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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61 (1910) [47:08]
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899) Poème for violin and orchestra, Op. 25 (1896) [15:03]
(original manuscript versions of both works)
Philippe Graffin (violin)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, England: 2-3 August 2005. DDD
AVIE AV2091 [62:20]

Experience Classicsonline

I first encountered the gifted young French violinist, Philippe Graffin, through his splendid recording of the shamefully long-neglected violin concerto by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Now he turns his attention from neglected repertory to one of the towering masterpieces of the violin concerto repertoire.

But what's this? 'Original Manuscript Versions' is proudly emblazoned on the cover of the CD. Do we have here a radically different version of either of these two well-known works? Well, not quite.

In writing his concerto Elgar famously consulted W.H. 'Billy' Reed, the leader of the London Symphony Orchestra. Reed gave the composer a good deal of input on technical matters and on several occasions he and Elgar played through passages on an experimental basis. However, prior to the first performance several modifications were made to the solo part at the suggestion of the virtuoso, Fritz Kreisler, who was to play the work in public for the first time. Kreisler's modifications were incorporated into the published score and this is the version that is always played. Until now, that is. For this recording Philippe Graffin has gone back to the manuscript and he plays what we may, I suppose, call the Elgar/Reed version.

The changes are wholly concerned with the solo part and principally occur in the first and last movements - there's just one relatively minor change to the solo line in the slow movement, and that occurs early on - at 1:02 in this reading. In a very good note Graffin details the background to the changes made and the differences between the manuscript version and the published score. I have to say that these are not desperately obvious when listening. In fact, even following with a score I found most of the changes hard to spot - most of them concern passages where the solo line is 'busy'. The most obvious change from the published score comes at the very end of the concerto, at 18:21 in the last movement, where on this occasion we hear a different - and less arresting - upward flourish from the soloist. Ironically, this was the one change not suggested by Kreisler. Instead it was Alice Elgar who proposed that the soloist be given something more interesting at this point: her judgement was sound. To be truthful, only a listener who knows the concerto intimately is likely to spot the reversions from the score as we know it and I'm not sure that the differences amount to very much in the overall scheme of things

So, given that the text that's being performed is pretty similar to that which many other virtuosi have given us on record, it comes down to a question of how good a performance Graffin gives. Happily I can report that he gives a very good account of the concerto. At his very first entry he doesn't dig as deep tonally as, say, Nigel Kennedy or Albert Sammons but he still delivers the phrase nobilmente, as Elgar demands. He's soulful in the first movement, but not over-indulgent, and he projects the solo line convincingly. In the second movement he is responsive to the poetry and I particularly like the way he captures the wistful nature of the music, especially at the withdrawn end of the movement. The capriciousness of the finale is well conveyed and he plays the huge cadenza splendidly. I'd say he loves the concerto very much and that comes through.

Undoubtedly Graffin benefits from superb support from Vernon Handley. Of course, Handley was at the helm for the celebrated 1984 Nigel Kennedy version (EMI), a reading that has held its place at the top of the lists ever since it was first released. It's marvellous to find him revisiting this score again and bringing to it once again his unrivalled blend of authority, experience and insight. We experience his consummate skill right at the start in the masterful way that he shapes the orchestral introduction to the first movement and that proves to be wholly typical of the contribution to this performance of our finest living Elgar conductor. He obtains splendid, committed support from the orchestra.

The Chausson Poème is an unusual coupling but one that fits in with the theme of this release. Here again, a renowned virtuoso - in this case Eugene Ysaÿe - had a hand in the shaping of the solo part. Indeed, Ysaÿe was involved almost from the very start for in 1893, Chausson wrote to him to say that he felt unequal to the task of composing a full-blown concerto 'which is a huge undertaking, the devil's own task. But I can cope with a shorter work.' This letter is quoted in Philippe Graffin's note. Once again, he writes well about the piece he has recorded though I don't find he's as clear on this occasion about the extent to which Chausson's original manuscript differs from the published version. If I understand him correctly the changes, at the instigation of Ysaÿe, were even less significant than was the case with the Elgar. I didn't have access to a score so I'm unable to judge.

So once again it's the quality of the performance itself that really matters. I confess that I know the Chausson less well than the Elgar but it seems to me that Graffin plays it sensitively and passionately. Once again he receives fine support from Vernon Handley, who ensures that the music is kept as light on its feet as possible. Chausson's scoring may be lush but that need not translate into heaviness and Handley ensures that it doesn't

In summary, then, there are no significant textual revelations in either piece to attract the purchaser here. What we have, though, is a fine disc, worthy of the attention of collectors in its own right. The recorded sound is excellent. It's worth making one final point about the documentation. As well as the afore-mentioned notes by the soloist the booklet also reprints a transcript of a short radio talk about the Elgar concerto given in November 1937 by Billy Reed himself. This is a fascinating little vignette and will be of special value to collectors unfamiliar with Reed's book, Elgar as I knew him. It's an extremely welcome addition to the booklet.

Collectors will be relieved that this release does not herald a Bruckner-like debate about editions of the Elgar concerto but it's a most welcome addition to the catalogue nonetheless.

John Quinn


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