eroica tovey elgar em records

Sir Donald Tovey (1875-1940)
Sonata eroica, Op.29 (1913)
Albert Sammons (1886-1957)
Virtuosic Studies, Op.21: selections (1921)
Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Études caractéristiques, Op.24 (1892)
Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin)
rec. 2016, Church of St Michael and All Angels, Downholme, Richmond, UK
EM Records EMRCD079 [67]

These three very contrasting works for solo violin, written between 1892 and 1921, serve very different functions. Tovey’s Sonata eroica is a four-movement work written for Adolf Busch and clearly intended to become part of Busch’s repertoire, which it never did. Elgar’s Études caractéristiques and Albert Sammons’ Virtuosic Studies serve the needs of advanced soloists for pedagogic material. In Elgar’s case the etudes are imaginative and look to Paganini whilst for the most part Sammons’s studies are strictly practical, the product of focused thinking after an uneasy, largely self-taught background. This is the world première recording of these eight Sammons studies; he wrote 38 altogether, in two books. The Tovey has received at least two recordings and the Elgar is best-known on disc from the recording of Marat Bisengaliev.

We know from Tully Potter’s biography of the violinist that Busch was dissatisfied with Tovey’s sonata, sending back criticisms that were focused primarily on the first movement. I’ve found no evidence that Busch ever played it publicly, and there are strong indications that Tovey regretted sending it to the publishers as early as he did. Its indebtedness to Bach is very clear but so is its prolix nature which in a performance as meticulously exact as this asks a lot of the listener. It opens in a serenely drifting way and eventually draws together more decisive material, whilst the Scherzo is cleverly shaped. The slow movement, played by Rupert Marhsall-Luck with commendable clarity, is nevertheless enervating even before one comes to the fugal finale. This strikes me as a weaker movement even than the opening and though I’ve listened to it three times it strikes me as implausible that Busch – notorious for taking fast movements very quickly – would have practised or performed it at this slow a tempo.  Marhsall-Luck’s is by some way the slowest performance of the sonata. Robert Atchison’s solution to its problems, on Guild GMCD7352, is to race through it in 24 minutes. On Sheva SH302, Anna Kakutia takes a more moderate 28 but both players agree that the Fugue should take eight minutes or slightly less. Marshall-Luck takes nine and a half, the whole sonata taking 32 minutes in his hands.

Sammons’s Virtuosic Studies were published in 1921 as his Op.21 shortly after his Op.20, The Secret of Technique in Violin Playing. Most of his students and ‘grand-students’ practised the Virtuosic Studies and Hugh Bean pushed them but they have remained on the periphery of the literature. I’m delighted to come across a recorded performance though of course whether material such as this, intended for private practice, offers sufficient musical scope for a recording is another question. The studies are numbered in the track listing with a tempo marking but Sammons left explicit instructions for the player in his books, of which Marshall-Luck plays four from each book. In his studies Sammons asks for playing with different parts of the bow, for Martelé bowing and spiccato, of varying speeds, and in different positions (such as the fourth), for what he terms ‘Spring bowing’ and for trills. Ever the pragmatist, and a down to earth musician, Sammons calls it ‘Trill or shake’. These succinct studies include No.9, devoted to ‘Spring bowing’ which is a lively and charming piece on its own terms. The longest is the four-minute No.26, devoted to developing the wrist action and agility across the strings. Marshall-Luck has selected well from the studies.

The more ‘compositional’ Elgar etudes offer a touch more in terms of listening experience but rather less in practical help to the player. The five pieces are lettered A to E with three Allegros, a Presto and a concluding Allegretto. As with the Tovey, they are played with a leisurely precision. The performance that stands out is that of C, which is crisper than its companions but still has a slightly pedagogic heaviness in places and I suspect Marshall-Luck is trying to vest these studies with a narrative, expressive quality. For those who know the Bisengaliev recording, though, Marshall-Luck’s deliberation will come as a real shock. He takes 17 minutes whereas Bisengaliev takes just over 11.

The booklet is characteristically attractive and beautifully put together though there are typos in the Sammons biography. He led the Philharmonic Society Orchestra not the Philharmonia Society, and Henry Wood would frown to be misnamed Charles. The Chamber Music Players included Felix Salmond before Lauri Kennedy replaced him.

The church recording rather blunts intensity of articulation but does expand acoustically. Recorded in 2016 this triptych has been awaiting release for seven years. I wish it well but it’s a very niche recording that I feel struggles with tempo decisions.

Jonathan Woolf 

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