Temianka and Shure Rip Through the Beethoven Sonatas

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BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-9 /Henri Temianka, violinist; Leonard Shure, pianist / Doremi DHR-8011-13 (live: Washington, January 28/30, February 1, 1946)

This odd cycle of the Beethoven Violin Sonatas will snap your head back and suck you in like a vortex. They are by far some of the most bracing and uncompromisingly dramatic readings I’ve ever heard, and even the detriment of defective mono sound from private acetates cannot dampen their spirit.

But first, some background, because I’m sure that many readers don’t know who Leonard Shure was and even less (like me) who Henri Temianka was. Temianka was in fact a Polish Jew born in Scotland in 1906 who studied violin with Carel Blitz, Willy Hess and finally with the famed Carl Flesch, who thought him a first-rate fiddler but a “somewhat sleepy personality.” Apparently, Flesch was able to wake up this sleepy personality, because his 1928 New York debut was hailed as the arrival of one of the finest talents in years, and he then toured Europe where he made an equally good impression. In 1935 he took third prize in the first-ever Wieniawski Violin Competition, but if you think third prize wasn’t all that great, look who came ahead of him: David Oistrakh won second prize and Ginette Neveu won first! Temianka premiered Benjamin Britten’s suite for violin and also played Prokofiev’s music with the composer himself at the piano in Moscow. But his “somewhat sleepy personality” drew him to safer jobs, thus he became the concertmaster of the Scottish Orchestra. After a sensational solo debut in Los Angeles (1940), he became the concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony under Fritz Reiner for a couple of years and then worked for the U.S. Office of War Information during World War II, translating and editing sensitive documents (he spoke four languages fluently). He resumed his solo career after the war, of which this series of concerts at the Library of Congress was one of his highlights, and formed the Paganini Quartet in late 1946 which he led for 20 years. He died in 1992.

Leonard Shure (1910-1995) was probably better known in the U.S. because he was an American and had some high-profile recordings issued on the Epic label in the 1950s and ‘60s. He was also the only pianist to study privately with Artur Schnabel and become his personal assistant, following which (1933) he returned to America. He became a fairly busy and well-known performer in both solo recitals and orchestral concerts with many of the best-known conductors of his day (Koussevitzky, Szell, Steinberg, Mitropoulos, Bernstein and Reiner, among others), but during the 1950s turned mostly to teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Mannes School of Music, the University of Texas and Boston University, which is when his star began to wane somewhat. He was much admired and beloved by his pupils, however, many of whom still keep his name alive.

This joint concert between Tamianka and Shure of the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas—playing the full set was still a comparative rarity in 1946—is better known via legend, because the recordings were never issued until 2012 when this set came out. Naxos of America is now distributing it more widely around the world, which is why I chose to review ir.

As mentioned early on, these were acetate recordings made by the Library of Congress for their own collection, much like the way they recorded the live concerts given there by the Coolidge Quartet or by the Nadia Boulanger Singers. These discs were made on a portable recorder made by Presto, a very good home recording device which maintained pitch and, once balanced for sound, captured everything in a fairly realistic manner. What makes the recordings a bit dicey, however, are the occasional moments of “blasting” caused by the violin or the piano—mostly the latter—suddenly playing more loundly than the sound test allowed for. Were these commercial recordings, additional takes would have been made correcting this issue, but these were concerts given on the fly. They had one chance, and only one, to get them down on wax.

That being said, the engineer for this CD release did a very fine job of cleaniong them up so that they are at least palatable to modern ears. And what performances they are! Temianks may indeed have had a somewhat sleepy personality, but Shure was an uptempo kind of guy, thus their collaboration here is very high-energy indeed. Listening to the violinist for the first time, you’ll hear a rich, full tone, not too dissimilar to that of Oistrakh, the man who beat him out for second place in Warsaw. He also exhibited the same sort of vibrato and sweep of phrasing, so much so that at times I was reminded of the set of these sonatas made by Oistrakh with pianist Lev Oborin, except that Oborin was a fairly straightforward, uninteresting pianist whereas Shure is quite obviously the driving artistic force of these performances. It is Shure who directs the pace and flow of the music, Shure who introduces several fascinating moments of rubato in his playing and who accents the music very much as Schnabel himself might have done. Temianka gives his all, he is consistently alive to Shure’s every nuance, but he himself plays in a less nuanced manner.

The bracing tempi, among the closest to Beethoven’s own metronome markings, give tremendous momentum to the music. Certainly they are the peppiest I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard several sets of these sonatas. Like Schnabel himself when he played the piano sonatas, Shure relaxes the tempos somewhat in the slow movements, providing some space and repose between the breathless fast movements. Here, too, we note that Tamianka employed some portamento in his phrasing, never so much as to be obtrusive but certainly more than we’re used to today (which is, most of the time, none). And time and again, Shure’s fertile musical imagination brings something new and fresh to virtually every movement of every sonata, among them the sparkling vitality of the last movements in virtually every sonata (especially No. 2), the extraordinary beauty of the slow movement of the “Kreutzer,” and the ethereal quality of the first movement of Sonata No. 10. A couple of interesting moments come in the middle sonatas. The first movement of the “Spring” Sonata (No. 5) is played with a more straightforward motor rhythm and less lilt than it normally is, and the edition used for the Sonata No. 6 has a few differences in the music I hadn’t heard before.

Now, with all that being said, I find some of the individual sonatas recently issued by Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin more interesting and nuanced, but their “Kreutzer” is a wet noodle and they never did record the entire series. My recommended recording of the complete set is still the vastly-underrated version by violinist Barbara Govatos and pianist Marcantonio Barone (Bridge 9389). Govatos just does so much more with the music in terms of subtle inflection and communication that she eclipses Temianka and nearly equals Menuhin, despite a tone that is less beautiful than either, and Barone is not far behind Shure in his combination of elegance and energy. In addition, the digital stereo sound is superb whereas this set is a bit ragged in places, the violin tone in particularly sounding a little too edgy and scratchy when Temianka got too close to the microphone. Yet as a historic set of these sonatas, this one is certainly up there with the best.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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