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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Elgar from America: Volume II
Cockaigne (In London Town), Concert-Overture, Op.40 (1901) [14:09]
Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op.47 (1905) [14:22]
Violin Concerto in B minor, Op.61 (1910, with cuts) [40:55]
Yehudi Menuhin (violin)
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent, Arturo Toscanini (Introduction and Allegro)
rec. April 1940 (Introduction and Allegro), February 1945 (Cockaigne, Violin Concerto), Radio City Studio 8H, New York City
SOMM ARIADNE 5008 [69:27]

This is the second volume in Somm’s series devoted to American broadcast performances of Elgar’s music (see Volume 1). All were made with the NBC Symphony in the – yes, we must use the cliché – ‘notorious’ Studio 8H. The earliest example is Toscanini’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings (April 1940) and then there are two examples from Malcolm Sargent’s visit to New York in February 1945: the Violin Concerto with Menuhin and Cockaigne.

Lani Spahr’s transfers and booklet notes are alike excellent. He mentions that Toscanini had prepared his Turin orchestra for Elgar’s 1911 visit during which the Englishman conducted the Introduction and Allegro, though I have elsewhere seen the date 1906 ascribed to Toscanini’s own first performance of it. In any case he didn’t conduct it much and this is the only known surviving example on disc. Unlike his Enigma Variations, this wasn’t the Italian’s finest Elgarian hour. The initial passages are galumphing and there is far too much Parsifalian elasticity to subsequent phrasing. If you want the Introduction taken to breaking point, this is your performance. Nevertheless, it’s possibly worth persisting for the classy string quartet – Mischa Mischakoff, Edwin Bachmann, Carlton Cooley, Frank Miller – and the lustily, if unevenly and unspontaneously driven Allegro.

After the partial pleasures of Toscanini comes Sargent’s stylistically apropos Cockaigne and the realisation that he never recorded the piece commercially. The recording in 8H sounds boxier and shriller for Sargent than for Toscanini with the result that the strings sound somewhat uncomfortable but whilst precision isn’t absolute one finds some very cocky brass work – try them at 6:35 – with the splendid trumpet section on fine form; their tonguing is a real tonic to hear. The orchestra must have seemed a different kettle of fish for Sargent, having worked with the war-sapped London orchestras and the hard-pressed Liverpool Philharmonic. This masculine reading drives the playing time to match that of Barbirolli’s 1949 recording with the Halle but Elgar himself back in 1926 was a minute quicker than both men.

A week later Menuhin and Sargent played the Violin Concerto. Reading the timings – the performance clocks in at 41 minutes – doesn’t tell the whole story as the performance is cut, to fit the timing constraints of the radio broadcast, which also included the Handel-Harty Water Music Suite. 14 bars are jettisoned in the slow movement and 92 bars in the finale – 106 bars all told - which Spahr approximates to six minutes. The finale cut was made at various times by other players, most famously Sammons – who I believe tried it once and once only – and had been sanctioned by Elgar. Sargent himself was to go on to accompany Heifetz in the Concerto a few years later, a recording Heifetz told the orchestra he was only making because Sammons had refused to do so.

Though Menuhin’s tone is not wholly flattered by the acoustic he plays with great refinement and pathos – that famous ‘Bruch’ moment does indeed purr under the soloist’s touch and there’s little sign of the bow arm problems that had begun intermittently to afflict him. Here one finds great flexibility of articulation and a real sense of the music’s colouristic canvas. He still somewhat sentimentalises the passage in the first movement from 10:15 to 10:30 as the soloist ruminates on the initial material whilst the slow movement – the timing is the same as Heifetz’s, though with that 14-bar cut – is mobile and expressive and is movingly done. Sargent shows yet again why he was a perfect fit for so many soloists; he’s marvellously professional and accommodating of his soloist’s every move. The finale shows no lessening in intent, nor any loss of control or sense of direction. Menuhin takes the accompanied cadenza in his stride and leads confidently onwards. The applause is hugely enthusiastic.

This is another historically valuable slice of New York concert life, well preserved and excellently restored. It preserves two performances not otherwise directed by the conductors as well as an example of broadcast necessity that, whilst it undermines the concerto’s structural integrity, nevertheless preserves a performance by one of the work’s very finest interpreters.

Jonathan Woolf

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