New Classical Tracks: Elgar's Violin Concerto at 100

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
November 9, 2010

St. Paul, Minn. — Last year Danish violinist Nikolaj Znaider was voted the World's Best Violinist by Classic FM Magazine. On this recording, which marks the 100th anniversary of the Elgar Violin Concerto, you'll hear why. Nikolaj Znaider has recorded this masterpiece on the very same instrument with which Fritz Kreisler performed the world premiere on Nov. 10, 1910. Znaider believes the 1741 "Kreisler" Guarnerius del Gesu (which is on loan to him by the Royal Danish Theater) has a sonority that suits this concerto even better than the composer himself could have imagined. On this new release, we hear just what he means, as Sir Colin Davis conducts the Dresden State Orchestra in this impassioned performance.

As a young man Elgar had aspirations of being a concert violinist. He studied the instrument and knew its character intimately. When Fritz Kreisler declared in a newspaper article that Elgar was "the greatest living composer," and that he wanted Elgar to write something for the violin, Elgar was ripe for the challenge. It took Elgar several years to work out the details of the concerto, which turned out to be about 50 minutes long. However, in the end, he was quite pleased with the results, declaring, "It's good! Awfully emotional! Too emotional, but I love it!"

Elgar was hailed as a hero when this concerto had its world premiere, yet heroic triumph was the furthest thing from the composer's mind. This concerto is a very personal work. In addition to the official dedication to Fritz Kreisler, Elgar made a secret dedication to a woman who may have been his muse. In his letters he would refer to her by her nickname, "Windflower." He called the expressive second theme in the opening movement of this concerto the "Windflower theme." Nikolaj Znaider soars through the melodic line as it rises and falls, enhancing the spirit of Johannes Brahms' writing which had such an influence on Elgar and which he captures so beautifully.

The touching second movement displays the composer's loving feelings for his wife, Alice. This movement is a gorgeous aria for the violin. Znaider offers a heartfelt interpretation as he reaches into the highest register of the violin with such tenderness and ease.

The devilish finale really displays the ravishing tone of the 1741 "Kreisler" Guarnerius del Gesu violin played by Nikolaj Znaider on this recording. The virtuosic cadenza at the end of this movement demands incredible technique and attention to detail. Znaider pulls out all the stops as he reels in the listener with each passionate phrase.

Fritz Kreisler performed the world premiere of this violin concerto, but he never recorded it because he wasn't convinced of Elgar's conducting skills. Nikolaj Znaider has complete confidence in the skills of Sir Colin Davis, who conducts the Dresden State Orchestra in this performance--so much so that he dedicated his performance to the conductor. The Elgar Violin Concerto is not often heard in concert because of its sheer length. In this centennial year, Nikolaj Znaider gives it the attention it deserves, on the violin that earned the work wild applause at its world premiere. After hearing how Znaider brings this intimate work to life, you'll be inspired to applaud with abandon, too!

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