Sunday, January 27, 2008
Then a wail for their sins
It's probably just me, but if I'm told that a piece of music is "uplifting" or "touches the core of what it is to be human", I run as fast as I can from it - comments Henry Holland on The composer without a shadow? Henry was writing in praise of Richard Strauss, and I wonder what he makes of the music of a contemporary and friend of Strauss', Edward Elgar?
This morning I attended a performance of Elgar's Piano Quintet led by pianist Ashley Wass, and, sorry Henry, but this is a work that is both uplifting and deeply human. Given the over-exposure of the Cello Concerto it is difficult to understand why Elgar's String Quartet and Piano Quintet aren't better known as all three works are from the same period.
They were written when the composer was living in a cottage called Brinkwells at Fittleworth in Sussex between 1917 and 1919. Near Elgar's cottage was a clump of dead trees that had been struck by lightning. Their branches were distorted into strange and almost human forms. Local legend said that impious Spanish monks had held black masses there, and as punishment had been struck down by lightning and turned into the withered trees. The ghostly shapes provided inspiration for both Elgar's Piano Quintet and String Quartet, and also his Violin Sonata. Elgar's wife Alice wrote of the Quintet in her diary:
'Wonderful weird beginning ... evidently reminiscent of sinister trees ... sad 'dispossesed' trees and their fate - or rather curse - which brought it on ... then a wail for their sins - wonderful.'
My header image of the trees at Fittleworth comes from the EMI recording of Elgar's chamber music by the Vellinger Quartet and Piers Lane. If you love the Cello Concerto but don't know these works you have a gap in your CD collection that needs filling.
In today's concert the Elgar was coupled with Frank Bridge's Piano Trio No. 2 from 1929. It is unfortunate that today Bridge is remembered mainly as Benjamin Britten's teacher. This late Piano Trio is a a tough, sinewy work that hovers tantalisingly between tonality and the chromaticism of Schoenberg. Forget the baggage associated with Bridge, this is one of several great works by him that should be recognised for their own merits.
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, and Elgar's music from his Brinkwells period is a painfull reminder of the carnage of war, as is Strauss' Metamorphosen. But some victims of the Holocaust are still forgotten, read about them here.
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