Cellist Felix Salmond’s recorded legacy has been somewhat overlooked. Best known for his innocent part in the fiasco of the premiere of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Salmond (1888-1952) had already taken part in the first performance of the composer’s String Quartet, and looked set to have a central role in the music-making of his country.
He was part of an established ensemble, the Chamber Music Players, which contained Britain’s leading instrumentalists – Sammons, Tertis, Salmond himself, and William Murdoch – but which never recorded as a group. His emigration to America in 1922 has often been put down to the Elgar debacle, but that had happened several years previously. His good friends in the London String Quartet had toured there and were recording in New York, rivalling and eventually surpassing the Flonzaley as the leading quartet on American soil. The time was thus propitious for Salmond, and he rose to become the most important cello pedagogue on the American continent, teaching at Juilliard and Curtis, and numbering a raft of eminent students – Leonard Rose, Bernard Greenhouse, Frank Miller, Daniel Saidenberg and many others.
Reputed to be tough and sarcastic, his cello playing is serious-minded and has a nobility of line and utterance. Some have found his playing a little stiff, especially in lyric sections, but I don’t. In fact what consistently impresses is his expressive directness, devoid of showy gestures, his outstandingly supple bowing, and a kind of sublimated virtuosity that conceals its mechanism. He had a cosmopolitan background in terms of his teaching – London and Brussels – and so in some ways it’s easier to say stylistically what he’s not, rather than what he is. It’s a sound that differs markedly from Russian, German and Franco-Belgian players, for example. There are no examples of his French repertoire in this selection, but those who have heard his Fauré, for example, will know that however lovely it is, it doesn’t evoke the French-Belgian sound-world of, say, Maas or Maréchal. It’s best to think of him as a product of a specific musical lineage that retains elements of the understated English school, with an impeccable technique, a refined architectural sense, and a mastery of vibrato usage across the spectrum of everything he plays.
He did record the Schubert Trio in B flat with Jelly d’Aranyi and Myra Hess in New York (Pristine Audio has released their transfer on PASM 083), but his recording career in the studios ended in 1930. The examples here come from his American years, 1926-29, and therefore exclude the acoustic Vocalions he had made back in London. These sonata recordings are probably his two most important statements and so far as I know they were the first-ever recordings made of these pieces. The pianist throughout is Simeon Rumschisky. Beethoven’s Op.69 Sonata allows one to hear the elegant and refined cast of his playing, with its well-focused tone, his shifts being natural and effortless, portamentos being subtly applied and not endemic. In many ways he is a very modern-sounding Beethovenian cellist in terms of his expressive devices. The Grieg sonata is a shaggier beast, its folkloric hues needing quite a firm hand on the tiller, especially in the outer movements. This it receives in this 1927 recording in which an unsentimental but rhythmically vital approach works very well. Salmond doesn’t downplay the reflective B section of the first movement but he plays it with a kind of rigorous gentleness far from the somewhat glutinous way it has sometimes subsequently been taken on disc. Even in the more extended paragraphs of the finale no phrase is over-stretched.
The smaller pieces form the central panel of this disc. The piano is a touch distantly balanced in Bruch’s Kol Nidrei
which receives a classic Salmond statement - rich but not cloying, a reserved melancholia, especially in the March tread toward the end. His Granados has a grand seigneurial approach, whilst his technical excellence and especially the drone effects in the Popper are beautifully realised. His pleasurable wit can be savoured here too. His vibrato is just a touch more pressing and insistent in Grieg’s To Spring
, which was used as the filler, the last side, of the composer’s Sonata. Perhaps the most important composer-associated piece is Bridge’s charming Mélodie
. Salmond had made his debut with Frank Bridge, then a violist, in a performance of the composer’s Fantasy
It would be good to think that the Vocalions could be released at some point, as a valuable sequence in themselves. Also that the three Beethoven sonatas, with Leonid Hambro, recorded live, and never reissued since an early limited-edition LP memorial edition, could be issued alongside them. The disc under review has been excellently transferred, with surface noise retained the better to capture the full range of the sound spectrum. This is an outstanding release.