Elgar (1857-1934) - 'Cello Concerto
de siècle artistic revolution sent shock waves through Europe.
This exciting time, for artists in all fields, reverberated in Elgar's
music. For example, in the early 1900s, he dropped chamber music in favour
of a string of fabulous orchestral works culminating in the two Symphonies,
the Violin Concerto, and Falstaff. This artistic revolution
symptomised a deeper, seismic pressure, erupting in the Great War which
destroyed the old order. The new uncertainty devastated Elgar (and innumerable
others, I shouldn't wonder!), who inevitably sublimated his dismay, principally
through a final foray into the intimacy of chamber music: the Violin
Sonata, String Quartet and Piano Quintet all came from
Concerto, started in London late in 1918 amid the aftermath of war,
shows a stylistic shift from the opulence of pre-war symphonic works like
and Falstaff to a correspondingly intimate treatment of the orchestra,
sparer and more translucent. This comes not from economics or sophistication,
but from expressive necessity (the similarity to Mahler is striking). Confident
Edwardian gestures are supplanted by fierce anger, ceremonial mourning
like the funeral music of the Second Symphony by naked grief. Elgar,
dumped into purgatory, pared the comfortable fat off his orchestra
to bare his own lacerated soul.
Adagio - moderato: After Beethoven, a solo lead no longer shocks -
but the 'cello, of all instruments, emitting such an anguished cry, now
that's shocking. The orchestra consoles the soloist with the first subject,
indefinitely extendable, lilting like a lullaby. Gradually passions rise,
then subside to a brief hiatus, into which 'cello and woodwind inject the
second subject, a wistful throwback to Elgar's youth. The soloist slips
back into the first subject, not a repeat in a large-scale sonata, but
the end of a simple ternary form, linked without a break to . . .
Lento - allegro molto: From deep gloom, the angry motto glowers. A
stuttering 'cello offers diversion, accepted only after considerable prevarication,
a game of "tag" where the main subject scurries around at length, and the
vaulting second subject provides the brief "catches". The third time round,
a sudden high pang interrupts. The game continues, now involving the second
subject, through to a sprightly, beautifully weighted "full stop".
Adagio: “Three slowly rising phrases and a three note (marcato) descent
introduce the only subject of the movement, a broad melody which is first
given by the soloist supported by the orchestra. Immediately initiating
a full reprise, the orchestra becomes more actively involved the second
time around. The 'cello provides a short codetta, leading to a repeat of
the introductory phrases”. With exactly the same word count as the movement
has bars, that's as dust-dry a description as I can muster for one of the
most heartbreakingly poignant utterances in musical history. Elgar so expresses
utter bewilderment at loss beyond measure that I hear in those final marcato
notes the words, "What comes now?"
Allegro - moderato - allegro ma non troppo: The answer is a "girding
of loins", according to the orchestra's vigorous suggestion. A still bemused
soloist turns it into desolated soliloquy, but the orchestra insists, so
together they boisterously intertwine elements of rondo and sonata. The
soloist is prevented from becoming maudlin over the second subject, and
in a development they even aspire to the old spirit of "Cockaigne" et
al. But, gradually, anguish intrudes, eventually compelling the 'cello,
in a moment of supreme nostalgia, to recall the slow movement. With the
angry cry from the start of the work, the music storms to a forceful conclusion.
Clearly, Elgar is not about to let a little despondency get him down.
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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