Elgar Violin Concerto; Introduction & Allegro
The array of mastery in the four versions I have listed presents an extraordinary range of expressive imagination. Elgar's elusive and taxing concerto inspires the widest range of interpretation, and where in other Elgar works the British devotee tends to be exacting in what he regards as authentic or idiomatic, the Violin Concerto reguarly blossoms in the hands of non-British virtuosi. Elgar himself after al encouraged the idea of fresh blood coming to this work, when the 14-year-old Menuhin was asked to be the soloist in his own recording. That early version of 1932 remains one of the models for all subsequent interpreters (reissued on HMV HLM7107, 4/77), but so does the other early recording originally made on 78s in 1930, which is just as revealing as the young Menuhin's and in some ways more powerful, from Albert Sammons with Sir Henry Wood and the Queen's Hall Orchestra (reissued on HLM7011, 4/79—nla).
Nigel Kennedy now comes to the biggest challenge he has yet faced on record, and in alliance with a conductor second to none as an Elgar revealer, produces a reading which matches any of those listed in imagination and technical mastery, yet more than any of them pays a tribute to the example of Sammons, more so than to Menuhin—perhaps surprisingly when Kennedy's early career was so closely associated with the Menuhin School. Broadly this is the most centrally Elgarian of all the readings, in just the way that Handley's CfP recording of the Second Symphony spells total authenticity (CFP40350, 7/81). At the same time Kennedy consistently has one relating this work to the violin concertos of Beethoven and Brahms, at least as much as to any flowering of late romanticism. He lacks nothing in expressive tenderness—his account of the slow movement matches in every way the exceptional sweetness and purity of Chung's reading on Decca—yet with Handley beside him there is no hint of self-indulgence, though Sammons-like he uses portamenti more freely than is common today. Even when in the finale Kennedy adopts a speed which is virtually identical with Sammons's exceptionally fast tempo, he and Handley keep a tauter rein without losing excitement. Even in the long accompanied cadenza where Kennedy adopts the slowest tempo I can remember, there is an underlying pulse of concentration and steadiness. Tension is fully sustained through the longest pauses, and Kennedy's ability to convey total repose as well as energy—not least in the slow movement—presents the vast structure with a clarity and intensity that none of the others outshines.
The result has both exceptional strength and exceptional clarity, and in that Kennedy and Handley are helped by the outstanding recording quality, warm and atmospheric yet nicely analytical with the soloist justly balanced, where in varying degrees all the other soloists are balanced close. This recording demonstrates that as with opera singers an impression of power is if anything enhanced by a natural rather than a close-up balance. Though I cherish all the versions listed, above all the Zukerman (CBS) with its endearing warmth, this new one now stands as my first choice. On a mid-price label it makes an outstanding bargain, though I am sorry that Handley's Elgar series no longer comes out on the even cheaper and more widely circulated CfP label. As it is, no Elgarian should miss a performance which even after Kennedy's superb version of the Violin Sonata for Chandos (ABRD 1099) has amazed me with its command. It is always exciting when a young artist fulfils on record the promise of his early career. For Kennedy this record presents a landmark, plainly establishing—just as his sonata record did—how naturally and richly his expressiveness blossoms under the taxing conditions of the studio.'