Chanson de Nuit
Nicola Benedetti Violin
Petr Limonov Piano
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski Conductor
This recording has already won enough plaudits and prizes to fill a suitcase, which just goes to show that my colleague critics are not all the cloth-eared fools that others take us for. I’m going to go much further than them, though, and say that this is the best recording of Elgar’s Violin Concerto ever. It is a work that has been recorded for over a hundred years now, the first two being within six years of its completion in 1910. It is better than Albert Sammons with Henry Wood, Marie Hall with Elgar, Alfredo Campoli, Ida Haendal and Yehudi Menuhin with Adrian Boult, Nigel Kennedy with Simon Rattle, Thomas Zehetmair with Mark Elder (just), Dmitri Sitkovetsky with Menuhin, and even than the most famous, Menuhin’s with Elgar.
The reasons are complex because this is a complex work. Most of all it is because Benedetti captures and makes equal its two competing characteristics, determined strength and aching vulnerability. Jurowski is a conductor who partners his soloist through every turn of the emotional screw. He understands when to make the orchestra almost melt as the violin sings, when to add a firm backbone when Elgar is making the best of things. Benedetti’s tone is sumptuous and clear, never indulgent. She understands when Elgar is looking out of the window, thinking of the tiresomeness of middle age (he was fifty-three), the women beyond his reach, the insecurities of being famous from a socially inadequate background, the feeling that his music was in danger of becoming dated just as he felt he was at his best. She also understands when he is glorying in Italian and English summer sunshine, smiling with wistful joy and writing well at last for his own instrument. Elgar had been a fine professional violinist in his youth, good enough to lead the orchestra for Dvorak to conduct. He might have dropped playing in public as composing took over but he never forgot how to make the most of its capabilities.
Almost all the early recordings had tempi that were too fast, partly because of the requirements of 78 rpm four minute sides, partly because Elgar himself did not want to hang around and sound sentimental. The recordings from the 1960s until the turn of the century tended to do just that, as Elgar’s music was re-evaluated as being from the last of the great romantics. Jurowski and Benedetti catch it just right. The music never stops and sulks, but neither does it try to be a glittering showpiece (which is why Fritz Kreisler, for whom it was written, never much liked it). There is ebb and flow, moments of pause and reflection constantly interrupting the pressure to forge on. Benedetti’s depth of understanding in the last movement cadenza is simply astonishing. As David Owen Norris quotes in his excellent note, Elgar wrote that “the music sings of memories and hope”. No performers have ever caught that better on disc.
The CD is short of an hour, though, and while the three added miniatures for violin and piano are pleasant and familiar, it is a shame that the concerto could not have been paired with the later sonata, which is his other work for the instrument that is as serious.