Elgar composed this concerto in 1918-19, mostly at the isolated cottage, “Brinkwells”, which he rented near Fittleworth in Sussex. It was to be the last major work he would complete, although he was only 62 and would live another fifteen years.
This is a work of melancholy and his most emotional and deeply felt composition. It is scored for a large orchestra. Despite its size, Elgar uses the ensemble with such skill that he never obscures the soloist, yet the textures never sound thin.
The work is unusual for a concerto in that it is in four movements, rather than the normal three, and in some ways is written more like a symphony with the soloist acting as raconteur and protagonist.
Its first performance was given on 26th October 1919, at the Queen’s Hall in London, with Elgar himself conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, with Felix Salmond as soloist. Like so many works that have gone on to become popular, the premiere was not a success. Elgar had just not been given sufficient rehearsal time with the orchestra. The review in the Observer said “The orchestra was often virtually inaudible, and when just audible was merely a muddle. No one seemed to have any idea of what the composer wanted”. Quite apart from the poor orchestral performance, the audience was surprised and disturbed by such heart-rending music, particularly in a virtuosic concerto.
- Adagio – Moderato: The work starts with a serious statement from the cello which leads into a lulling Falstaff-like tune by the orchestra, which is the main theme of the movement. The moderato brings in a noble passage, which appears to recall past happenings, before the cello develops the material with the orchestra.
- Lento – Allegro molto: Continuing straight on from the first movement, the solo cello gives a pensive introduction before we move into an “impish” scherzo. Although playful, there is still a hint of sadness in the air.
- Adagio: This is a short movement of only 60 bars, but provides a mood of meditative tranquillity in “a lament for thoughts that lie too deep for tears” to quote Michael Kennedy.
- Allegro – Moderato: We once again start with a cello recitative which feeds on themes from previous movements, before the movement gets underway with some of Elgar’s pre-war swagger. However this does not last long before the meditative lament from the third movement returns. The vigorous opening flourish returns and, as the solo cello plunges to the depths, a few hurried bars of the finale’s main theme rush this great work to a superficially high-spirited ending.