Edward Elgar: Chamber Music
String Quartet in E minor, Op.83 (1918) Mina (solo piano) (1932-33) Laura Valse (solo piano) (1887) March in D major (solo piano) (1887)Impromptu (solo piano) (1932) Piano Quintet in A minor, Op.84 (1918-19)
Piers Lane (piano) Goldner String Quartet: Dene Olding (violin) Dimity Hall (violin) Irina Morozova (viola) Julian Smiles (cello)
It may be heresy to say this, but I would swap a great deal of Elgar’s choral, vocal and even orchestral works to possess the so-called ‘Brinkwells’ music’ – the Violin Sonata in E minor (1918), the String Quartet in E minor (1918) and the Piano Quintet in A minor (1918-19). These were written at a time when most critics felt that the composer was at the end of his career. During the Great War, Elgar composed few major works: what he did write were to a large extent ephemeral and patriotic pieces for the ‘war effort.’ However in 1917 he and his wife, Alice, rented a cottage called Brinkwells in West Sussex. This location was deep within the woods near the the village of Fittleworth. Apart from its remoteness, there were plenty of secret footpaths and extensive views which allowed Elgar time and space to think. It was a bitter-sweet period in the composer’s life: many friends had died during the war years, his wife Alice was becoming frail and Elgar came to realise that he was no longer at the forefront of British and European music. His style, in the face of Ravel, Schoenberg and Stravinsky was seen as being conservative and reactionary. Pluralism was barely an option in those days: it was the ‘latest craze’ that mattered.
Diana McVeagh gives a good analysis of all the pieces in her excellent liner notes, so I will content myself with a few remarks and observations about these works.
The String Quartet is written in three well-balanced movements. The opening of this work establishes its serious purpose in which the composer has created an involved, ‘intricate’ and at times complex structure. In spite of the peaceful surroundings of the Sussex countryside, this work is no idyll. Charles Porte has noted the huge emotional variety in this movement: ‘allargando, stringendo, espresso con fuoco and nobilmente.’ He insists that this variety of moods keeps the players in ‘constant animation.’ The reflective atmosphere of the second subject acts as a foil to the largely unsettling music that makes up the remainder of this movement. The composer seems to be in search of something intangible: it may well be a lost muse or an attempt at finding an ‘explanation’ for some event in the past.
The second movement is particularly memorable and was a favourite of the composer’s wife. She said that it ‘captured sunshine’ and made her think about ‘the sound of bees and insects on a hot summer’s afternoon.’ Yet there is much emotion in this music that goes beyond a ‘stroll in a garden.’ With some sections of this music we are back into the world of the Violin Concerto and ‘what might have been.’ Interestingly, this movement was played at Lady Elgar’s funeral in 1920 by a ‘scratch’ quartet of big names – Albert Sammons, W.H. Reed, Lionel Tertis and Felix Salmond.
The final movement is extremely energetic with little chance of relaxation. Certainly the pace that the Goldner Quartet gives to it is breathtaking. The urgency of the music is balanced by the lovely second subject which is indicated as ‘dolce’: this allows some relaxation and reflection. Yet the vital music returns and brings the movement and the work to a loud and pressing conclusion.
If the String Quartet is an important work then the Quintet in A minor for piano and strings is one of Elgar’s greatest works and a masterpiece of the genre. Charles Porte notes that this essay is the culmination of the composer’s sudden, late interest in serious chamber music. He had written many pieces over the years for violin and piano, but these tended to be in a ‘lighter’ mood. The Quintet was the third and last of the Brinkwells’ works. There is a sense here that the composer is moving towards some indefinable musical goal. I guess that there is an analogy with Beethoven and his late Quartets: music that is definably by the composer but inhabiting a different sound world. It is Elgar, but not as we know it!
The first movement, the ‘allegro moderato’ presents the fundamental material of this work. Reviewers have noticed the techniques that Elgar has used to create the musical structure of this work: transformations of themes and phrases rather than extended melodies.
I believe that the adagio is one of the finest movements to come from Elgar’s pen. It reaches a height (or is it depth) rarely achieved by any composer. This is valedictory music that seems to sum up the composer’s career: this mood would be continued in the later Cello Concerto in E minor. But, in the Quintet the temper is near-perfect. It is hard to know whether there is an air of optimism, but certainly there is a feeling of acceptance. Diana McVeigh refers to this mood as ‘a profound romantic stillness.’
At the time of composition there was a lot of nonsense written about the ‘ghostly’ mood in this work being inspired by a group of ancient Iberian monks who had been committing ‘inappropriate rites’ in the woods! However, the historicity of this ‘outrage’ has been largely debunked. Any ‘weirdness’ encountered in this work is more likely to have been a result of a visit from that master of the macabre, Algernon Blackwood to Brinkwells. Yet, there is a ‘haunted’ air about much of this music that may be subject to the composer’s own reflections on his past life and loves.
The entire work is summed up by a feeling of melancholy and resignation. Although I feel that the ‘adagio’ exhibits the best of the composer, it is in the finale that the true strength of the work is carried. This music is cyclical, with references to the opening movement that balances the troubled nature of many pages here. The sweep of the argument ranges from assurance to a loss of that confidence and finally a new power emerges in the closing pages.
The Piano Quintet was dedicated to Ernest Newman, who at time was music critic at the Manchester Guardian. The Piano Quintet was first performed at the Wigmore Hall on 21 May 1919. The performers were Albert Sammons, W.H. Reed, Raymond Jeremy, Felix Salmond and William Murdoch.
Hyperion have added four make-weights to this CD: all piano solos played by Piers Lane. The first is a delicious ‘transcription’ of Elgar’s last completed work, Mina, which is a lovely miniature in the composer’s ‘light music’ vein. ‘Mina’ was the name of Elgar’s Cairn terrier: the composer fondly imagined that the dog had the disposition of a ‘dowager duchess.’ It was originally conceived for orchestra but has been realised for piano by David Patrick with emendations by Piers Lane. The material is largely derived the piano sketches Elgar made for the work. Diana McVeagh has noted in her study of the composer that this piece is ‘a little echo of the 'Lullaby’ in From the Bavarian Highland’.
I fell in love with the heart-achingly beautiful Laura Valse on first hearing. In many ways this music epitomises Elgar as much as many of his later works. It was composed in 1887 for a pupil of the composer. Diana McVeagh suggest that this ‘Laura’ was ‘probably ...a soprano from Stratford whose family discouraged the attentions of the obscure music teacher.’
The short March in D major is rather fun. The liner notes suggest that it is a ‘cheerful forerunner’ of the five (six) Pomp & Circumstance Marches. Perhaps one day this ‘discovered work’ will be orchestrated?
The Impromptu, which runs to a mere 37 seconds, is ‘as romantic as anything he [Elgar] ever composed’. Truly the listener will wish that this piece would last much longer. It was written for a lady called Evelyn Francis Barron Dales who was one-time secretary to the Belfast BBC producer Godfrey Brown. Elgar had presumably met this lady on a visit to Ulster in 1932 when the composer conducted a performance of Gerontius.
The liner notes by Diana McVeagh are excellent and give the listener all they need to understand these two wonderful pieces of chamber music. However, anyone interested in gaining an in-depth understanding of the background to the Quartet and Quinter are advised to read Elgar, Vicat Cole and the Ghosts of Brinkwells by Carol Fitzgerald and Brian W. Harvey. It is a fascinating period in Elgar’s life, which has been critically regarded as being unproductive.
It is almost redundant to mention that the Goldner String Quartet and Piers Lane give striking performances of these late masterpieces. Every nuance of this music seems to be perfect. The sound recording is truly stunning. I will certainly turn to this Hyperion recording when I wish to listen to the String Quartet and the Piano Quintet.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.