Elgar’s Violin Concerto has a certain mystique about it independent of the knee-jerk obeisance it has received in the British press. It probably is the longest and most difficult of all Romantic violin concertos, requiring not just great technical facility but great concentration from the soloist and a real partnership of equals with the orchestra. And like all of Elgar’s large orchestral works, it is extremely episodic in construction and liable to fall apart if not handled with a compelling sense of the long line. In reviewing the score while listening to this excellent performance, I was struck by just how fussy Elgar’s indications often are: the constant accelerandos and ritards, and the minute (and impractical) dynamic indications that ask more questions than they sometimes answer. No version, least of all the composer’s own, even attempts to realize them all: it would be impossible without italicizing and sectionalizing the work to death.
Why has one piece of music here, the Elgar Cello Concerto played by Jacqueline DuPre become so legendary? Of course it is the music itself. It has an overpowerful haunting deeply hypnotic feeling. Elgar wrote it after his recovery from a serious illness towards the end of the First War, and his thoughts were certainly on the suffering of life, and the inevitability of death. Du Pre brings to the piece not only her great mastery as cellist, but some deeper element of feeling. There is in the playing a sense of romantic abandoment of wild disturbance, and of intense and even ferious concentration.
French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras explores the late Romantic repertoire on this 2013 Harmonia Mundi release and finds a kind of mirroring of intentions and expressions between Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33, and Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto, Op. 85. While this is a rather subjective understanding of the music that listeners can either take or leave, there's no denying that Queyras, conductor Jirí Belohlávek, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra offer performances of both works that are evocative and beautiful, with or without any underlying connections.