Serenade for Strings, Op.20
Violin Concerto in B minor, Op.61
Symphony No.2 in E flat, Op.63
James Ehnes (violin)
Sir Andrew Davis
Reviewed by: Edward Clark
Reviewed: 17 May, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
How times change. When Elgar conducted the premiere of his Second Symphony in 1911 in Queen’s Hall, London, he was disconcerted by the lack of the audience’s response. He asked W. H. Reed, the London Symphony Orchestra’s leader, “What’s the matter with them, Billy? They sit there like a lot of stuffed pigs!” If only Elgar could have been present at this performance conducted by Sir Andrew Davis! The reaction towards the symphony was quite the opposite – a huge amount of enthusiasm.
In his 150th-anniversary year, Elgar’s stock is high and should remain so with interpreters of such quality as was heard in this concert. Part of a hugely ambitious Philharmonia Orchestra cycle of concerts in various locations throughout England, Sir Andrew performed the early Serenade, the Violin Concerto, with James Ehnes as soloist, and the Second Symphony – one of the longest concert programmes of the London Season. But the quality of the performances meant that time vanished and what came at the end was a glow of satisfaction and fulfilment.
Elgar continues to get stick for being a regressive composer. Apparently his musical style never left the 19th-century and his expressive manner was 50 years behind the times he lived in. However the perspective of nearly one hundred years allows such thoughts to be firmly put aside and to be replaced with admiration for so many wonderful works written in the first two decades of the 20th-century. With an emotional impact equal to Strauss and Mahler, Elgar today comfortably retains his place as a composer of real stature, indeed England’s greatest Romantic composer and one of the very finest in a long line stretching all the way back to Thomas Tallis.
The Violin Concerto is Elgar’s most important work in terms of pure originality. It has an integrity equal to those other two great 20th-century concertos, by Bartók (No.2) and Schoenberg and an emotional force and breadth that eclipse both of them. Tippett was right to remark that the standard development section in the first movement is replaced by a kind of free fantasia thus making the movement so captivating. The extensive finale contains another innovation: an accompanied cadenza in which previous themes are recalled. There is no bigger violin concerto in the standard repertoire (note ‘standard’ – Reger’s and Pettersson’s are longer) and virtuosos of the stature of Menuhin, Heifetz, Haendel, Campoli and Sammons testify to, through their very different interpretations, the extraordinary beauties and sheer elan contained in this most wonderful of all Elgar’s works. Add in today’s crop of fine soloists who perform this concerto and it is now accorded the acclaim of a modern classic. And modern it is in its innovative form, its originality of dialogue between soloist and orchestra and its sheer virtuosity allied to emotional warmth.
James Ehnes bought out all these elements in a way that inspired a newly refreshed love for a familiar work. His intonation was impeccable, his control of the differing emotional elements was impressive and the end was truly magnificent, a fitting climax to a memorable interpretation. All it lacked was a Romantic surge in its profile; something that can only be felt and not taught. With time, Ehnes might achieve this rare quality that is surely enshrined in Elgar’s inspiration.
Davis gave an object lesson in how to interpret the Second Symphony. He displayed a masterly control over the differing shades of emotional peaks and troughs that so colour this magnificent work. The lead-back into the recapitulation of the first movement has a swagger and self-confidence that bought back memories of Malcolm Sargent’s Prom performance so many years ago. The Larghetto was broad and powerful; this was no State ceremony, more a personal testament for the loss of old friends and era.
The whole performance displayed a loving care for Elgar’s mixture of ebullient confidence, his emotional frailty and his abiding need for self-expression. In many ways, we heard a turbulent performance of a work that can easily sound queasy in the wrong hands. Embracing the greatest side of Elgar is not comfortable – but nor is the world we live in.
- Concert also played on Sunday 20 May in Queen Elizabeth Hall at 7.30 p.m.
- Full details of “Elgar 2007” on Philharmonia Orchestra’s website
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