Elgar’s Violin Concerto has a certain mystique about it independent of the knee-jerk obeisance it has received in the British press. It probably is the longest and most difficult of all Romantic violin concertos, requiring not just great technical facility but great concentration from the soloist and a real partnership of equals with the orchestra. And like all of Elgar’s large orchestral works, it is extremely episodic in construction and liable to fall apart if not handled with a compelling sense of the long line. In reviewing the score while listening to this excellent performance, I was struck by just how fussy Elgar’s indications often are: the constant accelerandos and ritards, and the minute (and impractical) dynamic indications that ask more questions than they sometimes answer. No version, least of all the composer’s own, even attempts to realize them all: it would be impossible without italicizing and sectionalizing the work to death.
As he proved with his recording of A London Symphony – Record of the Year, Gramophone Awards 2001 – Richard Hickox was a Vaughan Williams specialist. This reissue of an original 1995 recording features such lesser known works from the composer as Household Music and Flos Campi. Alternating between the passionate and the tortured, between long-breathed lyricism and moments of obvious pain, Flos Campi has never really found itself in the mainstream concert repertoire, maybe because of its title, misleadingly suggesting jolly music. Household Music has equally suffered from its title, rather an off-hand one for pieces that at their best show the composer’s brilliance as an arranger. Riders to the Sea, however, is a masterpiece, seen as the finest as well as the most concentrated of Vaughan Williams’s works for the stage, conjuring up multiple layers of emotional response to the natural world, a losing battle with the sea, and the God which rules it, for the islanders in the North Atlantic.
Hallé announces their latest release, of Vaughan Williams’ masterpiece in a live recording from the stunning 2014 Bridgewater Hall performance. “This matchless concert of British music closed with an outstanding performance, among the finest ever, of A Sea Symphony …. This was the first time Sir Mark Elder had conducted the work, which made the completeness of his interpretation, at once controlled and ecstatic, all the more startling. I can't imagine the work being better played..”
Few people think of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Walton as composers of chamber music; nevertheless, the small number of works of this classification which they published is highly characteristic, personal and significant.