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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Violin Concerto in B minor Op.61 (1910) [49:17]
Salut d’Amour Op.12 (1888) [3:02]
Offertoire Op.11 (1893) [4:59]
Catherine Manoukian (violin)
Staatskapelle Weimar/Stefan Solyom
rec. Hochschule für Musik Franz Liszt, Weimar, 17 June 2011 (Salut; Offertoire); Weimarhalle, Weimar, Germany, 26 June 2011 (Concerto)
BERLIN CLASSICS 0300429BC [57:30]

Aquí está encerrada el alma de … “Herein is enshrined the soul of …” - so wrote Elgar at the head of the published score of his Violin Concerto. Depending on which source you consult there is still some debate as to the identity of the ‘soul’. Putting that to one side, what is clear is that this is an intensely personal and profound work. Therein lies the paradox that taxes performers and audiences to this day. On one hand you have a work of elusive introspection and deeply private emotion yet on the other it is a big bold work full of typically Elgarian gestures and public rhetoric. As well as confronting the considerable technical hurdles it presents the soloist and conductor with an artistic conundrum: which emotional/musical path must they follow and how to find a balance that is both effective and satisfying.
 
Clearly this is a challenge relished by the modern generation of international soloists with excellent versions in recent years from the likes of James Ehnes, Gil Shaham, Thomas Zehetmair, Philippe Graffin, Tasmin Little and Nikolaj Znaider to name some off the top of my head. Many of these players offer dreaded unique selling points from Znaider’s use of Kreisler’s violin to Little’s variant cadenza or Graffin’s original manuscript to add to their undoubted musical gifts. So into such a competitive field how does a relatively unknown player accompanied by one of Germany’s less recorded orchestras fit? Pretty sensationally well is the simple answer. The Staatskapelle Weimar is the world’s second oldest orchestra, founded as it was in 1491. Since World War II they languished behind the Iron Curtain and were not used as one of the East’s flagship recording ensembles. As a result they are all but unknown with a still-small recorded catalogue limiting their international profile. Even so, they are a sensational orchestra as evidenced on discs such as the Naxos recording of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. They are just as good live as a recent UK tour proved - producing a sensationally rich and burnished bass-orientated tone with power, personality and virtuosity to spare. Given this current recording is of a live performance - just one, with some rehearsal patching, one assumes - I am happy to report that all those qualities are preserved here too.
 
What is ‘special’ about this version? To my ear it is the total unity of vision between soloist, orchestra and podium. Dig a little deeper into how this could have been achieved and one discovers that Canadian-born soloist Catherine Manoukian is in fact the wife of Swedish conductor Stefan Solyom who is in turn the principal conductor of the Staatskapelle Weimar. This is, quite literally, a labour of love. As ever in Elgar, the balance between emotion and sentiment is a tricky one to find but here it works superbly. Other benefits are found with an orchestra not burdened with a tradition of how Elgar should go. The work’s opening is a perfect example. Initial knee-jerk reactions tell you it is slow. Compared to any of the above - Shaham in Chicago is the nearest - and they are all significantly faster, often by a good 10%. Then check your score and put on a metronome and Solyom is right on the money at crochet=100 as marked in the score. Solyom is very close to the printed tempi in the other movements too. Instantly the movement has a breadth and, yes, nobility that I find rather wonderful. Likewise consider the soloist’s first entry; famously playing the second, answering, half of the main theme. Elgar marks this f (loud) but tellingly with his trademark nobilmente. Manoukian is exactly that: strong but dignified. Compare that to some famed performers struggle to pitch the ‘feel’ of their first entry well. Try Kennedy both with Handley and far worse with Rattle when he gives his entry an almighty kick with surely an ff dynamic and accents to nigh on every note. No one can doubt Manoukian’s power or intensity at any moment but conversely she does not feel the need to attack the listener. All this subtle detail needs a quality orchestra to be able to sustain the requisite warmth. Again the Weimar players are more than equal to the task.
 
My one sorrow is that the violins have not been split left and right. Elgar tosses melodies mid-phrase between the sections and this registers best when that aural division is most apparent. Elgar micro-manages the solo part in particular with barely a bar going by without the soloist being told to adjust dynamic, phrasing or articulation. Manoukian’s great skill is not to be enslaved to that while at the same time inhabiting wholly the spirit (soul?) of the piece. Likewise Solyom is masterly in his handling of the great melodies in which this work abounds. The great danger in Elgar is the anticipation of a tempo change by changing the tempo. Superficially this can give the music a sense of ebb and flow but the danger is that the musical line can grind to a halt in wallowing emotionalism. Solyom achieves an excellent balance between expressive rubato and keeping the music moving even when his basic pulse is slower than one might often expect. Throughout, Solyom’s interpretation initially surprises then wholly convinces. He seems like a natural Elgarian and one hopes that in the light of the success of this project he will investigate the larger orchestral works.
 
Technically Manoukian is completely on top of this work which is demanding both in its length and virtuosity. Throughout, this is a vibrantly passionate performance but one that does not sacrifice beauty of tone. At the same time, she does not exaggerate the music’s high Romanticism. For sure there are passing moments where the tone is fractionally forced but this is music-making in the white heat of inspiration. This is in line with her vision of the work; in the liner-note she and her husband contribute Manoukian argues that by recording the work ‘as one’ live in concert the momentum is better maintained and the perception of the piece as long, perhaps too long, is diminished. My only query is that in seeking to achieve this Manoukian sacrifices much of the fantasy that inhabits the finale and especially the famous accompanied cadenza. It’s an impressive technical tour de force but the elusive mystery of the writing is missing. To my mind this is the only interpretative mis-calculation in the work albeit rather an important one. Revisiting the performance as a whole several times before writing this review I get a growing impression that it ‘works’ in the overall arc. In the hall on that night it must have been mightily impressive. I do feel that re-conceiving things from the cadenza to the end would take a very fine performance and would make it into a truly great one. Listen to the hushed string accompaniment and it has exactly the kind of rapt intensity that is just so right. The final pages expand wonderfully to the work’s heroic end. As mentioned, this is a live event but until the enthusiastic applause which comes in very quickly - and for quite some time - after the final chord you are not aware of the audience’s presence at all.
 
The avid collector of this concerto suffers from an embarrassment of modern riches. Putting to one side classic versions from everyone from Sammons to Menuhin, Heifetz, Haendel, Bean and Kennedy (Handley) - who I like once past the aggressive opening - all of the more recent releases mentioned above have real worth. If forced to choose from those new discs interestingly I would probably plump for the other ‘live’ version from Gil Shaham in Chicago to put alongside this but this is to praise the quality of this new release rather than diminish in any way the others.
 
The disc is completed - slightly curiously it would seem - with two Elgar miniatures for violin and piano. I say “it would seem” until one makes the intuitive leap that the uncredited pianist is surely Stefan Solyom. Nowhere on the liner does it say as much but it must surely be so. Again, the unity of expression is quite superb with Solyom proving to be as attentive an accompanist on the piano as he was with the orchestra. There is a touchingly intimate simplicity to the playing here that allows the spirit of the music to shine through. How apt that they play “Love’s Greeting” (Salut d’Amour) as well as the rarer slightly later Offertoire. The Berlin Classics engineers place Manoukian slightly further back from the microphones which gives her already beautiful tone more air in a way wholly appropriate to these charming but essentially simple pieces. The Offertoire shows Elgar’s skill at negotiating a salon style that teeters on the edge of sentimental and maudlin but in fact comes off as touching and beautiful. Manoukian ‘pitches’ her performance absolutely perfectly and the pair work as an unexpectedly charming and successful bon bouche after the sheer scale and impact of the concerto.
 
Berlin Classics have produced a very good disc; relatively short playing time aside. Perhaps in the flesh the orchestra sound even richer than here. Also I would not have minded if the soloist had been taken a step further back into the orchestra. She has been given a very immediate balance but it must be reiterated that her playing bears this kind of scrutiny with ease. The CD is presented in a gatefold digipack with a rather appealing Art Nouveau style cover with the liner-note tucked into a slot on the front sleeve. A personal note from conductor and soloist, rehearsal photographs and a good liner regarding the works complete the package. With such a multi-faceted piece no single performance can ever hope to encompass all its myriad riches but I have been greatly impressed by the coherence and sheer quality of this version. The music-making that is happening in Weimar under Solyom deserves far greater international currency as does the violin playing of Ms Manoukian. Together they are a potent and exciting team. More please. 
 
Nick Barnard 

Masterwork Index: Violin concerto

 


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