Tuesday 25 August 2020

Neeme Järvi conducts Elgar's Violin Concerto with all-Estonian forces

Elgar Violin Concerto, Stenhammar Two Sentimental Romances; Triin Ruubel, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Järvi; SOREL CLASSICS
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 August 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Neeme Järvi makes a rare foray into Elgar's music on disc with this intriguing account of the violin concerto with all Estonian forces

Elgar Violin Concerto, Stenhammar Two Sentimental Romances; Triin Ruubel, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Järvi; SOREL CLASSICS
Whilst Elgar is viewed as a giant of English music, thanks in part to the general re-purposing of some of his pieces, at the height of his fame he was regarded by European colleagues as a major talent in European music. The individualist elements in his music which differentiated him from contemporaries Charles Villiers Stanford and Hubert Parry, were just those which appealed to European composers and Richard Strauss would refer to Elgar as the first English progressive composer. This is an aspect of Elgar's music which can sometimes be lost, we forget the wider European context.

His Violin Concerto was written in 1910 for the Austrian-born American violinist Fritz Kreisler and the work represented the composer's last popular triumph, and he was disappointed by the reactions to his Second Symphony which premiered in 1911. The Violin Concerto would survive the long post-war decline in Elgar's reputation, but by the 1970s when I first started going to concerts, performances were rare and it was very much an English work, played by English performers (I heard Martin Milner, leader of the Halle, performing it in Manchester). It was, I think, the work's espousal by Kyung-Wha Chung in the early 1980s which raised its international profile. The catalogue is full of recordings, by a whole range of violinists, yet the majority of recordings still seem to be made with English orchestras.

The music of Elgar has not so far featured much in Estonian American conductor Neeme Järvi's catalogue, which makes this recording made with an Estonian orchestra and an Estonian soloist all the more fascinating. Released on the Sorel Classics label, Neeme Järvi conducts the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and soloist Triin Ruubel in Edward Elgar's Violin Concerto and Wilhelm Stenhammer's Two Sentimental Romances. Ruubel is the concert-master of the orchestra, and in fact I heard her as soloist in Tallinn in 2015 at the Estonian Music Days [see my article].

The recording was made in 2017, when Neeme Järvi was 80 but there is little that is Autumnal about the long orchestral introduction to the Elgar, Järvi encourages his orchestra onwards. The music is urgent and pressing forward in anticipation, and the orchestral sound has a lovely clarity of detail. Triin Ruubel's first entry is mellow and thoughtful. Ruubel has a fine-grained elegant sound, and throughout the concerto she plays with a lovely sense of line, but that does not prevent mellow moments and patches of passion. Throughout the first movement, she follows the orchestra's urgings and plays with a fine urgency and lovely fleetness, yet is also interested in lingering with some lovely ruminative moments which are almost wistful. 

The slow movement is notable for the transparent orchestral textures and the overall delicacy of playing with Ruubel really fining her tone down. Again she combines elegance with a ruminative sense in the music. The finale is full of urgency, but elegance of line too leading to a magical cadenza which showcases the beautiful fleetness of Ruubel's playing. Ruubel and Järvi encourage us to look at the concerto slightly differently, not as the large, Romantic monolith, but as a complex and sophisticated work which reflects Elgar's place on a wider stage.

The pairing is a short work by the Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar, Two Sentimental Romances written the same year as Elgar's concerto. Whilst Stenhammar wrote three symphonies and two piano concertos, this work is the closest he came to a violin concerto. After a wistful introduction the first movement is all flowing lyricism with Ruubel producing a lovely fine singing line. The second movement, equally lyrical, also showcases darker moments. 

We all have our different favourites when it comes to a major work like Elgar's Violin Concerto, and in a crowded market this new disc has the virtue of making us listen again. The elegance, the sense of line and the fine grain to Ruubel's violin playing are allied to a fine technique and a sympathy to the ebb and flow of complex emotion in this work, and in this she is finely supported by Neeme Järvi and the orchestra. 

Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) - Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61 (1910) [47.15]
Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927) - Two Sentimental Romances Op. 28 (1910) [11.41]
Triin Ruubel (violin)
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
Recorded at Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn, Estonia August 2017

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