Only one slow moment this time dear readers – and I think you will agree that it is more than enough for the soul: the slow movement of Elgar’s violin concerto. What, you may reasonably ask, has prompted this little post? Well, the recent release of a new recording by Renaud Capuçon on and the LSO conducted by Simon Rattle which has received a less than rapturous reception amongst its reviewers. This from the Guardian: “The carefully primped orchestral detail sometimes draws attention away from the subtlety of Capuçon’s playing. Despite its sheer beauty, its phrasing and shading immaculate, there’s something too detached about the results for what is perhaps the most personal and private of Elgar’s orchestral works, so that the performance is never quite as involving as the best Elgar interpretations should be.” I am a huge fan of both Capuçon and the LSO, but I’ve not yet heard the recording, so can’t offer my own thoughts but perhaps you have and might like to share your reactions.
I did listen to the little taster though, which is a short extract from the slow movement and thus led me to explore other interpretations of the same movement. But first, a quick word about the gestation of the work: Elgar began to think about it in 1905 having read an interview with Fritz Kreisler who said how much he admired the composer’s music and hoped he might write something for the violin (which was Elgar’s own instrument). But it was a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1909 which really set the ball rolling and Elgar got down to work in earnest seeking advice on technical matters from William (Billy) Reed, then leader of the London Symphony Orchestra. Kreisler got his wish and gave the first performance at the Queen’s Hall in London on 10 November 1910, with Elgar conducting the LSO (have we come full circle twice here?).
Sadly, on Kreisler’s part it was a love affair which did not last, to the extent that he refused to make any recordings of it. A sadness indeed, as it would have been fascinating to hear what he made of it. However, plenty of violinists since have offered their interpretations for us to enjoy. Let’s start with the wonderful Albert Sammons in April 1929 with the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra and Henry Wood. Just listen to Sammons’ sensitive use of portamento:
The work is dedicated to – well, actually, who is it dedicated to? It’s one of those splendid Elgarian teasers along Enigma Variations lines. It’s in Spanish: Aquí está encerrada el alma de . . . . . (‘Here is enshrined the soul of . . . . .’). Who, every Elgar scholar has asked is ‘…..’? Consensus seems to be that it is his great friend Alice Stuart-Wortley, but there is also a school of thought proposing that it is Elgar himself whose soul is laid bare in the piece (there are five dots to both Alice and Elgar…..), and very tempting it is to think that could be the case. But then, isn’t every work by any composer a “baring of the soul?” [Now there’s an essay question, if ever I saw one…]. Jerrold Northrop Moore gives a minute-by-minute account of the gestation and birth of the concerto in his landmark biography of the composer Edward Elgar: a creative life [M501.c.95.242, pp 573 – 96] brought vividly to life with generous quotations from letters to and from Elgar with those involved including Alice Stuart-Wortley herself. Here is Kreisler on the work in an interview published in Boston’s Christian Science Monitor on 19 November 1910:
“…from a player’s point of view it is perhaps the most difficult of all concertos for endurance, and it is the first to have all the intricacies of modern scoring. Elgar regards it as one of his finest works. He tells me he has used many youthful themes and that for emotional force it surpasses anything he has yet written…”.
Time for another interlude, this time under the fingers of the redoubtable Alfredo Campoli (whose archive of programmes and scores we have here in the music department) with Boult and the LPO. Listen to how fluid and full of tenderness and repose his beautifully-shaped and poised statement of the theme is, using a little less portamento than Sammons.
The Daily Mail’s review of the first performance published on 11 November 1910 was nothing if not enthusiastic:
“With rapturous applause such as might have greeted the victor of Trafalgar the great company gathered in the Queen’s Hall last night acclaimed Sir Edward Elgar and the triumph of his new concerto…when the end came, the huge audience went wild with pride and delight. For a quarter of an hour they called and recalled the man who had achieved a triumph not only for himself but for England, and hailed him with wonder and submission as master and hero.”
You just don’t get reviews like that any more do you?
OK, moving on to the slow movement itself: I am always floored, by its almost unbearable intensity – truly a baring of the soul if ever I heard one. The work is in B minor, the slow movement in, er, B flat major, just about as far removed from B minor as you can get. But perhaps this simply serves to emphasise the contrast between the outer movements and the Andante. Now, this is where some folk might get technical and go into detail over the structure of the movement with plenty of Technical Terms to baffle the reader. Instead, I am simply going to quote Michael Kennedy’s description from his note to accompany the recording by Nigel Kennedy and LPO under Vernon Handley:
“Whereas much of the first movement explored the contrasts and relationships between the keys of B minor, F sharp minor, G major and D major, the Andante is in a remote B flat. But who wants to analyse this wonderful movement, with its exquisite writing for the orchestra above which the soloist rhapsodises? The impassioned climaxes between the tranquility of the opening and the ending indicate yet again the tragic force behind Elgar’s inspiration.”
Now listen to Menuhin and the LSO with Elgar himself in 1932 – you must surely agree that Michael Kennedy is quite right (the Andante begins at about 17 minutes in):
But, if you would like a little more, I am happy to say that Hans Keller provided a programme note on the work for a Prom Concert 23 August 1961 in which the soloist was Alan Loveday with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent. Here is a little extract:
“…By choosing B minor, then, Elgar broke new ground, and as a first-rate violinist himself he knew his old ground well enough to do so: B minor is enriched by open-string tonalities, D being the relative major, A its dominant, G its subdominant, and E the tonic’s subdominant. In this way, well aware of his overtones, of how they are affected by the silent support of the open strings, Elgar gets his violinistic brilliance where he wants it, while yet introducing a new range of colour into the violin concerto – a characteristic act of concealed revolution.
The work is one of the early [20th] century’s two master concertos for the violin (the other being the Sibelius Concerto, much maligned of late). It was completed and first performed in 1910; the soloist was its dedicatee, Fritz Kreisler. It bursts with inspiration throughout – as witness the natural structural complexity of the first (sonata) movement; the simple counter-melody which the soloist adds to the theme of the ternary Andante… the Andante’snaturally developed reference to the first subject of the opening movement; the last movement’s equally happy reference to the Andante; of the uncontrived brilliance and unexpected formal development of this finale itself which eventually unfolds an accompanied cadenza rounding off the whole work cyclically….”
My favourite? Well, pace Elgar and Menuhin, I am with Campoli.