Back in the 1990s Nigel Kennedy, Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony made a rousing case for Elgar’s Violin Concerto, Kennedy as ever affectionately abrasive with a wannabe cockney slant to his playing – right from his aggressive initial entry – while Rattle’s contribution was bold and assertive. Then last year saw Rattle, a Good European with the British cause at heart, return to the work, this time with the LSO (forthcoming on Erato 0190295112820), putting his music where his mouth is and lending our greatest violin concerto a degree of gravitas that none before him – save perhaps Elgar with the young Yehudi Menuhin as soloist – have quite managed to do. Replacing Kennedy is a suave and deeply persuasive Frenchman, Renaud Capuçon, and his first entry conjures a very different world, one where mellow fruitfulness predominates. And while in the second and third movements Rattle’s tempi are significantly swifter than they were before, he now takes us to fresh climes, venturing behind the Concerto’s gnarled surface to significant countersubjects, inner voices and bold rhythmic figures that thanks to a superb technical cooperative (Alain Lanceron and Stephen Johns) and possibly aided by enforced social distancing (the accommodating venues are in Hampstead and Old Street) come across with impressive presence. As a sampling of how beautifully things knit together, follow the rolling hills and dales from around 5:22 into the first movement, reaching that wonderful second principal theme at 6:37 beyond which Elgar stops singing and starts to speak. Is there any Violin Concerto lovelier than this? Not in my book. I’m tempted to label the deeply romantic second movement ‘English’-sounding but, no, ‘Pastoral’-sounding is better, just as when, for the finale’s long cadenza (10:52), set against a shimmering carpet of gently strummed strings, Elgar repeatedly calls his soloist back from flights of fancy with that second theme from the first movement.
But, tell me, could you honestly describe this music as English first and foremost? Well, the work’s dedicatee Fritz Kreisler protested Elgar’s greatness beyond any national identity and Elgar never thought of himself as a specifically ‘English’ composer. So, the answer to that question has to be ‘no’. As musical exports go the Concerto’s climate recalls parallel worlds where Dvorák, Brahms, Bruch, Fauré, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Bruckner and others had already set up shop. Our wares might not be identical but they’re similar. The violin concertos of Bruch and Brahms are somewhere in situ (as is Schumann’s long hidden masterpiece, though it wasn’t actually premiered until three years after Elgar’s death), and so is Max Reger’s, written around the same time as Elgar’s. So you could call Elgar’s far-reaching imagination and emotional ambiguity typically European. And it’s those aspects of the work that Capuçon and Rattle take to their hearts. The Violin Sonata, a late work, is half the Concerto’s length, perhaps more ethereal (Fauré’s late sonatas spring to mind) but as played by Capuçon and the superb pianist Stephen Hough draws you in to a more abstract world. A disc to order without hesitation.