On 10 November 1910 Fritz Kreisler walked onto
the platform of the Queen’s Hall in London and, with the composer
conducting, gave the first public performance of the new Violin
Concerto by Elgar. A private performance, with piano accompaniment,
had been given a few weeks earlier during the Three Choirs Festival
at Gloucester but only a handful of people had been present then.
At the premičre itself the work scored a conspicuous success.
I’m sure that in this, the centenary year of the concerto, there
will be many performances and, who knows, further recordings may
appear. However, this new disc from Nikolaj Znaider is of particular
interest for he plays the work on the very instrument with which
Kreisler gave the work’s premiere. The instrument, made in 1741
by Guarnerius del Gesu, is now known as the “Kreisler” for obvious
reasons. Now in the possession of the Royal Danish Theatre, the
instrument is on extended loan to Znaider. Kreisler had been seeking
a concerto from Elgar for a number of years before the composer
actually delivered the work and, by all accounts, Kreisler was
greatly taken with it. However, he never recorded it – he passed
up an opportunity to do so in 1932, apparently because he was
unconvinced of the conducting skills of the composer, who was
to conduct: a young violinist named Yehudi Menuhin was engaged
instead and, as they say, the rest is history. Kreisler never
got a second chance and so this is probably the first time that
a recording has been made using the instrument on which the concerto
was first revealed to the world.
However, it must not be thought that this recording is of interest
or value simply on account of the instrument on which the soloist
plays. This is a fine recording in its own right.
In some quarters it used to be said, many years ago, that English
music doesn’t ‘travel’ and could only be interpreted satisfactorily
by the English. That fatuous, nonsensical notion has long since
been laid to rest. As firm proof of the international appeal of
Elgar’s music here we have it played by a Danish violinist and
one of the great German orchestras. Mind you, the conducting is
safe in the hands of a very English conductor. Sir Colin Davis’s
impressive Elgarian credentials are well known – he comments in
the booklet that he first conducted this concerto forty years
ago – and they’re very evident here. Furthermore, the Dresden
orchestra, with which Sir Colin has enjoyed a long association,
is well suited to Elgar’s music. Anyone fortunate enough to have
heard at the end of March 2010 the broadcast of Sir Colin’s superb
account of Gerontius
with this same orchestra – so much
better than his LSO Live recording, chiefly because he had excellent
soloists in Dresden – will know that Davis and the Staatskapelle
Dresden make a very fine combination in Elgar. Perhaps that’s
not a great surprise since the Staatskapelle excels in the music
of Richard Strauss.
Working in partnership with such a fine conductor and orchestra,
Znaider gives a strong account of the concerto. His warm tone
at his very first entry augurs well, after Davis has unfolded
the orchestral introduction authoritatively. I liked Znaider’s
tone throughout. It’s not an especially big tone – he’s no Sammons
– but it’s warm and pleasing to hear. Moreover, he never compromises
tonal quality even in the most athletic passagework. I’m sure
the instrument on which he plays helps greatly but an indifferent
player will not be made to sound good, even by the finest violin.
The famous ‘Windflower’ theme is played with no little tenderness.
The big first movement is difficult to pull off as a structure
because Elgar frequently pauses to muse. Znaider and Davis are
very good in these more reflective stretches but I felt also that
they held the overall shape of the movement well. Davis’s conducting
is out of the top drawer. I love, for example, the urgency and
drive he brings to the big orchestral tutti
(9:35 – 10:54).
This sets into strong relief the soloist’s musings that immediately
follow. As for Znaider, he seems fully equipped to deliver even
the most technically demanding passages with panache.
The slow movement opens with some beautifully withdrawn and delicate
playing both from the soloist and the orchestra – sample the passage
between 1:53 and 2:12, where the muted pp
strings are gorgeously
refined. The whole movement is played with great sensitivity and
no little poetry by Znaider, and Davis and the orchestra match
him all the way. Most impressive of all, perhaps, is the section
from 10:12 to the end of the movement. The subtle half-lights
of Elgar’s music are wonderfully realised, ensuring that the ending
is as hushed and as moving as it should be.
The mercurial finale gets off to a great start. Znaider delivers
the filigree detail in the solo part with pleasing definition
and the performance of the quicker music has fine spirit. The
approach to the great cadenza is prepared masterfully by Davis
and then Znaider plays the cadenza itself (10:14–16:54) spaciously
and with great imagination. His playing has virtuosity but, more
importantly, it’s soulful and poetic. This enthralling account
of the cadenza is followed by an exciting dash for the finishing
Famously, Elgar inscribed the score of the concerto “Aqui está
encerrada el alma de …..” No one knows for certain whose soul
is enshrined in this work, though it’s clearly that of a woman.
When one hears a really good performance of this magnificent concerto
– and this Znaider reading is one such – one feels that the woman
in question must have had a complex personality. She was, surely,
beautiful. In all probability she was sometimes wilful, perhaps
capricious. She was undoubtedly capable of affection, tenderness
as well, but she probably had a fiery streak as well. In addition
I have no doubt she was sensitive and cultured. Znaider’s fine
traversal of the concerto prompts such thoughts.
The first time I listened to this disc I said to myself at the
end: “Very fine”. Subsequent hearings have reinforced that view.
In the booklet Sir Colin writes: “I have the feeling that we’ve
truly brought off something special.” I think he’s right.
This recording enters a crowded field. Its cause is not helped
by the rather mean playing time – I’d have loved to hear Sir Colin
and the Dresden orchestra in the Introduction and Allegro
for instance. However, otherwise this disc has a lot going for
it. It’s a significant addition to the discography of one of the
pinnacles of the violin repertoire.