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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Violin Concerto in B minor, Op 61 (1910) [50:32]
Violin Sonata in E minor, Op 82 (1918) [23:58]
Renaud Capuçon (violin)
Stephen Hough (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. September 2020, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London (sonata), St Luke’s, Old Street, London (concerto)
ERATO 9029511282 [74:31]

This new Elgar release from Renaud Capuçon is intriguing in a number of ways. The prime interest, of course, lies in how a distinguished French violinist will approach the music of Elgar; I’ll come to that in a moment, but there are other points of interest too.

When I saw this recording announced my immediate assumption was that the concerto must have been set down before Covid restrictions afflicted the UK. Not so; the sessions took place in September 2020 and were subject to the requirements of social distancing. Consequently, a photograph in the booklet shows the LSO all distanced from each other and seated in a circular layout with the conductor and soloist in the middle of the circle. By the time this recording was made the orchestra had had quite a bit of experience in giving streamed concerts at LSO St Luke’s and, indeed, at the BBC Proms. I could discern no adverse effect on the music-making caused by the distancing of the players from each other.

For me, the other fascination lies in the coupling. To the best of my knowledge, I don’t believe that the concerto has previously been released with Elgar’s Violin Sonata as the original coupling, though when Hugh Bean’s fine 1972 recording of the concerto was reissued on the Classics for Pleasure label in 2004 it was repackaged as a two-disc set and the opportunity was taken to add Bean’s 1971 recording of the sonata, as well as Elgar’s other two late chamber works (review). However, here Renaud Capuçon has made the deliberate choice to record the concerto and sonata together: the sonata was set down in a single day in September 2020, two days before the concerto sessions began. In his excellent notes, the conductor Kenneth Woods points out that “Elgar’s Violin Concerto, for all its grandeur and virtuosity, is one of his most personal, even private statements”. Though the concerto is a big work in every way, it has many passages of intimacy and introspection that, I think, bind it in spirit to the smaller-scale sonata; it’s very thought-provoking to hear a disc on which a violinist has recorded the two works as a single project over the space of just a few days.

I most recently encountered the concerto on disc through Nicola Benedetti’s excellent 2019 recording with the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski (review) so I turned to that as my comparative version. It became obvious very quickly that the two are very different. Perhaps in part that’s due to the respective recordings. Decca offer bright, dynamic sound and Ms Benedetti is placed quite forwardly, as she would be in a concert hall setting; that may well accurately reflect how the layout was arranged in Henry Wood Hall where the recording was made. The Erato sound is excellent but seemed, in comparison with the Decca, more mellow and Capuçon is less forwardly placed. Indeed, he sounds to be placed within the orchestra, though I readily concede that my hearing may have been influenced by the session photo I saw. I think the Erato sound complements the style of the performance very well.

In the big first movement, Simon Rattle gets the concerto off to a strong start though Jurowski gets a more surging response from the LPO. Jurowski’s pacing of this opening paragraph is a bit more urgent overall; he’s less inclined to linger and caress the music than is the case occasionally with Rattle. When we first hear Renaud Capuçon he muses a little more over his entry than Benedetti does. As the movement unfolds, Capuçon impresses in the bravura passages, though in these episodes it’s Benedetti who makes the greater impact: her tone is the more brilliant of the two, though that may be down to the respective recordings. What strikes me most about Capuçon, however, is his pensive way with the reflective stretches of music. Benedetti is also very poetic but I think Capuçon is even more confiding and in this he has a willing partner in Rattle. I must not give the impression, though, that there is a lack of fire in the Capuçon version. He can be dashing and virtuosic when the music requires it and Rattle also injects dynamism; for instance, in the lead-up to the moment where the soloist reprises the violin’s very first phrase, Rattle invests the orchestral tutti with exciting urgency. The Capuçon/Rattle traversal of the first movement is impressive.

In a short booklet note Renaud Capuçon says of the concerto that it is “one of the noblest [in the repertoire], etched with great poetry full of tenderness”. How I agree with that sentiment. Nowhere does Capuçon bring out the poetry and tenderness more than in the second movement. Here, too, lies the greatest difference between his performance and the Benedetti/Jurowski account. Vladimir Jurowski sets a tempo for Nicola Benedetti that is quite a bit swifter than the speed chosen by Rattle. I like the Benedetti performance, which does not lack poetry, but heard alongside the Capuçon version it emerges as more direct in nature – an approach which some may prefer, of course. Capuçon plays with great sensitivity and both he and the orchestra invest the music with autumnal hues. Obviously, the soloist will always be the centre of attention but I must record that Rattle and the LSO offer an accompaniment that is at times simply ravishing – listen around 8:20, for example. The last couple of minutes have a withdrawn quality from both Capuçon and the orchestra that is simply bewitching. The Benedetti version, though very fine, doesn’t quite match the magical quality of Capuçon and Rattle at this point. Overall, though I admire the Benedetti/Jurowski performance, the newcomer has the edge in this movement.

Both performances evidence a similar approach – and pacing – in the finale. The Decca recording emphasises the brilliance of Benedetti and the LPO but Capuçon and the LSO match them for dash and verve. The extraordinary cadenza, though it puts demands on the soloist’s technique, is far removed from any thoughts of mere conventional display. Instead, Elgar engages in an extended and very reflective review, just as he would do a few years later in the Cello Concerto. Both our violinists are marvellous here but the concept of this cadenza is very much in keeping with Capuçon’s thoughtful, poetic approach to the concerto as a whole. He takes slightly longer over it than Nicola Benedetti and the magnetism of his playing engaged my attention throughout. Once this reverie has concluded Capuçon and Rattle bring the concerto to an opulent conclusion.

Some may feel that Capuçon’s way with the concerto – and Rattle’s too – is a bit too reflective at times. I would understand such a reaction but all I can say is that I found the performance compelling throughout and I loved the keen response to the poetry and introversion. It would be crass to say that Capuçon’s reading is “better” than Nicola Benedetti’s – or vice versa. They are absorbingly different and these two superb violinists – and their respective conductors – illuminate this magnificent concerto in contrasting ways. Between them they show us the rich variety of possibilities in this concerto

However, if I were told that I could only have one of these discs then Capuçon’s choice of coupling would weigh heavily when making my choice. Nicola Benedetti offers three short pieces for violin and piano, all in estimable performances, but Capuçon gives us the much more substantial proposition that is Elgar’s Violin Sonata.

By the time he came to write this work, in 1918, Elgar’s world, and everyone else’s, had changed for ever. The opulence and swagger of the Edwardian era had given way to the trauma of World War I. Introspection characterises many pages of the Concerto but it pervades the Sonata. He wrote the sonata for his trusted friend, W H ‘Billy’ Reed, who had been closely consulted by Elgar over the composition of the Violin Concerto and, indeed, played the solo part in a private run-through prior to the premiere of the concerto in 1910.

The Violin Sonata may use only two instruments but the scope and reach of the work is substantial. Though the violin leads most of the development of the musical material, the piano part is no less important: this is a partnership of equals and that’s exactly what we hear in this performance by Renaud Capuçon and Stephen Hough. In the first movement, Allegro, I especially admire the very natural rubato that both artists employ, thereby giving the music exactly the right degree of emotional ebb and flow.

The second movement, Romance (Andante), is a strange creation which Elgar himself described as “a fantastic, curious movement with a very expressive middle section.”. During the outer sections the music has a hesitant quality to it. The music is confiding and, listening, one is unsure of the direction it will take. Eventually, however, a memorable legato theme emerges almost from nowhere (2:40) and Elgar builds this to an ardent climax. Eventually, the hesitant opening music returns – or is it hesitant: is the music now conveying a sense of melancholic recollection? Capuçon and Hough give a fine account of this at times elusive movement. The accomplished playing is no less than one would expect from artists of this calibre but even so I was unprepared for one moment of outstanding finesse. Just before the end (at 7:01) the violin plays a soft sustained E#, which is marked dolcissimo. So subtly does Capuçon voice this note that one strains to hear it; but it’s there, perfectly placed and weighted.

The music which opens the finale is, perhaps, suggestive of a river. In this performance it’s ideally relaxed and flowing. In time, this yields into a more pensive episode in which Capuçon and Hough are wonderfully persuasive. Eventually, Elgar brings back the wonderful, generous melody from the middle of the second movement and when this point is reached in this performance the playing is satisfyingly ardent. Capuçon and Hough then bring the movement to a strong conclusion, setting the seal on a very fine performance of the sonata.

I don’t know how long Renaud Capuçon has been living with these Elgar works or how often he’s had the opportunity to perform them in concert but he displays a fine feeling for both of them. In particular he’s in tune with the introspective, melancholy poetry in these two scores. I enjoyed both performances very much and Capuçon certainly made me think afresh about the concerto. His partnerships with Sir Simon Rattle and Stephen Hough have been very fruitful. I would encourage all Elgar devotees to hear these thoughtful and thought-provoking performances.

The recordings have been successfully engineered by Jonathan Stokes and produced by Stephen Johns. The notes by Kenneth Woods are excellent, though I wish he’d said a bit more about the Sonata, since this piece may be less familiar to some who buy the disc for the concerto – perhaps he wasn’t allowed sufficient space.

John Quinn

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