Program Notes – February 12, 2017 concert

Concert Details and Tickets for Towering Romantics


Sir Edward Elgar (6/2/1857-2/23/1934): Concerto in E Minor for Cello, Op. 85 (1918-1919)

World Premiere: 10/27/1919,  Felix Salmond, cello soloist, composer cond.

The last major work by Elgar, the Cello Concerto was offered when he was already considered “old hat” and passé by the concertgoing public. Under such circumstances, the near-total lack of rehearsal time ensured a most disastrous premiere. For a long time thereafter, the concerto failed to connect with the public—despite two early recordings made under Elgar’s direction—until 1965, when Jacqueline du Pré made a recording for Angel Records (EMI) with Sir John Barbirolli conducting the London Symphony Orchestra that many hailed as the “definitive” recording of the work. Since that time, it has become one of the most played cello concertos (alongside Dvorak, Schumann, Shostakovich’s two, and Haydn’s two).

Lyrical and elegiac, Elgar’s Cello Concerto first came to him while he was recuperating from tonsillectomy (risky for a 61-year-old like Elgar). He awoke after being sedated, asked for a pencil and paper, and wrote down what would become the main theme of the first movement (1918). He then put it aside and did no further work on it until a year later—after he composed three pieces of chamber music in the interim. As for that premiere, the concerto appeared on a program that was otherwise conducted by Sir Albert Coates, who hogged rehearsal time for the pieces he would conduct to such an extent that Elgar’s wife, Lady Alice, blamed Coates for being responsible for the failure of her husband’s concerto. Elgar himself credited Felix Salmond, the soloist, with doing such an incredible job that the composer decided not to go through with his initial plan to withdraw the concerto altogether.

It was this concerto that made a “star” of du Pré, who was only 20 at the time. Her former teacher, the legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, upon hearing her recording, declared his intention to drop the work from his repertoire because, as he put it, she “played it much better than I.” The conductor of that recording, Barbirolli, was very familiar with the work, having performed it as a member of the cello section at the 1919 premiere and having been one of its earliest soloists (1921).

The work is in four movements (unconventional for a concerto, usually in three), there being no pause between the first two and between the last two movements, sounding as if it is only in two large movements. It reveals a changing style for Elgar—one more despairing and full of angst and disillusionment, deeply colored by what he experienced of World War I as a citizen, which made him view death and mortality in a more introspective manner.


Johannes Brahms (5/7/1833-4/3/1897): Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73 (1877)

World Premiere: 12/30/1877, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Hans Richter, cond.

After the weight of the world was removed from his shoulders with Symphony No. 1 (23 years in the making) out of the way, Brahms had a much easier time composing his Second Symphony: a mere summer. Indeed, this is the sunniest and most lyrical of his four symphonies—his “pastoral” symphony, as it were—although Brahms, not without a sense of humor, pulled his publisher’s leg when he wrote to him, saying that his symphony “is so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it. I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in mourning.” The work’s premiere was originally scheduled for 12/9/1877 but had to be postponed for three weeks because the Vienna Philharmonic musicians were too busy learning Wagner’s Das Rheingold at the time.

Three of the four movements are in sonata form. The first movement includes, as its secondary theme, Brahms’s Wiegenlied (Guten Abend, gute Nacht) (Cradle Song: Good Evening, Good Night), Op. 49, No. 4 (1848) — better known as “Brahms’ Lullaby” — while the second movement uses the device of developing variation for its main theme. The third (scherzo-and-trio) movement, despite its relative brevity, manages to bring back the trio twice (also found in a few Beethoven and Haydn scherzo movements, all which are longer than this one), while the finale, still retaining its idyllic ambiance, nonetheless ends with exuberance and excitement.


-Michael Rydzynski