Elgar: Violin Concerto in B minor Op. 61

Elgar’s violin concerto is dedicated to the Austrian violinist Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962). It was written in 1909-10, between the first and second symphonies, and first performed in November 1910 with Kreisler as soloist and Elgar himself conducting. It was not Elgar’s first attempt at a violin concerto: he had started to compose one in 1890, but abandoned it. To begin with, Kreisler regarded it as the most important violin concerto since those by Beethoven and Brahms, but later, and resisting all attempts to get him to record it, he dropped it from his repertoire. It is known that Elgar was not happy with Kreisler’s early interpretation of the work, and Kreisler was not a great fan of Elgar’s conducting. Elgar later recorded the work with the 16-year-old Yehudi Menuhin, a recording that is now legendary. However, the first complete recording was made three years earlier, in 1929, by Albert Sammons, with Sir Henry Wood conducting. Sammons played the work many times with Elgar, and it is interesting to compare the approaches, and in particular the speeds, taken by Sammons (generally brisk, taking a total of 43 minutes) and Menuhin (much more expansive, at nearly 50 minutes). For a modern comparison, Nigel Kennedy’s two recordings are both around 54 minutes in length.

The violin concerto also bears a second dedication: Aquí está encerra(da) el alma de ….. (‘Herein is enshrined the soul of …..’). The five dots are assumed to represent five letters. It is not known for certain who this was, but Elgar admitted it was someone female. It is most likely to have been Mrs Alice Stuart Wortley, a close friend of Elgar: he refers to several of the themes in the concerto as ‘windflower themes’, and ‘Windflower’ was his pet name for her (to distinguish her from his wife, who was also called Alice). In his letters to her he refers to the concerto as ‘our own concerto’.

The composer of the Pomp and Circumstance Marches was not the confident man one might expect from hearing those works, but a deeply insecure man with many regrets and resentments. Elgar told Kreisler that the concerto contained many youthful themes and, whether the enshrined soul was that of Alice or another woman, the violin concerto is full of regret for what might have been. It is probably the most autobiographical violin concerto ever written, with the possible exception of Alban Berg’s.

The first movement begins with a long orchestral introduction. A number of different themes are introduced, all distinctively Elgarian. Just before the soloist does finally enter, the orchestra begins to restate the very opening theme, but quietly this time, and the violin then completes the phrase. As with many of Elgar’s works, there are extremes of dynamic (ppp to fff) and so many changes of tempo that it would take a brave person to try to count them!

The mainly gentle second movement begins with a beautiful orchestral melody. The soloist never gets to play this opening theme, but has plenty of other lyrical music to play, some of it high on the G (lowest) string. Of the end of the movement Elgar said “This is where two souls merge and melt into one another”.

The long final movement is the most virtuosic of the three. It is arguably the weakest melodically, but this is compensated by a very unusual accompanied cadenza, effectively a movement in its own right, nostalgically reviewing the themes of the concerto. One unique feature is the ‘thrumming’ by the strings, which is supposed to represent the sound of an Aeolian harp. There is a passage for violin alone, which Elgar found very emotional to work on. Towards the end of the cadenza the soloist plays a long trill, always a sign that the cadenza is at an end. But no: Elgar has a final surprise, and the cadenza continues for a little longer before finally the orchestra and soloist between them restate a version of the very opening theme of the concerto and the work enters the home straight for a sparkling finish.

The première of the violin concerto was Elgar’s last real success. His previous work, the first symphony, had been very well received two years earlier, but the second symphony, which had its first performance six months after the concerto, was applauded politely, but without any great enthusiasm, leading Elgar to liken the audience to stuffed pigs. Not even the ’cello concerto, his last major work and a firm favourite today, achieved the immediate popularity of the violin concerto.