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Hamilton Harty (conductor)
Acoustic Concerto Recordings
rec. 1919-1925, Petty France, London PRISTINE AUDIO PASC645 [76:26 + 58:17]
Hamilton Harty is a conductor in whom I have been interested for 50 years, when, as a youngster, I bought a copy his best-selling record of Purcell’s Trumpet Voluntary (as it was then believed to be) and Walford Davies’ Solemn Melody in a junk shop. Not long after, I found his recording of Dvorak’s New World, (also available on Pristine PASC 331 - review) and this is still one of my favourite performances of this warhorse. Harty had similarities to Albert Coates in the tremendous vitality and momentum of his performances, though he never drove the orchestra beyond its capabilities, for example into the scramble we hear in the final bars of Coates’s recording of the abridged Act 1 of WalkŘre.
Pristine are to be particularly commended for bringing back into circulation these late acoustic recordings; the audience for such ancient offerings must be vanishingly small. The performers (and also the Columbia company) were incredibly unlucky with their timing; this was the very tail end of the acoustic recording era, and a matter of months after they were made the introduction of electrical recording rendered them obsolete. The Beethoven and Bruch concertos were recorded in April 1925, and in the October of that year Columbia made its first electrical recording of a major work when Weingartner recorded Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. If only they had waited just six months these recordings might have stayed in the catalogue into the mid-30s. As it was, none of them escaped the great cull of acoustic issues that Columbia made in February 1928.
The CDs are programmed in chronological order of composition rather than by recording date, so we begin with the Bach Double Concerto with Arthur Catterall (who was the leader of the HallÚ at that time) and John S. Bridge. Catterall (1882-1943), was born in my home town of Preston, and at the age of 18 was invited by Hans Richter to play in the 1902 Bayreuth Festival orchestra. He became leader of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra in 1909 and of the HallÚ from around the beginning of WW1 until he resigned in 1925. He was also very active in chamber music and his quartet was highly regarded. John Bridge (1872-1845), another Lancashire violinist, joined the HallÚ aged only 20 in 1893 while HallÚ himself was still its conductor, continuing under Hans Richter. He succeeded Catterall as leader in 1925 for two seasons, then remaining as a player until he resigned in 1930 after 37 years with the orchestra. He and Catterall had a close musical relationship, and he was second violin in the Catterall Quartet for many years.
The performance does not seem to me to be particularly successful, and I don’t think Bach was a composer particularly to Harty’s taste. The first movement is rather plodding and there is no attempt at legato phrasing; almost every note is a separate bow stroke. It is interesting that there is almost no portamento by either soloists or orchestra in this movement. In this respect the second movement is very different. Although the tempo is quite swift, with little rubato and certainly no sense of languishing in the phrasing, to our ears the minimal vibrato and rather unvaried dynamics make a strange contrast with the large amount of portamento they employ. Today we associate portamento almost exclusively with a sort of hothouse sensuality and passion, but there is no such sense in its use here. The final movement returns to the dogged feel of the first, with almost no rubato, portamento or legato.
It is perhaps worth mentioning here that the slow movement of the Bach contains the first of several examples of something which will bring a modern listener up with a jolt. When a movement in divided over more than one side, it was common practice to make a ritardando at the end of the first side. This eliminated the feel of a sudden cut-off, but is not all helpful when the sides are joined up today. This practice gradually went out of fashion in the 1930s, but can still be found much later - there is a horrible example in the introduction to the chorus “Go in the name” towards the end of the first part of The Dream of Gerontius in Sargent’s 1944 recording. I would think that it would be perfectly possible with today’s technology to correct this; I remember John Steane in a talk on Radio 3 playing an example of a singer’s trill to show it’s poor quality and saying with astonishment “The engineers have been able to slow this example right down without altering the pitch - don’t ask me how!” - and that must have been getting on for 40 years ago. But, of course, this begs all sorts of musico-philosphical questions about whether it is right to alter the past arbitrarily, especially when we can have no absolute knowledge of what the performers would have done in the context of a “real” performance. There would always be a danger of doing what Sir Arthur Evans did in the renovations at Knossos in the early 20th century and impose what could be simply a fantasy that ties in with our wishes and expectations rather than anything that the original artists would have recognised or approved.
The Mozart 5th Violin Concerto is a much more successful performance than the Bach. Harty was a wonderful Mozartian; his conducting of the famous 1933 recording of the Sinfonia Concertante with Sammons and Tertis may not be the way it is done today, but it is of superlative quality. The opening tutti of the present recording has exactly the same sort of utterly compelling vigour and brio, and Catterall’s trenchant playing matches it exactly. The slow movement is again quite swift and Catterall nicely contrasts clean articulation of first section of the opening solo with a much greater use of portamento in the second part. The third movement is vigorous and characterful, but in the “Turkish” section they make use of what are to me completely unconvincing tempo changes between sections. The tutti are slow and pesante but when the violin comes in it takes off like a rat out of a trap, only to go back to a slower tempo for the tutti.
The Beethoven 3rd Piano Concerto was the work I was most looking forward to hearing. I have all the others on 78s, indeed I have had three sets of the Bruch over the years, but I have never even seen a copy of the Beethoven and had never heard a transfer of it. I cannot explain why it is so much rarer; it was recorded in the same set of sessions as the Bruch and spent almost exactly the same amount of time in the catalogue (the Bruch was issued in December 1925 and the Beethoven in January 1926 - both were deleted in February 1928). Perhaps its rarity also explains why the surface noise is noticeably heavier than on the other concerto recordings: Mark Obert-Thorn may well not have had as many copies to choose from in making his transfer.
The soloist is the Australian pianist William Murdoch. Born in 1888, he studied first at the University of Melbourne Conservatorium, coming to the RCM in London in 1906. He made his London debut in 1910, returning to Australia for a tour with the contralto Louise Kirkby-Lunn in 1912 and with Clara Butt in 1913. In 1915 he made London his permanent base, though regularly toured abroad. He was the pianist in the premieres of Elgar’s Violin Sonata and Piano Quintet in 1919 and recorded quite extensively for Columbia, dying in 1942. On the evidence of this performance, although he was six years younger than Artur Schnabel, his playing of Beethoven was “pre-Schnabel”. His approach is closer to Frederick Lamond, or even Eugen d’Albert, and the Lisztian school. Murdoch seems to see the concerto as more of a virtuoso piece than we are used to today. At the piano’s first entry after the opening tutti the three sets of octave scales are played rather as though they are from the “Frisca” section of a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody, and I don’t really take to his rushing of the phrases with the trills in the second phrase (3:18 into tr 7 CD1). The concerto’s emotional ambiguity largely passes Murdoch by. A point of interest is the use of the Moscheles cadenza, which is absolutely the right one for Murdoch’s view of the piece - a rather sub-Lisztian bit of virtuosity, much longer and very different from Beethoven’s own. The slow movement is not really to my taste. I find the snatched playing of the second bar of the opening solo simply obtuse and his performance in general turns much of the movement into facile virtuoso figuration, for example the uninflected staccato scales 5:50 into track 8 of CD 1. The last movement is better, but sometimes sounds just impatient. Harty conducts the fugato section (4:14 into tr.8 CD 1) in a wonderfully vigorous way, but then Murdoch comes in at a faster tempo and seems to want to rush off in virtuosic showiness. I found this performance very much a curate’s egg, but it is perhaps an important one in demonstrating an approach to the concerto which gives us hints of a late-19th century style in Beethoven.
For the first two tracks of the second CD we go back in time to 1919 for Beethoven’s First Romance and Saint-SaŰns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso played by Daisy Kennedy. These two tracks are considerably harder to listen to than the other items as they had been deleted in July 1924, so would never have been pressed using Columbia’s “New Process” laminated surfaces which gave much quieter results. Kennedy (1893-1981), like Murdoch, was Australian (it is remarkable how many Australian artists were important parts of British musical life before WW2). She settled in London in 1912, married the pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch in 1914 and made her home in this country thereafter. After she divorced Moiseiwitsch in 1924 and married the poet John Drinkwater she decided to devote herself to the role of wife and mother and her career declined, ending after a serious car accident in 1937. Both the performances are enjoyable but not particularly memorable, and the Saint-SaŰns lacks the sensuality in the Introduction and the brilliance in the Rondo of Heifetz’s 1935 recording with Barbirolli.
The performance of the Lalo Symphonie Espagnole (minus the third movement Intermezzo, as was almost always the case at that time) was, for some unfathomable reason, only issued in America. Leo Strockoff was of Russian extraction and a pupil of Ysaye, but that is as much as I have been able to discover. He seems to have had a reasonable but unspectacular career. His part in this recording is generally held in fairly low esteem, but I found that I enjoyed it much more than I had expected on hearing it again for the first time in a good number of years. He has a fine, fluent technique and is never faceless. The Scherzando and Rondo movements having considerable panache, and the orchestra comes over surprisingly well.
The final work in this set is the one which has the greatest interest. Albert Sammons (1886-1857), though largely forgotten nowadays, was unquestionable one of the greatest violinists these islands have produced. He was essentially self-taught, having had only a few lessons from his father as a child and a few more in his mid-teens from Alfredo Fernandez, a Spanish pupil of Ysaye. He made his living as a jobbing player in concert, theatre and hotel orchestras until Beecham heard him in the Waldorf Hotel orchestra in 1909 and offered him a place in the Beecham Symphony Orchestra, of which he soon became leader. He also began a solo career, and played the Bruch concerto with the LSO under Stanford in Queen’s Hall in 1910. In the same year he formed the London String Quartet and became a central figure in British music making until his retirement in 1948. Unfortunately the record companies preferred more glamorous continental names for the large, popular concertos, and this Bruch, the Elgar and the Delius are his only concerto recordings (he also recorded the Beethoven in 1927, but it was never issued).
The first movement of the Bruch has tremendous momentum, there’s not a moment when the concentration lapses, and violinist and conductor play as one entity, but this does not in any way preclude detail and refinement of phrasing. The slow movement is perhaps a tad fast for my taste, but Sammons and Harty unerringly get to its core. Like the first movement, the finale moves unstoppably forward, though never sounding pressured or rushed. This is a great performance of the concerto, and though my absolute favourite accompaniment in this concerto remains that provided by Mengelberg for Guila Bustabo in the live performance from 1940, Harty comes a close second.
As always, Mark Obert-Thorn has done a wonderful job with some very recalcitrant material in all these recordings. He has made the orchestral sound more believable than I had ever expected it could be. The amount of detail and dynamic range that he has been able to find in these recordings, especially the Bruch, is simply remarkable.
It cannot be denied that the main interest of this issue is historical (no-one who just wants to listen to the music of any of these works is going to turn to these recordings), but that historical interest is considerable in a number of ways. It may not be a set to which you return often, but it is well worth buying as a fascinating adjunct.
Paul Steinson Previous review:Jonathan Woolf Contents J. S. BACHConcerto in D minor for Two Violins, BWV1043
Arthur Catterall and John S. Bridge, violins
Recorded 10 April 1924 MOZARTViolin Concerto No. 5 in A major, KV219 (“Turkish”) (Cadenzas: Joachim)
Arthur Catterall, violin
Recorded 10 April 1924 BEETHOVENPiano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (Cadenza: Moscheles)
William Murdoch, piano
Recorded 6 April 1925 BEETHOVENRomance No. 1 in G major, Op. 40
Daisy Kennedy, violin
Recorded in 1919 SAINT-SA╦NSIntroduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 28
Daisy Kennedy, violin
Recorded in 1919 LALOSymphonie espagnole, Op. 21
Leo Strockoff, violin
Recorded 14 July 1924 BRUCHViolin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26
Albert Sammons, violin
Recorded 9 April 1925
All recordings made at the Clerkenwell Road Studios, 102-108, Clerkenwell Road, London EC1
Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn