Elgar · Bartók / Shaham · Zinman

  • Edward Elgar
    Violin Concerto (51:21)

    Gil Shaham Violin

  • Béla Bartók
    Concerto for Orchestra (41:01)

In the past, Great Britain has often been referred to as a “land without music”, underlining the widespread continental opinion that the British Isles had not brought forth any composers of international rank. Obviously a mistake, especially since a whole line of internationally renowned composers emerged from England in the first decades of the last century. Among them Edward Elgar, who was born in 1857. Richard Strauss is said to have called him the “front man” of English music, and back home he has long been known as the “grand old man”. In an utterly compelling manner, Elgar’s Violin Concerto from 1910 reveals how subtly he was able to combine modernist tendencies with late Romantic influences. No one has ever doubted the rich traditions of Hungarian music, which prepared the ground for the timelessly clear music of Béla Bartók, who was born in 1881. Bartók’s Concert for Orchestra, first performed in 1944, is a sparkling treasure chest of musical ideas – and, like Elgars Violin Concerto, a must-see for any fan of classical music! Now on CD: "Elgar: Violin Concerto In B Minor Op. 61 / Shaham, Zinman, Chicago Symphony Orchestra"

20th-Century Classics by Elgar and Bartók

On a visit to England in 1905, Fritz Kreisler told the press: “If you want to know whom I consider to be the greatest living composer, I say without hesitation, Elgar … I place him on equal footing with my idols, Beethoven and Brahms... I wish Elgar would write something for the violin.” What composer could resist such flattering words from one of the world’s best-loved virtuosos? Elgar promptly jotted down two melodies that would become principal themes of his Violin Concerto’s first movement, but serious work on the new composition had to wait until 1909.

By August 1910 it was finished, and on 10 November Kreisler gave the first performance in London’s Queen’s Hall with the composer conducting. It was an immediate success with audiences and critics, and the passing decades have confirmed that here is indeed a concerto to take its place alongside Beethoven’s and Brahms’s as one of the finest in the violin’s repertoire. Classical in its three-movement structure, deeply Romantic in the substance that fills those forms, extraordinarily taxing in its demands on the soloist, it is also an unusually personal work, often overtly emotional in its expression and daringly intimate in its musical ideas and allusions.

In the score Elgar dedicates the Violin Concerto “to Fritz Kreisler”. But there is also a rather mysterious epigraph in Spanish: “Aquí está encerrada el alma de .….” (“Here is enshrined the soul of …..”) When Elgar mentioned this to a friend, he added provocatively: “Now guess.” We can now do more than guess: from the composer’s touching correspondence with her, we know with virtual certainty that the enshrined soul was that of Alice Stuart-Wortley, a close friend of Edward and Alice Elgar and daughter of the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Millais. Addressing her as “Windflower” – thereby resolving the awkwardness of her sharing a name with his wife – Elgar wrote of “our concerto” and “your concerto,” and of certain key phrases as “Windflower” themes.

In one of his letters to “Windflower”, Elgar confessed: “I have written out my soul in the concerto.” Since Kreisler introduced it nearly a century ago, it has been impossible for violinists not to play out their souls when performing this musically rich, moving and revealing work. As one of Elgar’s biographers, Michael Kennedy put it: “No matter whose soul [the concerto] enshrines, it enshrines the soul of the violin.”

***

In 1940 Bartók emigrated from Fascist Hungary and settled in the USA. He spent the few years remaining to him in New York, far from his beloved homeland and the recognition and success he had enjoyed in Europe. Although he taught a few piano and composition students, briefly held a research appointment at Columbia University and made two tours as a pianist in 1941, Bartók did not compose again until the spring of 1942, when he noted down some musical ideas suggesting a concerto for “combinations of solo instruments and string orchestra”. Soon chronic illness – eventually diagnosed as leukaemia – forced him to put the work aside.

In May of 1943, two fellow Hungarian émigrés, the violinist Joseph Szigeti and the conductor Fritz Reiner, persuaded Serge Koussevitzky to commission from Bartók a large orchestral work for the Russian conductor’s Boston Symphony Orchestra. In August, probably drawing on his material from the previous year, Bartók began drafting a five-movement work. By October, the score was completed, and in December 1944, the Concerto for Orchestra had its triumphant first performance in Boston. Koussevitzky called it “the best orchestral piece of the last 25 years”.

In his programme note, Bartók revealed that “the title of this symphony-like orchestral work is explained by its tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a concertant or soloistic manner ... for instance, in the fugato sections of the development of the first movement (brass instruments) or the perpetuum mobile-like passage of the principal theme in the last movement (strings), and especially in the second movement, in which pairs of instruments consecutively appear with brilliant passages.” And the work’s mood he described as gradually progressing from the “sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one”.

An exception to this progression is the jesting second movement; and the “interrupted” Intermezzo fourth movement features a mocking quote from Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony, which Bartók heard broadcast while composing the Concerto (his son Péter has also claimed that the reference is to a Viennese cabaret tune, while other commentators have cited a popular Hungarian song and even the “Maxim” motif from Lehár’s Merry Widow).

The Concerto for Orchestra’s immediate success heralded Bartók’s popular breakthrough, though its relative accessibility by comparison with his works of the 1920s and 30s prompted some grumbling over a perceived betrayal of his creative integrity. Most critics have agreed, however, that the Concerto represents a masterly summing-up of his achievement and yet another confirmation of Bartók’s status as one of the 20th century’s supreme masters.

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