Centenary post – Elgar: Cello Concerto

Today is the centenary of one of Sir Edward Elgar‘s best-loved works, first performed on this day in 1919. It was not always that way for the Cello Concerto in E minor, however, as an under-rehearsed premiere may well have contributed to a gap in London performances of more than a year.

The first performance took place with soloist Felix Salmond, Albert Coates conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. The first cellist to really further the concerto’s cause was Beatrice Harrison, seen above with Elgar in an early recording from 1920. Her official recording with the composer from 1928 can be heard on the playlist below.

Again the work fell into disregard, possibly on account of its darker autumnal hues. The melodies came to Elgar in the aftermath of a painful operation on his tonsils, and while he could hear the sound of fighting in the First World War across the English channel.

It was not really until 1965 that the work reached regular public consumption, thanks to a searing recording by the young Jacqueline du Pre, with the London Symphony Orchestra this time under Sir John Barbirolli’s direction (also on the playlist). This recording preserved du Pré’s reputation as a cellist of great passion and technique, with the considerable help of a seasoned Elgarian in Barbirolli behind the orchestral ‘wheel’. It also apparently convinced a certain Mstislav Rostropovich not to become better acquainted with the piece.

More recently the Cello Concerto has become widespread, most recently with a first night performance at the Proms from Sol Gabetta and an appearance at this year’s season from Sheku Kanneh-Mason.

Gabetta’s recorded version is also on the playlist, with Mario Venzago conducting the Royal Danish National Orchestra. It appears along with two very fine accounts from Julian Lloyd Webber – with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Yehudi Menuhin – and Steven Isserlis, his first recording of the work made with the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Richard Hickox:

More recently Isserlis has revisited the work with Paavo Jarvi conducting the Philharmonia, a fine account about which he talked to Arcana here.

The Cello Concerto was Elgar’s last major work, completing an intriguing late set of compositions including the Violin Sonata and String Quartet, which share the concerto’s key of E minor, and the wonderful Piano Quintet in A minor. Those four works can be heard on the playlist below:

For a visual treat, though, you can enjoy Jacqueline du Pré’s playing here – not with Sir John Barbirolli but with her husband Daniel Barenboim, conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra:

The Peterloo Massacre: Sir Malcolm Arnold’s response

On the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, this vivid musical interpretation of events on that day comes from Sir Malcolm Arnold.

Arnold completed the overture in 1968, when it was published as his Op.97. In his description of the piece for Faber Music, he described the events and his response in some detail:

Peterloo is the derisive name given to an incident that happened on August 16th, 1819 in St Peter’s Fields Manchester, when an orderly crowd of some 80,000 people met to hear a speech on political reform. On the orders of the magistrates they were interrupted by the yeomanry attempting to seize the banners they carried, and to arrest their speaker, Henry Hunt. Cavalry were sent in, and eleven people were killed and four hundred injured in the ensuing panic.

This overture attempts to portray these happenings musically, but after a lament for the killed and injured, it ends in triumph, in the firm belief that all those who have suffered and died in the cause of unity amongst mankind, will not have died so in vain.”

The extraordinary piece – which really should be better known – can be heard below, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer:

It may start with a regal theme but soon the cavalry approach, and the music is thrown into disarray and discord. Ominous brass and squealing woodwind signal the onset of violence, before a description of the outright chaos on what has become a battlefield gets ever louder, like the climax of a Shostakovich symphony.

Then suddenly all is emptiness, the horrors fully revealed…but from the depths comes a beautiful lament from oboe and a repeat of the main theme from the strings, now held higher – before a salute from full orchestra ends the overture in triumph. The piece is a powerful and moving response to the tragedy, a musical portrayal of courage in the face of terror – and it proves every bit as relevant to today’s political climate as it would to the victims of the massacre.

If you want to hear more Arnold, the album from which this piece is taken includes three fine examples of his nine symphonies (nos.1, 2 & 5), and two more entertaining overtures, Tam O’Shanter and Beckus the Dandipratt:

As you will gather from those titles alone, the composer was not without a sense of humour!

The picture is a coloured print of the Peterloo Massacre, published by Richard Carlile.

New Year Feature – The Sound of Silence


First of all, happy new year! I hope 2016 is good for you, and that Arcana can at least play some part in bringing you some musical treats and writing that you will hopefully enjoy.

It may seem an odd thing for a music site to talk about, but I’m going to kick off the New Year by promoting the virtue of silence.

Silence is good on so many levels. It allows the full formation of thoughts, provides a necessary break from the frenetic activity of day-to-day life, and – for me at least – it cleanses the mind over a holiday period such as Christmas, after which the joy of music can be appreciated more than ever. Not that I made an active bid for freedom from music this time around, but stepping away from it for a bit was incredibly useful.

Pop songwriters and classical composers have used silence to their advantage on many occasions. One use of silence I often think of is incredibly minute but works an absolute treat, where King Crimson go for the jugular half way through 21st Century Schizoid Man:

Perhaps the most famous classical example is John Cage in the sound-free 4’33” – which, depending on your view, is a work of genius or flawed publicity stunt. I would definitely tend towards the former, because if you ‘listen’ to 4’33” (after the pretty loud introduction!) each performance is different – because all manner of tiny micro-sounds make themselves known in your environment:

The use of silence goes much further back of course. Can you imagine the works of Beethoven without the use of silence? How on earth would the start of the Fifth Symphony sound without it…

…or the beginning of the second Razumovsky string quartet?

…or, taking a fantastic example from the last century, the very end of SibeliusSymphony no.5?

All show just how powerful silence can be when used strategically. Yet if experienced over longer periods of time it takes on an even more special significance.

A New Year’s Day walk brought this home to me in vivid form. After hearing the radio for the first hour or so of the day – and inevitably U2’s New Year’s Day was included in this! – it was out for a walk where we were staying in Faversham, Kent.

Our walk, designed to cure the hangover from the previous night’s celebrations, took us out beyond the town and heading for the reeds and marshland close to a remote place called Oare, and its haunted pub The Shipright Arms.

Here all that could be heard were calls from what turned out to be little egrets, the wind in the reeds, and something quite astonishing in the whirring of a swan’s wings as it took off on the adjacent lake.


Little Egret (c) Ben Hogwood

Yet the wonderful truth was that if you stood and listened, most of what you could hear was…nothing. It was a cleansing experience, and one that has set me up to enjoy what 2016 has to offer musically. We at Arcana hope you choose to enjoy it with us…and share your moments of music and  silence with us…and that you have a Happy New Year!

Ben Hogwood – editor, Arcana.fm