eroica emrecords

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]

This interesting and well-planned programme takes three British composers of strongly differing goals and intentions and contrasts their music written for solo violin. Donald Tovey was something of a child prodigy and wrote many substantial and complex scores in a variety of genres before he was out of his twenties. However, his enduring legacy – despite an uptick in recordings of these works in recent years – remains his contribution to writings on music history and analysis. Albert Sammons was without doubt one of Britain’s greatest violinists in the early decades of the 20th Century. His compositional body of work can be seen very much as an adjunct to his violin playing consisting nearly exclusively of music he could perform himself – in much the same way Kreisler is famed for his violin and chamber works. In later years Sammons became a highly respected teacher – Hugh Bean was a notable pupil – hence the production of several pedagogical works. It is often forgotten that Elgar the composer originally had aspirations to be Elgar the concert violinist. The interest in this programme is how the works presented here mirror those brief descriptions of their authors. The Tovey unaccompanied sonata is clearly modelled on the historical Bach, Sammons’ Studies are “workshop” pieces intended to allow a student to focus on a single facet of violin technique. Whilst the Elgar Études aim to bridge the gap between bravura concert study and more “serious” music.

The disc opens with Tovey’s Sonata eroica for solo violin Op.29 written in 1913. This is a substantial work lasting 31:50 in this performance written in four movements. The debt to Bach is both clear and intentionally explicit although couched in the framework of a Romantic work. The issue I have with this piece is the same I have had with all the Tovey compositions I know to date from the Symphony on Toccata or the concerti on Hyperion and the opera excerpts on Dutton; I admire and respect but do not love or am emotionally engaged by the music. Interestingly the liner points to the fact that just a year after this work’s creation Tovey turned away from composing to focus on his analytical writing. The formal skill of the construction is not in doubt [usefully outlined in Marshall-Luck’s liner note] and the writing for solo violin is effective if demanding. The composer’s choice of the title “Eroica” is not explained in the liner – I assume it is simply a reflection of the work’s scale and technical demands.

But this is music of the head not the heart. That is not a comment on the quality of the performance here by Rupert Marshall-Luck. Usually via the platform of Em Records, Marshall-Luck has proved to be a questing and intelligent player who is fully invested in the complexities and musical/technical demands of the scores he performs. So it proves again on this disc and the skill he exhibits reflects hours of laborious work and study to produce a performance as convincing and complete as this. The opening Maestoso e sostenuto starts as the tempo indication suggests with a rather grand and solemn outlining of the thematic material. Tovey’s problem – which Bach miraculously never had – is to make this material thematically ‘fertile’ as well as melodically memorable. All such works demand extended passages of double/triple stopping and fleet apreggios to suggest harmonies that the essentially monophonic violin otherwise struggles to embrace. The issue for the composer is to reconcile the technical ‘limitations’ of the violin with the harmonic and structural requirements of the music. So even after several listening I find this work to be stubbornly unmemorable in simple melodic or expressive terms. Although the second movement is marked Scherzo vivace the acknowledgement to Bach’s dance-like movements is clear. The closing Fuga is another explicit homage to Bach and a rather powerful one. At 9:37 this is the longest movement in the work and indeed the longest single musical span on the disc. Again the technical demands on the player are pretty unforgiving and Marshall-Luck is admirably secure although I do find that the actual playing style is quite heavy which allied to the close and somewhat larger-than-life recording can make the music rather unrelenting. I noted that I needed to turn the volume down on my system several notches from the usual position. A slightly more distanced recording could have allowed more air and light and shade into the playing and the performance. As such it has the feel of being impressive in terms of technical execution but lacking in terms of nuanced interpretation. On the disc only the Sammons is given the status of “world premiere recording” but I have not been able to find a previous recording of this work – certainly it is a rarity and as such this new performance is welcomed.

Marshall-Luck plays his selection of eight studies from the thirty eight that make up Sammons’ Virtuosic Studies Op.21 very well. But it has to be said they are of interest mainly – if not only – to violin aficionados. I did not know these Op.21 studies but am familiar with the Op.20 The secret of technique in violin playing: a unique method of daily practice for soloists and advanced players. The full title of the Op.21 is Virtuosic studies for the daily practice of the violin to accustom the player to the demands of modern music. And therein lies the key for these works. As with many/most/all “schools” of instrumental technique, the teacher/composer takes each study to focus on a particular technical facet of the instrument and in a near-laboratory-like manner test it to destruction. Sometimes these will concentrate on a legato stroke and right bow-arm fluidity and other times it will be left hand dexterity with every combination of both along the way. The role of the teacher/composer is not to write great music (although it helps!) but rather expose the student’s shortcomings by repeatedly addressing a single technical aspect of their playing. All credit to Marshall-Luck that he survives this forensic examination as well as he does. Unfortunately for the listener sitting on the sidelines the actual music is really not that interesting. Perhaps it would have been useful if the liner expounded on the particular technical element being tested in each given study. Memorably an artist of the stature of Oscar Shumsky recorded discs of two of the great ‘standard’ books of violin studies by Rodolphe Kreutzer and Pierre Rode. Whether a combination of Shumsky’s genuine greatness or the fact that those works are of substantial musical interest those performances transformed every violin student’s laborious study into genuinely compelling musical works. These Sammons’ studies are simply not at that level – and I suspect neither did he think them to be. They are of enduring value to the violin student and are well played here but whether they are musically worthy of repeated recreational listening is another thing. Ultimately Sammons was a violinist who composed – usually for his own use or for practical pedagogic purposes as here.

Clearly Elgar was quite different. Even in his early years struggling to make a career as violinist and teacher let alone the far off dream of well-known composer, he expressed his creative self best through composition. So even in these little-known five virtuoso studies there are hints of the composing genius he would become. A sense of how Elgar was willing to undertake just about any composing job at this time is the fact that these Études caractéristiques pour violon seul Op.24 are surrounded by the Op.22 Very Easy Melodious Exercises in the First Position (literally at the opposite end of the violin’s technical scale) and the wonderful Op.20 Serenade for Strings or his bravely large-scale choral symphony The Black Knight Op.25. The use of the French title also illustrates how Elgar was seeking to tap into the appeal of ‘Foreign’ music. But that range of music shows clearly how Elgar was simply trying to find musical vehicles for his creative drive. The Études caractéristiques are quite unlike any other Elgar work. They are genuinely brutally hard – up at the level of the Paganini Caprices – for their unrelenting attack on a player’s technique. However, given that they are actually rather impressive as music as well (far more so, to be blunt, than the Sammons) it is quite surprising that they have not been recorded by more players than they have. The only other version I know is by Marat Bisengaliev originally on Black Box (a disc that was hailed on initial release) and latterly as part of a 3 disc box from Naxos of Elgar’s works for violin (including the Concerto). Marshall-Luck plays these well but simply put without the truly virtuosic address and flair of Bisengaliev. Without exception Bisengaliev plays each movement with greater fluency and sense of musical flamboyance. Timings are rather telling; Étude A [for some reason Elgar identified them by letter alone] is 2:31 in Bisengaliev’s performance to Marshall-Luck’s 4:13. B – 1:39 to 2:16, C – 1:22 to 1:49, D – 3:02 to 4:26 and finally E – 2:52 to 4:08. Now clearly there has to be some allowance for interpretative differences but ultimately these are virtuoso firework displays. Bisengaliev leaves you in awe, with Marshall-Luck the response is more admiring rather than overwhelmed. My sense is that the earlier recording is more closely aligned with what Elgar has in mind.

Overall a disc that impresses by the sheer hard work that goes into preparing this amount of demanding and unfamiliar repertoire but ultimately it disappoints because the Tovey fails to emotionally engage, the Sammons is literally a series of technical exercises and the Elgar has been bettered elsewhere. The presentation by EM Records is up to their usual high standard with useful and informative liner notes and photographs well presented. I do remain a little uncomfortable with the production choice of recording the violin quite closely and in an outsized manner. That Marshall-Luck’s playing can stand that type of close aural inquisition is a credit to him but ultimately this is a disc for the specialist only.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf (April 2023)

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