Le roi des aulnes,
op. 26 (after Schubert’s
Variations brillantes sur un Thème de Rossini,
Six Polyphonic Studies. Feuillet d’Album. Elégie sur la mort d’un objet chéri. Trio pour un violon. Le Carnaval de Venise,
Josef Špaček (vn); Gordon Back (pn)
NAXOS 8.572575 (73: 49)
The reputation of Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, successor to Paganini as a virtuoso and arguably his superior as a musician and composer, nevertheless suffered a decline after his death (although violinists used to study his Concerto in F♯ Minor—Albert Spalding reported hearing a brilliant little violin student play it in Leopold Auer’s class in St. Petersburg: that would have been Jascha Heifetz). Still, violinists have continued to play Ernst’s Grand Caprice on Franz Schubert’s
; Ruggiero Ricci recorded the set of
on Dynamic 28, as did Ingolf Turban on Claves 50-9613 (
20:6) and Ilya Gringolts on Hyperion 67619 (
31:6). More recently, Toccata has been gathering Ernst’s music for violin and piano and for solo violin in performances by Sherban Lupu, resurrecting such showpieces as
Le Carnaval de Venise
—even more dazzling than Paganini’s celebrated variations on the same melody (one of my violin students remarked that the
made Paganini’s Caprices seem like child’s play).
Josef Špaček’s collection of Ernst pieces isn’t described on Naxos’s booklet cover as the first in a series of volumes, but it includes a representative sample both of the composer’s pyrotechnics and of his ardent lyricism. The program opens with the terrifying Grand Caprice on
for violin solo, in which the violin creates a sense of foreboding while representing all the
: the abducted girl, the horseman, and perhaps even the horse itself. Špaček maintains very strong forward motion, due in large part to a facility that allows him to render the pervasive triplet accompaniment and toss off the occasional pizzicatos almost nonchalantly. He displays winning lyrical elegance that suits the introduction to Ernst’s Variations on a theme by Gioacchino Rossini (from
), and plays the massive double-stops of the first variation without once suggesting that he’s intimidated by their difficulty. Still, he can’t quite get the double harmonics in a later variation to speak perfectly in tune. But then, who could? Could Ernst himself have done so, on gut strings, nonetheless?
occupy almost half the program. Ernst dedicated each of the six to one of his violinist colleagues: Ferdinand Laub, Prosper Sainton, Joseph Joachim, Henri Vieuxtemps, Joseph Hellmesberger, and finally (the formidable set of variations on
The Last Rose of Summer
) Antonio Bazzini. And though each jabs aggressively at the envelope of violin technique as known in Ernst’s time, each also bespeaks a refined, multi-dimensional musical sensibility (more so than Paganini’s might seem to do, especially to listeners who aren’t violinists). As he did in the earlier pieces on the program, Špaček effortlessly shoots the rapids without making them seem the most important aspect of the music but simply its accidental accouterments. In the first, he doesn’t take time in transferring between the double-stops in the upper and those in the lower registers, making them sound far easier than anyone will find them. He adopts a breakneck tempo in the finger-twisting second, with its double-stopped melodies accompanied by left-hand pizzicatos. Even Ricci, who played these pieces fearlessly if not flawlessly, didn’t attempt such a feat. And Špaček brings it off, perhaps at the expense of the vein of sentiment with which it’s shot through—and which Ricci did manage to mine. The piece, dedicated to Joachim, strewn with double stops, provides some of the same kind of writing for the instrument that can be found in that violinist’s Hungarian Concerto—Ernst not only dedicated the pieces to the various violinists, but enshrined the violin playing of each in a miniature. The same happens in the liquid arpeggio study dedicated to Vieuxtemps, one of the most helpful etudes I know for developing facility in the higher positions—more efficacious for that purpose than Vieuxtemps’s own miniature,
, op. 15, and more coherent musically as well. In the fifth, a graceful
Air de ballet
, Špaček does tap that lyrical spring that characterized almost everything that Ernst wrote (and is perhaps responsible for that universal admiration accorded to him by composers of Chopin’s or Mendelssohn’s stature). Midori played
The Last Rose of Summer
in her Carnegie Hall debut, but she didn’t elevate it above the realm of the technical, and Špaček manages to do just that, even in the most demanding variations. (To be fair to everybody else, he has just about as much trouble in the Finale as they do—although, for what it’s worth, Midori played it virtually perfectly.)
Ernst adapted the
from a piece in Stephen Heller’s
L’art de phraser
; it’s heartfelt in Špaček’s reading. The frequently played
Élégie sur la mort d’un objet chéri
appears in this ardently touching performance with the introduction drawn from Louis Spohr’s Sixth Violin Concerto (not everyone includes it). Gordon Back, generally relegated to the role of a workmanlike accompanist in the program, rises to the level of perceptive partner in this expressive chestnut. The Trio, lasting less than a minute, stretches two independent lines over a pizzicato accompaniment, and might serve to introduce violinists to this technique, which Ernst employed on occasion.
If the Polyphonic Studies dwarf Paganini’s Caprices (if ...), so Ernst’s visit to Venice upstages Paganini’s (I’d assign the
as the introductory set of Paganini variations to violin students). If Ernst painted the lily, Špaček captures the almost tongue-in-cheek manner with perfect insouciance.
For its combination of devil-may-care virtuosity (both in the composer’s conception and the violinist’s execution), Špaček’s collection of Ernst should appeal at least to violinists. But even musical purists, who honor the reputations of the composers who admired Ernst, may find more than they bargained for in these brilliant pieces with soft centers. Urgently recommended across the board.