The new RCA Red Seal recording of Edward Elgar’s Opus 61 violin concerto in B minor, completed in 1910, featuring soloist Nikolaj Znaider performing with the Staatskapelle Dresden under the baton of Sir Colin Davis has been sitting on my desk for about a month; but my procrastination has allowed me to listen to this performance in a context that I might not have considered had I taken on this task shortly after receiving the CD. This is because of a curious parallel between the circumstances of the recorded performance and the San Francisco Symphony subscription concert given two weeks ago. Recall that this event featured the “escalation” of concertmaster Alexander Barantschik to “soloist status” in a performance of William Walton’s 1939 violin concerto. One of the more interesting aspects of this event was that Walton had composed this concerto for Jascha Heifetz, and Barantschik was playing on the very violin with which Heifetz had given the premiere, the 1742 ex David Guarneri del Gesù. In a striking parallel Znaider’s recorded performance employed another Guarneri del Gesù instrument, this one made in 1741 and used by Fritz Kreisler at the first performance of Elgar’s concerto.
This is, at best, a curious coincidence. While it might be nice to fantasize about how a violin might remember its history, we must remember that it is an inanimate object, animated only by whomever happens to be playing it in the immediacy of performance. At best we have a framework within which we can reflect on the respective composers and performers.
From this point of view, it is important to recognize that Walton was very much a product of the twentieth century. He was born in 1902; and there were forward-looking elements in his compositions throughout his rather extensive career. Elgar, on the other hand, was born in 1857 under the reign of Queen Victoria, meaning that he was a mature composer with an established reputation at the time of her death in 1901. Indeed, Elgar’s best known “tune” (as distinguished from an entire composition) is the “Land of Hope and Glory” anthem, initially the trio of his first Pomp and Circumstance march and subsequently incorporated into his “Coronation Ode” for Victoria’s successor, Edward VII. Elgar was one of many who saw the passing of Victoria as a loss of values that had made England great; and there is a considerable streak of nostalgia in the compositions of his “Edwardian period.” Personally, I have always found myself listening to the opening of his first A-flat major symphony (Opus 55, completed in 1908) as a funeral march for the glory of the British Empire that had established itself under Victoria; and I felt that Hugh Hudson had the same idea in drawing upon this music at the beginning of his Greystoke film.
By this time Elgar had already been approached (in 1905) by Kreisler to “write something for the violin.” Whether or not Kreisler could detect nostalgia in the initial sketches that Elgar showed him, he could not have missed the spirit in the completed score. The result was one in which the nostalgia had expanded beyond Victoria’s Empire to the broader context of the nineteenth century, and the explicit references to Johannes Brahms’ Opus 77 D major violin concerto in the third movement could not have escaped Kreisler’s notice. In other words this is a concerto that is as retrospective as Walton’s was prospective.
Moving from the composers to the performers, we again have a shift in temporal context. Heifetz was born in 1901, making him only slightly older than Walton; and, like Walton, he was very much a man of the twentieth century. While Kreisler was younger than Elgar (born in 1875), he was very much a product of nineteenth-century Viennese tradition; and that tradition infused his career as a performer through 1950. Nevertheless, both men made their respective careers as virtuoso soloists. Barantschik, on the other hand, has established himself primarily as a concertmaster; and this may be one reason why his account of Walton showed more attention to honoring technical demands than to catching onto the spirits behind those demands.
Znaider, on the other hand, has a career as a soloist confronted with a legacy established by both Kreisler and Heifetz; and we should consider his approach to Elgar in the context of that legacy. He is no stranger to San Francisco. In 2008 he gave a debut recital under the auspices on San Francisco Performances in March and returned in November to perform that Brahms concerto that had influenced Elgar with the San Francisco Symphony under Herbert Blomstedt. While the recital had been somewhat problematic, particularly in his command of rhythm, his chemistry with Blomstedt brought a freshness to the Brahms concerto that made one listen to it as if for the first time. That chemistry was again present in the recording he has now made with Davis, leading me to believe that he may be one of those performers who is best at finding his own voice in the course of “playing well with others.”
Indeed, the success of the partnership may have had much to do with the success of the overall result. Davis has an excellent track record with Elgar; and, if his own generation could never feel the nostalgia for Victorian times that Elgar felt, he still has demonstrated that he can capture that nostalgia in his performances. Now Davis is, himself, an “old master” passing his wisdom on to a young soloist; and that wisdom seems to include a gut-level sense of how to approach Elgar’s particular brand of emotionality. Znaider may thus be as important in the current concert scene for his ability to carry a torch of past traditions as for his own particular technical merits. Furthermore, if he has been so successful in receiving that torch from his predecessors, he shows promise of being able to pass it to his successors as his own career matures. What more could we ask of such a technically capable performer?
For more info: Amazon.com Web page for this CD.