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In “Just Listen,” The Day’s music writers share playlists of favorite recordings and invite you to share your comments and your playlists. Each blog includes Spotify links to the music in play. You can stream the music, then add your comments in this blog. Spotify is a free music service for your computer or wireless device.
The concept behind “Just Listen” was for The Day’s music writers to share favorites. Composer birthdays make convenient waypoints to focus the topic (so much music!), and the next 10 days contain birthdays for three composers who are always on my active rotation: Edward Elgar, Robert Schumann and Richard Strauss.
Today is the birthday of Sir Edward Elgar, born June 2, 1857. Elgar is a major “if-only”: If only Benjamin Britten (or Handel, for that matter) hadn’t existed, he would have been England’s greatest composer. If only World War I and the death of his wife hadn’t broken his spirit at the height of his powers, who knows what he would have produced? If only there was more.
I don’t listen to much late Romanticism (I think of the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler like the outer planets of the solar system: gaseous giants), but Elgar’s music speaks to me. His music is beautifully crafted and complex, yet it is emotionally direct, full of nobility and grandeur. Few composers project such a sense of personal character in their music – it’s hard not to sense a nostalgic yearning for the faded empire and a stoicism in the face of loss.
Though notably un-prolific, Elgar left a pair of symphonies, a pair of concerti, some incidental orchestral music and a pair of chamber works that remain in the repertoire today. Ravel once lamented that nothing-but-noise Bolero was so popular (“My masterpiece, and not a note of music”), and so it is with Elgar, best known for his Pomp and Circumstance march built into all graduation ceremonies today. It can stay there, thanks.
His best-known concert piece is, by far, his Enigma Variations, which mixes two approaches, one playful and one of dignity and grandeur. Often excerpted is the most moving, the most eloquent of these, the Nimrod variation, performed by my favorite conductor of Romantic material, Colin Davis:
Much less known is Elgar’s Piano Quintet, written on a sunny summer retreat in 1918, one of his few directly cheerful compositions. Here is the first movement. I especially like the gentle dance of the lyric theme, which he expands wonderfully, starting halting at 2:00 and then simply flowering.
Elgar’s cello concerto is performed a good deal, propelled in part by the recordings of it by the 1960s by cellist Jacqueline Du Pre (a career sadly cut short by multiple sclerosis, another “only-if”) and by the subsequent, lurid biopic about her. But it’s Elgar’s Violin Concerto that I enjoy more.
In this first movement, Elgar presents the thematic material in a distinctly symphonic manner before the violin finally enters after three minutes, not with forceful attack, but as a resigned cadence. This recording features the dream team of the aforementioned Davis and American violin star Hilary Hahn:
As you could tell from that one movement, Elgar, like the gas giants, thought big – and long. His vast Symphony No. 2 is the most frequently performed of the two, but his Symphony No. 1 in A flat major has been a favorite ever since I saw fellow Brit Benjamin Zander lead a hair-raising Boston Philharmonic performance of it. Here we have Davis again conducting the opening allegro in this utterly characteristic Elgar outpouring:
We’ve been fortunate to hear fine performances both the Elgar violin and cello concertos in recent seasons of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra. I hope you were there!