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Love is like a Violin
Salon Treasures from the Max Jaffa Library
Simon Blendis (violin), Saoko Blendis (piano)
rec. 2021 Milton Court Concert Hall, Barbican Centre, London

This is a tremendous disc. At first glance it might appear to be a collection of ‘light’ salon pieces for violin and piano, but in fact this represents a major labour of love by the performers Simon Blendis on violin and his wife Saoko Blendis on piano. Together they shine a light on a corner of the repertoire – and indeed a facet of music-making – that has all but been forgotten and lost. Therein lies the true value of this disc; no-one pretends that this is great or important music but it is beautifully crafted, instantly appealing and a delight to listen to. More over it is not easy to play as well as it is here. This is not just a question of technical address but also understanding the genre and the requisite style. Fortunately in the players here there is complete and stylish empathy; absolute technical security allied to a delightfully apt slightly old-fashioned style of playing that fits these pieces like a glove.

A little context regarding the music played here might help. Simon Blendis was given the performing library of the violinist Max Jaffa (1911-1991) around 2019. This included some published arrangements but a lot of unique/manuscript parts prepared for Jaffa’s exclusive use – I really enjoyed the simple but effective arrangements by Jaffa’s pianist Jack Byfield. Jaffa was London born to parents of Russian and Jewish heritage. He was a gold-medal winning student at the Guildhall School of Music and was offered the post of leader of the Scottish Symphony Orchestra at 17. However, it was as leader of the Palm Court Orchestra and his own Trio (with Byfield on piano and Reginald Kilbey on cello) that he became widely known in the UK due to the many radio broadcasts on the BBC he made throughout his 70 year career. There were many other light music violinists but he was pre-eminent. The important thing to bear in mind today is how both the players and the music played were less segregated than it would be today. The ‘light’ players would have the same technical address as the ‘serious’ ones. Worth remembering that players of the stature of Alfredo Campoli, W H Reed and more recently Hugh Bean all played salon music as well as the big concerti. The fact that Jascha Heifetz’s name – arguably the greatest violinist of all time – appears as one of the arrangers (Estrelita – track 13) and Mischa Elman another (Canto Amoroso – track 14) reinforces this sense of ‘equality’ between serious and light. I also remember hearing a story [I think!] that orchestral leaders of the stature of John Bradbury and Richard Stutt cut their performing teeth straight out of college doing summer seasons for Max Jaffa in Scarborough. All of which underlines the fact that light music is a serious business that requires every bit of talent, subtlety and skill as the big warhorse works. Another delightful aspect of this disc is that Blendis plays on Jaffa’s own Peter Guarnerius violin and it sounds glorious – the liner includes a lovely pair of photographs of the two players holding the same instrument.

A further aspect of this disc to celebrate is the service that this pair of players has done preserving these works and continuing their performing tradition. The actual physical preservation of the performing material is hugely important and valuable. So much music was required for live performance and broadcasts by multiple orchestras, soloists and ensembles that a lot was considered as literally disposable by players, composers and arrangers alike. Remember for a minute that at that time – and this is true to this day – the BBC is the single largest employer of musicians and commissioner of music in the UK. Wonderful as it is to acquire such a unique library, the hard part is to find opportunities to have it heard. After all, music does not mean much if it cannot be experienced by an audience. In lockdown the Blendis’ sorted through this archive rediscovering the gems it contained and broadcasting them in online concerts. This CD is the natural progression on from those performances. As Simon Blendis points out in his valuable note, this is not a case of slavishly recreating Jaffa-esque performances. The players have revisited these scores and produced performances of wonderful empathy and nuance – and no little skill. Sensibly they have avoided including the absolute “pops” of the light violin repertoire – so no Massenet Meditation or Elgar Salut. Instead we have a well conceived and cleverly balanced programme of twenty five mainly unfamiliar works. Even when a melody might be well-known – as in The Londonderry Air [track 25] the arrangement – a Byfield gem in this instance - will be unusual.

The repertoire chosen covers the expected range from lyrical/sentimental melodies, through novelties and ‘character’ pieces to a selection of virtuoso display items. The bulk of the latter are in gypsy/Hungarian style and range from the relatively well-known Hejre Kati [track 19] by Hubay to the less familiar Gipsy Carnival [track 15] by Yascha Krein and Jura-Jura [track 3] by Korda-Bakony. This latter is especially intriguing because – as Blendis explains – the title and indeed the composer(s) is/are a complete mystery. Blendis suggests the hyphenated name might indicate two composers. One thing that is certainly true is that composers and performers would often use multiple pseudonyms to match the music they were writing or playing. In my own library I have a Spanish piece composed by the same Phil Green whose own Romance from “The Magic Bow” is beautifully played on this disc [track 20] which is published as having been composed by Don Philippe(!) Several composers’ names will be familiar; Stephen Foster, Pierné, Herbert, Hahn, Gluck and Kreisler to name a few. But many others are all but forgotten. I have never heard of Joe Rixner whose light-hearted Spitzbub [track 22] is an excellent example of a virtuoso novelty – flawlessly tossed off here. I was pleased to see a light work here by Michael Spivakowsky – Addio Firenze [track 21] especially in the light of having been so impressed by his large scale symphony just a couple of months ago. Albert W. Ketèlbey is another name I am always delighted to see and his Dream-idyll is a predictably lovely lyric piece.

I do not intend to go through every single piece presented here – all I will say is that they are all absolutely delightful and quite perfectly played. It is a genuine joy to hear this style of music recreated with such skill and obvious affection. Although the main plaudits will go to Simon Blendis for his effortlessly stylish playing much credit must go too to his wife Saoko Blendis on piano. For the most part the keyboard parts are simply accompaniments in the most literal sense of the word but these still require the player to be alert to every little ebb and flow and harmonic side slip. On the few occasions something more virtuosic is required than Ms Blendis is fully up to the task. She also created the cover design of the CD booklet which is a nostalgic delight in its own right. Credit as well to producer/engineer Mark Rogers who has created a very sympathetic and appropriate environment for this recording. The balance between violin and piano is expertly judged which neither dominating the other. Finally, how refreshing that a label such as Nimbus Alliance is willing to support a release such as this which is going to be something of a niche release – albeit one of the highest quality.

I would like to think that selections from this disc will be picked up by radio stations looking for delightful miniatures to fill out their programming. By its nature, this is not the kind of disc that will often be played from beginning to end every time but it most certainly is a delightful compendium little musical gems. In the UK there is still an orchestra that plays through the summer months in Scarborough and a piano trio performing daily at the Pump Rooms in Bath. These are pretty much the last two regular groups representing a field of music-making that flourished right through until the late 1960’s. This truly impressive disc is an excellent celebration of a style of music and its performers who provided audiences and listeners alike with hours of pleasure.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

Miarka Laparcerie
Love Is Like A Violin (arr. for Violin and Piano by Barry Tattenhall)
René Costy
Valsette (arr. for Violin and Piano by Glen Powell)
Korda Bakony
Stephen Foster
Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair (arr. for Violin and Piano by Jack Byfield)
Frederic Curzon
The Violin Is A Lady
Franz Drdla
Serenade No 1
Femo Marchetti

Fascination (arr. for Violin and Piano by Albert Sandler)
Auguste van Biene
The Broken Melody
Max Skalka, Felix Stahl

Stephen Foster
Old Folks At Home (arr. for Violin and Piano by Jack Byfield)
Gabriel Pierné
Serenade, Op 7
Victor Herbert
A la Valse
Manuel Ponce
Estrellita (arr. for Violin and Piano by Jascha Heifetz)
Guiseppe Sammartini
Canto Amoroso (arr. for Violin and Piano by Mischa Elman)
Yascha Krein
Gipsy Carnival
John Dyer
The Voice Of The Violin
Alfredo d'Amrosio
Canzonetta, Op 6
Reynaldo Hahn
If My Songs Were Only Winged!
Jeno Hubay
Scène de la csárda No 4 'Hejre Kati', Op 32
Phil Green
Romance (arr. for Violin and Piano by Jack Byfield)
Michael Spivakowsky
Addio Firenze
Joe Rixner
Christoph Willibald von Gluck
Melodie (arr. for Violin and Piano by Fritz Kreisler)
Albert Ketèlbey

Londonderry Air (arr. for Violin and Piano by Jack Byfield)

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