To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the world premiere of Elgar's Violin Concerto, celebrated Danish violinist Nikolaj Znaider has recorded the concerto using the same instrument that Kreisler used at that premiere.
Do you have a list of dream recordings you wish you could hear? This one’s in my top three: The Queen’s Hall, London, on 10th November 1910; the world premiere of the Elgar Violin Concerto, with the composer conducting, and Fritz Kreisler playing the solo part on his 1741 Guarneri del Gesu violin.
The performance may not survive – indeed, neither does the Queen’s Hall – but Kreisler’s Guarneri does, and it’s now in the hands of Danish violinist Nikolaj Znaider. Predictably the instrument’s return to the Elgar a century on has generated copious column inches, but Znaider is a deeply serious musician, and the Elgar is a concerto he’s loved since he first heard it as a student, played by Pinchas Zukerman. He knows the important early recordings: Albert Sammons, and the young Yehudi Menuhin with Elgar conducting, and he couldn’t resist going back to Kreisler’s acoustic sessions earlier that year on the instrument he now plays.
But that’s all background; what we hear is Znaider’s own heartfelt response to the Elgar, and in this most symphonic concerto it’s as much Davis and the Dresden orchestra’s performance. Znaider has said it was the first time many members of the orchestra had played the piece, and perhaps the freshness of their response allied with Davis’s Elgarian maturity is what gives this a special immediacy. Znaider shifts effortlessly between heroic grandeur and heartfelt passion, introspection and intimacy; he whispers and caresses, then soars and declaims with both sweet regret and steely determination. There’s always time to reflect on a phrase in one of the most conversational accounts of the work you could wish to hear, yet without any sense of over-indulgence or artifice, and the accompanied cadenza in the finale has an otherworldly breadth and beauty that mesmerises. The recording adds an entirely appropriate autumnal glow to the Staatskapelle sound, and while there’s no coupling for the concerto, you couldn’t possibly feel short-changed.
Even alongside superb recent accounts of the Elgar from international violinists James Ehnes and Gil Shaham, this has something special, and it’s not simply because of the ‘ex-Kreisler’ Guarneri. Oh, and should you ever come across a recording marked ‘Queen’s Hall, 10/11/1910’, do get in touch… --Andrew McGregor
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