INKPOT#53 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: ELGAR Violin Concerto. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS The Lark Ascending. Kennedy (EMI)
|Sir EDWARD ELGAR (1857-1934) Violin Concerto in B minor op.61RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) The Lark AscendingKENNEDY (once known as Nigel Kennedy) violin City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Sir Simon Rattle
EMI Classics CDC5 56413-2
by Johann D’Souza Many may still not know it, but Nigel Kennedy (left) is now known as “Kennedy”. Apparently he hated the name Nigel and has stuck with just the surname. (Don’t forget “Nige” too.) This is his comeback disc, his first classical recording since his recent 5-year sabbatical. Edward Elgar’s prominence came about through works such as the Pomp & Circumstance Marches, the Enigma Variations and the oratorios The Dream of Gerontius and The Apostle. When he was in his 50s, he completed this masterpiece, the one and only Violin Concerto, op.61.
This concerto brings back a lot of memories for me because I remember as a boy attending a concert with the SSO playing this concerto with Jin Li, who was then just a rather young boy from China. He was small-built and although he did not make a single mistake, his lack of “life experience” gave him away. This concerto calls for maturity, and while the Business Times reviewer was harsh, he was apt to say that given a few years he would play it differently.
I think my expectations were too high because prior to the concert I had listened to the recording by the legendary Jascha Heifetz (RCA Victor Gold Seal 7966-2 RG). Now Heifetz was known as the “Speedster”, a harsh bower with a deep tone. I am not sure if he played on a Stradivarius or a Guarneri, but Heifetz will certainly go down as one of the best interpreters of this concerto. Just checking on the speed of the movements, the Allegro first movement is taken at 15’49” by Heifetz while Kennedy takes it two minutes slower at 17’59”. In the second movement, the Andante, clocks in at 10’01” by Heifetz while Kennedy takes it a full four minutes slower at 14’22”. As for the third movement, the disparity is even more obvious, Heifetz at 16’07”, while Kennedy down at 21’19” exploiting the cadenza to the maximum.
Kennedy (left) first made his mark as the unorthodox instrumentalist in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, with his foot-tapping and his obscure punctuation and markings. I must say that it is by far one of the most interesting renditions of the work (EMI CDC7 49557-2), not counting the fresh perspectives of the period performance schools.
He has made a previous recording (EMI CDC7 47210-2) of the Elgar with Vernon Handley. While it did get raving reviews, Kennedy was facing the wrath of the “Classical congregation” with his unorthodox hair style and unshaven looks, however they could not dispute that his technique was phenomenal. The clarity of his tone surpassed most of the premier players and the depth in which he conveyed his music could not be disputed, giving text fidelity with exactness and flair. In his own words: “My appearance has got nothing to do with my music and should therefore be taken as such.”
This time round, Kennedy says he has let the music flow. He prefers this rendition to the first, citing that as rather textbook and lacking in spontaneity. Sir Simon Rattle gives him a good accompaniment, providing him with the full sound and the “soul” needed for him to bring out the seriousness in this concerto – this is especially evident in the second movement. Although Kennedy has returned from a 5-year absence with a preference for exploring new music – check out the interview in Gramophone January 1998. His preferences still point to Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa (These are rock musicians! However, both are classically trained…leading them to have clear classical influeneces in terms of complexity and depth in their rock music. – Adrian.) and Ellington.
One thing that I have come to notice is that Elgar made his mark with English interpreters. While trying not to be an Anglophile here, I would like to say that Sir Yehudi Menuhin also gained prominence with this concerto, performed with the composer conducting, and another time with Sir Thomas Beecham. For the Cello Concerto, Jacqueline Du Pré was a notable interpreter – the work is virtually synonymous with her. From the evidence of this recording I am quite sure that Kennedy will no doubt be accepted as a great interpreter of the Violin Concerto.Left: Sir Edward Elgar with the 16-year-old Yehudi Menuhin, the soloist for the 1932 recording of the Violin Concerto. Aren’t they a handsome pair… Elgar has this uncanny way of setting the mood in both his violin and cello concertos. The opening bars in which the violin or cello come in tell an important picture. Kennedy and Du Pré are able to pull this off with their long and deep bow strokes. Kennedy exudes this passion immediately and one can tell that “the soul is enshrined within.” (Gramophone, Jan 98). I think that often if the mood is not set, it is difficult to come back later to do so, no matter how introspective the concerto can be in the later portions of the second or third movement. Although there is no danger in his playing as opposed to the Four Seasons, his intonation and textual fidelity cannot be considered volatile. Sir Simon Rattle does a good job with the accompaniment, especially in areas when the violin plays alongside the orchestra – there is no challenging the soloist. Instead there is a genuine togetherness, as if one depends on the other. The dependency comes together in the ending of the first movement when there is a gradual cresendo build-up to the tutti in the final bar.
The second movement is also taken to its limits – often a middle movement of a concerto that is made too long can become dreary and lose its effect as a “break” between the outer movements. I think such a middle movement should never make the listener think “okay, let’s get on with it!”, but form a bridge and also a transient movement to the third. Here, this is done appropriately. While this work does call for tinges of sonority, Kennedy is able to inject this into his playing, easing the tensions from the first movement.
Elgar calls the third movement “Awfully emotional! too emotional but I love it.” Kennedy’s playing is nostalgic as it visits previous themes, never as anxious or overzealous as I have come to discover in the disc by Heifetz.
Overall I am very impressed by this disc, Kennedy’s playing seems to look interiorly yet looking outward. This juxtapostion makes it more interesting. Kyung Wha Chung’s (Decca 440 319-2) rendition on the other hand seems rather introspective and is left as such; and I tend to find Solti’s conducting to be rather aloof. However the opposite is seen in Perlman’s (DG 445 564-2) rendition where he takes the third movement rather calmly and as such does not restore the pathos and emotion that is needed.
The disc ends with a piece by the other famous English Composer Ralph (pronounced “Rayf” – Ed.) Vaughan Williams (left) – The Lark Ascending. Musically adapted from the poem by George Meredith, it is lyrical and tranquil with impressions of the beautiful summer and the lark flying into the sky.
Kennedy’s speed is never in doubt; he pays close attention to the metronome markings and also produces a crystal clear tone which in my opinion few violinists can produce. Kennedy’s long bow strokes and attention to detail exudes beauty, and this makes a fitting ending to a very interesting disc by two great English composers.
Kennedy has displayed great maturity and it would be interesting to hear him in his new disc of short Kriesler pieces.
The Edward Elgar Foundation & Society Homepage
Summary of Comparative Versions
- Jascha Heifetz. Elgar/Walton Violin Concertos. LondonSO/Sargent;Philharmonia/Walton. RCA Victor Gold Seal 7966-2 RG.
- Kyung Wha Chung. Elgar/Berg Violin Concertos. London PO/Solti. Decca 452 696-2.
- Nigel Kennedy. Elgar Violin Concerto. LPO/Handley. EMI EMX2058 (Deleted).
- Lord Yehudi Menuhin. Elgar Violin Concerto. London SO/Elgar. Coupled with Cello Concerto (Beatrice Harrison, cello). EMI References CDH7 69786-2 (reviewed here).
In Singapore, this disc is available at or can be ordered from Sing Music (Raffles City), HMV (The Heeren), Tower Records (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City) or Borders (Wheelock Place). Johann D’Souza finds that it is funny how in life, pictures of animals (look at the bulldog cover above) reminds him so much of how humans also look like. There is such a stark resemblance here (to his ex-boss…).