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ClassicsOnline Home » ELGAR / DELIUS: Violin Concertos (Sammons) (1929, 1944)
Albert Sammons (1886-1957)
Elgar: Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61
Delius: Violin Concerto
Although virtually self-taught, Albert Sammons is regarded as the greatest British violinist to have made records; for connoisseurs, his interpretation of the Elgar Violin Concerto is the benchmark by which others are judged, and found wanting. The irony is that this supreme recording has been overshadowed by a marketing gimmick. Having tried for years to get Fritz Kreisler, its dedicatee and first performer, to record the Elgar, Fred Gaisberg of HMV hit on the idea of matching the worlds favourite prodigy, sixteen-year-old Yehudi Menuhin, with the composer in the studio. That 1932 recording, nicely played, to be sure, but sounding more like the work of a sixteen-year-old with each of its manifold reissues, has sold and sold, while Sammonss far superior reading has been known only to the lucky few. It is now available in a careful new transfer for the enlightenment of all violin fanciers.
The son and grandson of shoemakers, Albert Sammons was born in London on 23rd February 1886 and from the age of seven was taught the rudiments of violin playing by his father and elder brother. Later he had about thirty lessons from two Ysaÿe pupils, Alfredo Fernandez and Frederick Weist-Hill, and from John Saunders, a pupil of Bernhard Molique. Having first played professionally at the Earls Court Exhibition in 1898, he left school at twelve. From 1901 he was earning his living in theatre orchestras, switching for the summers to a hotel band in Harrogate, where in 1906 he performed Mendelssohns Violin Concerto. In 1909 Beecham was recommended to hear him at the Waldorf Hotel in London, requested the finale of the Mendelssohn (which Sammons played at a speed which made me hold my breath) and offered him the second seat at the first desk in his new orchestra, soon promoting him to leader. In 1910 Sammons formed the New (later London) String Quartet, which he led for nine years; it gave many first performances, including Frank Bridges Second Quartet. He also led the Philharmonic Societys orchestra, while making a name as a soloist, with success in 1910 playing Max Bruchs Concerto in G minor at the Queens Hall under Stanford and then at the Royal Albert Hall under Landon Ronald. In 1911 he was appointed to the Kings Band and in 1912 he played Saint-Saënss Violin Concerto in B minor before King George V and the composer. Although he detested foreign travel, a quirk which prevented his having an international career, he worked in both Germany (with the Russian Ballet) and France under Pierre Monteux. Back home he played chamber music privately with Ysaÿe, Thibaud and Rubinstein. Just before they both did war service in the Band of the Grenadier Guards (as clarinettists) Sammons linked up with the Australian pianist William Murdoch; their duo was to be expanded into The Chamber Music Players by the addition of the violist Lionel Tertis and the cellist Cedric Sharpe (later replaced by W.H. Squire and later still by Lauri Kennedy). In 1919 Sammons led the first public performances of Elgars Quartet and Piano Quintet; he also took up the Violin Sonata, eventually recording it with Murdoch. Despite the onset of Parkinsons disease, Sammons gave many concerts up and down the United Kingdom during World War II, helping to keep up morale. He gave the first performance of George Dysons Violin Concerto in 1942 and his last performance with orchestra, of E.J. Moerans Concerto, was given in Norwich on 28th April 1946, with Sir Adrian Boult conducting, a performance of which a recording survives. In March 1948 he retired from the concert platform. Sammons had a wide repertoire which took in the standard concertos as well as Blochs and Szymanowskis Violin Concerto No.1. His own compositions included a Phantasy Quartet, a Cobbett prize-winner, as well as solos and studies for the violin. He began his career on a fiddle he had made himself; he then used a variety of violins, many of them new English instruments, but in 1927 bought the 1696 Matteo Gofriller he plays on these recordings. His later years were made difficult by illness but from 1939 to 1954 he taught at the Royal College, his best-known pupils being Alan Loveday and Hugh Bean. He died on 24th August 1957. Sammons left many records, those with his friend Tertis including an idiosyncratic but memorable Mozart Sinfonia concertante and a Handel/Halvorsen Passacaglia which excels even that of Heifetz and Primrose.
Sammons first met Frederick Delius in May 1915, when he played the Elgar Concerto in a concert which also included Deliuss Piano Concerto. The experience of hearing Sammons in the Elgar spurred Delius on to write his own concerto for this great player. Sammons not only gave technical help in writing the solo line, he may also have helped to compose some of the linking passages. In addition he was closely connected with Deliuss chamber music; with the London Quartet he gave the first performances of both versions of the String Quartet, and the Second Violin Sonata was written for him and Murdoch. He gave the first performance of the Delius Concerto on 30th January 1919 at a Royal Philharmonic Society concert in London conducted by Adrian Boult, who recalled that strings had to be pulled to save Bandsman Sammons from playing at an all-night army ball just hours before. Sammons also edited the work for publication and championed it throughout the 1920s and 1930s, playing it in Beechams 1929 Delius Festival. When Walter Legge of Columbia decided to record the concerto in 1944, Sammons was therefore the natural choice as soloist. He might be past his peak as a player but he more than made up for any slight shortcomings with his understanding of the piece; and he was able to give of his best. The orchestra was the Liverpool Philharmonic, probably the finest in England at the time, as it was packed with fine players who had been moved out of London to save them from the bombing; and on the podium was Malcolm Sargent, who knew this orchestra as well as anyone, while the experienced balance engineer was Arthur Clarke. Isaac Stern, just one of the many colleagues who admired the recording, later told Sammons he had worn out several sets of the 78rpm discs through playing and replaying them.
Stern might well have enjoyed the Elgar recording, too, but it never penetrated the American market. The first of Sammonss many performances of this concerto came in 1914, with Vassily Safonov conducting; and he played it once under Weingartner and on innumerable occasions under the leading British conductors, as well as many times under the composers baton. Sadly he and Elgar worked for different record labels and thus both of Sammonss recordings, the first, rather abridged, in 1916, were made with Sir Henry Wood in charge. Not that this was necessarily a bad thing. Granted, Sammons had reservations about Woods conducting and it is true that Old Timber could be a bit brusque in his approach to romantic music. This bluntness was part and parcel of Woods character, however, and it made rather a good foil for Sammonss expansiveness (a parallel would be the excellent recordings which the classical Leo Blech made with the romantic Fritz Kreisler). Whereas Elgar himself might have been too indulgent to his soloist, as he was with Menuhin, Woods more straightforward approach set up a real creative tension with Sammons. Listening to the performance today, the violinists huge tone soaring above the orchestra with that smooth style in cantilena noted by the critic of The Times after a performance of the Brahms Concerto a decade later, it is astonishing to contemplate that the sessions were held three weeks apart in a cold Queens Hall. Sammonss style, with its wonderfully assured portamenti carried as if on the breath of a great singer, is the genuine article and the interpretation has immense structural strength. Few recordings of a late romantic violin concerto have come near this one and none has surpassed it.
The present performance of the Elgar concerto was the first complete recording of the work, as well as its first electrical recording. The laminated English Columbia pressings on which it was originally released, though better than the crackly shellacs the label offered after its incorporation into EMI, were still not as quiet as American Columbia "Viva-Tonals" of the period. Since the recording was not issued in the United States, however, laminated British pressings have been used for the present transfer. The source for Delius concerto was a set of postwar U.S. Columbia shellacs.
Mark Obert-Thorn is one of the worlds most respected transfer artist/engineers. He has worked for a number of specialist labels, including Pearl, Biddulph, Romophone and Music & Arts. Three of his transfers have been nominated for Gramophone Awards. A pianist by training, his passions are music, history and working on projects. He has found a way to combine all three in the transfer of historical recordings. Obert-Thorn describes himself as a moderate interventionist rather than a purist or re-processor, unlike those who apply significant additions and make major changes to the acoustical qualities of old recordings. His philosophy is that a good transfer should not call attention to itself, but rather allow the performances to be heard with the greatest clarity.
There is no over-reverberant cathedral sound in an Obert-Thorn restoration, nor is there the tinny bass and piercing mid-range of many authorised commercial issues. He works with the cleanest available 78s, and consistently achieves better results than restoration engineers working with the metal parts from the archives of the modern corporate owners of the original recordings. His transfers preserve the original tone of the old recordings, maximising the details in critical upper mid-range and lower frequencies to achieve a musical integrity that is absent from many other commercially released restorations.
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ELGAR / DELIUS: Violin Concertos (Sammons) (1929, ...