Cello Concerto in E minor Op. 85 (1919)
Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
- Adagio – Moderato
- Lento – Allegro molto
- Allegro – Moderato – Allegro ma non troppo
Most of Elgar’s major works were composed between 1890 and 1914 before World War 1 snuffed out artistic endeavour. The quintessential Englishman, with his large moustache, military bearing and eyes sparkling with humour, Elgar was largely self-taught and grew up in the country. Only when he was forty-two did his Enigma Variations belatedly bring him fame.
Composed at the Elgars’ cottage in Sussex just after the end of the war, the concerto’s overall melancholy is tempered by moments of energy, even playfulness. The pre-war, confident Edwardian gestures and ceremony are supplanted by fierce anger and naked grief. Is this just a lamentation for the almost unbelievable carnage of the Great War or does it also represent the uncertainty troubling Elgar (and Britain) following the loss of the old order?.
The first performance, given by the London Symphony Orchestra in 1919 at its first post-war subscription concert, was not auspicious. Ernest Newman wrote that the orchestra “made a lamentable public exhibition of itself”. Albert Coates took most of the rehearsal time for Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy leaving Elgar insufficient time to rehearse the concerto. (In the cello section that night was the nineteen-year-old John Barbirolli, who would conduct Jacqueline du Pre’s definitive recording of this work 45 years later).
The opening shocking cry of the solo cello is initially muted by the orchestra’s response, but to little ultimate effect. Unusually in a simple ternary rather than sonata form, the movement ends with a return to the first subject and three striking cello pizzicato chords. The flighty second movement sees the cello scurrying all over the place like a hummingbird in flight, interspersed with moments of introspection. The heartbreakingly poignant adagio, based on a single opening cello theme, forms the emotional heart of the work. In the finale, the orchestra tries to inject a cheerful note but is always rebuffed by the soulful cello, until an anguished repeat of the work’s opening cello chords is dismissed out of hand by the orchestra in a brief but exciting coda.
Performed: Sep 2011, March 2021