Mike Cochran muses about the tragedy behind the Elgar cello concerto.
Picture a grand concert hall, the orchestra warming up as we wait expectantly. We browse the program notes to absorb some further thoughts. It’s an unusual concert… two cello concertos… the Dvorak and the Elgar. It’s almost as if we’re at Centre Court, judging the Men’s Final at Wimbledon. Which concerto to be considered a worthy champion? The answer can be found on U-Tube. “Stunning ” is a rather overused term these days but it perfectly describes Jaqueline du Pre’s performance of the Elgar. It’s a televised version from the 1960’s with her husband Daniel Barenboim conducting. There are times when your breath will be caught and you’ll feel like you’ll never breathe again.
We are fortunate indeed to experience Sophie van der Sloot’s performance more than fifty years after Jacqueline’s playing. Sophie’s resolute double-stopped chords which open the concerto, leave no doubt of her capability. The depth and fullness of her tone is remarkable from a young performer taking her first steps into the world of the soloist.
I think Elgar wrote this work primarily with a female soloist in mind. Indeed the first recording in 1920 featured Beatrice Harrison soloist with Elgar himself conducting. There’s such remorse throughout the piece centered on the soloist; a male soloist is less likely to capture the despondency. The male of the species tends to react to sorrow and sadness rather more aggressively, more uncontrollably. Perhaps I generalize the male psyche too much but a female soloist seems perfectly suited to express the poignancy of this wonderful work.
Years ago, on first listening I imagined the soloist had suffered a heart-breaking ending to an impassioned romance, hence the persistent anguish throughout the work. And, as such, perhaps it was appropriate that a female soloist could more adequately express these emotions. But further listening and further years convinced me that the passion had nothing at all to do with romance. Elgar completed the Concerto in 1919, his last major work for soloist and orchestra. The passion belongs to Edward, the “Edwardian”, at the heart of the piece. It’s as if Elgar, consumed by disillusionment, realizes that the First World War, thankfully curtailed by 1919, not only needlessly ended so many lives, but also obliterated a way of life. The Edwardian period was the way of life he embraced but it had evaporated. His suffering cries out.
Despite Elgar’s utilization of four movements when three movements are usual, the work is really a tone poem with hints of previous despondent melodies occurring repeatedly throughout. “Weeping… Tears of Anguish” is a suitable title. The four movements become a rhapsody with the cello singing through plaintively. Beginning with somber staunch chords, the soloist rebukes the orchestra’s glorious full-blown statements with insistent despondency. Time and again the cello prevails. The second movement presents a doleful cadenza and then suddenly more cheerful spiccato passages occur. This happier, more hopeful section, with soloist and orchestra in agreement, completes the movement. Now the beautiful Adagio is presented with the orchestra practically reduced to a chamber ensemble. Again in the fourth movement the orchestra, with a noble triumphant theme, attempts to overcome the sadness. Basses and cellos wrestle contrapuntally with a happy resplendent theme, but to no avail. The cello insists on hopelessness. An introspective pleading statement is presented with interspersed fragments of melodies from the first and third movements. Elgar creates unity with this technique and we are led to the final climax with great dignity and resignation.
This surely is Elgar’s most significant creation, confirming his place among the very greatest composers.