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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Violin Concerto
Edward ELGAR (1857- 1934)

Violin Concerto
Albert Sammons (violin)
Liverpool PO/Malcolm Sargent
New Queen's Hall Orchestra/Henry Wood
rec Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 4 July 1944 (Delius); Queen's Hall, London, 18 Mar, 10 April 1929 ADD Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer - Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110951 [67.13]


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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, here reissued.

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.

John Quinn

 

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 Heifetz CD.

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 IMP).

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 first movement.

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 international stardom.

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.

Rob Barnett

 


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