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In the first of a regular series based on Radio 3's popular Record Review, Jerrold Northrop Moore assesses the available recordings of Elgar's much loved late masterpiece.
The Definitive Elgar
It is a rare work indeed that announces its nature, medium and mood as immediately as Elgar's Cello Concerto. In half a dozen bars we know that it is a concerto, that the solo instrument is a cello and that its mood is serene. And no recording I know achieves all that with such spare economy as the composer's own - recorded when he was 70 in 1928, with the New Symphony Orchestra and Beatrice Harrison. Its sound has come up astonishingly well on the newest EMI transfer - generously coupled on CD with Elgar's famous 1932 recording of the Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin.
Fashions in string playing have suffered a sea-change since the inter-war years. Until then, thick gut strings had been universal from time immemorial; but nowadays almost everyone has discarded them in favour of thin metal or nylon. That simple change affects everything - tone quality and vibrato (since the same finger- morion produces more violent oscillations the thinner the string). Above all it affects portamento, that lightning slide between certain pairs of key notes. Portamento was once a part of serious string playing. Now it's associated mainly with the schmaltz of the salon because it sounds so uncontrolled in the hands of many players on metal strings. But gut strings, their vibrato and portamento, are the sounds of Elgar's world and time, the sounds which were in his mental ears when he conceived the Cello Concerto and devised its realisation.
How far did playing styles move away from all that in later years? About as far as can be heard in the late Jacqueline du Pre's CBS recording with Daniel Barenboim and the Philadelphia Orchestra. This account (compiled from live performances) features close-miked solo metal strings, menacing vibrato to produce oily tone, a huge (perhaps slightly hyped) dynamic range, portentous swellings and pauses and changes of pulse, and passionate slaps of the bow to reassure the listener of the cellist's emotional commitment.
Fortunately Du Pre made an earlier recording under the firm hand of Sir John Barbirolli. This was for EMI in 1965. Barbirolli sets an easy, forward motion from the outset, and the teenaged Du Pre takes her graceful cue from him. Yet there's still the occasional oily sound of close-miked vibrato on metal strings.
Contrast that with the only modern recording where the cellist has gone back to gut strings - by Steven Isserlis with the LSO under Richard Hickox. The solo sound is darker, perhaps slightly muffled compared with the bright lights more customary today. But to my ears this sound produces, above all, integrity. There's little of that gear- changing shriek some metal players like to exploit when they move from one string to another. The gut strings give Isserlis an ability to confine his sonic switches to musical purposes. His Virgin Classics recording unfortunately does not reproduce its loud passages ideally, perhaps because the recorded level of sound is low. Turned up to let the music be heard, the orchestral climaxes can sound harsh.
Another recording matches fine performance to equally fine sound. It comes from Philips, and features Julian Lloyd Webber with the Royal Philharmonic. And it offers a unique link with Elgar himself in the conducting of Sir Yehudi Menuhin, the last remaining active musician who was closely associated with Elgar and his world. Menuhin was soloist in the famous 1932 recording of the Violin Concerto, conducted by the great man himself. Fifty-three years later Sir Yehudi directed the Cello Concerto for this recording with Julian Lloyd Webber, who shows himself a master of subtle portamento even on metal strings. Menuhin has deeply absorbed the delicate colours and fundamental innocence of Elgar's private world from his own experience of the man, and Lloyd Webber has the musical insight to match him.
One of the best conducted performances is that of Giuseppe Sinopoli with the Philharmonia on Deutsche Grammophon. The solo part, played by Mischa Maisky, is very close-balanced. That yields dividends in quick passages such as the second movement. Elsewhere Maisky overdoes the expression, and with the recording as it is there's no getting away from him.
Now I must apply some rough justice. The current catalogue lists19 versions of the Cello Concerto. To discuss fairly the qualities that seem important in the possible versions means dismissing several. There is Robert Cohen, recorded in January 1980 when he was very young with Norman del Mar and the LPO. Their Classics for Pleasure disc is not bad but Cohen had not yet achieved the maturity to get inside this music and project a comprehensive profile of it.
Then there is another young player, Felix Schmidt, with the LSO under Fruhbeck de Burgos, on Pickwick. When the music is straightforward, Schmidt gives an utterly competent account of himself. But Elgar's music is seldom straightforward, and I hear little deeper understanding in this performance.
There is also a curiosity - a transcription of the solo part for viola by the late Lionel Tertis. This is given a fine performance by Rivkka Golani and the RPO under Vernon Handley on Conifer. Elgar himself was intrigued with the viola idea, and once actually conducted a performance for Tertis. But the transcription is a horrible affair. It repeatedly moves the solo part up or down an octave, upsetting Elgar's instrumental balances often right in the middle of a phrase. And it changes plucked notes to bowed ones whenever the lighter viola can't cope.
In the concerto's second movement Allegro molto, the gut strings of Steven Isserlis give him a unique advantage in shaping the rhythm with exactly the forward impulse that I fancy Elgar wanted. His Adagio, ably seconded by Hickox, is on the same level.
This third movement wears an exposed simplicity that recalls Mozart's slow movements. Here I'm equally impressed by a 1988 recording by that prince of cellists, the late Paul Tortelier, with the RPO under Charles Groves. The soloist is firmly in charge of this performance and he is well supported by the conductor. The disc was made to celebrate Tortelier's 75th birthday. Now it is his memorial, and a fine one. This recording seems to me altogether preferable to Tortelier's earlier performance made for EMI in 1972 with Sir Adrian Boult and the LPO. The names are alluring, but something was missing in the chemistry that day.
Also at budget price is a Naxos disc featuring the young German cellist Maria Kliegel, with the RPO under Michael Halasz. She offers lovely tone with restrained portamento. Her virtues and faults are those of youth: freshness is counterpoised by Keatsean melancholy, with many passages 'half in love with easeful death'. Her generous coupling is the Dvorak Concerto, which makes this disc a budget bargain.
One of the worst accounts of the concerto in my book is by Yo Yo Ma, with the LSO under Andre Previn on CBS. As the music progresses, Ma feels the need to indulge in a strange species of rhetoric, whereby he concludes every note he thinks important with a sort of rasp of the bow. This mannerism is altogether tiresome enough to put his disc right out of my consideration.
Heinrich Schiff and the Dresden Staatskapelle under Sir Neville Marriner on Philips are reliable and offer some attractive soft playing. But anything approaching a climax tempts them into heavy weather.
In the Finale, Elgar brings us to the result of it all, in what many regard as a summation of his life's work. An introduction and sonata allegro is followed by a long and wistful retrospect before a coda brings back the concerto's opening notes to close the circle. All this poses a supreme test for musicianship, and, in the sonata- development, for technique as well.
Because this fourth movement is such a multi-faceted test, I've taken several recordings out of consideration here. One is a sad failure because of an extraordinary technical fault right at the beginning of the Finale. Its an otherwise fine performance from Ralph Kirshbaum with another gifted Elgarian, Sir Alexander Gibson, conducting the Scottish National Orchestra, on Chandos. After three movements in good sound, the Finale begins densely muffled, as if behind closed doors.
Then there is Pierre Fournier, with the Berlin Philharmonic under Alfred Wallenstein. This is a lovely performance, recorded 30 years ago. But Deutsche Grammophon has seen fit to remaster it digitally for CD. The results separate solo cello and orchestra into entirely different acoustics.
There's far better sound on a Decca London recording by Lym Harrell with the Cleveland Orchestra under Lorin Maazel. This is a real bear-hug of a performance and there's little indulgence in false emotion, the curse of several competitors. But it's a bit short on real emotional insight as well.
A performance to be avoided is, alas, Casals, recorded in 1945 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Boult. In much of the concerto, Casals is simply unidiomatic. In the Finale he grunts and groans miserably. The recorded sound, once wiry, has been 'corrected' for CD to a uniform dullness.
In the Finale recapitulation, all the cellos of the orchestra join the solo player in what should emerge as eloquent resignation. Harrell and Maazel are merely ungainly here, but Isserlis and Hickox on Virgin Classics get it just right. So do Lloyd Webber and Menuhin. And the way they emerge on to the widening landscape of the retrospect is a marvel.
In the retrospect itself, Elgar himself conducts with the firmest grip of all in perhaps the most overtly emotional music he ever wrote. His 1928 recording with Beatrice Harrison is in a class of its own, and the EMI re-issue presents cleaner and better sound than I would have believed possible.
An earlier recording of the concerto with Beatrice Harrison and conducted by Elgar was made in 1919-20, soon after the work was written. This is now available as part of a five-disc Elgar Edition by Pearl. The transfers are skilfully done, but the recording was made by the primitive 'acoustic' process and some of the movements were abridged. Still, it offers an insight into how a great composer thought of his latest work, then hardly a year old.
Of modern versions, it is Julian Lloyd Webber's performance on Philips coupled with Menuhin's deeply sensitive account of Elgar's Enigma Variations that wins my prize. Despite the occasional close recording of the solo cello, here is a performance to live with.