Herein is enshrined the soul of .....
A centenary appreciation of Elgar's Violin Concerto by Patrick
This article provides a brief personal appreciation of the concerto,
links to useful resources I have come across and discusses some
of the available recordings.
Elgar's Violin Concerto was first performed a century ago on
10th November 1910 by Fritz Kreisler, the dedicatee. The meaning
of the five dots in the Spanish inscription on the score "Aqui
está encerrada el alma de ....." remains one of the composer
enigmas although there is no doubt about the influence of "Windflower"
- Alice Stuart-Wortley in the genesis of the work. I have seen
it suggested somewhere that it is the soul of the violin that
is enshrined in the work. Whilst this is not the most plausible
explanation for Elgar's inscription, it appeals to me considerably.
Elgar's Cello Concerto may now, courtesy of the Jacqueline du
Pré, be better known but the Violin Concerto has always struck
me as the finer work. Actually, if restricted to just one concerto
recording of any kind, this is the one I would pick - an easier
decision than which recording of it to choose.
Within a standard three movement, fast-slow-fast concerto form,
this work is almost symphonic in its scope and integration of
thematic material. Elgar played the violin but nevertheless
was assisted with the solo part by both W.H. Reed and Kreisler.
In the end they didn't leave much to chance, covering the score
with detailed markings. There is a masterstroke in the form
of a central accompanied cadenza in the third movement. Whilst
tremendous virtuosity is a pre-requisite for the soloist, there
are also passages which look simple on the page and for which
the whole challenge must lie in expressing the right emotion.
For this is a highly emotional work - "bittersweet"
might be the simplest way to describe it.
The key signature of B minor is an unusual one for a concerto.
Dvorák's Cello Concerto is the only other well known example
I can find. The Andante is in the remote key of B flat but eventually
gravitates to D major which seems logical in such an integrated
work. The basic tempi instructions are simple: I Allegro; II
Andante; III Allegro molto but within the movements there are
many temporary changes. The recordings discussed below vary
in total duration from about 41 minutes (Heifetz) to almost
55 (Kennedy) and yet, the work can take it. Certainly Heifetz
never feels too fast and, surprisingly, the recording conducted
by Elgar is towards the slower end of the spectrum at almost
The work has it's own page on Wikipedia
and an Elgar Timeline
for the year 1910 provides a useful backdrop to its composition
and first performance. The score is now in the public domain
and it is possible to download it for free as a pdf file from
Music Score Library Project.
discography currently lists 30 recordings, two of which
date from 1916 and are truncated. Most of them were made in
the studio. Twenty-five soloists are listed with Menuhin appearing
three times as soloist and he also recorded it as a conductor.
Those who have recorded it twice are Sammons, Zukerman and Kennedy.
Most of the complete versions seem to be currently available
in the UK on CD or to download. Nine of them are available for
streaming in the Naxos
Music Library: Sammons 1929, Menuhin 1932, Heifetz, Campoli,
Dong-Suk Kang, Graffin, Ehnes, Shaham and Little. Since recordings
from the Hallé label are generally added to the library, Zehetmair
might well be available there soon.
with Tasmin Little prompted by her very recent Chandos recording
is available on MusicWeb. This disc also includes an alternative
accompanied cadenza with a prominent part for the harp written
by the composer in 1916. It's a pity that the disc is not set
up so that this could be programmed into the right place, if
The recordings currently in my collection are Sammons 1929,
Menuhin 1932 & 1966, Bean, Zukerman 1976, Kennedy 1984 and
Ehnes. Through the Naxos Music Library I have also heard Heifetz,
Campoli, Graffin, Shaham and Little. There's not really a dud
amongst all these recordings.
Menuhin from 1932 was my introduction to the work and I still
treasure it, although increasingly for the contribution of the
conductor. Menuhin was 16 at the time and it is the only complete
version conducted by the composer. In his 1977 autobiography
Unfinished Journey Menuhin recounts the well-known story
that Elgar went off to the races in preference to listening
to Menuhin going through the work - "Ivor and I started
to play at the soloist's entry and hadn't even reached the second
theme when Elgar stopped us". However, in his book Menuhin
published in 2000, Humphrey Burton is sceptical, citing accompanist
Ivor Newton's account suggesting that the whole work was played
apart from the tuttis.
The first complete recording, by Albert Sammons in 1929 under
the baton of Sir Henry Wood is an equally important document
and sounds pretty amazing in the Dutton transfer. In the historical
bracket, the recordings of Heifetz and Campoli made 20-25 years
also demand attention and the tone of the former is wonderfully
rich as heard on the Naxos Historical label.
Coming forwards to the stereo era, Menuhin's 1966 remake doesn't
displace his youthful rendition, whilst Hugh Bean is accomplished
without being gripping. Pinchas Zukerman's and Nigel Kennedy's
first recordings are both in the long-breathed category, the
latter was a Gramophone record of the year. Kennedy's
later recording, which I haven't yet heard apparently stretches
the slow movement well past the 14 minute mark (about 12 is
the norm). It was the only recording in the period between 1994-2004
following which there has been a fine crop of new recordings.
Graffin's reading is of interest for him having gone back to
the original manuscript although the differences aren't major.
I find his reading a little too objective and tend to prefer
Shaham's live rendition. Both are fairly middle of the road
and seem outshone by Ehnes. Of the recent recordings, Ehnes
and Znaider seem to have garnered the highest critical praise.
Much as I like the Ehnes, Tasmin Little's new recording would
be my choice for a modern recording. In a male-dominated list
of soloists a feminine touch is welcome and indeed apposite
in the work. The only reservation I have concerns the very end
of the work which is held back despite the a tempo marking.
I still can't make up my mind which, if pressed, would be my
only recording of the work but have got it down to a short list
of four: Sammons, Menuhin/Elgar, Heifetz and Little.
Patrick C Waller
Links to MusicWeb reviews:
Heifetz (1949) 1
Kennedy (1984) 1
Zehetmair (2010) 1