Elgar Piano Quintet in Am, op. 84

performed by the Coull String Quartet and Allan Schiller, piano; or below by the Sorrel Quartet with Ian Brown, piano

Alice Elgar was quite right: it is a new urgency, pointed and refined by the discipline of writing chamber music, a discipline that clearly rejuvenated Elgar’s imagination. It is big chamber music, with at times an almost orchestral sonority to it…’

The Gramophone, about the quintet

First, I feel like I should apologize to Elgar. It wasn’t until this year that we got around to his music, and I must say that I wasn’t terribly eager to get familiar with his first symphony. I don’t know why, but the idea of it was not one that excited me. Turns out it is a spectacular work, a powerful, triumphant, deeply moving work of genius.

But his string quartet also took quite a bit of warming up to, and for some reason I never got too terribly excited about it, although I did come to appreciate it. Another part of the apology is that his truly magnificent first symphony wasn’t a part of this series, and neither will be the second; the first was a large impetus, I think, toward finally getting around to preparing this series, and he couldn’t go completely without mention in the series, so we turn now to the work I had also considered for inclusion back in January.

I chose the string quartet at the time because it is (barely) the earlier of the two, but the quintet is now the logical (and only?) choice of chamber music to make sure Elgar gets the mention he deserves in an English series, so here we are. Lack of other options aside, though, this work I have found to be deeply stirring, charming, introspective, mature, and even a little bit spiritual maybe. It’s sublime.

The quintet came around at roughly the same time as the aforementioned string quartet, as well as the composer’s violin sonata, and these are what I understand to be the composer’s only contributions to the chamber music literature. The quintet was first performed at Wigmore Hall on 21 May, 1919, so very nearly 100 years ago! One of the violinists in that premiere performance, W. H. Reed, had worked with Elgar on the violin concerto, and the cellist Felix Salmond had also contributed to the composition of the cello concerto. Despite (and during) the composer’s failing health, he was able to hear apparently multiple electric recordings of this piece.

It is in three movements and lasts close to 40 minutes in performance time, making for quite a large chamber work. The first movement begins by putting in place two basic elements, a simple, almost forgettable, piano piano figure in octaves, and what some people refer to as a ‘stabbing’ string figure. I would refer to it, far less violently, as having more bounce than stab, but it’s these two figures that contrast before something else, far more poignant and expressive is presented, a sweeping, breathtaking melody. It strikes me here as really amazing that with just five instruments, there can be created such a sumptuous, rich, expressive, full sound.

Hyperion’s program notes on this work, written by Diana McVeagh, say that “The piano theme reflects the plainsong chant Salve regina,” and that “The imploring chromatic passage, the cello rising against the drop of the other strings, portrays human anguish,” and that this kind of mood dominates, or ‘haunts’, the entire quintet.

There’s a handsomeness to this music. I wouldn’t necessarily use the word ‘haunt’ in reference to this work, unless to say that this melancholy atmosphere is always just kind of lurking in the background, never really revealing itself in full, mournful glory. The handsomeness, I think, is a kind of weathered maturity, a composer in his later years, after a dangerous surgery, illness, the First World War, thinking about life, the collection of human experience, joys and sorrows, like the patina on a pair of men’s leather shoes.

But it’s not all somber. The second theme enters with violins, and it’s of a very different character. McVeagh describes it as “swaying violins in thirds in a languorous dance, in A major with G naturals and B flats—sounds Spanish.” It’s really a delight, such a different section of the piece, but somehow in keeping with it overall. I don’t know, but it’s an absolute delight. Remember the stabby figure? I shan’t go into any kind of play-by-play discussion, but you’ll hear it picked up by the piano, and echoes of it come and go as roles reverse and material is developed and explored. It’s a captivating, even magical, movement, and I look back wondering how it didn’t spellbind me from the first listen. Thank goodness for recordings.

There are, in this development, some much more impassioned climaxes, things that are more violent or stabby, but we really have a Brahmsian use of content, economical, captivating, powerful, and focused but expansive as well. It’s a truly breathtaking first movement from a composer who has clearly matured throughout an impressive career.

And that’s only the first movement, which ends quietly. The second movement is indeed touching more heavily on the somber, melancholy spirit of the first movement. That opening gesture reappears here and there, but it’s an immaculately beautiful movement, one of a certain stillness, like a silent forest. And yes, I look back at McVeagh’s notes, and she uses the word ‘stillness’. I can’t quite describe it. It’s like standing in the middle of a landscape, a forest of tall, handsome trees, with not a single thing moving, and yet everything seems to be swirling around you, almost overwhelmed by the beauty of it all. There is, though, a truly great climax (or two) to this central movement, and it also closes quietly.

Does the opening of the finale sound familiar? It should. Remember that fragrant first theme of the first movement, something like the lapping waves of Brahms’ second piano concerto comes to mind. That’s a powerful point to this work, that we recall material from the very beginning, but we don’t stay in that realm for long, as the movement blossoms out to something far more ebullient, friendly, and maybe the first real glimpse of sunshine we’ve had in a while. It’s busy, full, but never overwhelming, “vigorous”, as McVeagh says, an installment that is at once contrasting and yet in keeping with everything we’ve heard so far. There’s such handsome maturity, but also sweet delicacy to the music, but something changes close to the halfway point of the work, where things begin to darken a bit, that sun obscured by clouds. More familiar material returns. McVeagh says:

… the full implications of the first movement are not revealed until the middle of the last movement, where ghostly presences return; confidence falters, and memories and presentiments play out some interior drama, dispelled as the recapitulation gathers strength.

And so then there is revealed not only Elgar’s exceptional compositional skills, giving us brilliance and beauty at every turn, but a grander plan, one of substance and structure, something to unify this large-scale chamber work. It is of a grand scope, but always compact, keeping itself together, no loose ends, no wild hairs, and this shows, to me, a mastery of craft. Even our beloved Mahler, I will admit, gets a bit long-winded and can be tangential here and there, although I love every second of it.

But back to Elgar. I was initially going to forego mention of this potentially apocryphal story involving Lady Elgar and a tale of Spanish monks who were smitten from the heavens with a bolt of lightning, “while performing impious rites,” and how some dead, barren trees represent them wailing for their sins. She perhaps put more stock in this local myth than others, but she claimed that this was very much on the composer’s mind when he wrote the work, and that it imbued some kind of programmatic element(s) to the work. It seems a bit silly, but Elgar never refuted the story, so some seem to think that there may be some truth to it. In any case, McVeagh again hits the nail on the head when she says “The details matter less than that there is some great drama being played out.” And that is so very true.

I’m glad we’ve had a bit of a chance to make up for lost time with Elgar. This is now his fourth work featured on the blog, and all of them were this year. We still haven’t gotten to Gerontius or any of the others, but we will eventually. But since we already covered his astoundingly wonderful first symphony in January, this is the only mention he gets in the series, although it is a monumentally wonderful work, so I don’t feel bad. This is music to think, to feel to.

We have yet another chamber work coming up tomorrow, so do stay tuned for that, and next week also obviously will give us some more wonderful music, so don’t miss that. See you soon.

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