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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
String Quartet, op. 83 (1918) [29:19]
Piano Quintet, op. 84 (1918-19) [37:41]
Martin Roscoe (piano)
Brodsky Quartet
rec. 2018, Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
CHANDOS CHAN10980 [67:10]

Elgar’s String Quartet isn’t an easy listen because in the first movement its melodies are more difficult to pin down than its emotion. I see it as his response to living with the sounds, the jagged rhythms of war as a periodic backdrop. Its opening phrase could be that of a lullaby but is immediately (tr. 1, 0:07) jolted into insecurity. The first violin tries sympathetic falling phrases in response (0:10) but the other instruments cut across them with their own anxious activity and the angst of striving for expression is clear. Yet Elgar convinces me the striving is necessary because the theme emerges as an assertive, rising one, with a more accommodating, falling phrase component. That very opening phrase, now marked dolce and cloaked in a warm Beethovenian manner, introduces a glowingly wistful second theme (1:15) played mainly by the first violin with such expressiveness by the BQ’s Daniel Rowland that you’re in no doubt here’s the state of contentment the movement seeks. Yet the jagged rhythms reassert themselves. The falling phrases from the first theme are given more of a hearing but the strife becomes more intense. The second theme in dire straits (4:11) is heard on viola and first violin in turn against two other instruments’ stormy volleys of semiquavers. Ultimately the response is one of protest and suffering, stoically borne. The second theme recapitulation (6:27) is in gasping, broken phrases yet it’s able to assert itself softly and more movingly in this than its following appassionato flowering. The coda is striking. It suggests the possibility of comfort but its closing discipline is the realism of steely gaze and icy atmosphere. The Brodsky Quartet (hereafter BQ) give us this disturbing experience with sensitivity and clarity.

I compared the present disc with the 1995 recording by the Maggini Quartet (hereafter MQ) (Naxos 8.553737). Timing the movement at 8:13 to the BQ’s 9:17, the MQ’s smoother progression makes the overall experience less rhythmically contorted and emotionally thorny than the BQ’s and, with less room for it to breathe, the MQ bring less of a special quality to the expressiveness of the second theme. The MQ’s development is less taut, for example when that second theme is in dire straits. The MQ certainly bring passion and at times a surprising delicacy but I prefer the BQ’s more unremitting sense of distress.

The heading for the not too slow movement, a poco andante, is piacevole, pleasantly. For me it has a natural, folksy quality yet underpinned by a benign serenity, as if the contentment which has eluded the first movement is here secure, as is the dolce marking from the outset. Presented first by the second violin, with the radiance of the first violin doubling an octave higher only at the repeat, from the BQ it’s not so much beautiful as smiling. A passage of sequences with a descending motif exchanged by all, threatens the return of the first movement’s insecurity; however, the first theme briefly reappears to allay disquiet and there follows a bittersweet elaboration by the first violin (tr. 2, 2:10). This is getting close to salon music but is very endearing in this particular context. A second passage of sequences rather marks time but relaxes the mind for what Daniel Grimley, in a fine essay in The Cambridge Companion to Elgar, calls the magic intensity at the heart of the movement. As in the first movement, this intensity occurs in the softest presentation (3:41). It has the flavour of Tchaikovsky in quiet yearning mode and makes me think of the quiet passage in Romeo and Juliet just before the great crescendo to the lovers’ theme. Elgar’s first theme now returns very loud to provide a suitable climax, aggrandized by a spirited first violin descant, while a second hearing of the salon-like music cogently confirms its charm. I still get the impression the movement is over long but the Tchaikovskian material is again effective. When the opening theme returns for the final time (9:01), it’s slightly truncated. The instruments are muted and thereby it attains a wondrous simplicity in a coda as spellbinding as the BQ’s playing.

Though preferring the BQ’s slower tempo in the first movement, I find I prefer the MQ’s faster tempo in the second movement, taking 9:18 against the BQ’s 10:48. For me this makes the first theme sound humbler, while its overall shape is more appreciable and the darker elements a more integral part of the whole. The MQ have less warmth but more spirituality than the BQ. The MQ’s passage of sequences is more urgent and dramatic, with more purpose as an anxiety set aside by the serenity of the first theme, yet still within the purview of its presenter, for whom the ‘salon music’ is sadder despite, or because of, the exquisite playing of the first violin Laurence Jackson. In the second passage of sequences the MQ held my attention more than the BQ, with equal clarity to Elgar’s sensitive gradations of dynamics but without the BQ’s sense of mulling over which, though beautifully played, I find over indulgent. Yet come the Tchaikovskian yearning, its sequential three-note motif is treated by the MQ rather doggedly and I prefer the BQ’s smoother ardour. The MQ’s very loud return of the first theme is less heavy than the BQ’s yet certainly impassioned, and you feel it as an emotive climax rather than a structurally apt device. The MQ’s coda is hauntingly even more hushed and self-effacing than the BQ’s.

The Allegro molto finale’s introduction suggests perkiness. It is to be the movement’s prevailing character and genially tempers what’s otherwise a determinedly flamboyant first theme (tr. 3, 0:10) from first violin echoed by viola and marked brillante. Its rigorous continuation (0:31) uses syncopation to etch its presence, yet is equally capable of more ethereal flights. This is as far removed from salon music as Elgar can get and the BQ give us a vivid, quite spartan experience of it. The second theme, marked dolce (2:06), also uses syncopation. While more retro, it has a touch of reserve from the BQ, which prevents it from becoming sugary even while repeated rising phrases ensure it stays airborne. The repeats might seem excessive, but Elgar is determined to aid the theme’s second, rising phrase as it is, to combat flurries of marcato semiquaver runs, shared by all instruments in turn and the playful introduction is thrown into the mix. I begin to feel Elgar’s interest here is in deconstructing his themes. And as in the previous movements, the most expressive thematic presentation is a soft one, here of the second theme, now marked teneramente (6:12) yet growing in self-confidence. As also in the previous movements, the coda is memorable, with the introduction material and those later semiquaver runs notable, transforming all into a paradoxically creative disorder, bowing out in a blaze of brilliance which the BQ make a stimulating experience. Here I feel Elgar’s final response to wartime is a defiant energy. The BQ has an edginess, sometimes even ugliness, which I don’t find in the MQ, though thematically the MQ is admirably clear and sensitive in dynamic contrasts. In comparison with the BQ, the MQ are just too orderly, but you might prefer their dreamier, more nostalgic second theme appearances.

The Piano Quintet begins smooth and relatively calm in the piano, which glides from Martin Roscoe across the scene in the first theme with thoughtfulness bordering on solemnity, while the strings dance edgily around it. This equates with Elgar’s marking serioso and I like it. You can call that theme a chant but think equanimity rather than spirituality. A second theme (tr. 4, 0:37) is the motto theme of the work: In the violins and viola a sighing chromatic fall in two sequences, then a rise and bigger fall; in the midst of this the cello dovetails a rising three notes and then fall to two repeated notes, the phrase that will haunt you. It’s a phrase of longing when played loudly even of anguish, and of regret when played softly, eloquently delivered here by Jacqueline Thomas. That’s the Moderato introduction. The third theme comes with the Allegro where Elgar shows he admires Brahms and can emulate his pukka tempestuous rigour and stride valiantly out of it. All well done by Elgar and the BQ but you can’t help feeling Elgar’s fascination lies elsewhere. Sure enough, the motto theme returns, just its opening. Added to this now is a dainty little dance from the violins (2:08), which by the BQ I’d say coquettish, and the fourth theme of the movement, with a gorgeous bass of rather more swing provided by the piano. Its quieter repeat, with added pizzicato beats from viola and cello, is from the BQ darker as if illicit activity. Now comes a second, different sort of dance in E major (3:06), the fifth theme. In his Master Musicians’ book on Elgar, Robert Anderson deems this unfortunate, in other words vulgar, in its gaudy heart-on-sleeve manner. However, I feel, as played here by the BQ, in a full bodied yet balanced appraisal, its fervour is winsome. Elgar shows its capability in both loud and soft appearances and high and low register until the strings’ edgy rhythms, from the very opening of the movement, mingle with it and the first theme reappears softly on strings this time – a magical moment. In the repeat the piano doubles the strings and adds luxuriant decoration in semiquaver clusters. I feel a way of life, its seriousness of purpose as well as pleasures, is being defended here and that earnestness is given declamatory force in the development’s fugue based on the Brahmsian third theme. It’s started by the cello (5:46) and taken up fierily by the others. When it evolves into a more conventional recapitulation of the Allegro section, the emotional temperature from the BQ lowers a touch, yet rises again with a con fuoco transformation of the first dance. The latter’s quiet repetition is now contented, a mood which continues in a charmingly languid version of the second dance. The first theme completes the movement, first with a tinselly piano accompaniment, next sweet violins turning brooding, then an eloquent, elegiac cello, which suitably ushers in the return of the motto theme. The final first theme outing finds the piano accompanied by quite vicious outbursts in the dancing strings but these eventually subside. You do feel there’s a great parade of themes and care by Elgar here, to show them in a different light when they return.

Peter Donohoe joins the MQ in my Naxos CD for comparison. His opening is less creamy than Roscoe’s, more deliberate in its consideration and the MQ’s strings’ dance is heavier. The MQ’s motto theme is wistful, but the BQ show more variation of mood. The MQ’s Allegro is weighty, less dashing than the BQ’s but the MQ’s con fuoco end is more exciting. Their treatment of the first dance has a gauzy quality which you might deem flighty; the BQ’s first dance is more relished and evocative. The MQ seem to accept and revel in the vulgarity of the second dance. In its soft repeat Donohoe accents the highest note heads of phrases, echoing the earlier accenting of the loud heads in the strings. The reappearance of the first theme is more brooding and less magical than with the more clear-sighted BQ. The MQ’s development, however, does stoke up more of an element of frenzy, maintained in the Allegro recapitulation and leading well into the con fuoco first dance. The BQ, in achieving clarity in the development and recapitulation, convey an engaged observation of the scene rather than the MQ’s full immersal in it. The MQ’s second dance is now all nostalgic glimmer, affectionately and dreamily looking back from a great distance – a mood that permeates their end of the movement and which lacks the assurance, character and variety of the BQ’s. From the second dance recapitulation you feel the BQ’s fascination in exploring new angles. The slightly melancholy, bitter wistfulness of their final motto theme explains the vicious accents that follow.

The glory of Elgar’s Piano Quintet is its slow movement, an Adagio that George Bernard Shaw considered comparable to Beethoven. But which Beethoven? I’d go for his Op. 127, more ruminative and soberer than Elgar’s yet with the same intrinsic warmth. Elgar’s first theme, stated by the viola with a rich strings’ surround moves with an inevitable nobility, shines, singing expressiveness and spaciousness that allows you to appreciate the progression without any care for time as sequences illumine its heart. The next section is this movement’s variation of the first movement’s motto theme, casting a shadow over the earlier sublime state, in particular its upper strings’ falling phrase dovetailed by a five-note one on the cello, strikingly expressive in its rise and fall (tr. 5, 2:37). But this is rescued by a second theme (3:06) heard in turn from first violin and cello, a response of consoling empathy. Though the cello still considers the motto material, it becomes moderated, the more so after a lower tessitura, grittier version of the second theme by all the strings. Finally there’s a glassy taming of the motto as presented by the piano, after which the second theme on the viola rivals the warmth of the first and all the strings have their solo turns on it. The tempo and ardour then quicken to a heady climax, stirringly effected by the BQ, though I feel it’s a touch stage-managed. This allows for a rather prolix unwind to a presentation of the first theme streaming sunlight. Yet when dusk comes, so does the cello’s motto theme, but now incorporated gradually, patiently, into an overall calmer perspective. The failure of the end of the first phrase of the first theme to resolve in its solo appearances (from 9:57) in turn from second and first violin is gazed at unblinkingly.

That first theme is sometimes described, as in Conor Farrington’s fine notes in this Chandos CD booklet, as a “hymn of remembrance”. The MQ, timing the movement at 12:12 to the BQ’s 13:01, achieve more continuity of mood through that slightly faster tempo and arguably make it more moving for being less tearful. The genius of the first theme’s simplicity, a genuineness of song outpoured, is more apparent. The cello’s variation of the motto theme remains consistently ardent and conscientious, not a challenge, so there are fewer contrasts than provided by the BQ. Yet these do occur: The return of the second theme has a dark resilience, there’s a frisson in the movement’s climax more compelling than the BQ’s treatment, while the MQ’s shaping of the first theme’s return is fine and glowing. That theme’s failure to resolve the end of its opening phrase in its last two soloist appearances seems to be accepted by the MQ as if a feature of old age. From the outset the BQ’s treatment will strike you as more emotive and sustained but might both these elements be a shade over earnest? You have to decide this. You can immediately click and compare these brief samples from the Presto website: The BQ is the first CD displayed, the MQ the fifth. I’m struck by the naturalness of the MQ approach but also by the intensity of that of the BQ. Some details emerge more effectively from the BQ, such as the delicious shiver of the strings’ fpp (9:38). Their playing is magnificently poised but how much heart-on-sleeve can you accommodate? There’s a more sorrowful, elegiac, even tragic quality in the BQ’s treatment of the motto theme. Did Elgar intend this? I’m inclined to think he did.

The finale’s introduction is startling. Not in the first theme, which is the return of the motto theme in its first movement version, opening in a more soft and benign manner than previously heard, but in what Elgar does to it, turning it loud, bitter, caustic, as if everything is now being rejected. Why? Take your pick: 1. Elgar had had a nervous breakdown; 2. Elgar’s response to the war; 3. Elgar’s trying to come to terms with the contemporary rejection of traditional musical language. I’d suggest a mix of all three. The Allegro main body brings the second theme, a typical ‘buck up’ response marked con dignitą, cantabile yet I note how valiantly it has to struggle against the piano’s turbulence fully revealed by Roscoe. Elgar throws everything into it, turning to his favourite nobilmente manner (tr. 6, 1:44) but I’m more fascinated by the BQ’s quieter passages, which suggest an essence of stalwart response that can’t be annihilated. In this quieter manner comes the third theme (2:19), polonaise like and thereby suaver than the first movement dances, strangely capable of becoming exhilarating in a way that the more predictable second theme isn’t, yet also capable of blending with it (3:28). Now retrospection becomes possible again. The first movement’s first theme returns on very soft piano somewhat shrouded in manner, yet the strings’ dance, marked staccato quasi pizzicato, is subtly more animated than before, or is this simply to make more reposeful the four strings’ immediate take-up of the first movement’s first theme? I love the way the BQ present this and I don’t think it’s ghostly, as sometimes described. But the ending (5:26), with muted first violin and cello’s veiled attempt to reintroduce the motto theme, shows the tranquillity is precarious. Another retrospection, the first movement’s fifth theme is literally veiled on muted violins; more cello advances are rebuffed by a series of sforzandos. Yet into this strange confection comes the finale’s second theme, burrowing on indomitably, at first quietly and then gathering strength, a surprising and thereby effective recapitulation, after which the polonaise theme quickly gets involved in increasingly abandoned celebration. Farrington’s note points out that the optimistic coda was described by Elgar as an “apotheosis”. Well, at fff it’s the work’s loudest point, marked grandioso and fuses together the pith of the second and third themes. The BQ and Roscoe give it everything they’ve got and I suspect Potton Hall’s Steinway needed some TLC thereafter. Viewed at dispassionately, you might well agree with Grimley that it’s “grotesque and overblown”, but you can’t be dispassionate about the way it turns out in the magnificently spirited BQ/Roscoe performance, while Anderson states that the coda is “exultant” and has “panache”. As one last, maybe defiant, hurrah it’s thrilling.

The MQ’s introduction to the finale is ominous from the start and then alarmed but not as cataclysmic as the BQ’s. The MQ’s second theme is warm at heart but seems burdened: You note the constant return to low tessitura and only after much attack by loud activity is it galvanized into more rugged expression. The BQ emphasise the cantabile quality of the theme which makes it at first more consolatory and then stand out in fighting its corner. As it eventually becomes quieter, the MQ’s bounce in the polonaise is an immediately welcome contrast, where the BQ’s preference for stylishness is more restrained. Another marked contrast from the MQ is the murkier, mysterious, engulfed, ghostly quality of the return of the first movement’s theme whose parade sounds like sleep-walking and the return of the first movement’s fifth theme seems equally submerged. The recapitulation of the second theme isn’t as surprising as from the BQ, but it has warmth and its sudden surge (7:00 in the BQ account) seems a compulsive declaration of belief. The MQ’s third theme recapitulation curiously takes longer to get going, where the BQ is bolder. Though from the MQ the espressivo marking in both first violin and cello simultaneously is clearly conveyed and their animated peroration is urgent, grittier and heavier than the BQ’s. This is partly because of the richer though more diffuse bass of the more resonant recording in St Martin’s Church, East Woodhay.

To sum up, these dramatic, edgy accounts by Roscoe/BQ give us the intensity of Elgar’s Indian summer in full measure and that’s why if I could only have one recording, this would be my preference. Yet you can see I found much to savour and sometimes prefer in Donohoe/MQ.

Michael Greenhalgh

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