Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Cello Concerto in E minor, op.85 (1918-19)* [26:30]
Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47 (1904) [14:56]
Elegy, op. 58 (1909) [3:55]
Military Marches, Pomp and Circumstance, op. 39 (1901-30) [28:58]
Paul Watkins (cello)*
BBC Philharmonic/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. 4-5, 7, 9 October 2011, MediaCity UK, Salford
Mention Elgar’s Cello Concerto to almost any classical music buff worth their salt and they are more than likely to go misty-eyed and say, ‘ah yes, Jacqueline du Pré …’ Her 1965 recording with Sir John Barbirolli on EMI is one of those very few which has stamped its authority so firmly on any one work that anyone following might as well put in as an ‘also-ran’ before they start. What is it about that classic EMI record? Leaving all sentimental associations about poor Jacqueline’s illness and early demise aside, this is a performance which projects its emotions from the bottom upwards. Conducted by someone who started out as a cellist and who began his career while Sir Edward was still very much around, it’s a version which has a special and unique intensity, and quite simply gives another meaning to the word ‘authenticity’.
I remember Paul Watkins sitting in once at a rehearsal while I was still blowing flute at the South Gwent Youth Orchestra – a band which at times had more flutes and clarinets than all of the string sections put together. He made us all feel very ordinary, being at that time already a miniature whizz-kid and always destined for greatness. This Chandos recording is indeed a great achievement. The recorded balance is pretty good, though while the orchestra has plenty of presence in the tutti passages it doesn’t have quite the ballsy contribution which Sir John gets from his London Symphony Orchestra forces. This is where the intensity is at a lower level in this otherwise very fine performance. Watkins is refined and eloquent and brings everything you could want to the work, but you always have the feeling the BBC Philharmonic is accompanying rather than really in competitive dialogue: sparring with the soloist as an equal artistic entity. Just have a listen to that first real melody which the strings introduce in the second minute of the first movement. This is indeed a moment which needs space in order to grow later on, but it could have a touch more fragility that that rather matter-of-fact way Sir Andrew Davis has it appear. I shouldn’t carp. There are so many technical features about the way the BBC Phil plays which are such an improvement on the old warhorse, and I’m sure sentimental attachment has as much to do with many of our responses as anything else ...
No? OK – let’s put aside 50 year old recordings and look afresh at this piece. The vocal character of the cello is one of its great strengths, and Paul Watkins does so much more than just play the tunes. His range of colour and expression is tremendous, and the instrument he uses he describes in the booklet as having a “combination of burnished woody timbres and a plangent expressivity, reminiscent perhaps of an English tenor voice.” The response between soloist and conductor is also mentioned by Watkins, with Sir Andrew Davis “highly skilled at reading a soloist’s musical thoughts and enabling an orchestra to respond instantaneously.” This is indeed a synergy which shines through in the momentary changes and subtle little points which constantly emerge in the second movement. The Adagio sings; creating both a breathtaking musical landscape and the kind of aria which would have the power to carry an opera out of all proportion in size to its four and a half minutes’ duration. We have a certain amount of grunting and moaning from the conductor in the beginning of the last movement, but crisp rhythms and that rich expressive palette from which to draw in this most substantial of all the movements. Listening to what happens here makes you realise how close Elgar already was to Shostakovich in his first cello concerto. They are worlds apart, but most certainly in orbit around the same emotional field of gravity. This is most certainly a performance which has ‘legs’. Yes indeed, they grow on you over time and, in this Olympic year, deliver their own rewards.
Of the Introduction and Allegro I have no complaints, though fans of Sir John Barbirolli will again seek that impassioned intensity and sense of wild and tragic danger to be found in his EMI Sinfonia of London recording. There is no blood on the carpet with the BBC Philharmonic, but it’s still a superb thing to have around. The Elegy is gorgeous here as well. The BBC strings made me wonder if this was where Howard Skempton had found his Lento, but I fear I was tilting at windmills. Either way this is a warm and all-embracing performance to which you will want to return.
You might wonder why anyone would want to listen to, let alone record the ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ marches these days. Better in musical content than most military marches, this is ostensibly music with a function, and the only remaining function of the grand tune of March No. 1 would appear to have would be to stir up National Pride at the last night of the Proms or similar. If you feel like waving a Union Flag at home in your Union Flag underwear then this is as good a place to get your sounds. Indeed, the March No. 1 sounds magnificent with full organ, and the less familiar tunes are full of unexpected associations. March No. 2 has moments which I might easily have mistaken for something by Dvorak in days gone by, and there’s a sense of theatre throughout which often transcends the ‘Military March’ appellation. As an evocation of a period when carriages were horse-drawn – and who knew that horses could draw – the March No. 4 is hard to beat: you can sense the pulsating energy of a time in which people actually did and made things, rather than worked as executive administrative financial advisory management assistants.
Seen as a musical pastie, this is a remarkably fine Cello Concerto and string orchestra filling, with a crusty military pastry which won’t break your teeth and is actually rather unexpectedly fine. The BBC Philharmonic sound as if they are enjoying themselves, and there is a vibrant sense of collective positivity in the whole programme – even from the tragic tones of Elgar’s last major masterpiece. With stunning recorded sound, what more could one ask.
A stunning and steamy hip-bath of refined Elgar-Elgar.