set a high standard in quality of both recording and performance. At more than half a century’s distance, the style of the playing seems not at all old-fashioned: it has all the polish required by the virtuoso-conscious New World taste, along with a touch of Old World graciousness. It is a fine memorial to two exceptional artists.
Producers and Audio Restoration Engineers: Marina and Victor Ledin; Restoration Mastering Engineer: Anthony Casuccio
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