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Albert SAMMONS (1886-1957): Historical Recordings 1926-1935
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Sinfonia concertante in E flat K.364 (1)
Tivadar NACHEZ (1859-1930)

Passacaglia on a theme of Sammartini (2)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) arr. Brunet

Rosamunde: Entr’acte in G (3)
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904) arr. Rehfeld

Humoresque op.101/7 (4)
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)

Thaïs: Méditation (5)
Albert SAMMONS (1886-1957)

Bourrée (6)
TRADITIONAL arr. Sammons

Londonderry Air (7)
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)

Sonata in e minor op.82 (8)
Albert Sammons (violin), Lionel Tertis (viola) (1), London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Hamilton Harty (1), unidentified pianist (2, 6, 7), Gerald Moore (piano) (3, 4, 5), William Murdoch (piano) (8)
Locations: EMI Abbey Road Studio no. 1, London (1), Columbia Studios, Petty France, London (2, 5, 6, 7), EMI Abbey Road Studio no. 3, London (3, 4, 8)
Dates: 30.4.1933 (1), 9.9.1926 (2, 6, 7), 28.6.1932 (3, 4), 2.3.1928 (5), 2.2.1935 (8)
CD transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110957 [76:41]

Old recordings of Mozart can surprise in a number of ways. They can sometimes be surprisingly brisk and clean, seemingly anticipating much more modern trends. Or they can sometimes be swoony, sticky and of value only as an uncomfortable reminder of how our grandfathers saw this music. The present, first ever, recording of the Sinfonia Concertante manages to be both these things!

Sir Hamilton Harty expounds the exposition to the first movement at an ideal tempo, relaxed yet vital, with very clear textures and, apart from the presence of a few slides from the violins (this was Beecham’s orchestra and in his own Mozart recordings with it he was surprisingly tolerant of slides), it could have been conducted yesterday. Then the soloists enter … The general rule seems to be that, whatever tempo the orchestra is playing at, the soloists have to change it when they come in, to disconcertingly rhapsodic effect. And then, they seem to be having a competition to see who can make the most portamentos. Their entries in the development section are positively drooled over. And as for the cadenza! They start off innocently enough using Mozart’s own material, but then proceed with one written by Tertis (based on one by Hellmesberger), the model for which seems to have been the Widor Toccata.

In the second movement it’s Harty’s turn to get things wrong, setting a too swift minuet-like tempo which the soloists have to adjust. Thereafter there is much warmth albeit of a not very Mozartian kind, but even in 1933 such a miscalculation might have warranted a retake. Due to lack of space (I presume) the cadenza has been cut, thereby sparing us another Tertis-Hellmesberger monstrosity. Probably the finale is the most satisfactory, the soloists for once content to go along with Harty’s well-judged tempo. Not much more than a curio, this performance, but did Harty record any of the Mozart Symphonies?

The Nachez is impressive, prompting the unkind thought that violinists of this epoch were better heard in minor trinkets of the kind. Unfortunately the piece lasts 7’37” and outstays its welcome. Both Sammons and that usually supreme Schubertian Gerald Moore are heavy-handed in the Rosamunde Entr’acte, and the Massenet is a little too forward-moving to reveal all its fragrant charms. The Dvořák is neatly turned, but comparison with Kreisler shows what is missing. Kreisler may seem over-indulgent with his slides and his rubato, but once heard his version is hard to forget, for his violin takes on a vocal quality which justifies everything he does. And incidentally, his arrangement sticks imperturbably to Dvořák’s original “unviolinistic” key of G flat while the Rehfeld arrangement used by Sammons is transposed into G. Not much justification for calling Sammons “the English Kreisler” on the strength of this, and the same can be said for the Londonderry Air with which Sammons seems strangely impatient, unwilling to let it breathe. Again, Kreisler’s violin has a vocal quality which lifts it onto another plane. Both violinists play their own arrangements. Sammons’s is notably for some weird chromatic harmonies, suggestive of a heavy-handed parody of Cyril Scott and singularly inappropriate to the task in hand. Kreisler starts more simply but then he gets an attack of post-impressionism too. One wonders if both gentlemen had intended their arrangements as entries to some long-forgotten bad taste competition.

I should be presumptuous to take issue with Sammons’s playing of his own pretty little Bourrée and it is in fact charming.

Which leaves the Elgar.

Everything I have written above really ignores the fact that Albert Sammons was a superb musician and a dedicated artist. He did much for the music of his native country, frequently performing the Elgar concerto with the composer and making (with Sir Henry Wood) the first complete recording, one which some feel has not been surpassed. He gave the first performances of the concertos by Delius (the Elgar and Delius are coupled together on another Naxos CD), Dyson and Moeran (a recording of the latter has survived on Symposium) as well as numerous chamber works. The problem is that he was British, and also disinclined towards foreign travel, with the result that, while he could have surely left us fine recordings of Brahms, Bruch and the romantic repertoire generally, so far as I am aware he was not asked to do so. He was not the first interpreter of the Elgar Sonata (that was Will Reed) but he quickly took it up and this recording, with his regular duo partner William Murdoch, is a worthy companion to the Concerto, strong and ardent in the big moments, wistful and poetic in the central movement. The only problem is that while the violin sound, here and throughout the disc, comes across remarkably well, it is very close up with the piano a long way behind. So if you want to sit back and enjoy the work, rather than make a study of an authentic interpretation, you will need a more modern version. Perhaps because of this imbalance, I have to say that ultimately Sammons and Murdoch are no more able than anyone else to persuade me that characteristic Elgarian inspiration is in pretty short supply in this rather dry product of his later years. I know that people who say things like this can expect a flood of hate-mail from True British Music Lovers, but there it is.

Specialists will only need to know that the transfers produce natural and convincing sound. Aspiring performers of the Elgar should certainly hear this. As for the general listener, well, if you haven’t got the Elgar/Delius coupling, get that first.

Christopher Howell

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