About this Recording
8.110902 - ELGAR / BRUCH: Violin Concertos (Menuhin) (1931-1932)
English 

Max Bruch (1838 - 1920)

Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op. 26

 

Edward EIgar (1857- 1934)

Violin Concerto in B Minor, Op. 61

 

Max Bruch's G Minor Violin Concerto continues to enjoy wide popularity, while much of his music remains unknown to modern audiences. He was born in Cologne in 1838, the son of a Government official and a mother who was well known as a teacher and singer. He was himself to enjoy a reputation as both conductor and composer, and was for a time conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, before taking up a similar position in Breslau. From 1891 until his retirement in 1910 he was entrusted with the composition master-class at the Berlin Musikhochschule, an appointment of considerable prestige.

 

The G minor Violin Concerto avoids traditional form, its first movement a Prelude that opens with a quasi-improvisatory passage for the soloist. There is a second, contrasting theme in B flat major, and some development of this material, before the second, slow movement, which follows without a break. Here the violin opens with a melody of great emotional intensity, in the key of E flat, providing the main source of thematic material for the movement. A brief linking passage leads us safely to the finale in the key of G major and the entry of the solo violin in a mood that must remind us of the last movement of the concerto by Brahms. This opening forms the principal theme of the movement, although further opportunities are provided for the soloist, with rapid passage-work as well as a typically forceful romantic theme.

 

The image of Sir Edward Elgar as an Edwardian gentleman, happier at the race-course or with his dogs than in the concert hall or with musicians is sadly deceptive. Popularly associated with the heyday of British imperialism, through his all too well known Pomp and Circumstance Marches and other occasional celebrations of Empire that have lasted less well, he has seemed the musical epitome of a period in British history that it has become fashionable to decry. The picture is a false one. In Edwardian terms Elgar was a counter-jumper, a man of relatively humble origins, son of a jobbing musician who kept a shop in Worcester, and later the husband of an imprudent if well connected spinster, the daughter of a Major-General in the Indian Army and nine years his senior. As a Catholic in a largely Protestant and strongly prejudiced community, he must seem very much less of an Establishment figure, whatever mask he may have chosen to assume as his fame grew.

 

Initial recognition was slow in coming. In 1890 the Elgars moved to London, but the following year retreated again to the West Country, taking a house at Malvern, allowing Elgar to return to his earlier activities as a provincial musician, enjoying a merely local reputation. During the last decade of the century he turned his attention largely to the writing of choral works, designed for the flourishing choral societies of his native region and of the North of England. It was the Enigma Variations, completed in 1899, that first established his fame in London and, therefore, nationally. The oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, which followed in 1900, was less successful at its first performance in Birmingham and the publishers, Novello, were not particularly generous in their treatment of him, although he came to rely on the encouragement of the German-born Augustus Johannes Jaeger, a reader for the firm, who found in Elgar's music something much more akin to the music of his own native country.

 

By 1910, the year of the Violin Concerto, circumstances had changed. Gerontius had become an established part of English choral repertoire: there had been honorary degrees from major universities, a knighthood in 1904, the oratorios The Apostles and The Kingdom, and in 1908 the first of his two symphonies. Expectation ran high when the Philharmonic Society commissioned a new violin concerto. The work was completed in time for its triumphant first performance at the Queen's Hall in November 1910. It was dedicated to Fritz Kreisler, the soloist on this occasion, and inscribed, cryptically, with the words Aqui esta encerrada el alma de... ?/i>, the inscription found on a poet's tomb in the picaresque novel Gil Bias by Lesage. This is generally supposed to be a reference to Alice Stuart-Wortley, Elgar's acknowledged inspiration for the work, his Windflower, an affectionate nick-name that distinguished her from his wife Alice. Although Elgar himself was a violinist, he relied for technical assistance on W. H. Reed, the young leader of the London Symphony Orchestra, who played through the work with the composer at the first private hearing in Gloucester, before Kreisler, a soloist at the Gloucester Festival, offered his own private performance of the work.

 

The concerto opens with a highly characteristic first theme, in its orchestral exposition, moving forward to themes identified with the Windflower. The soloist enters, introducing a second exposition, a reworking of the first material, developed in the central section of the movement, which relies at first on the first subject, before turning to the Windflower second subject, now played maestoso. The first subject opening figure is played in descending sequence by the soloist in introducing the recapitulation of this sonata-form movement.

 

The slow movement, the part of the concerto that Elgar wrote first, moves from the key of B minor to B flat major. Here the solo violin adds its own element to the ingenuous first theme announced by the orchestra, which also proposes the modal second theme, shifting in key to a mysterious D flat major in music of wonderful lyricism.

 

The final Allegro opens with an introduction of ominous excitement, leading, after ornamental brilliance from the soloist, to the announcement of the first theme, echoed and developed by the soloist. The gently romantic second subject, marked cantabile e vibrato, is introduced by the soloist and this thematic material, and that of the introduction to the movement, re-appear, as the music is developed, leading to an initially accompanied cadenza, into which the orchestra softly intrudes in conclusion. The final section of the movement echoes the introduction, culminating in a version of the principal theme, in violin triple stopping and marked nobilmente, a favourite direction in Elgar's music, bringing to an affirmative end a major addition to the violin repertoire, a concerto that goes far beyond any merely insular tradition.

 

Yehudi Menuhin and Elgar's Violin Concerto

 

Yehudi Menuhin made his first recordings at the age of twelve, in 1928. Born in New York in 1916, the son of Russian-Jewish parents who had first met in Palestine and then, finally, in New York, he was brought up in San Francisco, where he had his first violin lessons at the age of four, later to work with Louis Persinger, a pupil of Hans Becker at Leipzig Conservatory, of Ysaye in Brussels and of Jacques Thibaud. Persinger was also a competent pianist and accompanied Menuhin on the boy's first concert tours in America. In 1927 Menuhin had been able to study with Enesco in Paris, where he had made his debut, and in November of the same year played the Beethoven concerto in New York under Fritz Busch. The recordings of 1928 were made during an extended concert-tour in America, starting with a ten-inch disc of the Fiocco Allegro and Franz Ries's La Capricciosa, as he later recalled, and a twelve-inch of Sierra Morena by the nineteenth-century Spanish violinist Jesus Monasterio and an arrangement of La Romanesca. Further recordings followed and by now Menuhin was fully launched on his professional career, performing the major concertos of the repertoire including the concertos of Brahms and of Tchaikovsky.

 

1929 brought a second journey to Europe, starting with a concert in Berlin under Bruno Walter at which Menuhin played concertos by Bach, Beethoven and Brahms with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Further concerts were followed by a period of relative respite in Basle, where he was able to study with Adolf Busch, followed by removal to Paris for further study with Enesco. The years that followed brought a routine of concert tours in Europe and in America, with breaks for relaxation and further study.

 

It was in 1931 that Menuhin recorded Max Bruch's concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Landon Ronald. The concerto, written in 1866 and revised with the help of the violinist Joseph Joachim, had by this time become a popular part of international repertoire and Menuhin was to make a number of later recordings of the work. Sir Landon Ronald was one of the leading conductors of the time, a champion of Elgar, who dedicated his symphonic poem Falstaff to him, and a friend of the violinist Fritz Kreisler, who had given the first performance of Elgar's violin concerto in 1910 and to whom the work was dedicated.

 

Elgar had enjoyed a long association with The Gramophone Company (His Master's Voice), which had recorded the cello concerto with Beatrice Harrison as soloist in 1919, the year of its completion. It was now hoped that the violin concerto could be recorded with Fritz Kreisler. In the event, however, it was the young Yehudi Menuhin, in 1932, who recorded the work. He has left an account of his meeting with Elgar, when he hoped to play the whole concerto over to him. Menuhin recounts his eager anticipation of the meeting and his surprise, after his experience of other composers, to encounter a grandfatherly country gentleman. With his accompanist Ivor Newton he started to play the work through to Elgar, beginning at the soloist's entry, only to be interrupted by Elgar before the second subject was reached, asking them to excuse him, assuring them that all would be fine at the recording session, as he left for the races. Perhaps Menuhin's memory has exaggerated the event. Ivor Newton, at least, remembered that Menuhin discussed the concerto with Elgar at some length and apparently on equal terms.

 

Menuhin remarked on Elgar's lack of self-importance at the recording sessions on 14th and 15th July and the unobtrusiveness with which he exerted his authority, working together with the London Symphony Orchestra in a general atmosphere of ease and equanimity. Elgar, of course, had his own early orchestral experiences behind him and was well known among players of the time for his sympathetic writing for instruments. On 20th November Menuhin gave a public performance of the work at the Albert Hall, with Elgar again conducting, after a first half in which Sir Thomas Beecham had conducted Menuhin in performances of concertos by Bach and Mozart. It was planned that Elgar's concerto should be played the following May in Paris, although Elgar showed his diffidence in fearing that Yehudi would seem to be making a mistake in appearing with a musician of inferior calibre such as himself. On 28th May, for the first time in his life, Elgar travelled by air to Paris, where he rehearsed the concerto the following morning, leaving time for him to visit Delius, by then blind and paralysed, at Grez-sur-Loing. Enesco had earlier rehearsed the orchestra and Elgar conducted the performance, to a cool but polite reception from an audience that included the French President. As Menuhin later remarked, the concerto has found more appreciative audiences in the United States, in England and in countries of the former British Empire. Honoured by the French President, Elgar flew back to receive, at the beginning of June, the award of the KCVO. It was in the autumn of 1933 that he was found to be suffering from cancer. He died in February the following year.

 


Close the window