When I was 22 I walked into a long extinct record shop in Chancery Lane and bought an LP of Elgar’s Violin Concerto. I had liked the Cello Concerto — the Anthony Pini recording with van Beinum, with its cover photograph of Worcester Cathedral — but found the composer’s recording with Menuhin strangely stodgy. I wanted to try again. This time, then, fresh from Chancery Lane, I tried Albert Sammons’s recording with Henry Wood. This time I was transfixed. This time it made sense.
I’ve changed my mind since about Menuhin’s recording, which I greatly admire, but the sense of rapture evoked by Sammons has never left me. I began a quest to find more recordings by him. There was the World Records Delius Concerto, and I found the Sinfonia Concertante on an old LP devoted to Lionel Tertis. But there wasn’t much else, until the gatefold double of Elgar’s chamber music which contained the Violin Sonata recording with William Murdoch. So I looked further afield. I put an advertisement in a music magazine and people wrote to me—the days were pre–CD, pre–internet—and I went to their houses and bought 78s of Sammons, and they saw a young chap starting out, and looked kindly on me. They played discs for me, showed me how to care for records and how to play them properly. They were glad I was collecting, when they had themselves begun that slow winding down, to which all collectors must succumb. And I went to Betterton Street in London, one of the last shops with 78s on its racks, and made the pilgrimage to Stockport, to The 78 Record Exchange, where, contrary to the warnings of others, I breached the portals and was allowed upstairs, where vast racks of 78s stretched from side to side, unimaginably vast. The owners sat behind their counter, polishing shellac with chamois leather. I bid on auction catalogues: I attended record fairs: I scoured antiques shops.
And the more I collected, the more I wanted to collect, to account for the fault of history in disregarding musicians such as Sammons. In time, because they were not much valued, and were numerous, I’d collected almost all his recordings. And then I wrote to his surviving family, to one of his daughters, Peggy, and also to Lionel Hill who’d married another daughter, Betty, who may still be alive. And in time I managed to acquire some letters, and programmes and, later, when Peggy Boswell–Cuming died, I was able to acquire more things, including recordings and more letters. This is how most things go, I suppose, increasing in intensity and breadth, if sufficiently concentrated in focus. And it struck me how fragile these things are; a letter that Ysaÿe wrote to Sammons in 1915 was among the things I found when I opened the plastic bag containing the mementos Sammons had bequeathed his daughter. How easily might it have been destroyed. If you collect, you shake a fist at destruction; you acquire to deny Time its potency. You hoard to preserve. You can go mad too, as we know. But better a collector than the skip.
Some collectors refuse access. Many others prove amazingly generous. One such is Paul Steinson, whom I know, and who has provided these copies for Pristine Audio. One is the Kreutzer Sonata, recorded in December 1926 at the Wigmore Hall, and which saw long service. It was originally released by Columbia on L1884–88 but a year later withdrawn in favour of 9352–56. It remained in print in total for 13 years. The other is the Fauré sonata in A. This is very different. It was recorded in November 1937 at Abbey Road on HMV’s private JG label. Some may know the Maggie Teyte recordings on this label, which do turn up quite regularly. But I have never seen this Fauré offered on a record list in 25 years. It belonged to the violinist himself and was part of his daughter’s collection. I’m fortunate enough to have seen it, in its album, with its appealing yellow labels, and have had a tape copy for a number of years. Pristine Audio’s Andrew Rose speculates that it might be the only set in existence. It’s possible, I suppose, but the BBC certainly had a set, though I don’t know if they’ve retained it. And others must surely have been bought.
The Kreutzer was re–released on LP by Pearl when they coupled it with the Concerto played by Isolde Menges, another strong candidate for a new transfer. I wouldn’t wish to quibble too much with the CD cover’s use of the word ‘rare’ in relation to this disc. These things are hooks for the purchaser. It’s rare inasmuch as it’s been transferred only once before, but it’s not especially rare as a 78 set. It was issued in America and also — the best pressing in my experience — in Australia. Sammons had performed the sonata with Vassily Safonov (in 1915) as well as his regular sonata partner William Murdoch. He was later to perform it many times with such as Gerald Moore, Geoffrey Tankard, Ernest Lush, Leslie Heward, Mark Hambourg, and Frederic Lamond. The notes refer to this recording as ‘truncated’ but it’s necessary to amplify or qualify that. The second part of the first and second variations in the second movement is cut, as is the repeat of the first part of the finale.
By now a partnership of over a decade’s standing, Sammons and Murdoch play with rock solid ensemble and powerful temperament. This is a speedy, intensely purposeful performance, replete with drama and oases of calm, and wit. The muscular, masculine bowing produces the fabled big tone but Sammons can, despite his reputation, fine down the tone when necessary. His trills are tight, his portamenti full of expressive intensity, pathos and significance. His pizzicatos ring out. The two musicians locate great sentiment but also nobility in the variations of the second movement. The tempi are never allowed to drag — that was never Sammons’s way — and there is always sufficient colour and texture to keep things alive. The finale meanwhile is buoyant and yet flexible. There are moments, perhaps, but only in passing, when there is an insistence to the violinist’s tone, but it is dwarfed by the rapt sense of introspection and, once again, of pathos, toward the end of the sonata.
Thibaud and Cortot had recorded the Fauré sonata back in 1927. Another French pairing, Denise Soriano and Magda Tagliafero, recorded their beautiful version in 1934, whilst Heifetz and Emanuel Bay recorded their set in 1936. Quite what prompted the Sammons performance, with pianist Edie Miller, is something of a mystery. He was certainly attuned to the Gallic muse, though this is not especially appreciated now. He had given possibly the earliest performance of the Debussy Violin Sonata in England, and one of the earliest anywhere. He’d performed at the memorial concert for Fauré in 1924. He’d undoubtedly have encountered the music when Thibaud and Cortot and other colleagues enjoyed after–hours music-making at Muriel Draper’s house in Fulham, in London, just before the First War. The basement was a music room. When I went searching for the house I found it had gone, replaced by flats. Not much is known of Edie Miller though she played at the National Gallery Concerts during the Second World War. She also accompanied Sammons in a Decca–pressed private recording of Turina’s First Sonata, so clearly there was a deal of such recording going on at the time, possibly financed by others, as Sammons would have been very unlikely to have subsidised the venture himself. There would have been no point.
Critics always pointed to Sammons’s singing tone as a characteristic feature of his playing and musicianship. This is a rather woolly word when applied to string playing. But one does appreciate the superb legato, the variegation of colour, the highly expressive portamenti, the sense of directional tension sustained by the violinist, the elasticity of his phrasing within a regular pulse, and the perfectly graded approach to the climax of the first movement, where the sense of assertive declamation is marvellous. His sense of phrasing allows the slow movement to blossom uncontaminated by sentimentality, and though there are maybe the briefest moments of wavering intonation, the playing is marvellously communicative, honest, direct and unselfconscious. The B section of the scherzo is played with enormous charm whilst the outer sections are boldly bowed. And the finale is bracing, exciting and truly involving. Miller is a decent ally but obviously not in Sammons’s league. It would have been altogether better for Kathleen Long, a French music and specifically Fauré specialist, to have accompanied, but that was clearly not possible.
As to the transfer questions, firstly, I am very glad that surface noise has been retained between tracks. Second, side joins are imperceptible. Third, surface scratch has been kept to a bare minimum. Now a few words about the XR process. I have, as noted, heard the Fauré set. The scratch was quite pronounced. I have also heard an internet download (now withdrawn) which was made available for a time. XR has boosted response and my distinct impression is that the process has slightly realigned the violin spectrum. Sammons was occasionally covered by Miller and that balance has been retrospectively rectified to a large extent. Things are more extreme in respect of the Kreutzer. Columbia’s engineers seemed to struggle on some of their location recordings, and the results in the Wigmore Hall in these early microphone days were somewhat erratic. Whichever pressing I listen to, I always find this a distant affair. To this extent the XR work has brought the sound stage very much into the foreground, and the dynamic variations register in a pronounced way. This is especially true of the pizzicatos, for instance. There is considerable depth here, and I find that the process has wrought considerable changes in spatial perspective. I’m sure some will not welcome this approach but, on this occasion, I must say that I do.
There is much to do with Sammons’s recorded legacy. I see that more discs from this source are on their way, namely the Archduke Trio and the Mendelssohn op.66 trio, both of which have already been transferred to CD by other labels. But record companies can only put out material that comes into their possession or is made available to them. Generous collectors are needed to enrich the living current of our lives. So may I make an appeal, should it still exist (and it was still around in the 1960s), for someone to unearth the set of the unpublished 1927 Beethoven concerto with either, and I’ve seen both names mentioned, Henry Wood or Hamilton Harty. Then we must have the Turina sonata alluded to above; the only set I’ve seen on a list was sold a few years ago for $900. I know; I was the underbidder (but that was when I had some disposable income). Grieg’s Sonata No.2 is magnificent, especially in the American pressing, so too the Devil’s Trill sonata and Vitali Chaconne. I would also urge a ‘Decca Recordings’ release. This would include the remake of the Mendelssohn trio, with Murdoch once again, but this time with Cedric Sharpe in place of Lionel Tertis, hence an untranscribed recording. It would be coupled with the delightful morceaux albums that each man recorded, each of five 10–inch discs. There is also a broadcast performance of Stanley Wilson’s Double Concerto with Bernard Shore, the violist, recorded off–air in 1937. I’ve heard a copy and whilst I don’t know the whereabouts of the original, it would be marvellous to track it down. Ruby Davy, Australia’s first woman Doctor of Music, also recorded privately on Decca with Sammons. We know she returned to Australia in the early days of the Second World War with the recordings, but nothing has been heard of them since.
Since the days when I walked into the record shop in Chancery Lane, things have changed. Generous–minded people freely made time to help me but, even so, I should not have thought it possible to have Sammons’s unreleased 1929 recording of Delius’s First Sonata made available. Where had it been? Who had kept it? And now we have all Sammons’s recordings with Tertis on Vocalion and Columbia on CD, and other things too. Things are immeasurably better now, and can only get better.
This release goes a long way to cementing the Sammons discography. In giving us the Fauré sonata, in so very rare a recording, we are given a glimpse of a Sammons that most people have never encountered. He, for whom recording was often something of a trial, would be astonished by releases such as this; astonished but, I like to think, glad.