Elgar’s music is regarded by many as being quintessentially English. In many respects Elgar epitomised Edwardian reserve. However his music was essentially Romantic in style, especially in his Cello Concerto.
Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 was the last important work that the composer produced; he was working on a third symphony when he died. In this concerto the cello soloists doubles as both narrator and protagonist, introducing and interrupting events by way of linking them. The slow movement is in the distant key of B flat major and remains apart from the rest of the concerto rather like a brief unresolved dream. However Elgar does bring it back briefly in the final movement but does not give it the final say.
The work was first performed in October 1919 at Queen’s Hall, London, with the composer conducting the London Symphony Orchestra with cellist Felix Salmond. By all accounts it was under-rehearsed, unlike our classic recommendation.
This performance is over fifty years old but still stands as a remarkable testimonial to Jacqueline du Pré whose life was cut tragically short by multiple sclerosis. The conductor in this performance is John Barbirolli – himself a cellist. At the premiere of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in 1919, Barbirolli was playing as a member of the London Symphony Orchestra!
Prom 58 saw the first time the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has appeared at the Proms. Louis Langrée, its music director since 2013, led a marvellously atmospheric performance of Bernstein’s On the Waterfront suite to set the ball rolling. Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was marred by Charles Dance’s declamation of the timely, patriotic words in an American accent that left something to be desired. In contrast The CSO percussion section showed plenty of flair and the brass were magisterial. In Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 we heard the orchestra playing with real warmth and even the finale, which Tchaikovsky disliked, came across well.
Prom 60 brought an all Russian programme from from the Oslo Philharmonic and their chief conductor Vasily Petrenko.
They were joined by the pianist Leif Ove Andsnes for a performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40. This is the least popular of Rachmaninov’s four piano concertos and this performance did little to change one’s mind. The highlight of the evening was Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 12 in D minor, Op. 112 ‘The Year 1917’ – an appropriate choice for this anniversary year! It is a symphonically weak piece, but given such a a performance of decibel-busting proportions it certainly makes an impression. The Oslo Philharmonic does fortissimo very well indeed – at least one member of the percussion could be seen, wisely, to be sporting ear-plugs!
Last Wednesday, we were treated to yet another guest orchestra. This time the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic with Sakari Oramo, making one of his four Prom appearances. Nielsen’s Symphony No. 2 is something of an Oramo speciality. That evening he conducted a superb performance of this so-called “Four Temperaments” symphony; as one might expect having heard his recording of the work with the same forces on BIS.
On Thursday we were treated to Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1, thus completing the cycle at this year’s Proms. The soloist was Kirill Gerstein and the BBC Symphony Orchestra were directed by Semyon Bychkov. In this enjoyable performance there was total cohesion between soloist and orchestra. We also had another comparatively rarely performed piece, namely Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, Op. 58. We were given a fine performance that gave much pleasure, even it could not quite match Bychkov’s outstanding CD of the work with the Czech Philharmonic on Decca.
Friday night saw the first of two appearances from Amsterdam’s mighty Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with their Chief Conductor, Daniele Gatti. They gave us a monumental account of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor. Gatti’s approach may have been on the slow side, but their was no doubting the quality of his orchestra. The strings produced a transparent sound in the symphony’s moments of transcendence, while the brass provided suitable weight and authority in each fortissimo outburst, never sounding strident or overbearing.
Yet another week providing a feast of wonderful music for what must surely be the best audience in the world! If you missed any of these concerts or simply wish to listen again the concerts are still available on BBC i-Player.
Currently Amazon are offering Tod Handley’s Champion of British Music box set for only £11.87. This Warner Classics release offers nearly six and a half hours of beautifully perforned music in good sound. The first three discs contain works by English composers, whereas the last two celebrate Handley conducting two great concertos from the standard repertoire.
Highlights of the set include:
Elgar’s Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61 with a young, Nigel Kennedy as soloist
Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending with David Nolan providing the solo violin
Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 2 ‘A London Symphony’ with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
the only available recording of Bliss’ Edinburgh Overture with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orcherstra
Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 with Tasmin Litle
Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 again with Tasmin Little as soloist.
One of Beethoven’s most popular piano sonatas is his Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2 ‘Moonlight’. There are many fine performances of this sonata on the market but we are going to recommend this bargain double CD from Warner Classics performed by Stephen Kovacevich (formerly Bishop).
This piece of solo music was premiered by the composer himself in 1802 at a time when his hearing was still adequate (but already deteriorating). Beethoven did not name the work; the nickname ‘Moonlight’ was apparently first adopted during the 1830s. This followed a review of the work in which the author compared the dreamy opening movement to a boat floating in the moonlight on Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne. Listen for yourself … and see what you think.