Slow moments with SW: Elgar (…..)

Edward Elgar

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:

Alfredo Campoli in the Anderson Room

“…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.


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1 Response to Slow moments with SW: Elgar (…..)

  1. Paul Andrews says:

    Greetings Susi. Here’s an extract from an article I wrote for the RVW Society journal a few years ago. The first extract is from a radio talk for schools given by Herbert Howells in 1942. You need to scroll down a bit to find the reference to Elgar and that slow movement. And then from an entry in his 1919 diary – oh well, you can’t please everyone. I’ve listened to the Capucon recording on Spotify and I think it’s excellent. Capucon gave a fascinating interview to Tom Service on Music Matters recently saying how precarious recording under lockdown was (if any member of the orchestra had been required to self-isolate, they’d have had to call it all off), but how joyous it was for most of them playing together for the first time in months. I think you can hear some of that in the recording.

    Howells writes:
    ‘Throughout that year in the Gloucester Cathedral organ loft, Ivor Gurney and I sat twiddling our young and envious thumbs while Dr Brewer played superb Bach Fugues and Handel Concertos. All sorts of rumours flew about. The Cathedral was full of echoes – a whispering gallery about famous musicians. To me – a village organist in that day, with a diminutive salary and a still narrower acquaintance with musicians of the time – to me it was exciting to hear somebody remark that ‘Elgar was in the loft last Monday’. I had never seen that great man. And they were talking of Kreisler – an almost legendary figure, and saying he might be coming to the Festival. There was rumour too of a strange incomprehensible composer called Vaughan Williams. He was (I gathered) living and composing remotely in far-away Chelsea, and was going to bring a ‘queer’ new tune to the Festival: so it was said. The weeks went by; with rumour on one side and Ivor Gurney on the other aflame with enthusiasm for Elgar, explaining, expounding and playing bits of ‘The Dream of Gerontius’.
    Rumours settled into confirmed facts.
    Elgar would be there.
    Kreisler – at the peak of his fame – was coming.
    And the strange new composer, whose work (so it was said) was so ‘queer’ – he too wd. be there.
    But what really smashed 1066 [as the most memorable date in history] and substituted 1910 was all a matter of 24 hours that began at 8pm on that first Tuesday in September.
    On the previous Sunday I had heard and accompanied my village choir [Aylburton, near Howells’ home town of Lydney] in singing a humdrum Magnificat by Caleb Simper. The next music I heard – at 8.10 on the Tuesday night was this: [musical illustration, presumably the opening, from the Tallis Fantasia].
    Such was the ‘queer’ new work, by the strange new English composer with the old Welsh name – Vaughan Williams – a Fantasy for Strings on a theme by a great English musician of the 16 c. – Thomas Tallis. And there conducting it was V-Williams himself. Maybe that to many of the 2000 listeners that night he spoke a bewildering language. But to a few rarer spirits it must have come as a fierce, dark, passionate commentary on the whole spirit of Tudor music […]
    But that Tuesday night didn’t end for me with the Tallis Fantasy! There was a vacant chair beside me. A copy of ‘Gerontius’ lay on it. Presently it was Vaughan Willliams who came and sat there, and rather shyly invited me to look over his copy of ‘The Dream’. But it was at Elgar I was looking – seeing him for the first time: the legendary figure become the mere but impressive fact – an ordinary man: conducting ‘Gerontius’ with galvanic but irritable authority. […]
    The next day – Wednesday – threatened to be an anti-climax. It wasn’t. It was saved by a telegram that arrived at Dr Brewer’s house. It was addressed to Sir Edward Elgar. Dr Brewer asked me to deliver it, at the quiet-fronted Georgian house over in the corner of College Green – Elgar’s house for just that week, and (therefore) the centre of the universe.
    I cd. have rung the bell of Buckingham Palace with a quieter pulse. Music was going on in the house – a series of anonymous unknown strains: a piano and a violin. I rang: only to be told by the Keeper of the Door: ‘Sir Edward Elgar and Mr Kreisler are playing: I don’t think I can disturb them.’
    Waiting in the hall I heard what I now know to be the latter part of the slow movement of the Elgar Violin Concerto.’

    As a counterpoint to this, Howells’ diary entry for Tuesday 18 March 1919, included: ‘And tonight, at Miss Knocker’s, Plunket Greene and I squirmed for ¾ hour while a little Jewess played the Elgar fiddle concerto which I cannot stand!’.

    Warmest wishes
    Paul Andrews


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