ENDNOTES, October 2020

Arturo Toscanini, credit Wikipedia

ENDNOTES, October 2020

 In this edition: Elgar in America, by Stuart Millson

The Worcestershire born and bred composer Edward Elgar first visited the United States in 1905, to great acclaim. Interestingly, the traditional performance of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ at many graduation ceremonies across America can be traced back to Elgar’s 1905 visit: the composer being presented with his honorary academic distinctions to the strains of his own famous patriotic tune. And the US – Elgar connection has never been severed – with all the great orchestras of that country having taken up and recorded that quintessential Englishman’s works, a passion that continues to this day with CDs of the Violin Concerto from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Enigma Variations from the Kansas City Symphony, and the Overture, Cockaigne, ‘In London Town’, from the Oregon Orchestra (to name but three recent issues).

However, the record label Somm has just unearthed a true treasury for Elgarians – and for enthusiasts of American orchestras. In vintage, but very well-preserved recorded sound, come three Elgar performances from American radio from the 1940s: Cockaigne and the Violin Concerto, conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent in the February of 1945; and a thrilling rendition of the Introduction and Allegro for Strings from April, 1940, under the baton of a maestro more usually associated with Verdi or Puccini – Arturo Toscanini.

Recorded at New York’s Radio City Studios before an audience, the Elgar works are given stirring, riveting, passionate performances by the NBC forces – with Sargent’s visit clearly electrifying proceedings, and generating hugely-enthusiastic applause. All the splendour and drama of Cockaigne – Elgar’s portrait of London at the height of Empire – is summoned: New York’s brass players suddenly transported from the skyscrapers and Fifth Avenue of their native city to an English vision of The Mall, Buckingham Palace and the Guildhall. The woodwind playing is beautifully evocative and sentimentally projected, as Cockaigne takes the listener – not just to places of pomp – but into the quieter, leafy thoroughfares of the Royal parks and to the overlooked lanes and streets, away from the hurly-burly of the capital.

Sargent’s handling of the Violin Concerto (soloist, a young Yehudi Menuhin) is also a gem – and, once again, full marks to Somm for having brought these fascinating recordings out of the dusty archives. Yet for some reason – the CD booklet notes suggesting that NBC’s schedule was subject to announcements and advertising – the Violin Concerto (usually just over 45 minutes in length) has been edited slightly, to give us 40 minutes and 55 seconds of music. The magisterial first movement is played in its entirety, but those who love this concerto will be disappointed by even the smallest curtailments to the heartfelt deep breaths of the Andante second movement and the final sweep of the concluding Allegro molto. Sargent and Menuhin surmount the great heights of the finale, but nevertheless, the feeling persists that we have missed out on the fullness of a great work.

Written in 1905, the Introduction and Allegro for Strings is one of Elgar’s most unusual works; his attempt to write a string “concerto” in the Handelian tradition and to offer a bravura piece for the brilliant string players of the new London Symphony Orchestra – the ensemble being just a year old and keen to make its mark. The surging passages for large string orchestra – which includes a string quartet, drawn from the main body of players and placed “centre-stage”, yet within the ensemble – have always made this work a magnificent prelude to orchestral concerts. Certainly for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, visiting the Proms in the year 2000, the piece offered a chance for considerable showmanship – the very qualities that their NBC forebears demonstrate on Somm’s new CD. What is, perhaps, not well known is that as the Handelian tumult subsides and the music begins to enter quieter valleys, Elgar takes us back to the hills of coastal Cardiganshire; to an encounter he had with Welsh folk-music. On a holiday to Llangranog, a seaside village on the shore of Cardigan Bay, the composer recalled how he heard the singing of country-people from nearby hillsides – with one particular tune, or an impression of a tune, lodging in his mind and finding its way into the Introduction and Allegro.

Whether Toscanini and his NBC players were aware of the origins and inspiration of the work is not known, but what we can hear – in the precision and phrasing of the quartet (Mischa Mischakoff and Edwin Bachmann, violins; Frank Miller, cello and the warm, glorious tone of viola player, Carlton Cooley) is something of the softness and beauty of the British countryside. There is, too, in this Toscanini version that inevitable, great, idiomatic romanticism which was the stamp of the operatic and European tradition from which he came. Blended with the Elgar genre – that unique quality of impetuous writing, but with the composer’s propensity for longing and deep sighs – this is one version of the Introduction and Allegro that you should have.

Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review

Elgar from America: Cockaigne and Violin Concerto (soloist, Yehudi Menuhin), conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent; Introduction and Allegro, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Catalogue details: SOMM ARIADNE 5008

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