Elgar Violin Concerto – Nikolaj Znaider & Colin Davis
Thursday, March 18, 2010 RCA RED SEAL 88697605882
Reviewed by Peter Joelson
Nikolaj Znaider is celebrating the centenary of the first performance of Sir Edward Elgar's Violin Concerto, a performance given on 10 November 1910 in the Queen's Hall, London, with the Philharmonic Society orchestra conducted by the composer, the solo part played by the work's dedicatee, Fritz Kreisler. In addition, Znaider plays the “Kreisler” Guarnerius "del Gesu" of 1741, which is on extended loan to him by The Royal Danish Theatre.
Elgar was a competent violinist but sought advice from his old friend W. H. “Billy” Reed, leader of the London Symphony Orchestra, and the result is a concerto which makes huge demands on the soloist, demands which are both technical and emotional. As Elgar himself put it, “... too emotional, but I love it”. The concerto has, in recent years, joined the repertoire of some brilliant young violinists, several of whom have also made recordings of it. Znaider certainly has the measure of this work coupling an intensity of playing with staggering virtuosity; he has the architecture of the whole piece very much in mind, the route towards that extended cadenza in the last movement well-judged yet spontaneous.
The long orchestral introduction sets the scene with just the right tempo. What is so impressive here is Sir Colin Davis's attending to the plasticity of Elgar's writing, and the ebb and flow of the phrasing with its little tenuti is entirely successful. Staatskapelle Dresden follows his every gesture with complete unanimity, a burnished sound bathed in the golden light of the Lukaskirche. Znaider digs in on his first entry, a spellbinding moment, and the “Windflower” themes are put across exquisitely with rich tone, with some beautiful playing from the principal clarinet, too.
The second movement with its mellow thoughtfulness leading to a passionate and eloquent climax succeeds with Znaider's understanding its changes of mood. The substantial finale opens with the soloist's skittish theme, all fun and games, though the expression soon become more urgent. That remarkable cadenza, accompanied in part with such original writing, with its wistful harking back, sometimes with regret, to earlier themes and times – indeed, sometimes suspending the passage of time – is eloquently portrayed, and leads to a well-judged and passionate conclusion.
James Ehnes and Gil Shaham, in their recent fine recordings made at concerts, are both a little less passionate and more stoical, while Hilary Hahn (also with Colin Davis conducting) with her crystal tone doesn't dig as deeply into the work as Znaider. Sir Colin's conducting of Staatskapelle Dresden can be compared with Elgar's own for Yehudi Menuhin, a fine performance at any age let alone sixteen. While Albert Sammons's playing is superb in one of the quicker readings, Sir Henry Wood's accompanying is somewhat flat-footed and insensitive in parts. Alfredo Campoli's recording still has much to offer, though, like other mono recordings, the soloist is somewhat forwardly placed. Heifetz, not as swift as Sammons, is well partnered by Sir Malcolm Sargent and his performance remains as riveting as when I first met it thirty years ago. Of the older stereo recordings, those by a passionate Kennedy with Vernon Handley, Ida Haendel with Sir Adrian Boult (a particularly expansive reading) and Hugh Bean with Sir Charles Groves remain highly thought of and their recordings are naturally balanced, giving the sort of sound experienced in the concert hall.
The big disadvantage in this recording of Znaider's is the excessively close balance given to him, especially when compared with the fine sound of the orchestra. Because of the very close balance, a good deal of huffing and puffing from the soloist is captured throughout the work, which may prove irritating to some. That aside, this release certainly does take “Aqui está encerrada el alma de...” (“Herein is enshrined the soul of... ”) to its heart; Nikolai Znaider and Colin Davis together produce a very powerful and absorbing performance.