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Heinrich Wilhelm ERNST (1814-1865)
Othello Fantasy – Fantasie brillante for violin and piano after Rossini (1839) [14:33]
Six Polyphonic Studies for solo violin [29:07]
Élégie sur la mort d’un object chéri, for violin and piano Op.10 (1840) [7:53]
Erlkönig, Grand Caprice for solo violin, after Schubert Op.26 (1854) [4:12]
Ilya Gringolts (violin)
Ashley Wass (piano)
rec. Crear Studio, Argyll, November 2006
HYPERION CDA67619 [55:51]
Experience Classicsonline

The Moravian virtuoso and composer of fiendish complexity, Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, not unsurprisingly has a small discography to his name. The Brno powerhouse, still often called by his Czech name in his native land, nevertheless still exerts a dangerous pull in practice rooms and studios if not necessarily on the concert platform. Only similarly pugilist superheroes of the fingerboard, such as Ruggiero Ricci, have put themselves forward to be judged in this repertoire – those who do so invariably sharpen their violinistic quills on the Othello Fantasy or, if they’re really brave, the appalling difficulties of his Erlkönig. Hardly anyone has ventured the complete Polyphonic Studies in disc – though Ricci has. Into this breach steps Ilya Gringolts and he is a brave man indeed.
The Othello Fantasy presents the violinist – here accompanied by Ashley Wass – with a phalanx of demands though it does also gratefully give him the chance to show off a spun legato as well. Ernst’s construction is artful and highly sympathetic and it’s for the player to ensure that the stitches don’t show – or rarely show. It’s the kind of piece on which a dazzler such as the composer’s own compatriot Váša Příhoda would have feasted, though he was never asked to record it. Gringolts exhibits remarkable technical address throughout. Solo he faces Erlkönig, a veritable orgy of toccata-like spectral brilliance. Gringolts rips into the harmonics and characterises with real verve, as well he must; this is a work often talked about in violin circles but seldom recorded. It is four minutes of unremitting labour, incredible technical demands and on top of all this the player must still ensure that there is a cohesive and coherent sense of characterisation of voice parts and narrative. This Gringolts manages to do.
As respite there is the charming Élégie sur la mort d’un object chéri. Naturally the discography slightly swells here, not least because the tortuous demands made elsewhere in Ernst’s music are not present. Carl Flesch even recorded it back in 1926. It’s a lyric and expressive with warm double stops toward the end to heighten the expression. It’s sweetly if perhaps aloofly sung by Gringolts – vibrato is well varied however and the playing is commendably clean.
The most extensive of all demands come via one of Ernst’s last works, his Six Polyphonic Studies. They were dedicated to the titans of the day – in order, Laub (Moravian, like Ernst), Sainton, the scandalous Frenchman, Joachim, Vieuxtemps, Hellmesberger (he of Sinfonia Concertante cadenza fame and much else), and finally, Bazzini of the Goblins, to whom Ernst dedicated the last and most famous, the horrendously difficult and famed Last Rose of Summer.
These solo etudes can bear some differences in interpretation as both Gringolts and Ricci demonstrate. The First is more extrovert and bolder in Ricci’s hands. Gringolts is stronger on the jig rhythm but slows too much for the second subject – his accents are indeed razory as well. The Second is too rushed for my own tastes; I prefer Ricci’s performance which accepts Ernst’s con grazia instruction and his performance accents more logically and perceptively. Gringolts sounds rather bothered by this etude and his tone is ungratefully wiry. The Terzetto Third is taken daringly slowly with a lot of ancillary sniffing whilst the Fourth sees some resolute quadruple stopping – Gringolts is much more immediately recorded than Ricci so his resinous vitality is almost corrosive in its impact.  The Fifth is an Air de Ballet. Once again I prefer Ricci here, who finds just the right tempo and sense of inflexion to heighten the robust waltz elements. Gringolts just misses the stateliness of the dance and in his haste he misses points of characterisation, turning it into more of a mere showpiece etude.  The final showstopper is The Last Rose of Summer where Gringolts is very much slower than the bristling Ricci. I don’t really like the way Gringolts plays the Rose theme itself – he does so in an exaggerated, rather weird sort of way as if being explicitly satiric. Ricci is less post-modern about it all – he plays with strength and warmth. Of the two performances of these devilish Etudes I do prefer Ricci, even though his intonation does stray and there are inevitable technical blemishes [Dynamic CDS 393/1-10 – a ten CD set called Ruggiero Ricci - A Life for the Violin].
Which doesn’t really lessen Gringolts’s achievement here in the balance of things. Calum Macdonald’s notes are highly readable and fuse biographical and technical matters in a helpful way. And the sound, though close, is not too stuffy – though it does sometimes emphasise a rough, razory tone. This is a white-knuckle ride of a disc, a witches’ brew of difficulty.
Jonathan Woolf


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