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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN, L. van: Violin Sonatas (Complete), Vol. 3 (Fuchs, Balsam) - Nos. 8-10 (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 last 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
The third and final installment in the critically acclaimed first LP recording of the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas made in the early 1950’s by Joseph Fuchs and Artur Balsam.
Born in New York in 1899, Fuchs was regarded by his colleagues as one of the most musically intelligent and perceptive violinists of his time. Having become the distinguished Concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, a fall was to bring about a loss in the use in his left-hand fingers, and only through an experimental operation was he able to play again. His return to the stage, after a long period of rehabilitation, brought about a change of career that now concentrated on solo work and teaching. It was a highly successful combination, and an invitation by American Decca to place the Beethoven Violin Sonatas on the new format of vinyl disc brought a major contribution to the catalogue. Initially released in the US market, they afterwards appeared in Europe on the Brunswick label, and were at the time to set a performing benchmark. The final three sonatas are typical of his style, his honeyed tone creating long smooth phrases in playing of total refinement. A highly affectionate view of the Eighth, with its gracious Minuet, has never been surpassed, but the ‘Kreutzer’ is heavily compromised by intonation problems that beset the fast moving variations of the second movement, and you can feel Balsam fitting the accompaniment around this rhythmic unease. That radiant final sonata brings the piano to the fore, Balsam confirming his distinguished Beethoven credentials, Fuchs happy when musically dancing around the piano part. The sound quality in the ‘Kreutzer’ tends to match the uneasy performance, but moves to a higher level for the final sonata, the transfers made from original pressings of outstanding quality.
Great Violinists • Joseph Fuchs (1899–1997)
BEETHOVEN: Complete Violin Sonatas • 3
My father, Joseph Fuchs, started playing the violin at the age of four, 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 twelve-year 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 B flat missing in the left hand!”
Beethoven’s most famous violin piece should have come down to us as the Bridgetower Sonata, as the composer wrote it for himself to play with the Polish-born, half African, half Polish virtuoso violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (1778–1860). A former child prodigy, Bridgetower spent much of his career in England and for some time was in royal employ. In 1802 he was given leave to visit his Polish mother in Dresden and in the spring of 1803 he arrived in Vienna with a sheaf of letters of introduction. Beethoven took from his bottom drawer the superb finale that he had originally intended for his ‘Little A major’ Sonata, but had shelved, thinking it too showy. Now he wrote two equally brilliant virtuoso movements to go with it and Bridgetower managed to rehearse and (on 24 May) perform the new A major Sonata, reading the composer’s appalling script over his shoulder. During rehearsal Beethoven was so delighted by an idea Bridgetower improvised that he wrote it into the score. He even drafted a humorous dedication: ‘Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto Brischdauer, gran pazzo e compositore mulattico’ (Mulattic sonata composed for the mulatto Bridgetower, great madman and mulattic composer). But, as so often happened with the changeable German, things went sour—Bridgetower claimed they fell out ‘over a girl’—and the sonata ended up being dedicated to the French fiddler Rodolphe Kreutzer, who never played it. The work was so obviously virtuosic that a tradition grew up whereby famous violinists trotted it out in recitals, with accompanists playing the piano part tamely. On record the work began to be taken seriously when the great Polish virtuosi Bronisław Huberman and Ignacy Friedman set down their joint interpretation. They were followed by the equally fiery Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin and the more equable Georg Kulenkampff and Wilhelm Kempff. But even in 1949 Jascha Heifetz rejected a recording because Benno Moiseiwitsch was ‘too loud’ (i.e. realistically balanced); and the remade version went back to the piano-in-the-next-room syndrome. Those distinguished artists Joseph Fuchs and Artur Balsam produced the first properly balanced ‘Kreutzer’ of the long-playing era, tempering their brilliance to restore its Classical outlines. Although their approach is now accepted practice, listeners should still find it invigorating.
The violinist Joseph Philip Fuchs, born in New York City on 26 April 1899, was part of 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.
The career of Joseph Fuchs 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 and playing the Brahms Concerto in Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin. 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 leader of the Cleveland Orchestra and the Cleveland Quartet, displaying his prowess by performing the Brahms Concerto under the orchestra’s chief conductor Nikolai Sokoloff. ‘He produces one of the most beautiful tones to emanate from a violin on a local stage for a long time’, a critic wrote. Three recorded souvenirs of this period are his solos on Artur Rodzinski’s recordings of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben and Till Eulenspiegel and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade—after hearing the latter, the conductor telegraphed to his agent: ‘FUCHS SOLOS JUST A DREAM’. In the late 1930s the violinist’s 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 Oscar Shumsky—this ensemble sadly disbanded in 1943. In 1945 he gave the première of Nikolai Lopatnikoff’s concerto; 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 Carnegie Hall recitals 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 G major Concerto 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. In 1953 he was appointed professor of music at Yale University, a position he held until 1959. In the same year Fuchs was a co-founder, with the violist Marianne Kneisel and Artur Balsam, of the summer chamber music school Kneisel Hall in Blue Hill, Maine, established in honour of Franz Kneisel on the site of Kneisel’s own summer school decades earlier. In 1981 Fuchs founded the summer chamber music institute at Alfred University in Alfred, New York, where he was Artistic Director until 1994. He died on 14 March 1997.
For many years Fuchs had a duo with 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. Born in Warsaw on 8 February 1906, he studied with Lewandowski at the Lódz Conservatory, making his début in that city with Bach’s D minor Concerto in 1918, and with Curt Börner at the Berlin Hochschule, also taking lessons from Leonid Kreutzer and Artur Schnabel. He won the 1930 Berlin International Piano Competition and the following year took the Mendelssohn Prize for his duo with Roman Totenberg. In 1933 he married Ruth Miller, a fellow Lewandowski pupil. In 1938 he began accompanying Nathan Milstein and in 1940 he and Ruth followed the violinist to America, becoming United States citizens in 1948. Among other string players he partnered were Busch, Francescatti, Garbousova, Goldberg, Menuhin, Morini, Nelsova, Shumsky and Szigeti. Balsam was Toscanini’s orchestral pianist in the mid-1940s and appeared regularly with the Budapest Quartet in the 1950s. He recorded a number of concertos, all the piano sonatas by Haydn and Mozart, the violin sonatas by Mozart and Brahms (as well as this Beethoven set), and the Beethoven cello sonatas. He was a member of the Albeneri Trio from 1960 and taught at the Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester, and the Manhattan School in his home town of New York. He participated in the chamber music summer school at Kneisel Hall for four decades. Having made his last appearance at Carnegie Weill Recital Hall on 14 February 1993, he died in New York City on 1 September 1994.
The lovely recordings on this disc were made in 1952 in New York, as part of a complete cycle, and issued on the Decca Gold Label Series. Over the course of several months in 1954 all ten sonatas were released 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. Apart from the ‘Kreutzer’, this final volume includes the delightful ‘Little G major’, op. 30/3, and Beethoven’s last word on the violin sonata, the ‘Great G major’, op. 96. The manifold problems of these evergreen pieces are solved by Fuchs and Balsam. The ‘Little G major’ can present a slight quandary for interpreters in its central movement: do they emphasise the ‘molto moderato’ or the ‘grazioso’? Significantly it was the only movement ever to give Busch and Serkin trouble, although they quickly found an accommodation—as Fuchs and Balsam clearly did. The ‘Great G major’ is a wonderful contrast to the brilliance of the ‘Kreutzer’: a deeply satisfying piece, it shows Beethoven already attaching importance to the trills which would play such a role in his late period. For Fuchs and Balsam, this sort of music is meat and drink. At more than half a century’s distance, the style of the playing seems not at all old-fashioned: it has the polish required by the virtuoso-conscious New World taste, along with a touch of Old World graciousness. The entire series is a fine memorial to two exceptional artists.
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