About this Recording
8.110957 - MOZART: Sinfonia Concertante / ELGAR: Violin Sonata (Sammons) (1926-1935)

Great Violinists • Albert Sammons

Great Violinists • Albert Sammons

The British Isles have not, as a rule, been noted for producing string players. In fact the genuinely great twentieth-century exponents of string instruments from Britain can be counted on the fingers of one hand. To have two of them, therefore, featured on one compact disc is a rare treat. Almost entirely self-taught, Albert Sammons is regarded as the finest British violinist to have made records, and his interpretation of Elgar’s Violin Concerto (Naxos 8.110951) is the benchmark by which all others are judged and found wanting. This programme presents his other major Elgar recording, the Violin Sonata, with his regular partner William Murdoch, and some of his recordings of encores, as well as Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante, the major fruit of his recorded collaboration with another of his closest associates, the great violist Lionel Tertis.

            The son and grandson of shoemakers, Albert Sammons was born in London on 23rd February 1886 and 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 John Saunders, a pupil of Bernhard Molique. Having first played professionally at the Earl’s Court Exhibition in 1898, he left school at the age of 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 Mendelssohn’s E minor Concerto. In 1908 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, giving many first performances, including Delius’s Quartet and Frank Bridge’s Second Quartet. He also led the Philharmonic Society’s orchestra, while making a name as a soloist – in 1910 he had a success with the Bruch Concerto in G minor at Queen’s Hall under Stanford and then at the Royal Albert Hall under Landon Ronald. In 1911 he was appointed to the King’s Band and in 1912 he played Saint-Saëns’s 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 Monteux. The first of many joint performances of the Elgar Concerto with the composer came in 1914, and 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 (1888-1942). Their duo was to be expanded into various chamber groups by the addition of Tertis and Felix Salmond (the cellist later replaced in turn by Cedric Sharpe, W.H. Squire and Lauri Kennedy). In 1919 Sammons edited and gave the first performance of the Delius Concerto, which he later recorded (Naxos 8.110951). Through the 1920s and early 1930s he was at the peak of his career. Despite the onset of Parkinson’s disease, he gave many concerts up and down the United Kingdom during World War II, helping to keep up morale. He gave the première of Sir George Dyson’s Concerto in 1942 and his last performance with orchestra, of E.J. Moeran’s Concerto, was given in Norwich on 28th April 1946, with Sir Adrian Boult conducting – a recording of the concert survives. In March 1948 he retired from the concert platform. Sammons had a wide repertoire which took in the standard concertos as well as Bloch’s and the first of Szymanowski’s. He began his career on an instrument 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 which he plays on most of these recordings. His own compositions included a Phantasy Quartet (a Cobbett Prize-winner) as well as solos and studies for the violin. 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.

            Lionel Tertis is acknowledged the world over as the father of modern viola playing. His virtuosity and his personal vision of a warm, vibrant viola tone, derived from his close study of his idol Kreisler’s playing, amazed his contemporaries and stimulated others to carry on his work. Through his teaching and his collaboration with Sir Thomas Beecham, he raised the standard of orchestral viola playing – before his time, the viola section was regarded as a refuge for failed violinists. Although his own experiences of professional string quartet playing were of relatively short duration, Tertis was a magnificent chamber music coach, his most successful pupils being the Griller Quartet. He also acted as an invaluable stimulus to modern luthiers, in their search for a viola that looks good, sounds good and is playable. Tertis was the ‘twin’ of Pablo Casals, sharing not only his birth date, 26th December 1876, but also his single-minded, selfless devotion to elevating a previously unsung instrument to solo status. The two were friends but unlike the Catalan, Tertis was a late starter. Born in West Hartlepool, County Durham, the son of Jewish immigrants, his father Russian, his mother Polish, he was brought up in the East End of London. His earliest musical impressions were gained from the singing of his father, a synagogue cantor. There was a piano in the house and Lionel played it from the age of three, eventually leaving home at thirteen to earn his living on this instrument. He was almost sixteen before he had saved enough money, playing in anything from a ‘Hungarian’ band to seaside shows, to fulfil his dream of learning the violin. Studies at Trinity College of Music, an ill-fated spell at the Leipzig Conservatory and a stint with Hans Wessely at the Royal Academy of Music were financed by moonlighting in such places as Madame Tussaud’s and a lunatic asylum. He was nineteen when a student friend at the Royal Academy, Percy Hilder Miles, asked him to play the viola in a quartet and he met his true destiny. As a violist he was virtually self-taught. In 1902, by which time he was viola professor at the Academy, Tertis heard Kreisler and knew he had found his ideal. He took the Kreisler vibrato and adapted it to the larger viola, keeping the fingers of his left hand continuously alive and virtually overlapping the vibrato from note to note. Soon he was working at the highest level with colleagues such as Rubinstein and Casals, and just before World War I he toured America with a piano quartet featuring Bauer, Huberman and Salmond. During the war he often made music with Ysaÿe, and he and Charles Woodhouse played in the Allied String Quartet with two other Belgians who were marooned in Britain, Désiré Defauw and Emile Doehaerd. In the 1920s he made many recordings, including a number with Sammons, and he was one of Britain’s best-known soloists. In 1937 Tertis retired, selling his Montagnana viola, and although he made a comeback during the war and continued playing almost to the end, he devoted most of his energies in later life to developing and propagating his Tertis Model Viola, from which he took no financial reward. Lionel Tertis died on 22nd February 1975. In his heyday he was a remarkably vigorous virtuoso and, though small in stature, had a compelling platform manner. As a player he extended the effective range of the viola at both extremes, but particularly relished its middle and lower registers – he played Elgar’s Cello Concerto, in his own viola version, with the composer conducting. To give him a full-bodied C string sound, he used a large viola, biased towards the tenor end of the range. Among the works he inspired were Vaughan Williams’s Flos Campi, Bax’s Sonata and Legend, Bliss’s Sonata, Holst’s Lyric Movement, Dale’s Suite, and Walton’s Concerto (which he initially rejected but later championed). He himself enriched the viola repertoire with miniatures and transcriptions.

            Tertis played Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante with Ysaÿe, Thibaud, Primrose (a performance in Paris which stimulated that great player to take up the viola), Goldberg, Busch and Kreisler, but his most frequent partner was Sammons. Their recording, the first to be made of this beautiful work, featured Beecham’s new London Philharmonic with Sir Hamilton Harty conducting. Although he was a devoted Mozartian, Harty did not think to remonstrate with Tertis over the changes that the violist made to the score. The most radical was to throw out Mozart’s cadenza for the first movement and replace it with Tertis’s own, based on one by the older Joseph Hellmesberger, who composed an equally ill-judged cadenza for the last movement of Bach’s Double Concerto. Despite the tamperings, and the soloists’ all-pervasive portamento, the performance has always been valued for the superb interplay between Sammons and Tertis and the stylish accompaniment.

            Sir Edward Elgar composed his three chamber music masterpieces towards the end of his active career, and in 1919 Sammons led private performances of the String Quartet and Piano Quintet. The first two performances of the companion Violin Sonata were given by the composer’s friend W.H. Reed, but when the Quartet and Quintet were aired in public (with Sammons leading and Billy Reed playing second fiddle to him) Sammons and Murdoch took over the Sonata and they quickly became its best interpreters. Although his recording finds him just past his best years, we can still appreciate the big, sensuous tone, the very pronounced but precise portamento and the fine sense of structure. The heart of the performance is the Romance, in which Sammons conjures up the wistful Elgarian atmosphere with complete understanding and achieves a perfectly graded approach to the climax of the movement. The sympathetic partnership with Murdoch shows why they were the most highly regarded duo in Britain at the time.

            The short pieces call for little comment. It is good to have one of Sammons’s own offerings, a Bourrée which was written in 1918 and dedicated to his future father-in-law Alfred Hobday, the best-known British violist apart from Tertis and a regular guest artist with the London Quartet. This mock-baroque dance was published by Boosey and Hawkes. Collectors will also be pleased to have the Passacaglia by the Hungarian violinist and composer Tivadar Nachez (1859-1930), whom Sammons knew personally and who was based in London from 1889 until the First World War. Mischa Elman is the only other player of note to have recorded the piece.


Tully Potter


Producer’s Note


The present transfers came from a variety of different sources: the Mozart from a combination of American Columbia “Royal Blue” shellacs and laminated Australian Columbias, the rare Nachez (in print for less than a year), the Sammons piece and Londonderry Air from laminated English Columbias, the Massenet from a laminated Australian Columbia; the Schubert and Dvor˘ák from post-EMI merger unlaminated English Columbias, and the Elgar from the best sides of four American Columbia mid-1930s pressings. The records from the 1926 and 1928 sessions have a significant amount of pitch fluctuation in the original recordings which I have tried to correct.


Mark Obert-Thorn


Mark Obert-Thorn

Mark Obert-Thorn is one of the world’s 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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