In the great scheme of things, Heinrich Ernst is one of those composers
it is very easy to overlook, almost exclusively confined, until recently,
to corners on programmes of violin virtuosi like Maxim Vengerov, Leonidas
Kavakos and Lydia Mordkovich. Ditto this new recording of violin pieces
of a seemingly frothy nature, not least the ubiquitous, if not notorious,
'Carnival of Venice'. Yet to pass over would be to lose out.
Calling Ernst a violin virtuoso is something of an understatement. Inspired
by Paganini in Vienna in 1828, he followed him to France where he would
perform his unpublished compositions by ear from memory. Joseph Joachim
regarded him as the greatest violinist of the age, and friends and associates
included the likes of Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Chopin and Liszt.
Though the cover portrait paints Ernst as a bit of a dandy, he did in
fact possess something not shared by all these big names: a sense of
humour. Thus his music, frequently virtuosic beyond the laws of logic,
also reveals an author who giving a cheeky wink to the audience from
time to time, as if to acknowledge the outrageous imperatives the soloist
- originally Ernst himself, as almost no one else could have succeeded
- has just met. The demands of the opening Erlkönig Caprice are
typical: "The score is written partly on two staves [...] Played presto
throughout until the last bars, the piece begins with rapid double stops
with interspersed pizzicato and features a melody line in harmonics
above a driving accompaniment in the middle and lower register of the
violin." However, it is in the six Polyphonic Studies, one of Ernst's
most important works, that things get really tough! Each of the six
movements was dedicated to a leading violin virtuoso of the time - Laub,
Sainton, Joachim, Vieuxtemps, Helmesberger and Bazzini. The sheer byzantine
pyrotechnics of this and other works go some way towards explaining
the otherwise nonsensical neglect Ernst has suffered since his nineteenth
There is a further side to Ernst that makes him all the more satisfying
as a composer
, and that is the lyrical sensitivity exhibited
in pieces like the Feuillet d'Album
, where sheer virtuosity is
eschewed for a more contemplative, intimate sound. In this respect he
is said to have been rated more highly than Paganini himself by many.
The young soloist in this recording, Czech Josef Špaček -
a former pupil of Itzhak Perlman - does Ernst proud with a performance
of elevated and sustained technical brilliance, coupled with the application
of elegant restraint where the composer requires.
Distinguished Welsh pianist Gordon Back is an ever-dependable foil.
Both performers make their debut for Naxos with this recording.
In a way, Naxos have waited too long with this follow-up to their 2006
recording of some of Ernst's orchestral violin works (8.557565
Toccata Classics are already three in to their cycle (vol.
) - six or seven volumes, the label's website appears unsure of
the final total - of Ernst's complete violin works. Their soloist is
Romania-born Sherban Lupu, one of the few to have championed Ernst's
music prior to the recent surge in interest, and plaudits so far have
been glowing. Whereas Naxos and Toccata come out about equal in audio
terms, both with very good engineering throughout. Whilst accompanying
booklet notes are detailed and well written in both cases, the biggest
difference remains that it is not clear, for the present at least, whether
Naxos will even be adding to this initial disc. As a one-off Ernst investment,
however, it is very hard to fault.
Incidentally, Ernst was previously believed to have been born in 1814,
as indicated in the earlier Naxos disc. However, in his recent biography,
Mark Rowe adduces evidence for an 1812 birth, the date given by Naxos
on this new release.
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