How English is Elgar’s Violin Concerto?

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.

12 thoughts on “How English is Elgar’s Violin Concerto?

  1. Robert Roy

    You’re very fortunate in having heard the new Capoçon recording, Rob since I have a release date of first week of March when I hope mine will pop through the letterbox! (I have NO interest in downloading – I want something I can hold in my sweaty little hands just as I did back in 1977 when I first started buying records from Rae Macintosh in South Queensferry Street in Edinburgh!)

    I wasn’t always convinced by Elgar’s Violin Concerto since I first heard it when I was 14 and thought it long and unbelievably tedious! My opinion has changed somewhat in the subsequent 40 odd years but the reason I spend five whole pounds in 1978, (earned by cleaning my Grandfather’s taxi!)’ on the new recording by the late, great Ida Haendel was because I loved her playing – not because I loved the work. I’d already worn out her recording of the Sibelius Concerto so the Elgar looked like being next and who knew, I might even begin to like the piece! Alas, despite the wonderful playing of Ms. Haendel and the masterly conducting of Sir Adrian Boult I still found it pretty tedious. However, a trip to the Music Library in Edinburgh yielded a score as well as the solo violin part and I poured over both. And, unbelievably, there were bits that I, armed with Grade 7 Merit, could actually play! At last, I was hooked.

    Fortunately, we had a good library with an excellent selection of records so I was able to hear how different players approached this work. The young Menuhin, who I was amazed to discover was 16 when he recorded it with the composer, seemed to be a direct link with the composer so that have been how Sir Edward expected it to go! In fact, even today when I hear a new recording of this work there’s a little voice saying ‘That’s not how the composer did it!’

    However, at that point all the recordings seemed to be by older players that I knew were no longer practicing their art. Until the new recording by Nigel Kennedy burst onto the scene. By this time I was quite familiar with Mr. Kennedy’s playing since the(R)SNO went through a phase of having violin soloists cancel on them and they invariably got Kennedy in to substitute. And then, having long since bought the tape of him playing the Elgar, he played it with the (R)SNO under Sir Alexander Gibson. I was absolutely memorised and my love for the Elgar Concerto grew a bit more.

    It’s often highlighted in Gramophone that one of the great advances in Elgar recordings is that they are now so international. Mr, Heifetz, Perlman, Zukermann, Kyung-Wha-Chung and Sitkovetsky to name but a few. There’s also a terrific recording of Igor Oistrakh playing it which is hardly idiomatic but my goodness it’s exciting! (I’ve always hoped that, one day, a Russian recording may surface of David Oistrakh playing it. I do have a cd of Gideon Kremer playing it for a competition although, as far as I know, it’s no longer part of his repertoire).

    For me, the finest exponent on cd at the time of writing is Nicola Benedetti who plays it with all the characteristics the Kennedy brings except, in my humble opinion, she’s a better violinist. (Kennedy’s quality of sound tends to suffer when the music becomes really difficult).

    Anyway, I suppose what I’m trying and probably failing to say is that, for me, instead of thinking of it being ‘English’ I see it as being so wrapped up with my life that it’s MY Concerto. Mind you, sitting in the garden of Elgar’s birthplace listen to it through headphones does bring a certain nostalgia to mind even although I’m Scottish and not English.

    You mention Reger’s Concerto which I didn’t know but bought on the recommendation of a Gramophone reviewer. My goodness, I found it tedious! Alas, Edinburgh’s Music library doesn’t have a score or the violin part so maybe that’s a project for another life…

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    1. Thanks so much for that Rob. Actually there are some similarities between the Elgar and Reger concertos, especially towards the end of their respective first movements. My first experience of the work was that early Menuhin – which I still adore. I like Sammons too (Heifetz apparently wrote to him acknowledging the help his recording gave him when he was preparing to play the work) and although David Oistrakh didn’t officially record the Concerto I believe he did play it post-War as part of a massive survey of major violin concertos. Would that an off-air recording had survived, though I suspect that if it had we would have known about it by now. I interviewed Kremer about the piece in Birmingham (where he played it – excitingly – again under Rattle) but, being rather superstitious about anticipating events, he was reluctant to say too much. A lovely guy though. I agree about Benedetti though, on the disc, I wasn’t too sure about the LPO’s contribution under Jurowski, which I found a little unfocused. All the very best and again thanks for writing.

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  2. paulchennell

    Rob, Surely no one can deny that Elgar’s music suggests England and its people. Howefgver recently whilst researching my forthcoming book Elgar and his Benefactors I came across an intresting comment from Josef Sigeti in his memoir With Strings Attached;
    Szigeti recalled:

    During the stir created by Kreisler’s first performance of Elgar’s Violin Concerto in London, in November, 1910 (a furore comparable to a Shostakovich première in our days though minus plane-transported microfilm and five-figure broadcast fees!) , I was impressed chiefly by the fact that it was a Viennese who transmitted the Englishness of Elgar to England and to the rest of the world; this angle seemed to me to enhance the achievement.

    Perhaps we should see Elgar as not only English but a good European as well.

    Paul Chennell.

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  3. paulchennell

    Rob, Surely no one can deny that Elgar’s music suggests England and its people. However recently whilst researching my forthcoming book Elgar and his Benefactors I came across an intresting comment from Josef Sigeti in his memoir With Strings Attached;
    Szigeti recalled:

    During the stir created by Kreisler’s first performance of Elgar’s Violin Concerto in London, in November, 1910 (a furore comparable to a Shostakovich première in our days though minus plane-transported microfilm and five-figure broadcast fees!) , I was impressed chiefly by the fact that it was a Viennese who transmitted the Englishness of Elgar to England and to the rest of the world; this angle seemed to me to enhance the achievement.

    Perhaps we should see Elgar as not only English but a good European as well.

    Paul Chennell.

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    1. Sorry Paul my initial reply was cut short – goodness knows why, or how! Fascinating Szigeti quote, who picked up the idea of Elgar’s Englishness. I wonder if Szigeti ever played it in New York under Barbirolli? Come to think of it, Sir John wasn’t especially associated with a work that on the face of it you might have thought would have suited him down to the ground. Do keep me posted about your book. Best wishes. Rob.

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      1. Yes it is odd that Barbirolli did not record the work. I have been looking into the very first recordings Elgar made in 1914 and 1915 – it is fascinating. I will keep you posted regarding the book. Things are a bit slow because libraries and archives are closed or working slowly.
        Best wishes.
        Paul.

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      2. Rob, after replying to you yesterday I saw in Michael Kennedy’s biography of Barbirolli that he did conduct the violin Concerto in the USA on two occasions at least, first with Heifitz of whom he said to Evelyn Rothwell ‘he plays it wonderfully but not perhaps with enough “hurt” . I wonder if he has ever been wounded’. He also performed it with John Corigliano in 1941. Kennedy suggests he did not perform the violin conerto in concerts because it was easier to fit the Cello concerto into programmes and there were more cellits who would give fine performances than there were fiddlers who would do justice to the concerto. Lastly Barbirolli conducted the concerto with Sammons in February 1934. I cant find any sign of a recording anywhere.
        Best paul.

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  4. EDDIE SIMMONS

    Rob – surely these days Elgar is seen as a composer for the world and not in the parochial way that perhaps he was following his death – and probably before since he was viewed as something of a back number then. Casals was said to have taken the Cello Concerto away from the parish pump following his recording in 1945 but even when I was learning the repertory in the 1950’s and 60’s Elgar was somewhat sneered at despite recordings from Boult, Sargent and Barbirolli – the devotees of Britten and the twelve-tone school ruled the roost.
    Kreisler shared Elgar’s triumph at the premiere of the concerto but for how long afterwards did it stay in his repertoire? He resisted all the efforts of Fred Gaisberg to record it with Elgar conducting. After the premiere how many of his contemporaries performed the concerto? Was it played by Kubelik, Mischa Elman, Zimbalist, Thibaud or Szigeti (interesting comment about him from one of your other correspondents).
    Did Menuhin learn the concerto specifically for his recording or was he performing it prior to that? I know he went to Paris to play it with Elgar but was that after the recording or before?
    Obviously it stayed in his repertoire for the rest of his life but of his contemporaries how many played the concerto? Heifetz made his famous recording but did he play it much in public. It never seems to have featured in Milstein’s repertoire or Isaac Stern although presumably they knew the piece.
    I heard Menuhin perform the concerto live three time and conduct it once for Nigel Kennedy in his pre-punk incarnation.
    The first Menuhin occasion was Boult’s 80th Birthday Concert – a performance which gave Boult considerable disappointment according to Michael Kennedy’s biography.
    The second time, three months later, Kertesz (!) conducted and right at the very end of the third movement the string on which Menuhin was playing the final high note broke with a “ping” partly covered by the orchestral tutti.
    The third time wonderful Rudolf Kempe conducted but I have no recall of the quality of performance this time round.
    Obviously the leading violinists today now all have it well within their repertoire which is as it should be. As someone else commented it is not the easiest violin concerto to get to know at first hearing but it is a masterpiece.

    Eddie S

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    1. Thank you so much for that Eddie. Regarding Heifetz I noted recently from the web that he actually wrote to Albert Sammons thanking him for the guidance that his recording had offered him. The two performances are actually quite similar, at least in some respects. But thinking again – and discussing the Concerto recently with a friend – I’m wondering whether ‘personal’ is the pivotal term. I learned the work through the Menuhin/Elgar 78s when I was about the same age that Menuhin was when he made the recording and it’s always struck me as the product of platonic infatuation between a boy and an older man, the artistic relationship is that symbiotic. No other version can quite match its deep emotional engagement. For me, the English aspect is less of the essence than ‘nobilimente’, which has somehow, over the years, translated to a specifically English quality rather than a more universal ‘noble’. I think also of similar parallels in other recordings where the composer-performer symbiosis is deeply personal (and of course our reactions are personal, too). How about Alfred Cortot playing Chopin’s Préludes, Heifetz playing the Bruch Second Concerto (especially the very Elgarian first movement), Bruno Walter’s way with Mahler’s Das Lied (his Sony recording in particular), Schnabel’s first recording of Beethoven’s Op.111, Fischer-Dieskau’s Winterreise with Jörg Demus. Many, many more of course – I’m sure you could come up with your own list. It’s that feeling that the players are peering between the nooks and crannies to the very essence of a work, and you’re privy to what they’re doing, eavesdropping so to speak. There are ‘great’ recordings that don’t quite manage that while others that escape the limelight sometimes do. Very best. Rob.

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  5. Replying to Paul – that is most interesting, three very different players. What a shame JB never did it with Kreisler …. and that we don’t have a recording. Does the Barbirolli Society have access to one I wonder? Best wishes. Rob.

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