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Herein is enshrined the soul of .....
A centenary appreciation of Elgar's Violin Concerto by Patrick Waller
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 50 minutes.
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 the International Music Score Library Project.
A Wikipedia 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.
An interview 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 desired.
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:
Sammons (1929)
Menuhin (1932)
Heifetz (1949) 1 2
Campoli (1954)
Bean (1972)
Zukerman (1976)
Chung (1977)
Kennedy (1984) 1 2
Zukerman (1993)
Hahn 1 2 (2004)
Ehnes (2007)
Shaham (2008)
Znaider (2010)
Zehetmair (2010) 1 2

























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