“Herein is enshrined the soul of …..”
Those five dots, placed by Elgar at the head of his Violin Concerto, have been causing everyone much fuss, bother and excitement ever since — as the composer no doubt intended. But the centenary of the concerto fell on Wednesday 10th, and the LSO — which Elgar used to conduct himself — celebrated in style with a hotly awaited performance by Nikolaj Znaider, Sir Colin Davis taking the helm. Elgar could have doubled the five dots, for in this performance was enshrined the soul of…C-O-L-I-N D-A-V-I-S.
Sir Colin has had some health problems this year, I understand, as well as suffering the death of his wife. By the end of the Elgar (in the second half) he looked completely shattered. Yet what stood out most of all in the performance, eclipsing even Znaider’s playing, was Sir Colin’s empathy with the music: for instance the phrasing of the slow movement’s second theme, lingering on the topmost notes as if time was holding its breath, involved a rare and precious expertise that comes only with time, experience and the deepest understanding.
Znaider, when he wasn’t playing, seemed transfixed, watching Sir Colin’s every move. This brilliant Danish-born violinist — with the looks of a Viking, the fingers of a Heifetz, the brain of a budding Barenboim and a violin (a Guarneri del Gesu) that used to belong to Kreisler — is turning himself into a conductor. We hope he won’t stop playing the violin — he insists that he won’t — but I hear he has been appointed principal guest conductor at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg, which makes him Gergiev’s second-in-command. His chief mentors are Barenboim and Sir Colin, and the warm, deeply connected partnership between soloist and maestro was another rare and precious experience, the antithesis of the fast-food collaborations that occupy 90 per cent of concertos. (I have an interview with Znaider forthcoming — will post it as soon as it’s out.)
Kreisler’s violin seemed less happy, though, making the occasional grumble and buzz deep down and losing its tuning from time to time — Znaider had to do some hasty knob-twiddling and testing mid-movement. This was the violin that gave the Elgar concerto’s premiere 100 years ago exactly; this may be the very sound that was in Elgar’s ears as he put the finishing touches to the piece. But of course a violin’s sound is only partly down to the instrument; much more of it is about the player. As Pinchas Zukerman once told me, a personal sound is something that a violinist is born with; you can develop it, but the essence of it doesn’t change. Znaider has his own violin voice and it is not much like Kreisler’s: in place of beloved Fritz’s honeyed gentleness and whimsy, Znaider plays Elgar as if he’s reciting Shakespeare. He tells the story with tremendous seriousness, drama and finely wrought articulation, yet seems to stand back, looking at the forensics of text and structure and, to my ears anyway, playing from within the score but not always within its soul. (I was surprised, too, to see that he was using the music — he’s been playing this concerto all over the world all this year and apparently he frequently conducts from memory. Not that it matters, of course.)
Sir Colin also treated us to a wonderful warm-up act in the Mendelssohn Scottish Symphony, which was such fun that we almost expected them to pipe in the haggis at the end. And to start, Nicholas Collon conducted the world premiere of a new work by the youthful Emily Howard, a UBS Soundscapes Pioneers Commission entitled Solar — a musical portrait of the sun, apparently — which involved compelling sonorities and high-density harmonies, well constructed and strongly imagined.
But what lingered was the sense of impending yet understated tragedy in the Elgar: in the shuddering of the cadenza’s accompaniment the icy winds of the 20th century arrived to blow away the composer’s world, a premonition, perhaps, of the untold horrors ahead. The eve of 11 November is an appropriate moment for it.
A hundred years on, where are we? Was this a premonition too, a chill wind from a graveyard of dreams? I was too churned up at the end to do anything but head straight home, desperately trying to find a quiet corner of the train in which to keep absorbing Elgar’s elegies in search of lost time.
The Barbican was packed out. Apparently even Jeremy Hunt was there — he tweeted about it yesterday… I hope he was listening properly and took note of the fact that our world-class orchestras are at the top of their game, but always need to be sustained by well-trained musicians and educated, enthusiastic audiences. With their odious plans on university tuition fees, the inevitable local authority cuts to arts budgets — Somerset has removed its own completely — and the likelihood that more than a hundred libraries will close in London alone, I have the impression that the coalition is not so much pruning back the branches as doing its darndest to tear our cultural life out by the roots. It is a situation far more insidious and dangerous than the spurious window-dressing of “15% cuts to frontline arts”, or whatever they call it in the knowledge of how easily we are duped. While the LSO played Elgar on Wednesday, some 50,000 of our students were finding their voices. Now the rest of us need to as well.
Please read Charlotte Higgins’s passionate defence of the arts, which she gave as a speech at the Paul Hamlyn Foundation awards for artists and composers the other day. If you think the cuts to arts funding will have no effect, she says, you are either deluded, in denial or dishonest.
And finally, here’s a little diversion: the musical chain-reaction in the lives and works of Saint-Saens, Faure and Ravel, as described in today’s Independent by yours truly, trailing Steven Isserlis’s exciting series opening at the Wigmore tonight.