Elgar: Violin Concerto

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WORKS: Violin Concerto; The Kingdom – Prelude; The Dream of Gerontius – Prelude; Angel’s Farewell
PERFORMER: Thomas Zehetmair (violin), Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano); Hallé/Mark Elder


Some of Elgar’s most important early champions were non-Britons. Now, in time for the centenary of his Violin Concerto’s premiere, here are two outstanding violinists, one Danish, the other Austrian, blasting away all suggestion of musical provinciality. Of course it helps that both of them are paired with conductors who have roots deep in Elgar’s music; but Nikolaj Znaider and Thomas Zehetmair equally have a strong grasp of this unusually long, often apparently digressive work as a grand symphonic concerto, very much in the Brahmsian tradition. In fact Znaider’s determination makes a rather effective dramatic foil for Colin Davis’s tender expansiveness.

Interestingly the sense of the Concerto’s shape is markedly different in each case. For Znaider the finale’s other-worldly accompanied cadenza is clearly both its emotional heart and symphonic goal. There are times in this leonine performance when I wished he would yield to temptation, and join Davis in enjoying the vistas and smelling the flowers along the path. But the sense of having arrived at a moment of intense personal revelation in the finale cadenza is so powerful it quite eclipses the valiant horns and soloistic fireworks at the end.

Znaider’s view might well convince a sceptical continental critic. But of the two it’s Zehetmair who is best able to marry impassioned purpose with appreciation of Elgar’s complexity. If Znaider’s Elgar is a Brahmsian, Zehetmair’s is Brahms-Schumann, with the latter’s melancholic fantasy emerging increasingly from behind the extrovert mask as the work develops. In the closing pages of the slow movement – a love scene in all but name – he doesn’t quite have the sensuous dreamy intimacy of Albert Sammons in his glorious 1929 recording (superbly transferred on Naxos), but then who does?

Naturally, the finale cadenza is the crux of the Zehetmair/Elder scheme, but Zehetmair makes the return to minor-key allegro resolution both dramatically logical and poignant. There’s a struggle to affirm in the closing pages. Is it entirely successfully? The fact that one asks the question is part of the fascination of this performance.

Going straight from this to the intense, sombre inwardness of the Gerontius Prelude underlines the message. Mark Elder’s direction here is stunning. He clearly isn’t afraid of the Wagnerian ancestry, but in embracing it he makes this music sound more individual, and even greater in stature. So what if Parsifal casts a shadow? The substance is something else entirely.


The Gerontius Prelude makes one ache for more. Fortunately there is Alice Coote’s ‘Angel’s Farewell’ – exquisitely tender without the faintest scene of sanctimony – which follows so beautifully it makes one wonder why this hasn’t become a concert item in its own right like the Tristan Prelude and Liebestod. (In fact the join works rather better here.) Both discs are well recorded, but there’s a warm glow about the Hallé sound that adds an extra strand of specialness. Stephen Johnson