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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Violin Concerto in B minor, Op 61 [47:45]
Sospiri, Op 70 [4:10]
Salut d’amour, Op 12 [3:09]
Chanson de nuit, Op 15 No 1 [3:41]
Nicola Benedetti (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski
Petr Limonov (piano)
rec. 2019/20, Henry Wood Hall, London; Studio 1, Air Lyndhurst, London
DECCA 4850949 [58:45]

Many people, if asked to name their favourite Elgar work, would nominate the Cello Concerto. While I love and admire that autumnal concerto, I think the Violin Concerto is greater in stature. Its reach and ambition surpass that of the Cello Concerto and its mix of opulence and introspection makes it endlessly fascinating. Technically and emotionally, it represents a huge challenge to any violinist. Over the years I’ve experienced some splendid performances on disc, including those by Hugh Bean (still an under-rated account), the young Nigel Kennedy, Tasmin Little, Yehudi Menuhin’s celebrated traversal with the composer on the rostrum, Albert Sammons, and the performance set down in the 1970s by Pinchas Zukerman with Daniel Barenboim. There are many other fine versions in the catalogue too, so in recording the concerto Nicola Benedetti steps into a hotly competitive market place. Her choice of conductor is very interesting. Vladimir Jurowski has won many plaudits during his time with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and I’ve been excited by several of his recordings, but to the best of my knowledge he hasn’t conducted a great deal of Elgar.

The recording of the concerto was preceded by at least one live performance, in the Royal Festival Hall on 2 October, 2019, which was attended by my Seen and Heard colleague, Claire Seymour, a violinist herself (review).

The concerto was written at the behest of Fritz Kreisler, who premiered it in 1910. Elgar composed it largely in 1909-1910, though some of the material was sketched as far back as 1905. I think I’m right in saying that this wasn’t Elgar’s first attempt at a concerto for the violin; earlier efforts in 1891 and 1901 were aborted. His desire to compose a concerto for the instrument should not surprise us; as the pianist, David Owen Norris reminds us in his lively booklet essay, Elgar’s own principal instrument was the violin, and before he finally established himself as a composer he spent many years as an orchestral violinist in London and the provinces. However, espite his own experience with the instrument in imagining and creating the solo part, which bristles with difficulties, Elgar called upon the technical advice and assistance of W H “Billy” Reed, the celebrated leader of the LSO.

I was impressed at once by the way in which Vladimir Jurowski shapes the first movement’s long orchestral introduction. He and the LPO make the music colourful and vital, as it should be and they also observe the nuances in the score. I was delighted to find that in this passage and, indeed, throughout the concerto Jurowski is alive to Elgar’s many tempo modifications which give the music its inner life. Nicola Benedetti’s rich-toned, pensive opening phrase is full of promise and that promise is fulfilled. As the movement unfolds, she excels in the glittering and sometimes fiery passagework but I was, if anything, even more taken with the way she communicates the introspective episodes. Jurowski is equally impressive; he’s just as in tune with the spirit of the music as his soloist is. The movement is a wonderful mixture of flashing brilliance and ruminative beauty and these artists deliver on all counts. Before going further, I should say a word about the recording. One of my preliminary listening sessions was done through headphones and I thought that Miss Benedetti seemed too prominent at the expense of the orchestra. However, when I listened through loudspeakers, I wasn’t conscious of this issue; maybe I simply had the volume control set too high for the headphones session. It was interesting to compare, however, the excellent Tasmin Little performance, set down in 2010. That recording was made in the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow and the Chandos engineers have not recorded the music as closely as their Decca colleagues. Those who like a concert hall balance may prefer the Chandos sound. The Decca recording is more ‘present’ and foregrounds the soloist rather more.

The approach taken by Benedetti and Jurowski to the second movement is an interesting one. Quite a flowing tempo is adopted; their performance, which plays for 11:36, is a little swifter than the Little/Andrew Davis account, which takes 12:07. I wonder if Nicola Benedetti has been influenced by Albert Sammons, whose basic speed is pretty similar? His performance plays for 11:07. It’s worthy of note that the Menuhin recording, with Elgar himself at the helm, is rather more expansive and takes 13:03. This wonderful music can accommodate a range of paces. The first few minutes of the movement flow wistfully in the Benedetti performance, but then in the middle section the greater ardour in the music is well conveyed and the climaxes are warm and strong. Throughout, her playing is gorgeous and completely responsive to the emotional demands of the music while the LPO plays with distinction. Then in the magical last few minutes (from 9:50) we hear real poetry and delicacy from both soloist and orchestra.

In the virtuoso passages of the finale Nicola Benedetti treats us to quicksilver playing while the Molto maestoso episodes come off well, being properly observed yet without sacrificing momentum. Jurowski brings out most successfully the richness and, at times, the complexity of the orchestra writing. The extraordinary accompagnata cadenza (10:17 – 16:42) is an inspired recollection of all that has gone before in the concerto and Miss Benedetti plays it superbly, showing great dexterity and, even more importantly, great empathy. Then, the reminiscences over, she and Jurowski bring the concerto home in a blaze of colour and energy.

This is an outstanding version of this great concerto which I’ve enjoyed and admired every time I’ve listened to it. Obviously, in a concerto of this scope and size the soloist is the star turn and Nicola Benedetti delivers in every respect. However, I was seriously impressed by Vladimir Jurowski’s way with the score. On this evidence, he’s clearly in tune with the Elgar idiom and I’d very much like to hear him conduct more Elgar. I spotted that in 2019 that he conducted Falstaff, impressing a very experienced judge in the shape of my Seen and Heard colleague, Alan Sanders (review). Alan mentioned that previously Elgar’s music had not attracted Jurowski, but he’s clearly taken to both Falstaff and the Violin Concerto very convincingly. The Second Symphony under his baton would be a fascinating proposition. The LPO is as experienced as any London orchestra in Elgar’s music and they show their mettle in this performance.

Nicola Benedetti also offers three short pieces for violin and piano. In many respects these are good choices: the pieces are intrinsically worthy and they provide an effective contrast after the huge canvass of the concerto. However, I think an opportunity has been missed. How marvellous it would have been if Miss Benedetti had given us Elgar’s E minor Violin Sonata instead. However, her smaller-scale choices are very enjoyable. Elgar composed Salut d’amour an engagement present for his future wife, Alice. It’s charming and I like the way Nicola Benedetti and Petr Limonov adopt quite a swift tempo. In this way they avoid any risk of sentimentality while not short-changing the charm of the piece. David Owen Norris wittily and perceptively describes Chanson de nuit as “Elgar’s very own Air on the G string”. Nicola Benedetti plays it delectably, especially at the close of the piece. Best of all – because it’s by some distance the best of the pieces – is the much later Sospiri. Dedicated to Billy Reed, this is a yearning little gem. The present performance is very poetic and Miss Benedetti’s tone is ravishing. In all three of these pieces she receives excellent support from Petr Limonov.

This first-rate disc is a notable addition to Nicola Benedetti’s discography.

John Quinn

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