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Heinrich Wilhelm ERNST (?1812-1865)
Erlkönig - Grand Caprice in G minor (after Schubert), for solo violin, op.26 [4:07]
Variations Brillantes sur un Thème de Rossini, for violin and piano, op.4 [14:47]
Etudes à Plusieurs Reprises (Polyphonic Studies), for solo violin, [28:44]
Feuillet d'Album (after Stephen Heller), for violin and piano [2:28]
Elegie sur la Mort d'un Objet Chéri (introduction by Ludwig Spohr), for violin and piano [6:45]
Trio, for solo violin [0:54]
Le Carnaval de Venise - Variations Burlesques sur la Canzonetta 'Cara Mia Mamma', for violin and piano, op.18 [15:49]
Josef Špaček (violin)
Gordon Back (piano)
rec. Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, Wales, 17-19 March 2010.
NAXOS 8.572575 [73:49] 

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 Inspired by Paganini in Vienna in 1828, he followed him to France where he would perform his unpublished compositions by ear from memory.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 century renown.
 
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. 1; vol. 2; vol. 3) - 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.
 
Byzantion
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