Violin virtuoso and composer Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst was well known to audiences and musicians in the middle of the 19th century. At first he was a slavish follower of Paganini, whom he followed from place to place; often, by listening to the Italian master, he was able to reproduce his new works before they had been published or disseminated. But there is a kind of elegant artistry in some of his music that displays his own personality, and Joseph Joachim, the violinist most closely associated with the Beethoven/Brahms line of musical thinking, called Ernst the greatest violinist he had ever heard. It was Ernst who brought Beethoven's late quartets into general circulation. The works for violin and piano presented on this British release are delightful, and many are recorded here for the first time. Beyond the general modernist distaste for the pleasures of Romantic virtuoso music, it's hard to see why they have lain entombed for so long. None less than Hector Berlioz praised Ernst's Carnaval de Venise, Op. 18, noting that Ernst "had the audacity to compose [them] after Paganini's, and without imitating them." Berlioz called the work "a piece of sublime whimsy," and he was absolutely right. It's a long sequence of 30-second variations on a little Italian tune, making progressively greater demands on the violin but also making light of the tune's artless quality; the combination was described as "supreme ability masquerading as incapacity." Even today it will make you smile repeatedly. Several other works are intriguing, as well; the Deux Nocturnes, Op. 8, are lovely mood pieces, and the Deux Morceaux de Salon, Op. 13, are not quite what the title indicates; the first one, the Adagio sentimentale (track 31), is a full-blown rendition of an imagined operatic scene with the violin in place of the soprano. There are operatic fantasies on works by Meyerbeer and Weber (the latter written collaboratively with a French pianist), a set of variations on a theme also used by Beethoven in the Andante favori, and a Rondo Papageno, Op. 20, named for the resemblance of its theme to Papageno's whistle motif in Mozart's opera The Magic Flute, K. 621. Romanian-American violinist Sherban Lupu and accompanist Ian Hobson not only master the considerable technical complexities, but also deliver the entertainment value, and a University of Illinois concert hall delivers competent sound. Superbly done all around. Informative and enjoyable booklet notes by Mike Rowe are in English only. This disc is part of an Ernst edition planned by the Toccata Classics label, and it definitely whets the appetite for other releases in the series.
Ernst: Complete Music for Violin & Piano, Vol. 1 Review
by James Manheim