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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Violin Concerto, Op.61* [53.49]
Introduction and Allegro, Op.47 [14.39]
Nigel Kennedy (violin)
* London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
rec. Watford Town Hall, 21-22 March 1984*; 30-31 January 1983
EMI MASTERS 4332872 [68.47]

It was this recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto which first launched Nigel Kennedy on his international career at the age of 27. Even at that stage he had already played the concerto in public more than twenty times including performances conducted by his teacher Sir Yehudi Menuhin who had recorded the concerto with Elgar himself conducting in 1932. The Rattle recording was widely acclaimed, winning among other awards the Gramophone Record of the Year in 1985. Thirteen years later, now a ‘celebrity’ with a new and quite distinct persona, Kennedy re-recorded the work with Sir Simon Rattle in a performance which divided the critics, some of whom considered his later version overblown. In point of fact there is little difference between Kennedy’s interpretation - in the quick first movement he is slightly quicker, in the slow second movement rather slower. The principal contrast between the two performances lies rather in Rattle’s more dramatically overt reading of the score as compared to Handley’s more controlled one.
 
Listening to this recording again after a number of years, and following the reading with a score, makes one realise again just how much in this performance is exactly right. Just listen to the beautiful clarinet playing of the dolce passage at 1.32 in the first movement (track 4). Elgar’s meticulous markings in the score indicate no change in pace, but Handley slows the tempo slightly to allow the player to phrase with real feeling. At the first entry of the soloist (2.58) Elgar marks six changes of tempo in nine bars - with many additional indications of expression for the soloist. Kennedy makes the inflections of this opening passage sound entirely natural and almost improvised in precisely the way that the composer clearly intended. It is not only in the quieter passages that Kennedy impresses: at the piu animato passage (9.41) he delivers all the fireworks that one could desire, leading to a marvellously realised con passione tutti from the orchestra. So it proceeds all the way through this glorious performance.
 
In the second movement there are moments, as in the diminuendo e ritenuto at 8.23, when in his later and slower performance with Rattle conducting Kennedy achieves an even greater sense of inner calm and beauty than he manages here. Even so, there is still a sense of ecstasy which remains notably affecting; and he manages a real feeling of calm stillness at 10.26 where the soloist is marked ad lib. In the remarkable accompanied cadenza in the final movement (from 10.01) Elgar’s use of the pizzicato tremolo - he indicates that it should be “thrummed with the soft part of three or four fingers across the strings” - the sound is properly mysterious and atmospheric. It is not made to sound like just an unusual orchestral effect.
 
Perhaps a choice between Kennedy’s couplings on his two recordings might sway the balance. With Rattle we get a daringly slow and extremely beautiful reading of Vaughan Williams’s The lark ascending. The original release of the Handley had no coupling, but now we have added an emotionally charged and beautifully inflected performance of more Elgar in the shape of the Introduction and Allegro. Handley obtains a rather lean sound from his strings – one has heard this score given with more solidity of tone. That said, he gets a beautiful effect from the folksong reminiscence (track 2, 3.16) where the high violin tremolo harmonies really chill the blood.
 
The recorded balance is natural, with Kennedy set well within the recorded acoustic. On his later recording with Rattle he was set further forward in a more full-bodied sound, which does not altogether escape the feeling of artificiality although it remains very satisfactory. Rattle is not a natural Elgarian like Handley, but he supports Kennedy to the hilt in the later recording.
 
The Handley, originally issued at mid-price on LP, was promoted to full price in its initial CD release – an obvious testimonial to its quality. It has for some time been available at lower price again. The Rattle disc, still available at full price, has also been subsequently reissued and may well cost little more than this Handley reading in its new re-mastering. Kennedy’s first thoughts are admirably demonstrated in a recording and performance that belong in the collection of every Elgarian who loves this concerto.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey

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