Elgar completed his Violin Concerto in B Minor Op. 61 in 1910. It received its first performance the same year, by the violinist for whom it was written, the great Fritz Kreisler, with the composer conducting the Philharmonic Society. Alas, Kreisler and Elgar never recorded the concerto together (in 1932 Elgar made a recording with the London Symphony Orchestra and a teenage Yehudi Menuhin as soloist, which remains an essential historical document).
Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider. Photo © Lars Gundersen
How wonderful, then, to be able to hear this concerto performed using the same violin Kreisler premiered it on, the 1741 Guarneri del Gesù – otherwise known as the “Ex-Kreisler Guarnerius”. The violin is on loan from the Royal Danish Theatre to Danish violinist and conductor Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider. Hearing his Saturday-night performance at the Perth Concert Hall, it was hard to imagine it being in better hands.
Likewise, the concerto itself, with Szeps-Znaider, the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and Principal Conductor Asher Fisch zeroing in on the work’s qualities of intimacy and exuberance, of yearning and passion, with tremendous conviction and surety of vision. If Elgar’s arguably more popular Cello Concerto opens with a famous solo recitative of heartbreaking intensity, here the violin enters only after a substantial orchestral exordium. We have to wait until the third-movement cadenza for the violin to plumb such existential depths and in equally solipsistic terms. But this work abounds in unsettling ambiguities and sharp contrasts throughout. The first movement’s dramatic development section. The second’s sensual elaborations seemingly mediating on the relationship between Eros and Thanatos. The third’s dizzying virtuosity spiralling into a vortex of doubt and regret. All this Szeps-Znaider (how rich and centred was his tone, how dazzling his technique!), WASO and Fisch revelled in and revealed, eliciting from many in the audience an enthusiastic standing ovation. Presumably those remaining in their seats were too stunned to do likewise.
To say that Brahms’ Symphony No 2 in D was somewhat of an anti-climax would be unfair. It contains some of Brahms’ finest music, especially in the third movement. And the performance was faultless. Fisch and WASO have already proved themselves on many previous occasions to be consummate Brahmsians, so this was given. From the get-go, for example, you knew you were in for a treat, the first movement unfolding like a spacious zooming out of a camera to reveal a vast, sunlit alpine landscape troubled by clouds variously gathering and dispersing. It’s just that, rather than hearing Brahms in Elgar, which is usually the case, this time you kept hearing Elgar in Brahms. Which actually isn’t such a bad thing.