ERNST Six Polyphonic Studies. 3 Waltzes. Romanze. Nocturne Posthume. 2 Goethe Settings. Erlkönig • Sherban Lupu (vn); Yvonne Redman (sop); Ian Hobson (pn) • TOCCATA 0311 (53:55)
Toccata’s series devoted to the works of Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst has now reached its sixth volume, which includes some of his most famous—and most difficult—violin music. The program opens with the Six Polyphonic Studies, each as much a terror for the violinist as it should prove a delight for the listener. These works pose so many technical difficulties (one of my students remarked that they make Paganini’s Caprices seem like child’s play) that they’re bound to trip up even the most intrepid and best prepared among would-be interpreters. Even Paganini specialist Ruggiero Ricci barely kept his honor intact. Sherban Lupu seems to find it difficult to wade through the thickets of rapid double-stops near the center of the first (those clots also trip up almost everyone else). He takes the Caprice at a fairly rapid tempo and doesn’t exhibit so heavy-handed an approach as does Ricci. The second can be charming (the direction: con grazia) and can reward a student for attempting to surmount its difficulties, as when, near the end, the violinist has to accompany himself pizzicato). Lupu brings a suave sensibility to the third, dedicated to Joseph Joachim. It’s a quality lacking in the approaches of violinists who struggle to keep their heads above water. If you can’t play these pieces as music, they’re not worth playing at all.
Ernst’s music demonstrate a strain of melancholy lyricism (despite these studies being cast largely in major keys) that’s quite different from the way in which Paganini’s compositions present themselves. Lupu carries this emotional load more lightly than most—he never seems to be just hacking through the jungle. So even if his Fifth doesn’t trip balletically, it at least maintains its lightness. The Sixth Study, variations on The Last Rose of Summer has become popular—Midori chose it for her debut recital. But Midori didn’t bring that above-mentioned sensibility to the theme, either as stated at the beginning or as it appeared in masses of embellishments during the ingenious variations. Lupu manages to endow each variation with a musical individuality—no mean task in the light of the super-human effort it would take just to get through each one with no character at all. Yes, occasionally he sounds “note by note,” but consider the alternative. And he doesn’t take his time to get things right—he plays at what might be presumed to be Ernst’s tempos, not his own. Again, it’s not perfect. But, in its own right, it’s pretty brilliant and pretty expressive.
The program continues with three waltzes for piano, short but expressive, which Ian Hobson plays with Romantic sympathy. The Third bears strong harmonic and melodic connections to the most dance-like among the Studies. Ernst biographer Mark Rowe has noted that the Romanze began life as an album leaf for Clara Schumann when Ernst stayed with the Schumanns, and the Nocturne as a gift to his friend, the music critic James Davison. Two settings of songs by Goethe receive expressively idiomatic performances, clear in their diction, by soprano Yvonne Redman. None of these pieces for piano or voice have been recorded previously, so the volume brings together some of Ernst’s best-known violin music with perhaps his least-known salon music. The program concludes with the formidable caprice on Schubert’s Erlkönig, which, as the notes point out, has become a rival to the famous Sixth Study. It may be nearly as difficult (well, probably not), and it’s only about a third of the length. Because of the story on which it’s based, it bids fair to become relatively more popular as the tune, The Last Rose of Summer fades into relatively obscurity. Once again, Lupu might get caught in tangles, but he doesn’t—he gives a clean and clear reading that captures much of the terror of the night’s ride, not so momentous perhaps as Paul Revere’s, but maybe even more hair-raising.
For those who esteem Ernst as Paganini squared, the performances of the violin music by Sherban Lupu, neither heavy handed nor agglutinated, should be irresistible. And for those to whom an evening of technical wizardry may not be so compelling without having the violinist in the room, the addition of the unknown, more intimate, Ernst, may be the very best kind of introduction to his oeuvre. Urgently recommended. Robert Maxham
This article originally appeared in Issue 43:3 (Jan/Feb 2020) of Fanfare Magazine.