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Gary Lemco
Audiophile Audition, August 2009

Once described by virtuoso Nathan Milstein as “the greatest American-trained violinist,” Joseph Fuchs (1899–1997) became a major force in American violin pedagogy and chamber music ensemble, even commissioning the Second Violin Concerto by Walter Piston. In 1952 he and Artur Balsam (1906–1994) embarked on the full Beethoven sonata series for the American Decca label (DL-150), a rare opportunity for enthusiasts to savor the elegant tone of his 1722 “Cadiz” Stradivarius when applied to the wonderful staples of the repertoire. The brisk linear directness of approach strikes us as disarmingly modern, with no trace of “romantic” rhetoric or distracting mannerisms.

The sparkling éclat of the opening D Major Sonata carries with it a freshness that consistently engages us, high intelligence focused on high art. The lightness and flexibility of touch and articulation becomes even more evident in the opening of the A Major Sonata, the bow bouncing gingerly as the musical line extends and enchants us. The stop-on-the-dime accuracy of the attacks, dynamics poised between mezzo-forte and piano, suggests the level of sheer mechanical fluency of the two principals. The vibrancy of Fuchs’s sweet tone was already legendary when  he performed as concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra under Rodzinski. Because the softer dynamics enjoy such a sonorous projection, there is no need of either performer to thrust unnecessary volume upon the music, so the (salon) intimacy of the ensemble never suffers emotional compromise.  The musical line of the Andante: piu tosto allegretto”, fragile as it, emerges like some exquisite porcelain or jade statuary that alchemy brings to precious life. The music-box perfection of the last movement of the A Major, “Allegro piacevole”, never becomes so delicate as to rob Beethoven of his expressive force.

The E-flat Sonata, on the other hand, lifts the bravura aspect of the partnership up a notch: already Beethoven has transformed the medium favored by Mozart into a more expressive and dramatic encounter. Balsam, too, enjoys a brilliant series of runs and rhetorical flourishes that bespeak his own virtuosity. Together the duo provides us a gem in the Adagio, marked by Beethoven to be played with great expression; he does not explicitly call for “poise”, but that is exactly what Fuchs and Balsam deliver in transparent waves of sound. The buoyancy, the aerial brio, of the last movement may well have collectors favorably comparing Fuchs to Milstein himself for musical and technically impeccable execution.

With the A Minor Sonata, Beethoven enters his violin world into the sturm und drang movement, the two instruments aggressive, often in heated debate. Some commentators have mentioned “the quickness of repartee”, especially in that Beethoven utilizes a two-note motif, two legato eighth notes rising or descending by a half step. The second movement, Andante scherzoso, employs some strict counterpoint between the instruments, as though a truce had been called. Balsam displays his diaphanous trill, while Fuchs proceeds by half steps to another section of counterpoint, only a step away from the texture of a string quartet. The rather dark hue of the last movement more than points to Mendelssohn for speed and color: try the opening of Mendelssohn’s second trio, Op. 66.  When the fur flies in the development of this rondo-sonata movement, hold onto your musical hats. Remastering of the original Deccas, inscribed at the Pythian Temple, New York, has been scrupulously cleaned up by Marian and Victor Ledin, an obvious labor of love.

Rob Cowan
Gramophone, December 2008

Collaborations of sweetness and musical poetry

Among the less predicted delights of Naxos’s “historical” series is a set of Beethoven’s violin sonatas with Joseph Fuchs (who died in March 1997, just a few weeks short of his 98th birthday) and Artur Balsam at the piano, which is now two-thirds available. The nearest violinist to Fuchs in terms of style is Szymon Goldberg. Both players favoured a profoundly classical approach and both produced a warm, often sweet sound which never lapsed into sentimentality or called excessively on such expressive devices as vibrato or slides, which are always tastefully applied. Balsam was an evident soul-mate for Fuchs, musically speaking, and the first two volumes of Naxos’s survey cover Sonatas Nos 1–4 and 5–7, respectively.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, October 2008

These are the first two volumes in what will be a three CD conspectus – available singly – of the first complete LP cycle of the Beethoven Violin Sonatas [Vol 1 8.111251, Vol 2 8.111252]. American Decca chose that stalwart musician, Warsaw-born Artur Balsam as the pianist. He’d already accompanied Milstein and was to be more famous as Menuhin’s partner, though he partnered the elite of the string playing profession over the years; Goldberg, Francescatti and Szigeti among many.  The violinist, Joseph Fuchs, was born in 1899 and was seven years Balsam’s senior. For much of his career he was known as an important concertmaster, initially at Cleveland. He was first violinist in the Primrose Quartet after Shumsky’s departure and formed a well-known duo with his sister, violist Lillian. They were renowned for their performance of the Sinfonia Concertante and for inspiring Martinů’s Three Madrigals.

The Fuchs-Balsam duo combined what sleeve note writer Tully Potter characterises as ‘virtuoso-conscious New World taste, along with a touch of Old World graciousness.’ The extent to which one goes along with that statement is the extent to which one will enjoy the performances. The seven sonatas enshrined in these two discs share consonant qualities; instrumental finesse, a good sense of tempo relations, fine ensemble. The E flat major [No.3] has a gracefully phrased opening movement and a buoyant finale. Its slow movement is quite subtly coloured by Fuchs, with some clean and modern sounding expressive finger position changes. The corollary is that it can sound rather sleek and for all the adroit musicality the rather fast vibrato tends to limit optimum colour.

The Spring Sonata shares these qualities. When I first played it I thought it sounded uncommonly fast but it’s the nature of the accenting and the quickness of the rhythmic corners being turned that leads one to think so. It’s actually a good, well-chosen tempo. Again though, in the end, one’s pleasure in the athleticism and clear eyed pragmatism of the performances is slightly vitiated by something a little too unyielding in Fuchs’s tone. There’s a lack of real tonal breadth and for all the collegiate association, that’s a constant of the performance. The A major [No.6] is polished but emotively a little reserved. Fuchs’s sound, whilst certainly exciting and vibrant can tend toward the one dimensional in terms strictly of colour. The result is that the slow movements in particular can sound a little starved of variety and also of characterisation. The C minor [No.7] is properly assertive and theatrical, dynamic and outward looking, but once more the basic sound is a little tense, and fortes can sound razory to the point of shrillness. 

I can’t comment meaningfully on the quality of the engineering as I’ve never heard the Deccas from which these transfers derive. It sounds broadly unproblematic. These discs constitute two-thirds of a pioneering LP set, which has long been absent. Its restoration is welcome but recommendation will depend on the specialisation of one’s tastes.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2008

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.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group