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Learning to Love Elgar--in All Phases

March 06, 1994|HERBERT GLASS | Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar.

It is possible to lead a full and happy, or (speaking from personal experience) a reasonably long life, without loving the more ambitious, in some quarters fanatically admired, works of that dumpiest of late-Romantics, Sir Edward Elgar.

Mind you, we are not talking about his exquisitely crafted miniatures, such as the String Serenade, the Introduction and Allegro, the "Chansons du Matin/Nuit," etc., but the big, bottom-heavy symphonies, which scream out for editorial liposuction, the immobile oratorios and the maundering Violin Concerto.

That is until recently when the Concerto was heard on the car radio, music at once familiar if not immediately identifiable, and most appealingly schmaltzy.

The Elgar Violin Concerto, written in 1910, when composers should have been doing something else, or at least doing it in a less Brahmsian way, is available for listening at home via a just-arrived recording from Kyoko Takezawa, a young artist whose several previous recordings have led one to expect an alert, fresh approach, with Colin Davis conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony (RCA Victor 61612).

Takezawa projects that slow movement with full, variegated tone, a caressing lyric line, enhancing rubatos and a seemingly innate comprehension of how best to communicate the composer's sighing dynamics and subtle tempo shifts.

Listening backward (as only a neophyte is permitted to do), to the opening movement, revealed unsuspected beauties often obscured by the blubber. The bombastic finale--when Elgar pulls out the trombones, duck!--however, remains resistant to any performer's efforts on its behalf.

Interestingly, conductor Davis, once an outspoken anti-Elgarian himself, seems in recent years to have found things to love in the music, as exhibited by the sympathetic, if occasionally too loose-limbed, framework he provides for his young soloist and, without her services, in the makeweight, the gorgeous Introduction and Allegro for strings.

This is the second Elgar Violin Concerto in recent months from generous-to-a-fault RCA. The previous version is performed by Pinchas Zukerman, whose playing is at times more swoopily lush than Takezawa's, at others disconcertingly matter of fact, which hers never is.

Zukerman's partners are the Saint Louis Symphony, whose taut accompaniment under Leonard Slatkin adds welcome muscle to Elgar's structure but misses some of the appealing sentimentality that Davis unashamedly projects. The filler here is Elgar's brief, charming and familiar "Salut d'amour."

Reminder: The RCA catalogue lists yet another Elgar Violin Concerto, Jascha Heifetz's high-speed 1949 recording: brilliant, tough and, in its highly personal way, hugely impressive on the mid-priced CD (7966) it shares with the Walton Concerto.

The one large-scale Elgar work everyone seems to love--possibly because of its associations with the lamented Jacqueline du Pre--is the Cello Concerto, dating from a decade after the Violin Concerto and in which not a note or notion is wasted, as if in apology for the excesses of its predecessor.

In a live recording made in Moscow in 1964 (Russian Disc 11104), Mstislav Rostropovich's interpretation offers, in addition to the expected glories of tone, a striking combination of rhapsodic freedom and rhythmic acumen: knowing exactly how much shaping a melodic line can bear without becoming segmented.

Conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the Moscow Philharmonic do more than support the soloist, they breathe with him, here and in the two attractive rarities that complete the program, Respighi's "Adagio con variazioni" and Milhaud's First Cello Concerto.

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