ELGAR: Cello Concerto / Introduction and Allegro / Serenade for Strings (Adrian Leaper/ Capella Istropolitana/ Maria Kliegel/ Michael Halasz/ Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/ Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.554409)
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Cello Concerto in Eminor, Op. 85
Introduction andAllegro, Op. 47; Elegy, Op. 58; Serenade for Strings, Op. 20
Salut d'amour; Pompand Circumstance: March No. 1
Sir Edward Elgar enjoys a curious reputation in his own country. To manyhe is, above all, the composer of the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, thecelebrator of Edwardian Imperialism, the man who preferred the races to arehearsal of his Violin Concerto with the young Yehudi Menuhin, who addsto the popular image by describing the composer as "a grandfatherlycountry gentleman who should properly have had a couple of hounds at hisheels".
In fact Elgar deserves rather better than this, nearly qualifying foradmission to the exclusive club that belongs to the greatest of the lateromantic composers. He enjoyed the discerning esteem of his fellow-countrymenin his own time, and then, as now, was largely underestimated abroad, except inthe United States of America. His oratorios have an interest that may now beunfashionable, although The Dream of Gerontius retains a place inEnglish choral repertoire, but the two symphonies, the concertos for violin andfor cello and the Enigma Variations remain firmly entrenched in Englishconcert programmes.
Edward Elgar was born in the West of England, near Worcester, in 1857.
His father was a piano-tuner, organist, violinist and shopkeeper, from whomElgar acquired much of his musical training. The boy at first made his livingas a freelance musician, teaching, playing the violin and organ, and conductinglocal orchestras and choirs. His marriage in 1889 to a piano pupil, daughter ofa retired Indian army general and nine years his senior, had a marked effect onhis career, allowing him to move to London, where acceptance at first proved difficult.
In 1897 his Imperial March for the royal Jubilee won success, enhancedstill further by the Enigma Variations, which he completed in 1899. Thefollowing years brought him increasing fame, culminating in the remarkable andintrospective works of 1918 and 1919, the violin sonata, string quartet, pianoquintet and cello concerto.
With the death of his wife in 1920 Elgar's creative urge seemed todiminish and he was to spend his final years in the West of England, inappearance the country gentleman that Yehudi Menuhin recalls, occupied incountry pursuits, a figure seemingly from an earlier age that had now passed.
The Cello Concerto, written after the First World War, wasinfluenced by the relative economy of means that the composer had discovered inhis String Quartet and Piano Quintet of the preceding year. Itdiffers from the Violin Concerto in particular in its intenseconcentration of material. He worked on the composition during the summer of1918 with the collaboration of the cellist Felix Salmond, the cellist inearlier performances of Elgar's Quartet and Piano Quintet andlater an influential teacher at the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute.
The first performance was grossly under-rehearsed, since the conductor of therest of the programme, Albert Coates, described in her diary by Lady Elgar as"that brutal selfish ill-mannered bounder Coates", used rehearsaltime allocated to the concerto for Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy, keepingElgar waiting for an hour. The public reception of the work was, inconsequence, luke-warm, while some critics at least correctly apportioned theblame for the inadequate first performance of a major work by the greatest ofliving English composers.
The first movement opens with a grandiose statement by the soloist,leading, in almost improvisatory style, to a lilting melody announced by theviolas. This is repeated by the soloist, who continues to dominate themovement. Plucked chords by the soloist lead to the second movement, amelancholy Scherzo, in which the soloist is again to the fore, withorchestration of the greatest economy. There is still greater poignancy in thebrief slow movement, a continuous solo for the cello. The final Rondo openswith eight bars in which the first theme is suggested, to be interrupted by adeclamatory statement from the soloist, before the movement is allowed to takeits full course. Even then the excitement and joy of the principal theme arebroken by references to earlier themes in the concerto and the mood of autumnalintrospective melancholy that make this one of Elgar's greatest works. At theend of the score, where Haydn might have written Deo gratias, Elgarwrote the words Finis. R.I.P., intentionally or not signalling theconcerto as the end of his creative life, the end of a war but also the end ofan age.
A former string-player himself, Elgar's writing for strings is, inconsequence, idiomatic, although he explained his particular ability byclaiming the example of a dominant figure in the history of music in England.
"Study old Handel", he advised, "I went to him for help agesago". The Introduction and Allegro for string quartet and stringorchestra, completed in 1905, arose from earlier sketches. In particular hemade use of a melody that had occurred to him during a holiday in Wales, aWelsh tune, incorporated in a work that he described as "a tribute to thatsweet borderland" where he had made his home, and where, indeed, he hadbeen born and bred. The new work was first performed at the Queen's Hall inLondon by the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the composer,but only gradually won its lasting place in orchestral repertoire. It wasdedicated to Professor S.S. Sanford of Yale University, which had recentlyawarded Elgar an honorary doctorate.
The Introduction and Allegro contrasts a small group, a stringquartet, with the main body of the orchestra, a form suggested by the Baroque concertogrosso. The romantic texture is enriched by sub-division of the stringsections of the orchestra and the characteristic sweep of the composer'swriting for strings. The Introduction suggests the principal themes thatare to follow in the Allegro, the opening providing the broad secondtheme and the first entry of the quartet proposing material for the first theme.
The work moves forward to a brilliantly worked fugal section that leads back tothe re-appearance of the first theme, the second theme, now appropriatelychanged in key, and a final triumphant reference to the Introduction. TheElegy, a work of great sensibility, scored for strings and harp, waswritten in 1909 and dedicated to the memory of the Reverend R.H. Hadden, JuniorWarden of the Worshipful Company of Musicians. It was first performed at TheMansion House on 13th July, 1909.
The Serenade for Strings was written in 1892, shortly afterElgar's marriage, when he had decided to give up his attempt to gain a footholdin the musical world of London and return to the provinces. Its probable originlies in an earlier work, Three Pieces for Strings, written in 1888 andfirst played at the Worcestershire Musical Union. The later Serenade, presumablya revised version of the Three Pieces, was probably first played inWorcester by amateurs, and had its first successful professional performancesabroad, before becoming an established and popular element in Englishrepertoire. The first professional performance took place in New Brighton in1899 under the composer's direction. A work of characteristically sweetmelancholy, the Serenade, in the key of E minor, opens with th