Elgar - Violin Concerto, Violin Sonata
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Cat No: 9029511282
Number of Discs: 1
Release Date: 5th March 2021
ArtistsRenaud Capucon (violin)
Stephen Hough (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
At the concerto’s premiere in 1910, the London Symphony Orchestra – which Rattle, as Music Director, conducts for this recording – was joined not by a British soloist, but by Fritz Kreisler, born in Vienna and one of the pre-eminent violinists of his day, indeed of the entire 20th century. He commissioned the work, being of the view that: “If you want to know whom I consider to be the greatest living composer, I say without hesitation Elgar … I place him on an equal footing with my idols, Beethoven and Brahms ... His invention, his orchestration, his harmony, his grandeur, it is wonderful. And it is all pure, unaffected music.”
In 2008, Kreisler was among the great violinists of the past whom Renaud Capuçon honoured with his album Capriccio. “The Elgar concerto is a huge piece,” he says, “both in terms of its length [some 50 minutes] and its romantic and noble nature.” Capuçon has known Sir Simon Rattle for some 20 years, but this is their first recording together. “He is a gentleman in music,” continues Capuçon, “he doesn’t put pressure on the soloist. I had the feeling I could surf on the LSO’s sound. Its players love the music and they are ‘there’ straight away … disciplined, but adapting around you as a soloist.”
Elgar, who was himself a violinist, had a close relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra. In 1905, when the LSO was just a year old, he conducted it on its first provincial tour and it gave the premiere of his Introduction and Allegro. In 1911 he became the orchestra’s Principal Conductor, going on to hold the post for two years. The LSO subsequently premiered his symphonic study Falstaff (1913) and his cello concerto (1919), and in 1932 Elgar conducted the LSO for the legendary Abbey Road recording of the violin concerto with Yehudi Menuhin as soloist.
Sir Simon Rattle chose music by Elgar, the Enigma Variations, for his inaugural concert as Music Director of the LSO in 2017. He describes the violin concerto as “a masterpiece and also a monster piece,” pointing out that it is probably the longest concerto written before the 1960s. “It is conceived on a broad canvas, but it is also very personal and intimate.”
The most celebrated passage of the concerto comes in the final movement with an extended and complex cadenza. Not only is such a cadenza more usually allocated to the first movement of a concerto, Elgar also chose to give it an accompaniment: a shimmering background of what he called ‘thrumming’ on the orchestral strings – a kind of ‘pizzicato tremolo’. Among the material explored in the cadenza is a phrase Elgar called the ‘Windflower’ theme in letters he wrote to a family friend, Alice Stuart-Wortley. Although he was happily married – his wife was also called Alice – he had an intense affection for Mrs Stuart-Wortley, whom he gave the sobriquet ‘Windflower’. It is also highly possible that he had her in mind with the enigmatic Spanish epigraph he placed on the score of the concerto.
Renaud Capuçon senses the idea of a secret love in the slow movement of Elgar’s Violin Sonata, first performed in 1919. Pairing it with the concerto on this album, he is joined by one of the leading British pianists of today, Stephen Hough; the duo first collaborated in early 2020 at London’s Wigmore Hall. “The sonata is a work of nobility and tenderness,” says Capuçon. “The long phrases in the slow movement make me think of someone who is in love, but afraid to say it.” Hough feels that this expressive landscape is “very English in its combination of reserve, frustration and passion. Elgar’s music is not obvious … it can go off in strange directions. Like the violin concerto, the sonata is dangerous music, in that it can get so close to sentimentality, but it never tips over the edge.”
Capuçon, Rattle and the LSO came together for this recording at LSO St Luke’s, a former church, designed in the 18th century by Nicholas Hawksmoor, architect of several famous churches in and around the City of London. St Luke’s, both a concert and recording venue, is near the LSO’s principal home, the Barbican Centre. For their recording of the violin sonata, Capuçon and Hough headed to north-west London and the church of St Jude-on-the-Hill in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Not only was the church designed by Elgar’s great contemporary Sir Edwin Lutyens – in some respects the composer’s architect analogue as a representative of his era – its consecration took place just a year after the premiere of the violin concerto. It also happens that, from 1911-1921, Elgar’s London home was in neighbouring Hampstead.
1Violin Concerto in B minor, op.61 - I. Allegro
2Violin Concerto in B minor, op.61 - II. Andante
3Violin Concerto in B minor, op.61 - III. Allegro molto
4Violin Sonata in E minor, op.82 - I. Allegro
5Violin Sonata in E minor, op.82 - II. Romance
6Violin Sonata in E minor, op.82 - III. Allegro, non troppo
Still, all this is grist to the mill for a soloist of Capuçon’s calibre, and he brings off the feat triumphantly, with the aid of his Guarneri ‘del Gesù’, once owned by Isaac Stern, no less. For many listeners, the main item will be the Concerto, at 51 minutes comfortably more than twice the length of the Sonata. Recorded across two days in LSO St Luke’s, Old Street, with social distancing between the players (i.e. no shared music stands for the strings!), it finds the London Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle in excellent form, no doubt happy to be making music at this level in such strained times. The sound is a little on the dry side, though not overly analytical, happily reminding one of the sort of sound picture familiar from the glory days of early electrical recordings, but with all the benefits of modern digital stereo sound. As ever, Rattle is a master of the fine detail, making every strand and motif clear in the imposing first movement with its extended orchestral introduction; and also in the great third movement, a quantum leap in the history of the violin concerto whereby Elgar made the finale, not the first or second movement, the expressive and musical apex of the work, a positively symphonic transformation that not even Beethoven or Brahms achieved.
It is Capuçon himself, however, with the sweep and poetry of his playing, and the huge range of colours he gets from his instrument, that makes the whole performance hang together. In the central Andante, which at almost 13 minutes is slower by the clock than it feels, he conjures up a dreamlike world, closely partnered by Rattle and the orchestra, that has you holding your breath. He is by turns gentle and ardent, technically supreme, but never losing the underlying momentum. In the first movement, he had already shown tenderness in the way he delivered the ‘Windflower’ theme associated with the work’s likely muse, family friend Alice Stuart-Wortley. In the third movement, however, he caps it all with playing of tremendous stamina and range, culminating in a performance of the accompanied cadenza (complete with ‘thrumming’ from pizzicato strings) that is, quite simply, magical. This is a performance of enormous heart as well as poetry and technical mastery, coupled with a feeling for detail (including tastefully applied portamenti) that consistently sets it apart.
A couple of days earlier, Capuçon had recorded the Violin Sonata in St Jude-on-the-Hill in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Incredibly, he learnt it specially for this recording, yet it has the same sense of interpretative maturity that characterises the Concerto. Working with Stephen Hough for only the second time, this is another meeting of minds, capturing both the music’s passion and also its hints of regret at the passing of an age of innocence. There are great swirls of sound in the demonstrative first movement, and a teasing (or is it fateful?) hesitancy in the central Romance, where again the momentum suggested by the tempo indication Andante is judiciously maintained, blossoming in the central lyrical outpouring before a return of the initial coyness. The mood-switch for the third movement, with its lovely chains of descending figuration in the accompaniment, is perfectly pitched, and there’s a resilience to the violin’s tone that doesn’t push the muscularity too far. Above all, these two players seem to be in complete accord over the fine deployment of rubato, resulting in one of the most affirmative performances this music has received since the days of Albert Sammons in the 1930s. Recent years have witnessed a renewed interest in Elgar’s music from European musicians (as there was during the composer’s pre-1914 heyday), and Renaud Capuçon’s ardent championing is sure to win it wider admiration. Congratulations to all who made these recordings happen!
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