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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, September 2008

Never seeking popular acclaim, Joseph Fuchs was regarded as one of the most perceptive violinists of his time, this first LP recording of the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas being his major achievement on disc.

Born in New York in 1899, he passed through the days of an infant prodigy to become the Concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra. A fall led to the loss of use in his left-hand fingers, and only through an experimental operation, followed a long period of rehabilitation, was he again able to play. Wishing to avoid the constant demands of orchestral life, he concentrated on solo work and teaching, that combination extending his career through to the age of 93. He made few recordings, but in 1952 was asked by American Decca to place the Beethoven Violin Sonatas on disc. Initially released for the US market, they eventually arrived in Europe on the Brunswick label, and were generally regarded as the new performing benchmark. Maybe his fast vibrato and honeyed tone is a throwback to playing of a previous generation, but the affection he brings to the ‘Spring’ Sonata is typical of his endearing musicianship. His elegant legato playing created long flowing lines to the slow movement, while the final Rondo is full of joy. Always technically immaculate, those same characteristics are carried over into the Sixth and Seventh Sonatas that complete the disc. His pianist, Artur Balsam, was a Beethoven exponent of distinction, and was more than an equal partner, bringing an inner strength around which Fuchs could weave a web of musical decoration. You do have to adjust your ears to the rather constricted sound, but the transfers from immaculate original pressings are of outstanding quality.

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