Elgar: Violin Concerto; Chausson / Graffin, Handley

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Elgar's first thoughts are brought vividly to life

It is thanks to the enterprise of violinist Philippe Graffin that we now have this premiere recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto in its original form. The fact that such a score exists may surprise many if not most Elgarians, but it is well known that Fristz Kreisler as the dedicatee of the concerto was asked for his comments on the solo part at a late stage. What Graffin has done is to consult the manuscript scores of the work, both full score and piano score, held in the British Library, and compare the solo part with what was later published by Novello, as modified by Kreisler. It may be a disappointment to some that the differences are very small. I have to confess that had I not been told, I might have appreciated only two of them. At two points in the first movement brief passagework which originally used triplet quavers was changed in the finished version to semiquaver groups. That is over in a flash each time, but more noticeable is the fact that the double-stopped violin flourish on the final page of the finale is less elaborate than what we know. That change, it seems, is owed not to Kreisler but to Lady Elgar, urging such a change on her husband, who duly responded.

Otherwise, even with the score and the detailed listing of differences contained in Graffin’s meticulous notes, it is often hard to hear whether a melodic line is doubled in octaves or not. It was Kreisler’s doing that he cut down on the octave doubling, and far from making the solo part technically more difficult, he generally made the solo a little more manageable, without losing the effects wanted. There is some evidence that Elgar himself had reservations about some of Kreisler’s suggested changes, even though he went along with them. The critic Robin Legge gives a fascinating account of a session he attended between the composer and Kreisler, when the great violinist would push Elgar off the piano stool, suggesting how a passage should go, only to have Elgar insist otherwise as he once again commandeered the stool.

That said, Graffin’s performance with the ever-understanding backing of Vernon Handley and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is most distinguished. I cannot remember one on disc that so magically exploits the range of pianissimo that the score asks for. This is not a barnstorming performance, as so many are with this massive work, but one which in total concentration brings out to the full the tenderness and poetry, not just in the central slow movement (which contains only one difference on the opening phrase of the solo part), but in the other movements too, not least in the accompanied cadenza, which is yearningly beautiful.

The story is similar with the first version of Chausson’s Poème, only this time it was the Belgian violinist Ysaÿe who made the suggestions. The net result is even less noticeable – a mere 12 bars that in this version are restored. Here again the performance could hardly be more subtle, with Graffin maintaining the gentlest of dynamics while keeping total concentration.

The sound is first-rate and the disc comes with comprehensive notes, not just those of Graffin but a reproduction of the script of a 1937 broadcast by WH Reed, Elgar’s violinist friend, about the creation of the Concerto: Reed’s input into the development of the solo part, it seems, was from the start even greater than Kreisler’s.

-- Edward Greenfield, Gramophone [6/2006]

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: AV2091

  • UPC: 822252209129

  • Label: Avie

  • Composer: Ernest Chausson, Sir Edward Elgar

  • Conductor: Vernon Handley

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

  • Performer: Philippe Graffin