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Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61 (1905–10)


1 Allegro
2 Andante
3 Allegro molto

The violin was Elgar’s own instrument and his Violin Concerto is almost like a personal confession: it was ‘too emotional’, Elgar admitted, adding that he loved it nonetheless. The Spanish inscription he wrote opposite the title-page – Aquí está encerrada el alma de . . . . . (‘Here is enshrined the soul of . . . . .’) – offers an Elgarian enigma, to which the most popular solution is that the soul belonged to Alice (five letters, corresponding to the five dots) Stuart-Wortley, a friend for whom Elgar invented the name ‘Windflower’ (a wood anemone, one of the first signs of spring), which he also attached to two of the gentler themes in the opening movement.

Elgar sketched a number of ideas in 1905 after reading a newspaper interview with Fritz Kreisler, in which the 30-year-old violinist said highly flattering things about Elgar’s music, and wished he would write something for violin. Elgar eventually got down to composing the concerto in earnest in 1909, and Kreisler gave the first performance at the Queen’s Hall in London on 10 November 1910, with Elgar himself conducting. Later on, Kreisler seems to have lost his initial enthusiasm for the work, made cuts, and resisted all attempts to persuade him to record it.

The solo part is one of the most exhausting in the repertoire – a veritable compendium of bravura violin techniques, in which Elgar, despite all his inside knowledge, sought the help of W. H. Reed, later to become Leader of the London Symphony Orchestra. Reed and Elgar (at the piano) gave a run-through to a select group of listeners before the first performance proper. Kreisler also made small suggestions that were incorporated in the published score.

In his interview, Kreisler had ranked Elgar with Beethoven and Brahms. Elgar met the challenge, and his Violin Concerto combines the singing quality of Beethoven’s with the symphonic drama of Brahms’s. The fantasy-like elaboration of the solo part is underpinned by tough argument.

The opening theme (one of those first jotted down in 1905) is a typically robust utterance, pursued, in a continuous flux, by two less forceful ‘Windflower’ themes, the second tenderly picked up by a solo clarinet. The solo violin’s entry at the end of the orchestral prelude settles the argument by resolving the first theme in B minor. Then it takes wing in a flight of ecstatic elaboration, laying claim to its own restatement of the themes heard previously. The climax of the movement – with the second ‘Windflower’ theme plunged suddenly, maestoso, into a new key – passes, through some storm-tossed adventures, to a becalmed restatement of the first theme and, later, a triumphant apotheosis of the second ‘Windflower’ theme. The soloist outruns the orchestra in a race to the close.

The second movement slips down a semitone into B flat major – another world, pastoral and serene, until passions are stirred and the soloist waxes eloquent. It was the nobilmente theme from this central part of the work that Elgar once said he would like inscribed on his grave.

The finale sets off in a dizzy whirr. The first main theme is march-like, though quite where the barline comes is (to the listener) a deliberate point of ambiguity. The sense of urgency is relieved somewhat when a broader tempo brings in an expansive theme, shared by soloist and orchestra, typical of Elgar in its sweeping energy, and soon afterwards a delicate third theme for the soloist with lightly scored accompaniment.

The most striking feature of this movement is the extremely atmospheric (fully composed) cadenza, in which the soloist muses on the three most important themes from the first movement, beginning with the first ‘Windflower’ theme, over a shuddering orchestral backdrop. Just after the eerie opening (with some of the strings muted, the rest shivering on the bridges of their instruments) the orchestral violins, violas and cellos have to ‘thrum’ a tremolo with the soft part of their fingers across the strings – a novel effect. Only a short passage near the end of the cadenza is left to the soloist unaccompanied, who once again closes the curtain by returning to the opening theme of the first movement. The coda then picks up the initial tempo of the finale and, with one stretched-out restatement of its march-like theme by the soloist, it brings the concerto to a brisk, brilliant conclusion.

Programme note © Adrian Jack

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