ENDNOTES, March 2021
In this edition: Elgar’s Italian maestro. Stuart Millson recalls conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli.
When Worcestershire’s Edward Elgar emerged from what has been described as provincial obscurity into the realms of the European romantic mainstream, it became clear that his fame was no passing novelty. With the success of the ‘Enigma’ Variations and the Parsifal-like grandeur of his Cardinal Newman-inspired oratorio, The Dream of Gerontius, England was, at last, able to take her place alongside the Germany of Beethoven and Brahms. The famous Wagner conductor, Hans Richter, took up the baton for Elgar, conducting the first performance of Gerontius. Meanwhile, Gustav Mahler – described by the Elgarian conductor, Sir Andrew Davis as “the musical prophet of the 20th century – championed the Variations during his tenure with the New York Philharmonic. Audiences from the Rhineland to Pennsylvania heard and loved what Richter called “this English genius”. Elgar was soon to be as well established as Richard Strauss, Wagner or Debussy.
After the Second World War, however, Elgar tended to be perceived as a composer whose time had come and gone; whose music did not travel. The Elgar persona – the local squire, the wanderer roaming the Malvern Hills (or cycling long distances along the Herefordshire border) – reinforced that perception, although by the 1970s, a great many international conductors, notably Sir Georg Solti and Andre Previn rediscovered the composer and brought exciting performances of the most famous works to the recording studio and the South Bank. Barenboim and Haitink, Ashkenazy and America’s Leonard Slatkin and David Zinman – all responded to the great legacy of Worcestershire’s famous son. And we must not forget the pioneering Constantin Silvestri, whose 1967 recording of In The South with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra must rate as one of the best performances of an English work on record, and not just by an overseas conductor.
But it was an Italian musician who appeared on the musical scene some 20 years later, to wit, Giuseppe Sinopoli, who arguably responded to Elgar with the deepest and darkest interpretations. Sinopoli became known to London audiences in the mid-1980s and ‘90s with his intense readings of Bruckner and Mahler symphonies. These divided musical opinion. Lengthy, psychological, some would say, drawn-out interpretations which seemed to concentrate on every note, gave the conductor’s work a remarkable, almost “slow-motion” feel. Most London music critics did not care for this approach, but Sinopoli attracted a loyal, and at times, fanatical following. After a Royal Festival Hall performance of Mahler’s First Symphony with the Philharmonia, several rows of people in the front stalls gave a loud and passionate standing ovation; and the conductor’s Wagnerian shaping of Bruckner’s Third Symphony at the 1989 Proms was a highlight of the season – received by the Royal Albert Hall audience with great fervour, and played with true élan by the same orchestra, then at the height of its powers.
Sinopoli saw Elgar in the same continuum as Bruckner and Mahler, and presented his work – as Richter had done – as a European romantic from England. To some, he brought Mahlerian timescales to Elgar, reviving the sort of controversy which attended Leonard Bernstein’s reading of Nimrod, captured for all time by Deutsche Grammophon engineers in 1982. To others, Sinopoli rediscovered the great waves which rise and fall in the ‘Enigma’ Variations – particularly Elgar’s self-portrait in the finale – and the heroic, or sometimes darker momentum of the symphonies. An English Ein Heldenleben, as one observer put it, Richard Strauss being one of Sinopoli’s favourite composers.
The Sinopoli laser-beam shed light on often overlooked or taken-for-granted material, such as the Enigma’s Allegretto movement “W.N.” (Winifred Norbury and her elegant country home) – the bittersweet woodwind melody going far beyond its usual gentle scene-painting, and giving this two minutes of music much greater emotional power as a result – a familiar passage of the work, injected with a more poignant, lingering feeling. As a result, the Winifred Norbury variation seemed to climb to much greater heights, very similar to Sinopoli’s treatment of the King Edward Vll funeral march in the Second Symphony: the music becoming far more than the marking of an occasion or a tribute to one person – and achieving the remarkable sensation of a universal outpouring of loss.
Sinopoli’s Elgar was recorded by DG: a large-bodied Serenade for Strings (it could easily have complemented Siegfried Idyll) to go with the ‘Enigma’; and an account of In The South, blazing with Respighi-like martial action, and softened, where needed, by playing infused with all the delicacy and fragrance of Puccini. The two symphonies also appeared on disc, and the conductor saw the grandeur of all European civilisation in the Pomp and Circumstance Marches 1 & 4. Just as Ravel’s La Valse stood for the end of the Austro-Hungarian, pre-1914 world, so Elgar’s marches and Second Symphony suggested an era that was coming to an end – but not before one last great orchestral surge of self-confidence. Sadly, one piece of late-ish, vintage Elgar, the Symphonic Study Falstaff (perhaps with undertones of self-portraiture by the composer) did not find its way into the Italian’s discography, despite Sinopoli performing the work with an eminently rich, malty, ale-like warmth at the Festival Hall. The Italian maestro saw the central vision of Edwardian splendour, but also led us to a new understanding of Elgar – the Elgar who lived in the same world as Gustav Mahler, and whose music reflected the same storms and stresses of the times.
Sinopoli died twenty years ago, tragically struck down by a heart attack as he embarked upon a new Verdi production. He was just 55 years old, a loss every bit as distressing as that of our own Elgarian, Richard Hickox. One can only speculate on what this remarkable man would have made of the sketches of Elgar’s Third Symphony, the sixth Pomp and Circumstance March – and how Wagnerian his Dream of Gerontius might have sounded. Fortunately, his brilliant insight into Elgar survives, thanks to Deutsche Grammophon – a record label of which that international and European Englishman, Sir Edward Elgar, would doubtless have approved.
Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review
CD recommendation: Elgar, Enigma Variations, In the South, Philharmonia/Sinopoli. DG 423 679-2.