Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
String Quartet in E minor, Op.83 (1918) [27:41]
Mina (solo piano) (1932-33) [3:06]
Laura Valse (solo piano) (1887) [2:39]
March in D major (solo piano) (1887) [4:44]
Impromptu (solo piano) (1932) [0.27]
Piano Quintet in A minor, Op.84 (1918-19) [38:51]
Piers Lane (piano) Goldner String Quartet (Dene Olding (violin),
Dimity Hall (violin), Irina Morozova (viola), Julian Smiles (cello))
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk 3-5 July 2010
HYPERION CDA67857 [78:00]
It may be heresy to say this, but I would swap a great deal
of Elgar’s choral, vocal and even orchestral works to possess
the so-called ‘Brinkwells’ music’ – the Violin Sonata in E minor
(1918), the String Quartet in E minor (1918) and the Piano Quintet
in A minor (1918-19). These were written at a time when most
critics felt that the composer was at the end of his career.
During the Great War, Elgar composed few major works: what he
did write was to a large extent ephemeral and patriotic for
the ‘war effort.’ However in 1917 he and his wife, Alice, rented
a cottage called Brinkwells in West Sussex. This location was
deep within the woods near the village of Fittleworth. Apart
from its remoteness, there were plenty of secret footpaths and
extensive views which allowed Elgar time and space to think.
It was a bitter-sweet period in the composer’s life: many friends
had died during the war years, his wife Alice was becoming frail
and Elgar came to realise that he was no longer at the forefront
of British and European music. His style, in the face of Ravel,
Schoenberg and Stravinsky was seen as being conservative and
reactionary. Pluralism was barely an option in those days: it
was the ‘latest craze’ that mattered.
Diana McVeagh gives a good analysis of all the pieces in her
excellent liner-notes, so I will content myself with a few remarks
and observations about these works.
The String Quartet is written in three well-balanced movements.
The opening of this work establishes its serious purpose in
which the composer has created an involved, ‘intricate’ and
at times complex structure. In spite of the peaceful surroundings
of the Sussex countryside, this work is no idyll. Charles Porte
has noted the huge emotional variety in this movement: ‘allargando,
stringendo, espress. con fuoco and nobilmente’. He insists that
this variety of moods keeps the players in ‘constant animation’.
The reflective atmosphere of the second subject acts as a foil
to the largely unsettling music that makes up the remainder
of this movement. The composer seems to be in search of something
intangible: it may well be a lost muse or an attempt at finding
an ‘explanation’ for some event in the past.
The second movement is particularly memorable and was a favourite
of the composer’s wife. She said that it ‘captured sunshine’
and made her think about ‘the sound of bees and insects on a
hot summer’s afternoon’. Yet there is much emotion in this music
that goes beyond a ‘stroll in a garden’. With some sections
of this music we are back into the world of the Violin Concerto
and ‘what might have been’. Interestingly, this movement was
played at Lady Elgar’s funeral in 1920 by a ‘scratch’ quartet
of big names – Albert Sammons, W.H. Reed, Lionel Tertis and
The final movement is extremely energetic with little chance
for relaxation. Certainly the pace that the Goldner Quartet
gives to it is breathtaking. The urgency of the music is balanced
by the lovely second subject which is indicated as ‘dolce’:
this allows some remission and reflection. Yet the vital music
returns and brings the movement and the work to a loud and pressing
If the String Quartet is an important work then the Quintet
in A minor for piano and strings is one of Elgar’s greatest
works and a masterpiece of the genre. Charles Porte notes that
this essay is the culmination of the composer’s sudden, late
interest in serious chamber music. He had written many pieces
over the years for violin and piano, but these tended to be
in a ‘lighter’ mood. The Quintet was the third and last of the
Brinkwells works. There is a sense here that the composer is
moving towards some indefinable musical goal. I guess that there
is an analogy with Beethoven and his late Quartets: music that
is definably by the composer but inhabiting a different realm.
It is Elgar, but not as we know it!
The first movement, the ‘allegro moderato’ presents the fundamental
material of this work. Reviewers have noticed the techniques
that Elgar has used to create the musical structure of this
work: transformations of themes and phrases rather than extended
I believe that the adagio is one of the finest movements ever
to come from Elgar’s pen. It reaches a height - or is it depth?
- rarely achieved by any composer. This is valedictory music
that seems to sum up the composer’s career: this mood would
be continued in the later Cello Concerto. But, in the Quintet
the temper is near-perfect. It is hard to know whether there
is an air of optimism, but certainly there is a feeling of acceptance.
Diana McVeagh refers to this mood as ‘a profound romantic stillness’.
At the time of composition there was a lot of nonsense written
about the ‘ghostly’ mood in this work being inspired by a group
of ancient Iberian monks who had been committing ‘inappropriate
rites’ in the woods! However, the historicity of this ‘outrage’
has been largely debunked. Any ‘weirdness’ encountered in this
work is more likely to have been a result of a visit from that
master of the macabre, Algernon Blackwood to Brinkwells. Yet,
there is a ‘haunted’ air about much of this music that may be
subject to the composer’s own reflections on his past life and
The entire work is summed up by a feeling of melancholy and
resignation. Although I feel that the ‘adagio’ exhibits the
best of the composer, it is in the finale that the true strength
of the work is carried. This music is cyclical, with references
to the opening movement that balances the troubled nature of
many pages here. The sweep of the argument ranges from assurance
to a loss of that confidence and finally a new power emerges
in the closing pages.
The Piano Quintet was dedicated to Ernest Newman, who at time
was music critic at the Manchester Guardian. The Piano Quintet
was first performed at the Wigmore Hall on 21 May 1919. The
performers were Albert Sammons, W.H. Reed, Raymond Jeremy, Felix
Salmond and William Murdoch.
Hyperion have added four make-weights to this CD: all piano
solos played by Piers Lane. The first is a delicious ‘transcription’
of Elgar’s last completed work, Mina, which is a lovely
miniature in the composer’s ‘light music’ vein. ‘Mina’ was the
name of Elgar’s Cairn terrier: the composer fondly imagined
that the dog had the disposition of a ‘dowager duchess’. It
was originally conceived for orchestra but has been realised
for piano by David Patrick with emendations by Piers Lane. The
material is largely derived the piano sketches Elgar made for
the work. Diana McVeagh has noted in her study of the composer
that this piece is ‘a little echo of the 'Lullaby’ in From
the Bavarian Highlands’.
I fell in love with the heart-achingly beautiful Laura Valse
on first hearing. In many ways this music epitomises Elgar as
much as many of his later works. It was composed in 1887 for
a pupil of the composer. Diana McVeagh suggest that this ‘Laura’
was ‘probably ... a soprano from Stratford whose family discouraged
the attentions of the obscure music teacher’.
The short March in D major is rather fun. The liner-notes suggest
that it is a ‘cheerful forerunner’ of the five (six) Pomp &
Circumstance Marches. Perhaps one day this ‘discovered work’
will be orchestrated?
The Impromptu, which runs to a mere 37 seconds, is ‘as romantic
as anything he [Elgar] ever composed’. Truly the listener will
wish that this piece would last much longer. It was written
for a lady called Evelyn Francis Barron Dales who was one-time
secretary to the Belfast BBC producer Godfrey Brown. Elgar had
presumably met this lady on a visit to Ulster in 1932 when the
composer conducted a performance of Gerontius.
The liner-notes by Diana McVeagh are excellent and give listeners
all they need to understand these two wonderful pieces of chamber
music. However, anyone interested in gaining an in-depth understanding
of the background to the Quartet and Quinter are advised to
read Elgar, Vicat Cole and the Ghosts of Brinkwells by
Carol Fitzgerald and Brian W. Harvey. It is a fascinating period
in Elgar’s life, which has been critically regarded as being
It is almost redundant to mention that the Goldner String Quartet
and Piers Lane give striking performances of these late masterpieces.
Every nuance of this music seems to be perfect. The sound recording
is truly stunning. I will certainly turn to this Hyperion recording
when I wish to listen to the String Quartet and the Piano Quintet.