Naxosís series of historical issues has already brought
forth a stream of important releases but this, I venture to suggest,
may be the most significant to date for it couples and potentially puts
into a wider circulation than ever before two recordings of supreme
importance in the recorded history of English music.
Albert Sammons (1886-1957) was arguably the greatest
virtuoso violinist this country has ever produced. His recording of
the Elgar concerto was the first uncut one to appear and Delius was
inspired to write his own concerto (for Sammons) after hearing him play
the Elgar in concert. Sammons gave the first performance of the Delius
concerto and was the obvious choice to make its premiere recording,
The recording of the Elgar was made in 1929, three
years before the composer made his celebrated recording with the sixteen-year-old
Yehudi Menuhin. Sammons had already made an acoustic recording of the
work in 1916, also with Sir Henry Wood conducting, but that performance
suffered from cuts. As Tully Potter points out in his notes, the Menuhin
account has always overshadowed that by Sammons and it has been consistently
available whereas the Sammons recording has been in and out of the catalogue.
I think Potter is absolutely right to praise Sammonsí recording but
I do rather part company with him when he dismisses the Menuhin performance
as one which is "nicely played, to be sure, but sounding more like
the work of a sixteen-year-old with each of its manifold reissues."
In my opinion, no allowances need be made for Menuhinís age. His is
a performance which thoroughly justifies its classic status. Sammonsí
performance too is a great one but it needs no denigration of a rival
to advance its cause.
I think the crucial difference is that Menuhinís account
of the solo part, while characterful and entirely assured, is a part
of the overall performance whereas Sammons dominates his recording.
This is apparent from the very first entry of each soloist. Both command
attention but Sammons, with his huge tone, is the more rhetorical, more
questing. In part Iím sure that this is a question of mental and physical
maturity. Menuhin, after all, was only sixteen years old at the time
of his recording while Sammons was forty-three with a much longer career
behind him. Menuhinís is the voice of youth, Sammons represents experience.
However, I think that the role of the respective conductors
must not be overlooked. They are as different as chalk from cheese.
In the first movement in particular Wood presses ahead vigorously whereas
Elgar is more ready to linger. Anyone who has performed Elgarís music
will know that often it seems that there are scarcely two consecutive
bars without a tempo modification, however subtle (all precisely noted
in the score). I welcome Woodís urgent basic tempo for the first movement
in particular but to my ears at least there are times, particularly
in that first movement, when he seems reluctant to relax when the music
demands it. Tully Potter perceptively comments that Elgar might have
been too self indulgent a conductor for Sammons and that Wood was a
better foil for him. Iím sure this is right but I would still have loved
to hear Sammons and Elgar in partnership. As it is, Wood takes two and
a half minutes less than Elgar for the first movement, and lops some
two minutes off the composerís timing for each of the other two movements.
Mere timings donít tell the full story, of course, but Iím sure it's
not just greater familiarity with the Elgar recording which makes me
feel more at ease with the pulse which the composer sets in each movement.
To return to the soloists. Sammons dashes off every
one of the manifold technical difficulties in the first movement (as
he does throughout the work). I have referred to his big tone but his
dexterity in the many filigree passages is just as breathtaking. Mind
you, Menuhin is not found wanting technically either. His finer tone
has more of a will oí the wisp quality about it.
The contrast of tone is important also in the slow
movement. Menuhin weaves a seamless web with poise and delicacy. Sammons
is no less refined but his tone is more full-bodied and this allows
him to invest the music, and the closing bars in particular, with a
yearning nostalgia which is most moving. Comparing and contrasting the
two is rather like hearing the same music sung by a soprano and a mezzo-soprano:
both are beautiful but in a different way.
Both Sammons and, pace Mr. Potter, Menuhin give
deeply satisfying accounts of the difficult finale. For me, however,
the defining moments come in the accompanied cadenza which Naxos sensibly
presents on a separate track (as do EMI on my copy of the Menuhin, contained
in Volume 2 of their Elgar Edition). Here, excellent though Menuhin
is, Sammons takes us to a different level of musicianship. As so often
in this recording it seems to me that itís the actual tone which is
so crucial. One takes for granted technical prowess but whenever the
music becomes reflective and nostalgic Sammonsí burnished, nut-brown
tone, his greater maturity and his consummate understanding of the music
and the idiom adds an extra dimension.
As I have already indicated, my admiration for the
Sammons performance does not lead me to denigrate the Menuhin account.
That remains a very special experience with a precocious young soloist
inspired by and inspiring a conductor nearly sixty years his senior.
The Menuhin performance also benefits from the unique authority of Elgarís
presence on the rostrum (he was an excellent conductor of his own music)
and from better sound which lets more orchestral detail register. However,
Sammons is, I think, hors concours. It is a compelling, magisterial
performance by a very great player. Iím just profoundly grateful that
we have the opportunity to compare and contrast two great performances
and to return with pleasure to either.
The Elgar is one of the greatest of all violin concertos.
The Delius concerto is not in that league but it is a lovely work. Sammons
makes a strong case for it. Indeed, he gives the solo part the kind
of strong profile which is so necessary if sections of the work are
not to appear to ramble a little. He projects the solo line very characterfully
and though he makes a generous sound he proves capable of spinning a
subtle, rhapsodic line above the stave. He is ably supported by the
Liverpool orchestra under Sargent. This was but one of several fine
recordings which this orchestra made for Columbia and HMV around this
time (one thinks of the premiere recordings of Holstís Hymn of Jesus,
Elgarís Dream of Gerontius, both under Sargent, and Waltonís
own recording of Belshazzarís Feast.) Sargent was clearly no
mean orchestral trainer as these various recordings show. Furthermore,
in this Delius piece his accompaniment seems to me to be just as idiomatic
and characterful as is that which Beecham, no less, provided for Jean
Pougnetís 1946 recording.
Mark Obert-Thorn has produced very good transfers of
both recordings. So far as I know this is the first time that these
two performances have been coupled on CD. They are magnificent accounts
of two very different works and the appearance of this Naxos release
is a cause for rejoicing. Sammonsí account of the Elgar concerto, in
particular is mandatory listening for all lovers of English music. This
is an essential purchase and at the Naxos price represents absurdly
good value for money.
Recommended with all possible enthusiasm.
And Rob Barnett writes:-
And still they come in Naxos's rapid and smilingly
relentless flow of historical reissues.
This disc acts as a companion to the three volume Beecham
Delius series and as a complement to the Walton/Elgar violin concertos
The coupling is astute ... even politic. Both recordings
are well known and are currently available in the case of the Elgar
on Pearl and for the Delius on Testament. The Pearl (GEMM CD9496)
is coupled with Sammons in the Elgar Violin Sonata with William Murdoch.
The Testament (SBT1014) is a long-established Delius concertos disc
with the Piano Concerto (Moiseiwitsch) and a sprinkling of Delian brevities.
Sammons is very smooth of tone, sweet-toned and ever
so slightly acid - like the song of a blackbird. This is the first ever
recording of the Delius concerto by the soloist who premiered the work.
He gives a great feeling of continuous song without angular edges but
with plenty of variety and accenting along the way. Ida Haendel's Proms
broadcast with the BBCSO and Rozhdestvensky in the 1980s was even better
but this is no longer available (it used to be on the BBC series from
The Elgar recording does not sound fourteen years older
than the Delius. The orchestral role is distanced by the exigencies
of 1920s recording technology but the violin squats centre-stage in
secure focus and the range from pp to ff is represented
with fidelity. The interpretation does not dawdle but neither is it
insensitive. Sammons is good at the drama, impetuous, plays up a storm
and conveys surging energy rushing forward yet never scouting detail.
If you don't know the recording sample the last five minutes of the
Choose your coupling and your price and take your choice.
The Naxos is an inexpensive choice but it depends ultimately on what
you want. If you need a complete Delius or Elgar disc then go for the
Testament or Pearl. Otherwise the Naxos will give you two classic recordings
of two great concertos (nationality issues are irrelevant) in the hands
of a modest and sincere musician who never attained nor even wanted
The age and analogue origins of the recordings are
declared by the ultimately reticent bed of 'shush'. This is only a shade
more 'brambly' in the Elgar. Side change transitions are imperceptible.
The liner notes are by Tully Potter and are well up
to his usual exalted standard. He says about the famous Menuhin recording
that overshadowed the Sammons exactly what I have thought for years.
Place this version of the Elgar on the shelving next
to the Heifetz, Accardo, Hugh Bean (at least if you have been able to
prepare a CDR of his 1970s Classics for Pleasure LP pending its too
long deferred appearance on commercial CD) and the Zukerman.
An inexpensive way to add to your collection two well-loved
archive recordings of the Elgar and Delius. The Elgar, in particular,
still has the power to startle, stir and delight.