Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Violin Concerto in B minor, op. 61 (1911) [49:35]
Nikolaj Znaider (violin)
Staatskapelle Dresden/Sir Colin Davis
rec. Lukaskirche, Dresden, 6-8 July 2009. DDD
BMG-RCA RED SEAL 88697605882 [63:30]

Hereís a welcome new recording of Elgarís Violin Concerto. From the orchestral introduction the emotive flexibility, subtle shaping of phrasing yet also overall cohesion of expression is striking. The passionate core of this concerto is epitomized in its Windflower themes, Elgarís private name for two themes in the first movement and Alice Stuart-Wortley who had encouraged him when he was having difficulty in completing the work. In this performance thereís urgency to the first appearance of the first Windflower theme (tr. 1, 0:37) yet a lovely delicacy to the first violinsí accompanying figurations when itís repeated on the second violins (0:57). The second Windflower theme (1:18) comes with a warmth of emotion in the lower strings and violinsí sighs above which are also sunny. The hornsí descent at 2:43 really is con forza as marked and stimulatingly so. A unique feature of this recording is that Nikolaj Znaider plays the 1741 Guarnerius del Gesu violin that the workís dedicatee, Fritz Kreisler, played at its premiere. The rich tone of his opening statement is memorable, yet still more so is the immediately following fragile sensitivity. Znaiderís cantabile in his treatment of the first Windflower theme is expressive but also progressive and yet he finds a melting tenderness in the second Windflower theme. On the other hand Elgarís contrasts of dynamic are carefully observed, such as the gutsy ff entry at 10:55. The tranquillo passage following is beautifully reflective, complemented by discreet but expressive cellosí contributions. Thereafter a restless, quixotic phase is well caught before being satisfyingly resolved by a sunny affirmation of the second Windflower theme. Throughout thereís fine interaction and blend between soloist and orchestra. The recording has the natural perspective as if you were at a reasonable distance in a concert performance and is still sufficiently detailed. You become aware of Znaiderís breathing at some tender moments. Personally I like this reminder that a human being has to interact with an instrument to make it sing.

I compared the 2003 recording also conducted by Colin Davis, this time with the London Symphony Orchestra and soloist Hilary Hahn (Deutsche Grammophon 4748732). Here are the comparative timings which differ only marginally.

Timings††† †† I††† II III††††† Total
Znaider/Davis 17:51 12:10 19:22 49:35
Hahn/Davis 17:59 12:18 19:26 49:49

In surround sound, this is a recording of more detailed instrumental positioning. The orchestral introduction here is more direct and biting, more active, but the characterful rubato given the first Windflower theme is arguably overdone and in the second youíre conscious the tempo is pulled about more. The hornsí con forza descent is rather thrown off. Hahnís opening statement has both noble restraint and intense contemplation but the following cantabile is a touch maudlin, the momentum too lost. The second Windflower theme is elegiac and eloquently treated but lacks Znaiderís natural flow. The ff entry is less strong, the musing thereafter rather studied.

Znaider and Davisís slow movement (tr. 2) abounds in sensitive gossamer shading and sweet lyricism. Both have caught the idiom exactly, in all its passion, waywardness and delicacy. Davisís touch is lighter and again more flowing than in his earlier recording which concentrates on simplicity and transparency of expression to which Hahn adds a solemn solo. Thereís a greater humanity and spirituality about Znaider and Davisís interpretation. The density and subtlety of the writing for string orchestra is quietly but assuredly in evidence, the way the melodic contours echo each other and the soloist. You appreciate the hush about the orchestral interventions following the violinís first presentation and then Znaiderís rich, yet still dignified emotive vein, matched by the weight to the orchestral nobilmente material (from 4:34). But then you also notice the more personal evocation of the solo hornís sighs accompanying the violinís musing from 6:04 before a measured summation and intent yet serene close.

Znaider and Davisís finale (tr. 3) is one of evident agility and virtuosity. The march theme (0:52) is firm yet festive. The second theme (2:13) is richly savoured, a touch wistful and honoured by ornate decoration before itĎs allowed to soften and drift away, dreamlike in the upper strings from 2:46. Hahn and Davisís finale has a less virtuoso, more scherzo quality which I also find attractive. Their march theme is lighter but their second theme more intent. However, the following molto maestoso is somewhat inflated where Znaider and Davis (1:40) convey more density, swing and progression: you can see where itís going. The return of Znaider and Davisís second theme is more strikingly measured: it now contains more assurance in its grand orchestral statement which points up the following yearning, intimacy and even whimsy in the soloistís repeat.

Znaiderís approach to Elgarís accompanied cadenza (10:13) begins with a spacious, eloquent recall of the first Windflower theme from the first movement before this is rhapsodically distilled in a manner which finely balances rhetoric and lyricism and has the feel of a fantasia. Then the second Windflower theme returns (12:45), richly yet rather objectively, a foil to its distillation which is even more ethereal and spellbindingly achieved by Znaider. Thereís then a concluding unaccompanied phase to which Znaider brings for me a more welcome urgency than Hahn, at the same time allowing more contrast in the ritenuti. Overall Znaiderís cadenza is slightly faster than Hahnís, timing at 7:02 against 7:22, and the impression is of a more classical approach. Hahnís first Windflower theme opening is more emotive, sad, withering, where Znaider shows a heroic resilience. Hahn brings more deliberation to the rhapsodic material which makes it compelling in a different way but, you might also argue, more mannered, less flowing than ZnaiderĎs athletic detachment. Hahnís Windflower second theme is a more glowing, sad and elegiac recall where Znaider emphasises the warmth. The thrumming pizzicato upper stringsí accompaniment is more intensely realized by the LSO than the Dresden Staatskapelle, the concentration riveting. So if you want a more romantic approach, Hahn supplies it. On the other hand Znaiderís overall measuring of tempo I find more convincing, never sounding contrived. Znaider and Davisís coda is suitably crisp and grand in turn, a pity you can just about hear what I presume is enthusiastic but groaning like encouragement at 17:14, 18:08 and from 18:50 similar to that in some live Davis recordings.

To sum up, while one might quibble at a CD today with a total playing time of less than 50 minutes, this Znaider/Davis account is an exceptional, finely rounded performance.

Michael Greenhalgh

An exceptional, finely rounded performance.