Saturday, January 28, 2017

Edward Elgar; Ralph Vaughan Williams - Violin Concerto; The Lark Ascending (Nigel Kennedy)


Composer: Edward Elgar; Ralph Vaughan Williams
  1. Elgar - Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61: I. Allegro
  2. Elgar - Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61: II. Andante
  3. Elgar - Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61: III. Allegro molto - Cadenza
  4. Vaughan Williams - The Lark Ascending

Nigel Kennedy, violin
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Simon Rattle, conductor

Date: 1997
Label: EMI



No one lucky enough to attend the EMI Centenary Concert at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall last July when these same artists performed the Elgar is ever likely to forget the experience. Kennedy and Rattle formed an inspirational alliance, their interpretation positively brimming over with re-creative flair, intensity and danger. The astonishing thing is that, in the case of the first two movements at least, the present studio recording (set down over a three-day period during the week following the live concert) fully re-creates the heady excitement of that memorable event.

Let me say straight away that, from almost every conceivable point of view – authority, panache, intelligence, intuitive poetry, tonal beauty and emotional maturity – Kennedy surpasses his achievement on that earlier Gramophone Award-winning EMI Eminence recording (12/84 – nla). The first movement strikes me as a magnificent achievement all round, with tension levels quite extraordinarily high for a studio project. Rattle launches the proceedings in exemplary fashion, his direction passionate, ideally flexible and texturally lucid (the antiphonally divided violins help). The CBSO, too, are on top form. But it’s Kennedy who rivets the attention from his commanding initial entry onwards. There’s no hiding in this of all scores and Kennedy penetrates to the very essence of “the soul enshrined within” in his melting presentation of the ‘Windflower’ theme at fig. 16 (6'16'') – Elgar’s dolce semplice realized to tear-spilling perfection. The slow movement is almost as fine. What poise and dedication these artists bring to this rapt meditation. Only once, at fig. 59 (8'55''), did I feel that the exceptionally hushed ppp tone Rattle encourages from his CBSO strings was slightly too much of a good thing; otherwise, I have nothing but praise for a reading of such wistful intimacy, tender luminosity and daring breadth.

Only the finale oddly dissatisfies. Not in terms of technical address or co-ordination (both of which are stunning); rather I feel that, for all the supreme accomplishment on show, the results are not terribly moving. To my ears, the opening pages incline to a foursquare, slightly hectic brusqueness, while the great cadenza, so overwhelmingly intense (at times almost unbearably so) in the concert-hall performance, has now acquired a whiff of calculation about it. Maybe it’s a question of over-preparation? Perhaps, in striving too hard for perfection, the ineffable poignancy of Elgar’s sublime inspiration has for once eluded this consummate partnership? Or is it that, having been touched to the very marrow by Kennedy’s playing that July evening, I was simply expecting too much? The coda, by the way, is thrilling, but I can’t help feeling it comes a bit late in the day. For all my lingering doubts about this last movement, though (and I must say they have persisted since my first hearing), we are still left with an enormously stimulating and marvellously well-engineered display which all readers should experience for themselves.

The coupling is a provocative account of The lark ascending, which Kennedy and Rattle spin out to a (surely unprecedented?) 17-and-a-half minutes. After a curiously unevocative opening (how elusive these crucial introductory bars can be!), Kennedy allows himself all the time in the world during the ecstatic senza misura cadenza that follows. His tone is ravishing, but I just wish he’d kept things moving a little more: his contribution doesn’t ineluctably draw me into VW’s landscape in the way that Iona Brown, Hugh Bean, Tasmin Little or the incomparable Jean Pougnet (EMI, 1/91 – nla) unfailingly do. Thereafter, Rattle’s (unmarked) expressive bulges from 3'05'' to 3'55'' strike me as too knowing; indeed, tuttis have a voluptuous, pristine quality that I find strangely alienating. Kennedy chooses to ignore VW’s pianissimo marking at the start of that enchanting, light-as-air (though not here) Allegro tranquillo passage beginning at 9'09''; and later on, during those colla parte measures at 11'19'' and 11'40'', his exaggeratedly soft playing seems contrived, ‘pasted-on’ if you like. Truth to tell, this ‘super-de luxe’ rendering of a piece I adore has yet to hold my concentration completely even after numerous revisits. However, the disc as a whole demands to be heard.

-- Andrew Achenbach, Gramophone

More reviews:


Edward Elgar (2 June 1857 – 23 February 1934) was an English composer. Among his best-known compositions are orchestral works including the Enigma Variations, the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, concertos for violin and cello, and two symphonies. He also composed choral works, including The Dream of Gerontius, chamber music and songs. Elgar has been described as the first composer to take the gramophone seriously. Between 1914 and 1925, he conducted a series of acoustic recordings of his works.


Ralph Vaughan Williams (12 October 1872 – 26 August 1958) was an English composer of symphonies, chamber music, opera, choral music, and film scores. Strongly influenced by Tudor music and English folk-song, his output marked a decisive break in British music from its German-dominated style of the 19th century. Vaughan Williams is among the best-known British symphonists, noted for his very wide range of moods, from stormy and impassioned to tranquil, from mysterious to exuberant. His works have continued to be a staple of the British concert repertoire, and all his major compositions and many of the minor ones have been recorded.


Nigel Kennedy (born 28 December 1956 in Brighton) is a British violinist and violist. He became a pupil at the Yehudi Menuhin School of Music at the age of seven, and later studied at the Juilliard School in New York City with Dorothy DeLay. He made his early career in the classical field, and has more recently performed jazz, klezmer, and other music genres. Kennedy's persona is seen by some as abrasive and limiting to his career.


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