W.H. Squire (1871-1963) was one of the first prominent cellists to record. In fact his career in the studios dates back as far as 1898. Many a collector will wistfully recall the label rubric; ‘’cello obbligato by W.H. Squire’ - not least collectors of the recordings of Clara Butt, who was just one of the formidable singers to whom he lent his art on disc, in recital and at the vast Royal Albert Hall, where he was frequently to be heard.
William Henry Squire is an interesting case as a musician. His early recordings, those made around the turn of the century and after, show a man still in thrall to his teachers Edward Howell and Piatti - he’d also studied composition with Parry and was a noted ballad composer - but gradually exposure to the new wave of cello tonalists, principally Casals, led to greater vibrato usage. His early quite sparing use of the device was to be replaced over time by a prominent and constant, if often quite slow, use of it. The curve of his recordings, from 1898 to 1929, is a fascinating study in changes of technical and expressive devices, all faithfully reflected by the fledgling recording industry.
He first recorded for HMV but by the period covered in this disc he had signed to Columbia. In 1926 he set down Columbia’s first electrically recorded concerto disc, Saint-Saëns’s A minor concerto with the Hallé Orchestra and its conductor, Squire’s old friend, Hamilton Harty. The Mancunian band decamped to Columbia’s so-so Petty France studios in London for a recording transfer engineer Mark Obert-Thorn rightly describes as ‘all bass and no top’. In addition to being the first electrical concerto recording, this was the first time the concerto had been recorded. Squire had first performed it - a work that had been composed the year after his birth - in 1894 with August Manns conducting. The most obvious thing to note in his playing here is the complex web of insistent portamenti allied to an extremely elasticised sense of legato. It gives the music-making a very personal stamp. The nature of his own playing contrasts too with the tonal qualities of the wind principals, who retain their very bleached, white vibrato-free tones, ones yet to have been influenced by slightly later British avant-garde players (in their own way) such as Leon Goossens, Alec Whittaker, Jack Thurston and Reginald Kell. This all makes for fascinating conjunctions of style and tone. Squire is at his most expressive and supple in the finale - fine bowing, good range of tone colour, excellent characterisation. There’s not the sheer athleticism of the generation of cellists to come and no doubt the performance would have seemed very old style in the days of Piatigorsky, Fournier, Navarra and Nelsova. Nevertheless the set remained in the domestic catalogue until as late as 1940.
As for the transfer, Obert-Thorn has done a thoroughly recommendable job. The only other transfer known to me was on a Past Masters LP [PM15]. It compounded the stygian nature of the original recording by cutting surface noise to such an extent that the result was a very tricky listen indeed. Here much more noise has been retained and some tweaking of the frequencies ensures that, whilst by no means perfect, things are very different indeed.
The companion concerto is the Elgar, recorded in 1928 this time in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester. Squire had first met Harty in 1901 in the Rotunda, Dublin where Harty astonished the cellist by sight-reading through a sonata recital for him. He encouraged the pianist to come to London, which by coincidence he was doing the very next day. Most close friends of Harty called him Hay (a play on words contraction of ‘Hale and Hearty’) but I suspect only Squire called him ‘Laddie’. He also encouraged him to write his memoirs but only a brief few pages were written before Harty died in 1941 - the same year, incidentally, that Squire retired from active performance. Harty once called Squire ‘a splendid virtuoso and also one of the wisest and most broadminded of men’.
Beatrice Harrison had already made two recordings with Elgar for HMV of the concerto, the first being abridged. Its dedicatee, Felix Salmond, had recorded for Vocalion in the early 1920s but in any case he had left for a career in America. The obvious person for Columbia was Squire in his second and last concerto recording. As Obert-Thorn notes this was - in contradistinction to the Saint-Saëns - a remarkable piece of recording for its time. And he has had access to test pressings which sound even better than commercial copies. A quick listen to the original 78s of both this and the Saint-Saëns indicates how well the recordings have been served. The Elgar Pearl CD transfer [GEM0050] is easily surpassed - notice how the wind choir sound is clarified via the test pressings and how the cello doesn’t boom, as it’s prone to do in Pearl’s transfer. A higher ratio of surface noise is all to the good in Pristine’s work as it ensures an incredible amount of detailing for the time can be heard.
Portamenti here are used as a more natural-sounding device than in the companion work where they can sound, from time to time, gestural. The performance is deeply felt but expressively noble; never aloof, but not heart-on-sleeve either. From time to time one feels Harty wanting to speed things up and when the Hallé seizes on its opportunities it does so with vivid control. Squire gives the scherzo its metrical due, but he is not gossamer and this is no etude-like opportunity to show off one’s bowing. He takes his time and vests it with its own particular sense of character. Squire takes more time in the slow movement and finale than Harrison in her electric recording, made just the previous year, though nowhere near the drama that du Pré and Barenboim evoke in the Adagio - a massive six minutes to Harrison’s four and Squire’s four-and-a-half. In the finale there’s a mix of strict rhythm and accelerandi from the conductor, whilst the phrasal elasticity that Squire draws, supported by rich finger position changes, is a vivid index of his art. Yes, the next generation of cellists such as Pini, Fournier and Navarra took things very differently - but then they weren’t born in 1871.
There are eight encores here as well, the usual sweetmeats that Squire recorded throughout his performing life. His relaxed sense of time in The Swan
is a feature of his musicianship - he tended to have to be more metrically strict when recording the trio repertoire - and there’s an avuncular performance, replete with pizzicato bending, of Dunkler’s once popular Humoresque.
There’s dignity to his Handel and Bach. For the Wagner and Mozart sides he’s joined by the organist often described on labels as ‘Pattman at the organ’. This was George Thomas Pattman, famed in his day, largely forgotten now. I have a Columbia white label test pressing of this coupling and though it’s in rough-ish sound it has rather more openness than this transfer. In fact if I’m being ultra-critical, for my tastes more surface noise could profitably have been left in the encore section; these sides sound just a little bit too hemmed-in.
The most important things here are the concertos, revealing documents both of Squire’s art and ones preserving a little slice of gramophonic history. The transfers are mono, and there’s a brief introduction in the inlay. I want to commend Pristine Audio’s new artwork. Previously it was a bit haphazard, but now it looks distinguished. More than ever now, especially since Naxos has given up on historical re-releases, we need companies like Pristine Audio to keep producing discs like this.
Masterwork Index: Elgar cello concerto