Elgar – a personal view from Mark Elder
In Hornsey, North London, there was a banner across the Broadway announcing the concert by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent, with the Enigma Variations. My mother took me along to hear it, and I was nine or ten years old. Ever since, Elgar’s music has been with me. I didn’t always find it easy; soon afterwards I tried to find a way through the Violin Concerto, the famous recording with Elgar conducting, and the young Menuhin, pictured in his shorts,on the cover.
I didn’t always succeed. I found the symphonies hard to fathom for many years, and although I lived with them, I didn’t conduct them until a long way into my career. By the time I arrived in Manchester I had conducted both symphonies, and Falstaff, many times.
I didn’t always succeed. I found the symphonies hard to fathom for many years
But these years living with Elgar and the Hallé - we recorded the First Symphony early in our time together and have done it many times since – has kindled enormous love and excitement in performing music where I feel very much at home. It has revealed to me, beneath all of the surface confidence and genius of his writing, that the personality behind it was that of an insecure, even difficult, man. Elgar’s ability to cast shadows across his wide emotional landscape reveals his inner insecurity but makes his achievement as a self-taught composer all the more remarkable.
Elgar’s ability to cast shadows across his wide emotional landscape reveals his inner insecurity but makes his achievement as a self-taught composer all the more remarkable
As a violinist and bassoonist Elgar knew the orchestra from within; his understanding leaps off every page. He was an extraordinary conductor. We are told that he never did anything the same way twice, and his recordings inspire us to take courage, be bold, and follow one’s own path. This is essential; there are pitfalls in conducting Elgar’s music, especially in his large-scale works. The developmental passages are not always convincing unless one has the courage to take care that the structure doesn’t falter, driving through them perhaps more than one would at first wish to. His full orchestral sound requires careful balancing; in Elgar’s day brass and wind instruments, and indeed many concert halls, were less resonant than they are today. His orchestra can sometimes sound bombastic, doing him less than justice, unless one balances wind and brass with the most powerful string-playing possible!
I have wanted, ever since I conducted the first ‘Beyond the Score’ in Chicago over ten years ago, to bring Gerard McBurney’s inspired explorations into familiar and less-familiar works to Manchester. As we found last season with the New World Symphony, this original way of delving behind a masterpiece has astonished many listeners who are confident in their knowledge and love of familiar pieces of music. If ever a great work lends itself to examination it is the Enigma Variations; it remains to be seen whether the famous ‘enigma’ itself will be revealed!
If ever a great work lends itself to examination it is the Enigma Variations
Solve Elgar’s Enigma, as Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé join narrator Gerard McBurney for a multi-media exploration that goes Beyond the Score® - Tuesday 14 March, Symphony Hall. Tickets Available Here