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Hamilton Harty (conductor)
Acoustic Concerto Recordings
Orchestra/Hamilton Harty
rec. 1919-1925, Petty France, London
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC645 [76:26 + 58:17]

Pristine Audio has released a slew of valuable recordings made by Hamilton Harty. Now it takes him back to the era of acoustic recording in his complete recordings of concertos – and concerted works – all of which were made between 1919 and 1925.

Enthusiasts for 78s are a sub-set of classical collectors. Those who listen to acoustic recordings are the hardest of the hard core. That’s especially the case when it comes to the orchestral reinforcements necessary to boost frequencies which the horn recording was unable to capture. This is most obvious in the first concerto, Bach’s Concerto for two violins. In America, Victor’s solution in 1915 had been to record Fritz Kreisler and Efrem Zimbalist with a string quartet. In Britain, Columbia engaged the leader of the Hallé Orchestra, Arthur Catterall, and his orchestral colleague and string quartet partner, John S Bridge, and an anonymous orchestra under the direction of Harty in April 1924.

Both soloists were experienced at recording, and they work together well. They don’t coordinate portamenti, as one can hear clearly in the slow movement, nor are their trills of equal speed but they are fluent and persuasive players – Catterall, obviously, as he was an admired leader and soloist. Reproduction at the time wouldn’t have emphasised the reinforcements quite so much but so good are today’s transfers – and Mark Obert Thorn’s transfers throughout this twofer are very good indeed - that it is inevitably the case that the slow movement sounds to us rather like a concerto for two violins and brass band. There’s one especially jarring de-accelerando in preparation to end a side, but I won’t spoil the surprise.

On the same day Catterall recorded Mozart’s A major Concerto. This was the work’s premiere recording, though Parlophone in Germany had somewhat earlier released a version without the slow movement with a violinist called Hedwig Fassbänder. If Harty’s 1933 recording of the Sinfonia concertante with Sammons and Tertis was his most celebrated recording of a Mozart concerto, this is probably his least remembered and I’m not aware it has been previously released on CD. Catterall plays in that familiar on-the-string style of his laced, in his introductory passages, with lashings of portamenti. The bass reinforcements are relatively discreet in the outer movements but more obvious in the slow movement, once again.

It was perfectly acceptable to slow down for a side change but when one listens ‘joined up’ these moments sound – inevitably – terrible and there’s nothing to be done about it. The rallentando at 4:05 in the first movement is horrible, whilst that at 7:40 is better. It’s inherent to the performance, not indicative of performance practice at the time, but an inevitable corollary of the recording process gently to ease the music to the end of a side. Yet Columbia and other labels were perfectly aware of the problems of the side change and in this recording added a chord between the second and third discs; naturally this has been omitted in this transfer and it’s not referred to in the notes. There’s also a six bar cut towards the end of the slow movement and a small snip in the finale. Catterall’s slides are very audible again and so is his crystalline tone production. No wonder Toscanini so admired Catterall when the Englishman was leading the BBC Symphony. A final point: a surprising amount of inner part orchestral detail can be heard.

The first disc ends with the first recording of Beethoven’s Concerto in C minor (6 April 1925) played by William Murdoch. Of late, a number of Murdoch’s solo discs have been restored by APR (review) and it’s clear – it was always clear – that he was a brilliantly fluent and fleet Beethovenian, who never sentimentalised the music. That is the same in this concerto performance. However, if you like listening to weird orchestral recordings on 78 here’s one for you. The strings are very thin and it’s hard to gauge how many were in the studio: not that many, I’d say. Again, the orchestra is unnamed, but vibrato-free winds were a characteristic of the Hallé’s very distinctive team, though some of the piping sounds that emerge violently – via their own horn, perhaps - are quite amazing to hear. Alarming, too. Balances are odd and reinforcements again rife. There’s a terrible old scramble by the orchestra in the finale. If the esteemed Arthur Brooks was the recording producer here, he was having an off day. The recording exemplifies a huge disparity between the antiquated, archaic and pro tem nature of the orchestra - and its recording - and the serene quasi-modernity of the solo playing. It’s the equivalent of Christiano Ronaldo playing alongside ten footballers from 1910.

The second disc opens with two concerted works played by another Australian musician, Daisy Kennedy, in 1919. Beethoven’s Romance No.1 finds her with the expected reinforcements which turn the piece into a bit of a German beer garden with their oompah accompaniment. Her playing in Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso is rather queasy. She had a facile technique but wasn’t a forward-looking tonalist. Leo Strockoff’s recording of Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole has appeared on the semi-private Historic Records label (see review) and was part of that company’s own Harty releases. They’re no longer available from that source and in any case far too much treble was rolled off in their transfer and there’s absolutely no comparison with Obert-Thorn’s work. As I remarked in the earlier review, Strockoff boasted to Nathan Milstein that he’d recorded the work in full, including the Intermezzo, which he clearly hadn’t. The recording wasn’t issued in Britain but was shipped for issue in America. As also noted in that earlier review, despite some eccentricities of phrasing and vibrato usage, Strockoff – another minor figure, really – had musical personality and I enjoyed encountering this recording again, finely directed by Harty, though as my one reader knows by now, from the shellac era Henry Merckel is the man for this work.

This leaves Albert Sammons’ recording of the Bruch. It was recorded three days after the Murdoch Beethoven concerto, but it could hardly be with the same band. This is the only recording here that, despite limitations in sound and the use of brass reinforcements, conquers the years and stands on its own terms. If you put me up against a wall, I’d tentatively suggest that this is the only recording in this twofer that could conceivably be the Hallé in its reduced form – or at least the others aren’t the Hallé in any meaningful sense. This was first reissued on LP on Past Masters PM15. It was issued on CD in a poor transfer on the Hallé’s own label, CD HLT8002. In the LP notes the recording location is stated as Columbia’s London studios, which is what Pristine say (the Columbia studios in Petty France). The Hallé’s label states that it was made in the old Free Trade Hall, Manchester, definitely citing the Hallé (otherwise they could hardly have issued it on their label). I don’t know on what authority they make these claims – Harty’s papers are in Queen’s University Belfast so maybe something survives there or maybe there is something in the orchestra’s own ledgers. It makes sense that Harty recorded with his own orchestra, but I think for now it’s best, like Pristine Audio, to be circumspect.

Sammons, aged 39 and at the height of his powers, is recorded forwardly. His tone production had undergone a complete reinvention from the salon-sliding and vibrato-light playing of his first recording, a cylinder disc made in 1908. His playing is superbly passionate, tonally rich, and lithely fast. There’s no sentimental lingering in the slow movement – he and Murdoch, sonata partners for a quarter of a century, were allies in that – but it is deeply expressive without ostentation. This, after all, was the work he’d played back in 1910 with Stanford conducting, a performance that Landon Ronald heard and admired so much. Stanford, himself much impressed, apparently told Sammons that it was ‘a treat to hear a violinist who plays in the middle of the note’. The finale is memorably played by the soloist, terrifically exciting but under perfect control. Yes, one hears individual orchestral strings in the tuttis, yes, the brass reinforcements can be a bit irksome from time to time, and yes, the orchestral accompaniment is valiant but desperately uneven. But Sammons is in all-conquering form and it’s such a shame that the other work he and Harty recorded that day, the Mendelssohn concerto (or parts of it – from the matrix details, I can’t quite work out how much they recorded) was not issued and test pressings seem not to have survived. That really would have been the Bruch-Mendelssohn combo decades before it became a favourite LP coupling.

I have all these recordings on 78s and have always had real trouble extracting much pleasure from my copies of the Bach, though I’ve had a lot more success with the Bruch and the Lalo. Even so, listening to these excellent transfers makes me wonder if I will ever again listen to my own sets of these works. And that leads to further melancholy collecting thoughts about the rest of my collection. What does one do with these artefacts when they have been Obert-Thorned on CD? Well, that’s part of the collectors’ dilemma and not really relevant here.

If you happen to be that rara avis who collects acoustically recorded concertos you should know that they sound here as good as one could possibly hope. The recordings, to a greater or lesser degree, reflect some of the compromises, contingencies, limitations and failures of such ventures. They also reflect the optimism, resourcefulness, bravery and accomplishment of the era and of the artists and engineers who so valiantly strove to record such masterpieces for public consumption. Only those without imagination write off early recordings such as these. If you doubt that, listen to Sammons.

Jonathan Woolf
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, BWV1043 (c.1730) [16:58]
Arthur Catterall and John S. Bridge (violins)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Violin Concerto No 5 in A major, KV219 (“Turkish”) Cadenzas: Joachim (1775) [27:16]
Arthur Catterall (violin)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op 37 Cadenza: Moscheles (1803) [32:14]
William Murdoch (piano)
Romance No 1 in G major, Op 40 (1802) [7:13]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Op 28 (1887) [6:36]
Daisy Kennedy (violin)
Edouard LALO (1823-1892)
Symphonie espagnole Op 21 (1873) [21:57]
Leo Strockoff (violin)
Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Violin Concerto No 1 in G minor, Op 26 (1868) [22:32]
Albert Sammons (violin)

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