Probably the most celebrated English violinist of the first half of the twentieth century, Albert Sammons (1886-1957) was entirely self-taught. He was playing in and leading a fashionable society orchestra when he was heard and recruited by Thomas Beecham, who shortly aftewards made him concertmaster of his own newly formed symphony orchestra. Not long after he formed a quartet and also began a solo career. His quartet gave some important premières, including Frank Bridge's impressive Second Quartet. But it was as a soloist and chamber player that his name was made. This disc preserves, in pristine sound provided by that miracle-man of transfer engineering, Mark Obert-Thorn, recordings made between 1926 and 1935. There are two big pieces and a slew of trifles.
Probably most important, and certainly extremely impressive, is the first-ever recording (!), with violist Lionel Tertis, of the Mozart 'Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364,' made in 1933. It is a big-hearted performance in Romantic style, which was certainly the norm for the day but possibly done with more flair here than by anyone else playing in England or Europe in those days. It has, of course, the portamenti so common in string playing then; I must confess a retro liking for it and it doesn't bother me in the least. Tertis, the father of modern viola playing and a larger-than-life figure himself (and, come to think of it, his huge Montagnana viola was larger than life, too--some referred to it as his 'cello'!), wrote a wildly inappropriate and virtuosic first-movement double cadenza complete with spiccati and double-stops all over the place. Musicologists would frown; I, on the other hand, loved it. The caressing tone of both artists in the Andante movement brought me close to tears. The Presto finale is light-hearted and a complete romp. Huzzah!
The trifles include the rarely-heard 'Passacaglia on a Theme of Sammartini' by the Hungarian violinist and composer Tivadar Nachez, only ever recorded, as far as I know, by Sammons and Mischa Elman. Then comes Brunet's arrangement for piano and violin of the Schubert 'Rosamunde' entr'acte, with Gerald Moore at the piano. Following are the Dvorák's 'Humoresque,' Massenet's 'Meditation' from 'Thaïs' (I almost typed 'Medication from Thaïs,' an old student name for it), an arrangement of 'Londonderry Air,' and Sammons's own 'Bourree,' a baroque-style bonbon.
The disc closes out with Elgar's 'Violin Sonata in E minor, Op. 81.' Sammons is joined by his long-time sonata partner, pianist William Murdoch. Sammons made a specialty of this sonata as well as making the first recording ever of the glorious Elgar Violin Concerto. He did not première it--that honor went to Elgar's long-time friend W. H. 'Billy' Reed (also honored in the Enigma Variations)--but Sammons and Murdoch played it many, many times in recital. There is a striking modern recording of this sonata by violinist Midori and I had thought it was the ne plus ultra, largely because of the throbbing emotion of the performance, but I have to say that I am bowled over by Sammons's and Murdoch's performance. There is forward thrust and panache in the outer movements, and in the lovely Andante there is almost unbearable heartache. Oh my goodness! When I first played this recording I went right back and played it over again two more times. Furthermore, the sound is extraordinarily modern-sounding. I don't know how Obert-Thorn and Naxos do it, but they keep coming up with modern-sounding historical recordings. And this is from 1935!!