...Sammons is such a modern-sounding violinist, with a full, firm tone and an...
John Armstrong 2002-11-20
In some ways Albert Sammons was the great British violinist of the early 20th century. He began earning his living in theatre orchestras and hotel bands, before Thomas Beecham made him leader of his Beecham Orchestra in 1908, and a solo career beckoned.
Sammons first played the Elgar Concerto in 1914, and this recording from 15 years later is the first complete reading on disc. People who know this performance (many of them violinists) tend to rave about it, and in this new transfer from Mark Obert-Thorn it's easier than ever to hear why.
Sammons is such a modern-sounding violinist, with a full, firm tone, passionate vibrato, fluid fingerwork, and an effortless technique which makes light of the toughest moments in this concerto. Remember that this would have been recorded in complete takes, and the all-but flawless intonation and confident interpretation is still more impressive.
So, if Sammons's recording is so good, why isn't it better known...in fact if he was such a fine violinist, why isn't his name as familiar as others of his generation? Several reasons; firstly Sammons hated foreign travel, so international tours were out and a reputation with the general public abroad was unlikely to follow. The Elgar recording was never issued in the US, so while the Delius Concerto (written for Sammons) that's also on this new transfer was a favourite of Isaac Stern's, he probably never heard the Elgar.
Sammons played the Concerto many times with Elgar conducting, but as they worked for different labels that partnership would never be heard on disc; instead Elgar went on to make the recording that was effectively to eclipse Sammons's, with the young Yehudi Menuhin. As Tully Potter writes in the notes for this Naxos transfer, it was a marketing coup for EMI, the world-famous 16-year-old prodigy paired with the great composer - it was bound to sell, and it still does, such is the affection it inspires. But is it as good as Sammons and Sir Henry Wood recorded three years earlier?
Well, I've always preferred the Sammons, but I wouldn't go as far as Potter in his notes; Menuhin and Elgar were hardly a 'marketing gimmick'. There are many beautiful things in the recording as many of us have recognised for years, as there are in more than a handful of more recent interpretations in far better recorded sound. But there'll always be something special about both the Menuhin and the Sammons recordings, and one reason to prefer Sammons is Sir Henry Wood, who manages to make Elgar's reading of his own Concerto sound almost self-indulgent. Wood is clear-eyed and unsentimental, noble and true - he leaves the heart-on-sleeve romanticism to the soloist, and the contrast works superbly. You also end up with a very brisk reading, minutes faster than most others, beaten to the tape only by Heifetz and Sargent...which by the way, is another of my favourites. Too fast for some, but Heifetz is technically on another plane - and anyway, the Elgar Concerto grows in stature when it's not over-sentimentalised.
If you're curious you really should investigate this Naxos Historical cd, and at their usual super-budget price you'll still have change for your bus fare home, as they used to say. It's a great performance, and to my ears this is the best transfer it's had to date, with none of the over-processing, pseudo-stereo or bad edits that have marred previous efforts. Take Potter's passion with a pinch of salt, but revel in the music-making of one of the greatest British violinists, heard more clearly than ever. The years just fall away.
Andrew McGregor - presenter of CD Review on Radio 3