Notes and Editorial Reviews
Violin Concerto. Violin Concerto:
The Crown of India:
Tasmin Little (vn); Andrew Davis, cond; Royal Scottish Natl O
CHANDOS 5083 (SACD: 74:52)
Tasmin Little’s recording of Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto includes two items of special interest to violinists and Elgarians: an alternate accompanied cadenza that Elgar wrote for his recorded
performance with Marie Hall in 1916, a violin solo from
The Crown of India
, a work Elgar supplied for a concert of Polish music given for the Polish Victims Relief Fund in 1915.
The brasses of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra bite and its strings surge in the Violin Concerto’s long opening tutti (which, in its majesty, has been compared to the British Empire itself), and Chandos’s high-definition SACD sound captures the crests of every wave. Little enters as beguilingly at the end as any violinist I’ve heard, with her 1757 Guadagnini hauntingly throaty in its lower registers and bright enough in its upper ones. It certainly seems no fault of Tasmin Little’s—nor any fault of the violin itself—that so many passages, some of them technical ones with the violin playing double-stops across the strings and some of them lyrical, seem to drown in the massive waves of orchestral sound; a more forward placement of the soloist might have helped, though Little soars free in the most climactic moments. At times she slows down almost to the point of stasis, but the music itself doesn’t suffer and such gestures in such a context hardly seem like mere mannerism (neither did Nigel Kennedy’s in either of his recordings). She builds excitement before the grand perorations, of which the first movement parades a long series. In the second movement, she weaves the opening theme with breathless delicacy (a description that might fit the way she plays the singing passages in all the movements) into the orchestral background (realized with great sympathy by Andrew Davis and the orchestra), but she’s boldly ardent in the middle section. The finale is a virtuoso piece, though Elgar never seems to have allowed virtuosity to get the better of his purely musical instincts. A violinist himself, Elgar (who wrote some very demanding etudes that sound far more imposing than Nicolo Paganini’s, Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst’s, or Henri Wieniawski’s) set very difficult challenges for the violinist in this concerto (and Fritz Kreisler, who premiered it, had actually slightly simplified the part), yet Little never betrays the slightest technical roughness, and her intonation generally remains refreshingly pure throughout, a virtue that’s especially notable in the cadenza.
Little transcribed the cadenza Elgar wrote for his abridged 1916 recording with his former student Marie Hall, and Gwawr Owen reconstructed the original harp part (the notes suggest that Elgar wrote the cadenza to fit on one side of a 78 disc and employed harp because he feared that the strummed strings wouldn’t be audible on the acoustic recording). It preserves enough of the original to remain a curiosity, though an interesting one for Elgar scholars and the concerto’s admirers.
Elgar’s Interlude from
The Crown of India
provides a simple though tender, elusive, and redolent song for the violin, and future violinists might follow Little’s example and adopt it as an encore to the concerto.
, a quarter-hour “symphonic prelude” dedicated to Ignace Jan Paderewski, sounds like a potpourri of Polish tunes, including the national anthem and a melody each by Frédéric Chopin, Paderewski, and Józef Nikorowicz—all identified with the times of their appearance in Andrew Neill’s notes.
Though the way in which Chandos’s recorded sound interweaves the violin and orchestra may result in this recording’s appealing most strongly to those who consider the concerto a sort of grand symphony with violin obbligato, Little’s and Davis’s poetic vision of the work should earn their performance a wider reception. Those who champion Albert Sammons’s recording, Yehudi Menuhin’s early one with the composer, Jascha Heifetz’s bracing yet highly romantic one, or one of the bumper crop of relative newcomers like Nigel Kennedy or Nikolai Znaider, should still make a place for this one. Very strongly recommended as developing one aspect (as did Heifetz’s version) of the concerto’s multifaceted appeal.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
Recordings of Elgar’s concerto have come thick and fast recently. This one can more than hold its own in company as distinguished as Thomas Zehetmair and Nicolaj Znaider. The first thing that strikes you is the beauty of the recorded sound: taped in the superb acoustic of Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall, the Chandos engineers have done a marvellous job of capturing a lovely bloom around the sound, allowing it to breathe and flow so that the nobility innate in so much of Elgar’s music is all the more apparent. You need only listen to the breadth of phrasing apparent in the opening minute of the work to appreciate their achievement. It works particularly well for the pastoral beauty of the slow movement which sounds, perhaps ironically in the light of the performers and the location, quintessentially “English”.
The orchestral tone itself is gorgeous throughout, grand and sweeping in the main theme of the first movement, yearning and subtle in the “Windflower” themes without losing any of the scale. It helps to have an Elgarian of Andrew Davis’s stature piloting the ship. He is alive to every nuance, shaping every phrase with the authority that comes from a world of experience in this music. He is especially open to the ebb and flow that keeps the first movement going, varying the pace with certainty every time the composer requires it. A gentle haze settles over the slow movement, something I found absolutely gorgeous, but the finale has a real crack to its pace, sounding headlong and unharnessed.
Tasmin Little herself is outstanding throughout. Her technique is rock-solid, tossing off the runs, double-stops and trills as if she were taking a walk in the park. Her command of the fiendish finale is particularly impressive, as is the way she listens to the orchestra so that she is in constant communication with her colleagues, never above them. She is always innately musical, never showy for its own sake, and there is a beautiful sense of communion, of summing up and concluding, in the great cadenza. Incidentally, she worked with harpist Gwawr Owen to reconstruct the cadenza which Elgar composed for his original 1916 recording of the work. Elgar realised that most of the cadenza’s accompaniment would be lost in the limited technology of acoustic recording so he added the harp part to give it extra body, but the part was then lost, so it’s especially interesting to have it included here as a bonus track. It wouldn’t need this to make this performance self-recommending, though. Little and Davis take their place among contemporary recordings by the likes of Znaider and Zehetmair, and I don’t think it’s going too far to say that Little is also worthy to look Kennedy and Bean in the eye without fear.
Crown of India interlude is serene and reflective, blessed again by Little’s gorgeous violin playing.
Polonia was written for a concert in aid of Polish victims of the Great War and contains a collection of stirring melodies by Polish composers (including Paderewski and Chopin) as well as a typically expansive Elgar theme that tugs at the patriotic heartstrings. It’s unashamedly big-boned and it’s very well played, making it an excellent way to finish off a highly successful disc.
Incidentally, the same team will play the concerto in Edinburgh and Glasgow in February 2012 as part of the RSNO’s concert season. See the orchestra's website for details.
-- Simon Thompson, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Violin in B minor, Op. 61 by Sir Edward Elgar
Tasmin Little (Violin)
Sir Andrew Davis
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Written: 1909-1910; England
Polonia, Op. 76 by Sir Edward Elgar
Sir Andrew Davis
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Written: 1915; England
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