Elgar & Dvořák

Violin Concerto in B minor, Op.61
Mass in D, Op.86

Pinchas Zukerman (violin)

Rebecca Nash (soprano)
Louise Winter (mezzo-soprano)
Benjamin Hulett (tenor)
Neal Davies (bass)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davies

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 25 July, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Two of Britain’s most popular composers were brought together in this programme, by which I mean two composers most be-loved of Britons. Elgar needs no introduction, nor should Dvořák – a regular visitor to these shores, and so well liked that many of his works were written for the great Victorian festivals of Birmingham and Leeds. But the concert was made up of two rarities – Elgar’s Violin Concerto remains very much the second cousin of his Cello Concerto – with Dvořák’s Mass almost unknown and overshadowed by both his Requiem and Stabat Mater (and they’re both still pretty rare!).

For the Elgar one could wish for no better guide than Sir Andrew Davis, arguably our greatest Elgarian. The Violin Concerto was a work missing from his “British Line” recordings for Warner, but Pinchas Zukerman has recorded it twice (with Daniel Barenboim, then Leonard Slatkin). Even allowing that it is such an expansive work, it was a surprise that he played it from the score.

Extraordinarily Elgar’s Violin Concerto was last heard at the Proms ten years ago, when Tasmin Little took the part. We certainly needed some of the Little smile for Zukerman, while not quite on auto-pilot, certainly wanted to impart little more than a note-perfect survey. A shame, for Adrian Jack’s programme-note referred to Elgar’s admission that the work was “too emotional” – so it rather misses the point for Zukerman not to have shown any. That Zukerman is a great violinist, with a fantastic ear for sonority and balance, is not doubted, but Elgar would have been better served with a more spirited performance.

Regarding the Dvořák there were some contradictory statements in the programme. The introduction claimed that it was the Mass’s London première, although Jan Smaczny’s note suggested that Dvořák’s orchestration had its première at Crystal Palace in 1893 (and I’m sure that Crystal Palace counts as London). Thankfully, after the organ’s demise for the CBSO’s Prom the night before, it recovered for this concert. Indeed, the Mass was first written for organ accompaniment, in 1887, and five years later at Dvořák’s English publisher, Novello’s insistence he orchestrated it. Smaczny referred to it as “full orchestral accompaniment,” although the orchestra dispenses with flutes and clarinets, and so has a distinctive darker hue.

Odd that it is so little known. Yes, it tries its best to steer away from other settings, and is remarkably perceptive about the text, but that should see it in good stead to replace, on occasion, Mozart, Handel, Beethoven or Schubert. A lone applauder after the first choral ‘Kyrie’ (before the soloists came in) notwithstanding, this was a sumptuous performance in what must have been ‘new’ music to the performers. It didn’t feel like they were performing it for the first time, though, and there was some fine singing and playing. Sir Andrew Davis didn’t forget to lead chorus master Stephen Jackson on for his well-deserved acclamation. There was even special mention for the altos who lead the longest section, the ‘Credo’, in rapt and contemplative tones (Dvořák eschewing the usual fugal devices). In short, a real find, and definitely one that should find its way onto a BBC Music Magazine cover CD (although Warner’s Proms releases may be more of a possibility).

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 29 July at 2 p.m.
  • BBC Proms 2004

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