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Elgar Bridge cello 8574320
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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op 85 (1919) [26:20]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Oration (Concerto elegiaco) (1930) [29:46]
Gabriel Schwabe (cello)
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Christopher Ward
Rec. 2020, Vienna
NAXOS 8.574320 [56:12]

My immediate reaction when this CD dropped through the letter-box was ‘the perfect coupling!’ – which indeed it is, and it’s amazing that the only other example is Raphael Wallfisch’s fine recording for Nimbus from 2006. These two composers were born twenty-two years apart, yet both works were written during the aftermath of World War 1 - the Elgar first performed in 1919, the Bridge in 1930 - and express profoundly their creators’ different reactions to the tragedy of war.

Recordings of Elgar’s masterpiece abound, and it has been coupled with concertos by Britten, Walton, Dvořák, and many more. But Bridge’s Oration – certainly one of its composer’s greatest works – appears rarely, ether on disc or in the concert hall. So this CD, which is a fine addition to the catalogue, is especially welcome.

Frank Bridge was an avowed pacifist, with a passionate hatred of war. He lost many friends in the conflict of the Great War, including the highly talented young composer Ernest Farrar (teacher of the young Gerald Finzi). In 1915, he wrote to a friend that he was 'in utter despair over the futility of World War One, and …….walk round Kensington in the early hours of the morning unable to get any rest or sleep.' Many of his works reflect these feelings, but none more powerfully than ‘Oration’, with its telling subtitle of ‘Concerto elegiaco’. It consists of one continuous movement, divided into a number of subsections. The last of these is a devastating epilogue; that very word immediately brings to mind Vaughan Williams, who often used it for the final parts of works, and indeed, the bleakness of Oration’s final moments bear comparison with those of VW’s 6th Symphony.

The young German ‘cellist Gabriel Schwabe gives a truly outstanding performance of this concerto. It demands a vividly imaginative response from the soloist, for the word ‘Oration’ refers normally to a funeral address. Thus every note of the solo part has to embody that idea, often reacting to violent episodes in the orchestra, and culminating in the awesome death-march of the Lento (track 11). The ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under the English conductor Christopher Ward play superbly, although I could wish for just a little more visceral power and weight in the biggest tuttis (the slightly dry recording quality could have something to do with that). Richard Hickox, with soloist Alban Gerhardt and the BBC NOW on Chandos are magnificent in this respect, but overall the performance delivered by Schwabe and his conductor Christopher Ward is even more overwhelming in its impact.

(In passing, it is of course an oft-repeated (too oft-repeated?!) fact that Bridge taught the young Benjamin Brittenowfor a time before the latter entered the RCM. When I listened to Bridge’s extraordinary ‘death-march’ mentioned above, something struck me I’d never noticed before. Britten’s greatest tribute to his teacher was his first full-blown masterpiece, the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge of 1936, written when he was still just 23. In that wonderful piece, one of the variations is a searing funeral march; the emotional and stylistic link between it and the Bridge is unmistakable).

Bridge entered a golden period in the 1920s, when he was supported by the wealthy American Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. He was thus able to compose the way he wanted to compose, rather than worry about getting commissions or rapid public acclaim. His music of this part of his life was really ahead of its time – in Britain, anyway – but is gradually being recognised today as the remarkable body of work it is, absolutely worthy to stand equal with that of Britten, Holst and Vaughan Williams. This recording is a most important step in that process.

Gabriel Schwabe produces a tone from his 1695 Guarneri instrument that is intensely expressive, with a plangent, slightly nasal quality in the upper register, and a sound lower down that is always clear, never afflicted with excessive resonance. That plaintive quality is much in evidence in the Elgar, and I admire so much Schwabe’s approach to this work, surely one of the most recorded concertos in the catalogue. There is something very unaffected and direct about his reading, which is by no means to say that he doesn’t engage emotionally with the music. I have never heard the brief Adagio more poignant, and here, as elsewhere, Schwabe’s ability to avoid distorting the flow of the music with excessive ‘emoting’ is stunningly successful.

The Elgar is a great concerto, and, like all works of such quality, responds to many different interpretative approaches. The most famous is of course Jacqueline du Pré’s version with Barbirolli for HMV; but when it first came out in 1965, there were those who criticised its ‘excess’ - though Barbirolli countered them by commenting ‘When you’re young you should have an excess of everything’! But Schwalbe’s Elgar is more restrained, and as such is particularly fruitful in emphasising the taut structure of the work. In this, he is much helped by the ORF Vienna RSO and their English conductor Christopher Ward. The playing is alert and disciplined, but also extremely sensitive in accompanying passages.

Elgar’s music invites a performer to ‘enjoy the scenery’, and always to make room for the expressive nuances of each phrase. The real trick, and so difficult to pull off, is to do that, yet keep the underlying ‘flow’ of the music intact; Schwalbe and his collaborators achieve this wonderfully well, so that even the almost painfully emotional coda of the finale still retains its musical fluency.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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