Elgar’s Cello Concerto in its Centenary Year

This article was written for BBC Music Magazine:

An Appreciation of Elgar’s Cello Concerto on the Centenary of its First Performance:

Dame Fortune was smiling kindly on me when I first encountered Elgar’s Cello Concerto.

I was nine years old and my grandmother had evidently decided that it was time I heard the instrument I kept sawing away on played properly. So she bought me a cello record for Christmas. My grandmother didn’t know much about classical music and I later discovered that she had been guided by the “nice old gentleman” who ran the specialist record shop on the corner. I have always been grateful to my mysterious mentor, as my present turned out to be one of the finest cello recordings of the era – the Elgar, played by Paul Tortelier with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Malcolm Sargent.

I loved Tortelier’s gentle rendition with its French accent – indeed his recording confirms my theory that the greater a piece of music, the greater number of interpretations it can take – whilst still managing to survive!

Certainly, Tortelier’s account could not be more different from Jacqueline du Pré’s legendary recording. Du Pre’s has become the benchmark by which all others are compared – but a downside of the iconic status accorded to Jackie’s very individual performance is that so many young cellists seem to feel obliged to copy it.

If there was one thing that convinced me I had the right to record my own version of Elgar’s extraordinary creation (on which I was hugely helped by having Yehudi Menuhin as my conductor), it was the certainty that my interpretation was markedly different from du Pre’s. This wasn’t intentional. I experimented (in private!) with playing the concerto in many ways. But, once on the concert platform, I could only play it the way I felt. And I feel the composer has given us an intensely personal, lonely statement.

“Announce the hero,” Casals would instruct his students at the cello’s first entry in Dvorák’s magnificent concerto. But Dvorák’s heroics were not for Elgar in 1919. The First World War had changed everything. Cataclysmic events produce drastic reactions. People look for renewal, and Elgar represented the past. The fact that the new concerto – from the composer of the Pomp and Circumstance Marches – contained no hint of triumphalism confused still further.

In addition, Elgar’s role for the orchestra was substantially different from Dvorák’s. Instead of pitting instruments of similar pitch (horns, bassoons, etc) against the cello, Elgar leaves the middle ground to his soloist – further reinforcing the concerto’s lonely contours.

Legend has it that the first performance was an unmitigated disaster
which traumatized its soloist Felix Salmond to the extent that he never played the concerto again and fled to America in search of a new career.

Yet an unattributed review in The Times makes no mention of the orchestral playing, praises Felix Salmond as ‘a painstaking and sympathetic interpreter’ before noting that ‘both the composer and Mr Salmond were recalled many times at the end’. Hardly the fiasco of legend. And – far from never playing the concerto again – Salmond went on to perform it the following year in Manchester and Birmingham and ten years later he played it in New York.

If Salmond harbored any lack of desire to suggest the concerto to promoters or teach the work to his students in his new life at the Juilliard School, it was more likely due to resentment at the vagaries of the record business than any lingering regrets about its first performance. Elgar was under contract to the Gramophone Company and Salmond recorded for Columbia Records. At first, the Gramophone Company sniffed around the Portuguese cellist Guilhermina Suggia, but she asked for too much money (bad career move!) Next it turned to a young, attractive, British cellist called Beatrice Harrison and, less than two months after Salmond had given the première, Harrison found herself in Elgar’s drawing room, preparing to record it a few days later.

Yet, as with the Violin Concerto and an even younger Yehudi Menuhin, the Gramophone Company’s choice of soloist proved inspired. For, like Menuhin, Harrison showed an immediate, instinctive affinity with Elgar’s mercurial temperament.

There can be no question that Elgar was profoundly affected by the First World War. He made few direct references to it but his choice of confidents – Frank Schuster and Sidney Colvin – is revealing. Both were longstanding friends and gentle souls with no direct involvement in music. To Colvin (the Cello Concerto’s joint dedicatee together with his wife Frances) he wrote “I cannot do any real work with the awful shadow over us” and to Schuster he expressed his rage:

‘Concerning the war I say nothing—the only thing that wrings my heart and soul is the thought of the horses—oh! My beloved animals—the men—and women—can go to hell—but my horses; I walk round and round this room cursing God for allowing dumb brutes to be tortured—let him kill his human beings but—how CAN HE? Oh, my horses’

The musicians Elgar chose to work with during the war were also gentle souls – the violinists Albert Sammons and WH Reed and the cellist Felix Salmond. All three played significant roles both in Elgar’s life and his music during this terrible time. (Some thirty years later my mother studied violin with ‘Billy’ Reed at the Royal College of Music – ‘kind’, ‘lovely’ and ‘gentle’ were the adjectives she used regularly to describe him).

With the war finally over Elgar turned his thoughts to writing a Cello Concerto. It is always interesting to speculate on what drew a composer to write for a particular instrument at a particular time. Certainly cello concertos tend to be late works in composers’ outputs. It is as if they are entrusting their innermost thoughts to that instrument closest to the human voice which – because of its sonority and unusually wide range of pitch – enables those thoughts to take flight.

Elgar’s Cello Concerto makes unusual demands on its soloist as the composer produced, in Jerrold Northrop Moore’s words, ‘such a concerto of isolation, loneliness, farewell even, as had never yet been written’.
There are no traditional ‘fireworks’ on display, no showy cadenzas; instead lies the ultimate challenge of conveying to an audience one man’s wounded interpretation of the human condition as viewed through the passage of time. Yet the concerto is supremely written for the instrument and it runs the gamut of the cello’s range like no other before it.

There is an overriding arch to the work with the concerto’s nobilmente opening returning at the end and it is important for the soloist to hold a firm vision of that arch throughout the performance. This allows plenty of room for spontaneity whilst presenting a coherent whole to the listener.

The (false?) grandeur of the opening bars introduces an unusual series of questions posed by the soloist. These are immediately followed by a first theme of such loneliness as to be unique in any concerto. Elgar’s markings for this theme are revealing – there are none. During my studies with Pierre Fournier we worked on the Lalo Concerto together. Lalo litters his score with a profusion of markings which are nothing if not confusing so I was hardly surprised when Fournier said “ignore all these”, but I was extremely surprised when he added “just like in the Elgar”. Elgar’s directions are certainly detailed but they are a window to his soul – follow them scrupulously and you cannot go far wrong.

That’s why the lack of any markings (save for piano) on this first theme is so significant. They are the only bars in the concerto without expressive indications. Why? Because they tell their own story.

The theme appears four times – each time with different markings which it is vital to observe. Soloists usually do this but the famous scalic run to a top E fares less well. Elgar clearly marks its second coming In Tempo and on his own recording with Beatrice Harrison even makes an accelerando. Yet today we almost always hear it played with the same massive rallentando both times, reducing the thrilling surprise Elgar surely intended whilst making life extremely difficult for the timpanist whose succeeding fortissimo demi-semiquaver figure is forced into a tempo-free limbo!

The recitative-like ‘bridge’ to the second movement is the nearest the concerto comes to a cadenza with the soloist offering little hints of the music to follow like gusts of wind blowing across the landscape. And it’s a bleak landscape too as an impassioned solo cello outburst reminds us of the inherent harshness of nature.

The second movement proper (diddle, diddle, diddle as Lady Elgar liked to describe it) is a gift to its soloist – by no means easy but nowhere near as hard as it sounds! Magnificently written for the cello, Elgar delivers a masterclass in how to write for the instrument: ‘runs’ that lie under the hand, idiomatic use of natural harmonics and even a left hand pizzicato flourish at the finish. His orchestration – which always allows the cello to ‘come through’ – is wonderful too. As the work of a self-taught composer it’s a marvel.

The slow movement is a succinct distillation of emotions which have journeyed for many miles together to a valley beyond tears. Lasting barely five minutes its two-bar phrases are yearning yet warm, a flash of anger in the middle soon subsiding into a place of resigned serenity and comfort.

An abrupt key change interrupts the mood as Elgar introduces a nervy rhythmic figure which leads to the concerto’s second recitative-like passage for the soloist. A sudden, sparkling cello arpeggio to the instrument’s stratosphere heralds the start of the finale.

The last movement’s main theme is about as near to triumphalism as Elgar allows his expectant listeners to get and, even here, the composer effectively ‘sends himself up’ by allowing his soloist to introduce a ‘nobilmente’ figure which immediately collapses in a flurry of skittering bow-bouncing demi-semiquavers (more brilliant writing for the instrument). I love Ernest Newman’s description of this episode as ‘dignity at the mercy of a banana skin’. This mood of fragile good spirits is soon dispersed by a melancholic passage of beautifully melodic cello semiquavers punctuated by sighing phrases from the violins and chilly interjections from the woodwind. The solo part is particularly interesting on account of its gestation.

Before recording the concerto myself, I asked to view the composer’s manuscript at the Royal College of Music’s library to see whether it contained any unexpected revelations. It did. The entire original solo part is crossed out at this point. Bar after bar of, frankly, workmanlike passagework has been rewritten in Elgar’s own hand resulting in the beautiful counterpoint we know today (and please may no-one be tempted to make a premiere recording of the composer’s ‘original’ version)! Now follows a section which reminds me of a similar place in the finale of Elgar’s First Symphony which Adrian Boult once described to me as “the part he asked the cook to write”. It is indeed a banal passage but – as I inquired of Sir Adrian – it surely only serves to underline the beauty which follows? “I had never thought of that” was Sir Adrian’s gracious response.

The conclusion of the concerto is one of Elgar’s greatest achievements – a summation of themes, of heightened emotions, of unexpected key changes and total mastery of his material, culminating in an other-worldly suspension of time at the recall of the slow movement. When, finally, the solo cello interrupts the mood with a fortissimo statement of the concerto’s opening, accompanied this time by two slashing full orchestra chords, we are left wondering – as the concerto hurries towards its breathless end – have we witnessed a triumph or is the composer angered by the follies of mankind and the world he knew and loved collapsing all around him? An enigma to be sure – and we know that Elgar liked those.

I performed the concerto in concert many hundreds of times but I never tired of playing it. I found it to be almost eerily responsive to different conductors, orchestras, concert halls and, especially, to audiences; so much so that even in a series of three performances in the same hall with the same orchestra and conductor each performance would feel completely different.

For an extra-musical reason, one performance with Menuhin in Sydney is forever etched in my memory. I wanted to discuss some point or other of interpretation and knocked on his dressing room door. “Come in, come in”, cried Yehudi. I duly entered and was surprised to see him standing on his head. “It’s about this accelerando in the last movement” I told his feet. “Where exactly? Show me on the score.” Prostrating myself on the floor, I carefully placed the music upside down in front of Yehudi’s eyes before beginning a detailed discussion of Elgar’s masterpiece with the inverted maestro. I always wished the expectant audience could have witnessed this ‘cameo’!

As a British cellist performing internationally I would often be asked to play the Elgar on my travels. In my twenties and thirties this led to finding myself collaborating with renowned maestri who had never conducted the concerto before. (‘Please don’t tell the orchestra’ they would whisper.) Amongst these was Sir Georg Solti. But it wasn’t always the ‘starriest’ conductors who provided the necessary foil for my long-considered interpretation. Amongst my favourite (in other words most comfortable) partners were – in no particular order – Richard Hickox, Vernon Handley, Charles Groves, James Judd, Alexander Gibson, Neville Marriner and, of course, Yehudi Menuhin.

I have always believed that there should be a reason for making a recording. Adding yet another version of a well-worn classic to the overcrowded catalogue never appealed to me. So Yehudi – with his unique insight into Elgar’s music – seemed my natural partner. And so it proved. From the beginning I benefited from his benign and gentle guidance:
“It’s too forthright” he said of my first statement of the first movement theme, “play it as if it’s coming from a distance over the hills” – an insight that completely tallies with Elgar’s deathbed remark to Sir Barry Jackson: “Rather feebly” Elgar tried to whistle the first movement’s haunting 9/8 theme. “Barry” he said with tears in his eyes “if ever you’re walking on the Malvern hills and hear that, it’s only me. Don’t be frightened.”

On my 16th birthday, my godfather – the composer Herbert Howells – presented me with a score of Elgar’s Cello Concerto which he inscribed: ‘To Julian, from H H, to whom E E once said of this work, “It’s just an old man’s darling.” ’ One hundred years after its premiere, Elgar’s Cello Concerto is no longer ‘just an old man’s darling’ but has become a ‘darling’ for music-lovers all over the world.