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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Violin Concerto in B minor (1910) (48:52)
Serenade for Strings (1892) (12:16)
James Ehnes (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Andrew Davis
rec. live Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 17, 20 May 2007
ONYX 4025 [61:08]

James Ehnes’ recording of the Korngold, Barber and Walton Violin Concertos (Onyx 4016) with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bramwell Tovey was widely acclaimed. News of his new recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto, therefore, will have been greeted with much anticipation.

Elgar’s Violin Concerto, to my mind superior to his Cello Concerto, was dedicated to Kreisler. It bears the inscription: "Here is enshrined the soul of ….." There has been much debate as to whose soul; maybe Elgar’s own, but in all probability it is female and very likely one of the composer’s closest friends, Alice Stuart–Wortley - or ‘Windflower’- his endearment for her. Indeed, Elgar described the work to her as "our concerto". However the five dots could also disguise several other women’s names, women important in Elgar’s life, not least his wife Lady Alice, but also Helen Weaver the girl he lost and, it seems, never really got over. Then there was Julia ‘Pippa’ Worthington. Observers have claimed that the concerto is a dialogue between female, as represented by the solo violin, and male characteristics represented by the orchestra. Quoting Michael Kennedy, "The music, though designed on a grand and opulent style, is of a peculiarly expressive intimacy. There is no mistaking the mood of passionate regret for "what might have been" or even "what has been". The music certainly enshrines the soul of the violin. The soloist is called upon to be orator, singer, poet, conjurer and wizard …"

There have been many recordings of the concerto including some distinguished historical ones headed by the composer conducting the London Symphony Orchestra with Yehudi Menuhin, and the recordings by Heifetz, Sammons and Campoli, to mention but a few - see my footnote below. Of the modern recordings, the two by Nigel Kennedy are key. The later one with Simon Rattle conducting the City of Birmingham Orchestra (EMI 56413) is regarded by some as being more passionate but to my ears it cannot eclipse his earlier 1984 reading with Vernon Handley conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It is this reading that I will use as a comparator.

It is interesting to compare the timings: -


Andante Allegro molto
Ehnes/Davis 17:36 12:22 18:54
Kennedy (1984) Handley 18:58 13:21 21:26


Pursuing Michael Kennedy’s comments "The soloist is called upon to be orator, singer, poet, conjurer and wizard …" In the finale, Ehnes is something of a wizard. He surmounts Elgar’s technically demanding passages at dazzling speed but delivering every note with crystal clarity. His unflagging stamina through such a long movement is quite breathtaking. The booklet informs that this performance was "recorded at live performances and at rehearsals - so we might assume patching was minimal? But singer, poet? Ehnes’ tone pleases throughout with a beautiful sheen on his top notes but alas Kennedy’s passion and emotional commitment, so vital in this Concerto, especially in the Andante - much too hurried - are absent here. I caught little in the way of regret for "what might have been" from Ehnes. On the other hand, Davis’s accompaniment fulfils the emotional requirements.

Readers might, at this point, like to be reminded that three wonderful historic recordings of this Violin Concerto are now available on the Naxos budget label led by the composer-conducted 1932 recording with the youthful Yehudi Menuhin on Naxos 8.110902. Then there is Sammons and Sir Henry Wood with the New Queen's Hall Orchestra, coupled with the Delius Concerto, on Naxos 8.110951 [review]; and Heifetz with Sargent conducting the London SO on Naxos 8.110939 [review].

The light and sunny Serenade for Strings, is an early work (1892) but the fluency and finesse of the string writing demonstrates Elgar’s growing confidence and maturity. It is a firm concert favourite and there have been numerous recordings notably Barbirolli’s keystone 1962 EMI recording now available in the EMI Great Recordings of the Century series (67240). Andrew Davis has recorded the work to good notices previously on Warner Apex 41371. His new reading is warmly and spaciously recorded and the luscious tone of the Philharmonia strings is a joy. The magical central Larghetto feels a tad measured; Barbirolli’s emotional tug is not quite reached. But the Allegretto’s little nuances seem to speak so eloquently, so nostalgically of the bygone age that Elgar knew.

Ian Lace


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