Written at Elgar’s remote cottage during a period of autumnal repose for an ageing composer, the two chamber works on this disc let the latter days of WWI and the encroaching musical avant-garde pass them by, basking in the comforting glow of romanticism. Despite this isolation, the Quintet in A minor Op 84 has some extroverted moments and a restless vigour that the Goldner Quartet and Piers Lane capture with flair, well paced and never overly sentimental.
The quintet expounds Elgar’s gifts in exquisitely wrought miniature – one marvels at the economy of gesture and mastery of form with which he articulates such emotional extremes. It’s every bit the Elgar we know and love from his symphonies and ceremonial works: rousing English anthems subside into melancholy-tinged reflection; then pure Nimrod in the stately elegance of the Moderato theme.
Lane brings delicate detail to the fore even in the most impassioned outbursts – with Julian Smiles’ cello he gets to the heart of one standout recurring motif, shimmering and almost Impressionistic as it drifts like falling leaves.
The Quartet in E minor Op 83 is perhaps more rhythmically and harmonically adventurous, the Goldners dashing off rapid passagework in the final movement with mercurial gusto. There is a similarly spirited account of the two works on Chandos (Sorrel Quartet, Ian Brown) but this Hyperion recording is valuable for the addition of four charming solo piano miniatures of which Lane gave the first known public performances in 2010. The March in D falls flat but Laura Valse and Mina are dreamy delights.
Interview: Piers Lane, piano
I don’t know why Elgar’s chamber music isn’t well known, but I think that Brits have always been bad at selling themselves, actually.
The Quintet is one of the five great Romantic quintets. Brahms, Schumann, Franck and Dvorák: Elgar ranks with those. It’s a great piece and I’ve played it dozens of times over decades. It’s an immensely satisfying piece to perform. The piano part explores the whole range of dynamics and depth of the instrument. It’s also got fairytale elements and a wonderfully nostalgic quality as if seen through a veil. It brings out the composer’s great nobility and epic nature.
Elgar was often accused of not writing well for the piano but I’ve never seen why, really, because everything lies under the hands and relates extraordinarily well to the keyboard.
Of the four solo piano pieces here I particularly enjoyed playing the Impromptu, which is only 27 bars long, but I recorded it last year in the bicentenary of Schumann, and it’s surprisingly Schumann-esque.
There are two sides to Elgar: this is a very intimate, introverted, questing side. Don’t forget that these works were written at the end of the First World War; they were some of his final works really. His wife was sick, he was getting older, times were changing and the country was changing after the war. I guess he had a lot to be introspective about. But composers must be true to themselves and Elgar was true to himself, and that’s why these works survive.
The Goldners and I have been playing together for quite a few years now. I’ve played with many quartets over the years but I love playing with the Goldners most of all. It’s great to hang out with them apart from playing with them – of course the Australian bond helps. They have a really rich sound and a mature grasp of orchestral concepts because Dene Olding is leader of an orchestra as well. I think the four players have a big vision of music and really feel like an entity in themselves.