, June 2011
Edward Elgar’s first professional engagement as a violinist came at the age of 17, for the Worcester Festival Choral Society. While making his way as a composer he continued to earn a living as a violin teacher and freelance violinist. He thus had the chance to get to know the instrument intimately, and he wrote for it throughout his career. His teaching gave him the opportunity to compose technical etudes and short pedagogical pieces. The ever practical Elgar was also aware of the large market for salon music, and wrote a surprising amount in this genre, a mixture of original compositions and arrangements of earlier pieces.
His complete violin output is collected, for the first time as far as I know, in this 3 CD set. The soloist is Marat Bisengaliev who was born in Kazakhstan in 1962. He studied at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow, and has won several international compositions. He is also the founder and artistic director of the West Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra; this orchestra features in the Violin Concerto, under the baton of the young Thai conductor Bundit Ungrangsee. This and the Serenade for Strings, op. 20, occupy the first disc. CD 2 is given over to the salon music and technical etudes. CD 3 contains the rest of the salon music and the Violin Sonata, op. 82. Bisengaliev’s accompanist on discs 2 and 3 is the British pianist Benjamin Frith.
The wonderful Violin Concerto and late Violin Sonata are probably Elgar’s best known violin works. The concerto is highly emotional, with an almost mystical feeling to the slow movement. The finale features a long accompanied cadenza, which seems like a contradiction in theory, but works splendidly in practice. Scholars have puzzled over the Spanish inscription on the score, a translation of which reads “Here is enshrined the soul of”, followed by five dots—not three as the liner-notes state. Whatever the meaning of this tantalising note, even for Elgar this seems an unusually personal work; it is Brahmsian in its emotional intensity, but one can’t imagine Brahms pouring out his heart in such an intimate way.
A Kazakh orchestra and soloist and a Thai conductor seemed an unlikely combination for such a quintessentially English work as the Elgar Violin Concerto. I was expecting a raw and rather scrappy band, but from the beginning I was captivated. The orchestra plays the opening phrase precisely, with nicely shaded brass; I would actually have liked a bit more from them. The pacing, so vital to Elgar, was subtly varied, with a lovely sense of repose. Bisengaliev’s entry was beautifully warm; he was recorded quite forward in the balance, but with playing like this, it wasn’t a problem. In the emotionality and spontaneity of his playing he reminded me of Menuhin, without the fallible intonation of that player’s maturity. Bisengaliev brought great tonal and dynamic variety to his part, his G string being at times particularly throaty. He and Ungrangsee handled the tempo fluctuations with an intuitive feeling for when to press forward, and when to let the music pause and gather energy. All that was lacking was a bit more presence from the brass.
The second movement established the Elysian feeling immediately; Bisengaliev played with great warmth as before, this time with especial tenderness and intimacy. For my money this is one of the great violin concerto slow movements, an interlude away from the restless intensity of the first movement. I have had tears in my eyes from time to time when listening to music, but I actually began to sob when listening to this movement, something I’ve never experienced before. Bisengaliev and his Kazakh forces seem to be able to tune straight into the emotion behind this music, which they handle with great assurance and restraint.
The finale just seemed to go off the boil at the beginning. There was no deterioration in the playing; Bisengaliev remained in total control, producing some nicely expressive slides in his handling of the second subject. But the orchestra’s playing of the rumbustious syncopated episodes was a bit literal: maybe they were getting tired—impressively, all of the concerto and the string serenade was recorded on the one day. The accompanied cadenza, however, brought the proceedings back into focus. The muted accompaniment to this section began in spectral fashion with the strings playing sul ponticello. Bisengaliev handled this long episode with sensitivity and great inwardness; his harmonics were nicely in tune. The brass cut through the texture at the powerful final cadence to add an authentic Elgarian touch.
Competition is stiff for recordings of this concerto. Menuhin recorded it twice, the first time in his teens with Elgar conducting; I grew up on his stereo remake from the 1960s with Adrian Boult. In the modern era, Nigel Kennedy’s first recording is a fine one. Until I heard this recording, my favourite was Kyoko Takezawa’s 1993 recording with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Colin Davis. Takezawa tears into the solo in terrific fashion, and the partnership with Davis is one of those young/old ones that really strikes sparks. That performance is actually about two minutes slower in the second movement than Bisengaliev. Interestingly, Takezawa was felt by some to be lacking inwardness in this movement, something that can’t be said of the present recording. I still love the Takezawa, but for his unerring grasp of Elgar’s pacing, the beautiful warmth of his playing, and his technical assurance, I now give Bisengaliev top ranking.
The disc concludes with a performance of the Serenade for Strings, op. 20. This is a pleasant work, evocative of a morning walk in the country, and written with Elgar’s usual expertise. The Kazakh strings started off in an unpretentious way with well varied dynamics. The second movement was not quite relaxed enough at the beginning, but recovered to reach an emotional climax. The open strings come through nicely in the relaxed finale. This is not as polished a performance as that of the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields/Neville Marriner; as a filler for the Concerto, however, it is perfectly acceptable, and a good way to come down from the emotional highs of the latter piece.
The next two discs present Elgar’s shorter pieces for violin and piano, 35 in number, and the Violin Sonata in E minor, op. 82. I felt that Bisengaliev played these respectfully and with great expertise. The well known Chanson de Matin and Chanson de Nuit achieve a nostalgic charm, as does Salut d’Amour, Elgar’s first real success. As well as pieces originally written for violin and piano there are arrangements, mostly by Elgar, of some of his other music such as the excerpts from Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands, Sospiri, and an interlude from the Crown of India suite. For solo violin there are also five very difficult Etudes caracteristiques. All this highly varied repertoire is played with great technical assurance and sympathy by Bisengaliev and Benjamin Frith. This music is ideal for playing late at night or just relaxing.
The Violin Sonata takes us back to something approaching the emotional volatility of the Concerto, although on a much smaller canvas. The unsettled beginning of the first movement gives way to a lyrical second subject; there is also a rather ambiguous extended arpeggio figure. As with the Concerto, Bisengaliev showed a free treatment of tempo, with an intuitive sense of when to let the music breathe. The second movement has quite an exploratory character. The pizzicato figures at the beginning of the second movement did not register very much; Bisengaliev’s beautiful legato playing was again entrancing, rising to an expressive climax. I felt the finale was neither quite cohesive, nor sufficiently contrasted with the first two movements. Bisengaliev’s duo playing with Frith was of a high standard throughout, although his tone was a bit more wiry than in the Concerto.
Competition is as almost as stiff for the Sonata as it was for the Concerto, with many distinguished versions having been recorded. Chief among these is Nigel Kennedy’s wonderful 1984 recording, and (my personal favourite) Maxim Vengerov’s passionate 2000 reading, coupled with the Dvořák concerto. Vengerov makes more of the arpeggio figure in the first movement, and achieves a greater sense of relaxation in the finale after the intensity of the first two movements, just as Elgar intended.
A fine and captivating recording of the concerto with the salon music and the sonata the icing on the cake. Another terrific bargain from Naxos.