Elgar’s Violin Concerto Twice: The Long And Far From Short Of It

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The 16-year-old Yehudi Menuhin recording Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto at London’s Abbey Road Studios in 1932 with the composer conducting.

Elgar: Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61. Sospiri. Salut d’Amour. Chanson de Nuit. Nicola Benedetti, violin. London Philharmonic Orchestra. Vladimir Jurowski, conductor. Petr Lumonov, piano. Decca 28948509652.

Elgar: Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61. Violin Sonata Op. 82. Renaud Capuçon, violin. London Symphony Orchestra. Sir Simon Rattle, conductor. Stephen Hough, piano. Erato 190295112677.

DIGITAL REVIEW — The Elgar Violin Concerto is perhaps the longest in the standard repertoire. It runs about 48 minutes compared with about 40 minutes for the Beethoven and the Brahms. Its inordinate length probably has limited its number of performances and popularity over the years, but it seems to be finally making considerable headway. There are currently more than 25 recordings readily available, and more being added every year. Both new versions offer well-prepared and fully committed performances and exemplary audio quality.

Elgar was a violinist himself, and in his early years wrote a number of short pieces for violin and piano, including Salut d’Amour in 1888. This became one of his most popular works, and Nicola Benedetti gives it a lovely performance as filler on her new CD featuring the Violin Concerto. But then Elgar wrote virtually nothing more for the violin until Fritz Kreisler asked him for a concerto, and after much hard work over several years it appeared in 1910. Curiously, it bears the same opus number as Beethoven’s great Violin Concerto. Many years went by, and finally in 1917 came the Violin Sonata. Renaud Capuçon and Stephen Hough offer this unduly neglected work as filler on the new Erato CD largely devoted to the Violin Concerto.

The unusual length of the concerto has been a major obstacle to my appreciation of the piece over the years. I must further confess that after spending a lot of time recently with these two new recordings, I am more than ever convinced that the concerto simply goes on too long for what it has to say. Especially in the first and last movements, there are seemingly endless pages of passagework that are of inferior quality. The concerto abounds in beautiful melodies, but Elgar doesn’t always work them out in interesting ways. Perhaps it’s me — and we live in times when the classical music police are very touchy about offering up “cut” versions of anything — but I think I might find a shortened version of the Elgar Violin Concerto very attractive. And while we are at it, shorter versions of the Ring, Tristan und Isolde, and certain Bruckner and Mahler symphonies wouldn’t be unwelcome, either.

Interestingly, the Elgar Violin Concerto had its first recording, in a truncated version, in 1916 with Albert Sammons as soloist and Henry Wood conducting. Shortly afterwards, the work was recorded again in a shortened version with violinist Marie Hall and the composer conducting. Of course, the editing was done in both of these cases because of the limitations in recording technology at the time. Finally, in 1929, with the advent of electrical recordings, Sammons and Wood made the first complete recording of the piece. Three years later, the 16-year-old Yehudi Menuhin recorded it with Elgar conducting. It is this recording that has long been considered nearly definitive. However, it is interesting that there is a major difference in timing between these two later recordings. Menuhin/Elgar is 49:47, whereas Sammons/Wood comes in at 43:00. This means that Menuhin/Elgar is nearly 7 minutes longer, a substantial difference. This has led some commentators to characterize the Sammons/Wood as “brisk” and the Menuhin/Elgar as more expressive. What about the new recordings? Which way do they lean? As it happens, Capuçon/Rattle stretches even longer than Menuhin/Elgar at 50:16, and Benedetti/Jurowski is not far behind at 47:46.

The timings suggest that both of the new recordings take their time to give full weight to the more introspective passages in the concerto, and indeed that is the case. Both Benedetti and Capuçon pay careful attention to Elgar’s precise dynamic indications — they are often shades of pianissimo — and time and again offer up rich and expressive tone. But the recording perspective is quite different in the two recordings, and for my taste that gives a decided edge to Benedetti.

In her recording, she is front and center and never covered by the orchestra. Capuçon, on the other hand, is recorded much as he would be heard in the concert hall: somewhat thin and recessed. So the Erato engineers have given us a more “honest” balance, but that is not necessarily a virtue for home listening. When we listen at home, surely we want to hear the music at its best rather than what one might hear in the hall. Is Benedetti’s solo violin larger than life? Perhaps, but this is also a vivid rendering of what Elgar wrote.

Let me emphasize that while I find the Elgar Violin Concerto excessively long, it has plenty of forgiving assets. It abounds in inspired Elgarian melody and many passages that are simply heartrending. There is a tune repeated several times in the slow movement, first played on the G string of the solo violin and answered by cellos and basses, that is unforgettable. And while Elgar was generally conservative stylistically, he could be innovative when he wanted to be. For example, while most classical violin concertos have an unaccompanied cadenza at the end of the first movement, in his concerto Elgar does something notably different. The cadenza is placed near the end of the last movement, and much of it is accompanied. And there is more. The strings are asked to play pizzicato, but in an unusual way. Elgar put the following note in the score: “The pizz. tremolando should be ‘thrummed’ with the soft part of three or four fingers across the strings.” The effect is quite wonderful.

These latest versions of the Elgar Violin Concerto are both first-rate, with virtuoso soloists, fine orchestras, and conductors who understand the style. However, anyone who loves this piece or simply wants to know it better should begin with the Menuhin/Elgar recording from 1932 (Warner 0724356699458). With the composer himself in charge, there is a lot to learn and enjoy, and the young Menuhin is a marvel, portamenti and all. For a modern recording, I find a lot to like about violinist Nikolaj Znaider with Colin Davis and Staatskapelle Dresden (RCA 884977369281).

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