Berl Senofsky Astounds in Newly-Released Recital


BERL SENOFSKY IN CONCERT AT EXPO ’58 BRUSSELS / RAVEL: Pièce en Forme de Habanera. BARTÓK: Roumanian Dances (arr. Székely). RACHMANINOFF: Vocalise. YSAŸE: Sonata No. 6 in E, Op. 27, N0. 6. CRESTON: Suite for Violin and Piano, Op. 19. WIENIAWSKI: Grand Duo Polonaise. BACH: Partita No. 2 in D minor: Chaconne. BRAHMS: Violin Sonata No. 2 in A: III. Allegretto grazioso; Hungarian Dance No. 7 / Berl Senofsky, violin; Maria Louise Bastyns, piano / Bridge 9470 (mono, live: October 6, 1958)

The name of Berl Senofsky (1928-2002) was once a quite famous one among violin enthusiasts if not among the general public. The reason was that, despite a very busy career spanning the late 1940s through the early 1970s, Senofsky barely made any commercial records, and that was what most non-expert music lovers went by. Why? Well, because unlike pianists, who always seem to have a market in the recording industry, the major labels were very stingy in promoting violinists. Even Mischa Elman, once a top name in the 1910s and early 1920s, was left to flounder in the 1950s and ‘60s though he was still playing beautifully. But he was considered old-hat by then. The big names were Heifetz, Menuhin, Stern, Oistrakh and Francescatti—and ironically, Oistrakh, Menuhin and Francescatti were the very judges who awarded Senofsky the coveted Queen Elizabeth Prize in 1955. He was the only American to ever win that prestigious competition, yet he continued to concertize without much promotion from recordings. In this respect, he suffered almost as dreadful a fate as another great American violinist of the past, Albert Spalding.

Luckily, there exist a slew of live performances by Senofsky, including a stereo broadcast of the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Boston Symphony conducted by Pierre Monteux (you can listen to it here), and this CD is yet another issue to bolster the slim Senofsky discography. I have to admit that, prior to getting this release, I had heard the name but not the musician, so this was my first exposure to him. He possessed a very sweet tone and played in a manner that is not at all acceptable nowadays: a continuous vibrato is used and, moreover, it is a relatively prominent and noticeable vibrato, not quite fast enough to pass by the ear scarcely noticed. Of course, in the 1950s and ‘60s this was not merely acceptable but highly sought among violinists, but nowadays we tend to prefer the much leaner, less noticeable vibrato of such older fiddlers as Joseph Szigeti and Heifetz than of Menuhin or Francescatti. A good example of what I mean is his performance here of Bartók’s Roumanian Dances in the transcription by Zoltan Székely. Listening to Szigeti play with Barók at the piano, one hears a lean, almost abrasive-sounding violin tone, much closer to folk music fiddlers than trained, sophisticated classical musicians (Szigeti played the same way in everything, however, not just Bartók), whereas with Senofsky you never escape the very regular but also quite noticeable vibrato. It was what made his tone “sweet.” Moreover, you also hear it in Ravel’s Piece en Forme de Habanera and Rachmaninov’s famed Vocalise. It is welcome in the latter piece but not necessarily the first; though elegantly phrased, one hears in one’s mind’s ear the leaner sound of such French violinists as, say, Jacques Thibaud or Henry Merckel.

Yet, oddly, in other works Senofsky either quickens his vibrato considerably or eliminates it entirely, as in the Ysaÿe Sonata No. 6 or the outer movements of Paul Creston’s excellent Suite for Violin and Piano. Possibly because these are more “modern” works in harmonic and melodic construction? Hard to tell from such a small sample size, but I very much enjoyed his playing in them. (I should also add that I liked his interpretation of the Bartók pieces despite his sweeter, less folk-like tone.) In the slow second movement of the Creston, in fact, with its more lyrical, quasi-romantic expression, the vibrato returns. For me this was not an issue; I grew up with violinists who played with vibrato, and in fact I often bristle at their modern counterparts; but I can understand where younger listeners, raised on straight tone or near-straight tone in their violin soloists, would question Senofsky’s aesthetics. There is never any question, however, that Senofsky is not “inside” the music at all times, and that, much more than mechanics, is what I listen for in any classical soloist.

His performance of the Wieniawski Grand Duo Polonaise gives us, perhaps, the best window into Senofsky’s musical mind. The music is played with his now-customary sweet tone and vibrato; he has all the refinements one looks for in this piece, including those little grupetti or grace notes that he tosses off so insouciantly; but what he does not do is to drown the music in pathos or bathos, as so many earlier Romantic violinists did. There is a particularly wide-awake quality to his interpretation here, one might say a bit of muscle in the candy bowl, that lifts the music above the level of a concert bon bon and gives it integrity. It is an astounding performance.

With Bach’s unaccompanied “Chaconne” from the Partita No. 2, we get—as in some of the modern works—a much faster, less noticeable vibrato in the tradition of, say, Heifetz or Menuhin playing Bach. What makes the performance sound old-school is not so much the vibrato as the phrasing: rounded and smooth, with a perfectly-controlled legato that just sings and sings some more, as opposed to today’s method of turning Bach into musical Chop Suey. Hmm…I think I prefer Senofsky’s way with it! (Violin lovers: also see my review of Mark Kaplan’s remarkable recent set of the Violin Sonatas and Partitas on Bridge.)

The recital ends with what seem to be encores, the third movement of the Brahms Sonata No. 2 and the Hungarian Dance No. 7, where Senofsky is very much in his element. I might add that there’s a certain Bronislaw Huberman-like quality to his playing of Brahms; it has unexpected introspection and an almost Gypsy swagger about it. As for his accompanist on this occasion, Bastyns is a fine pianist who obviously worked hard with Senofsky to mirror his expression in each piece. Being Belgian, she is not quite as well known to Americans as she should be, but in her long career (she is now 82) she has had much success, particularly in Europe, Latin America and Asia as well as a few stops in the U.S., often as part of a piano duo with her husband, Fausto Zadra. This is, quite, simply, a wonderful release and a revelation to those of us who are now just discovering this wonderful musician’s playing.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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