About this Recording
8.550489 - ELGAR: Violin Concerto / Cockaigne Overture
English 

Edward Elgar (1857 - 1934)
Violin Concerto, Op. 61
Overture: Cockaigne (In London Town), Op. 40

 

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.

The concert overture Cockaigne was written in 1901, an evocation of London, a connotation of the title explained in an added parenthesis, In London Town. Cockaigne, Elgar noted, was traditionally a land of all delights, but also was identified with London and its suburbs, the supposed origin of the word Cockney to describe a native Londoner. The principal theme came to him during a visit to the Guildhall in the City of London, and this theme provided the germ of the whole work, with its second subject "lovers' theme" and a passing military band. The overture was dedicated to "my many friends the members of British orchestras". At the end of the score Elgar wrote words from a favourite poem of his, the medieval Piers Plowman: "Metelees and moneless on Malverne hulles", a reflection of the material conditions in which he and his wife were forced to exist. Cockaigne was not offered to Novello, who had proved unhelpful in publishing scores of the oratorios, but was published by Boosey's.

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….., 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 molto 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.


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