Elgar Violin Concerto
Star violinist Nikolaj Znaider has certainly been recording with A-listers recently: Brahms and Korngold with Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic, and now Sir Colin Davis and the Dresden Staatskapelle for the Elgar Concerto in this, the centenary of its premiere. There’s a further link with the past, in that Znaider’s instrument is none other than the one Kreisler used to premiere the work in November 1910, an experience that audiences around the world will be able to share, as Znaider is touring the concerto during the course of this year.
It would have been intriguing to have been at the sessions to find out who led the way interpretatively, or whether it was a truly democratic effort. Certainly, Davis’s introduction sets the tone for the reading as a whole, with plenty of detail on show, no sense of hurry, lots of colouristic variety and free rubato. Vernon Handley finds just as much detail, but here the abiding impression is of certainty of direction: an art that conceals art. Of course flexibility per se is not a bad thing – just listen to Elgar’s own recording with Menuhin. And when Znaider’s moment finally arrives he doesn’t disappoint, his opening statement one of supreme beauty, his tone utterly alluring.
But this is also a performance full of gestures – it’s quite public playing, highly projected, despite the fact that in many respects the work is very intimate; Ehnes gets that intimacy better, and his virtuosity is more understated. Elgar’s score is full of detail, of indications of rubato, of tempo changes, of dynamics, and these are fully projected by Znaider and Davis, their joy in the piece almost too evident, with a tendency to give pause as each new significant idea arrives. Similarly, though the slow movement seduces the ear, with Znaider revelling in Elgar’s melodic genius, there’s a distracting element of self-consciousness – or at least that’s how it sounds to my ears. Sammons’s reading, for all its portamentos, hits home more directly, and no one plays the first movement with more natural energy. And though Kennedy – in his remarkable first recording – can swoon with the best of them in the slow movement, it never sounds overdone because Handley keeps such a firm hand on the proceedings.
In the end, though this is unquestionably great violin playing, it’s not yet great Elgar playing. One can only speculate how Znaider’s reading will develop during the course of his tour, but I rather wish he’d waited till the end of it before going into the studio.