Elgar Cello Concerto in Em, Op. 85

performed by Steven Isserlis and the Philharmonia Orchestra under Paavo Järvi, or below with Jacqueline du Pré and the London Symphony under Sir John Barbirolli

In today’s piece, we’re moving back toward the end of the composer’s career, a year after the string quartet we discussed last weekend, and what a difference that year makes.

Wikipedia calls this piece the composer’s “last notable work” and ” a cornerstone of the solo cello repertoire.” While we said the string quartet surprised audiences, not with its modernism but conservativeness, we find the composer no longer a bastion of the Romantic idiom, but behind the times, even a little bit forgotten.

In fact, the work itself, now considered one of the great cello concertos, was not a success at its premiere, largely due to insufficient rehearsal and preparation, but was left behind for almost half a century, until Jacqueline du Pré revived it and made it a best-seller.

Remember that dangerous tonsil operation he had? He composed that string quartet (or the last two movements of it) while recovering from that operation, but apparently sketched the first theme for this work upon waking from surgery. The rest of it was composed “during the summer of 1919 at Elgar’s secluded cottage “Brinkwells” near Fittleworth, Sussex, where during previous years he had heard the sound of the artillery of World War I rumbling across the Channel at night from France,” per Wiki.

The pensive, introspective nature of the quartet, then, maybe comes out full-force in this work, and it took time to get an audience. Whether it was a result of the catastrophic premiere or a lack of understanding or interest in the work, it waited for more than a year to get a second performance, while the first symphony, the incredible work we discussed earlier this week, had had something like 100 performances in its first year. How times change.

Interestingly, for its four-movement form, the first movement is not in sonata form, but rather a ternary form. It begins with that well-known opening of the solo cello, a full-bodied line with triple and quadruple stops that in six bars ranges from ff to piano. It’s a low rumble of thunder, threatening rain, but of tenderness and calm, in those iconic rolling English hills which this contour is said to mimic. Wait for the other strings to enter with a dotted figure, and the feeling is that there’s a pastoral, friendly tune in there that’s trying to come out and play, but it can never break free. It’s distant, melancholy, especially when picked up by the soloist. Can you hear that green English landscape, the carefreeness that so many people expect an English composer’s work to have, but do you also hear war, or perhaps the scars left from war?

As a matter of fact in the central portion of this first movement, we do get a bit of sunshine peeking through the clouds. There’s that pastoral sound we want, with some earthy woodwind sound, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The overwhelming feeling is that this cello concerto, despite being big and virtuosic and symphonic in ways similar to the Dvorak, is largely introspective, pensive, and as a result deeply moving.

The first movement, with its slower themes, leads directly into the second movement, marked lento, but eventually leads to an allegro molto. The tie-over from the first movement to the second seemed to suggest we would be getting a cadenza, and it does show up in the beginning of the second movement. There are pizzicato and plaintive statements from the soloist, with responses from the orchestra here and there. The allegro molto sixteenth-note figure reappears, kind of making up what is the most like a scherzo that we’ll see in this work. It’s brighter, with some of the most carefree spirit we’ll hear in this entire work. The movement quiets down slightly and ends with a chirp, giving us a pause before what comes next.

The third movement is marked adagio, and is made up of one lone theme. It’s the shortest movement of the piece, but seems to act as one long passionate gesture, free of most of the melancholy of the beginning of the work. This beautiful, lyrical passage leads directly into the finale, and the effect is that it feels like the concerto is in two halves. The outer movements are longer, and attached to one of the two much shorter inner movements. The adagio seems to end cleanly, but it is apparently connected without pause to the finale, by far the longest movement of the work.

The opening of the finale seems to recall the scherzo-like buoyancy of the second movement passage, but quickly fades away from its fortissimo to another cadenza. This expressive passage, to me at least, seems to assimilate all the conflicting emotion we’ve heard so far: the struggle and melancholy, the power, the tenderness, all of this in a recitative and another cadenza before the theme of the movement is stated, the most confident of them all so far.

We’re at a point where there appears to be some progress: a more optimistic pervades the bulk of this movement, even though the keys and melodies wander about a bit. It’s virtuosic and spellbinding, because after all we’ve heard, we’re dying to know how it’ll end. There are plenty of climaxes in the the finale, places we feel that momentum is building toward a grand, triumphant ending, but what happens? Spoiler alert.

Despite the increased virtuosity of the solo part and the liveliness of the orchestra, and getting to a point where it feels the piece is finally saying what it needs to say, the tempo slows down for much of the latter half of the work, presenting new material, but beyond that, the movement moves away from the confidence it had finally built. We finally move back to a quote of the third movement, followed yet more dramatically by those opening triple and quadruple stops and the opening melody. It bleeds into the orchestra’s restatement of the finale’s main theme, and what felt at first like some kind of regression becomes a full-circle journey, an exciting and effective way to wrap up an outstandingly expressive, lyrical and deeply moving work.

It might seem surprising in hindsight that this piece didn’t have the same initial success as the first symphony; it waited more than a year to get a second performance, but that might largely be due to more modern, less Romantic sentiments at the time, an interest in something less traditional. Thankfully, the larger part of the listening audience has come around to how wonderful this concerto is and it seems unsurprising that it’s become one of the most enduring cello concertos in the repertoire. First impressions, thankfully, sometimes aren’t all that matter.

Needless to say, Isserlis’ more recent reading of Elgar is stunning, and he says in an interview that he did use gut strings for this album. He also speaks of the Walton concerto as one of his absolute favorites, so it’s a bit of a shame we aren’t getting around to any of that this time, but this quite recent release of the Elgar is a stunning recording and highly recommended.

That wraps up our week of Elgar’s first appearances on the blog, and we’re finally reaching the last composer in our little series here. His cello concerto will actually reach just barely into February, but that’s okay. There’s good stuff this weekend, and more to hear next week, so do stay tuned and thanks for listening and reading.


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