Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Concerto for Violin and orchestra in B minor, Op. 61 (1910)
Nikolaj Znaider (violin)
Staatskapelle Dresden/Sir Colin Davis
rec. 6-8 July, 2009, Lukaskirche, Dresden. DDD
BMG-RCA RED SEAL 88697605882 [49:37]

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 line.

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.

John Quinn