If there was any residual doubt as to the music of Elgar now reaching well beyond the borders of England to mainland Europe – from which the composer drew perhaps greater influence than his homeland – these two new excellent recordings must surely banish it once and for all. For here we have two of the finest violinists working today putting their own personal seals on his grand, enigmatic violin concerto. And what different approaches they are.
Danish-born Nikolaj Znaider gives us imperious virtuosity at every turn, receiving luxurious and idiomatic accompaniment from the Staatskapelle Dresden under Sir Colin Davis. Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé call upon the services of the Northern Sinfonia's Music Director, Thomas Zehetmair, who produces something altogether more edgy, well-suited to the sinewy strength of the rejuvenated Hallé's sound.
Released some time before Zehetmair's account, Znaider's has already been widely praised, and there's no denying the often breath-taking beauty of his playing. Few can match him for technique and, in particular, a silkily seductive sound from top to bottom of the range, whether at full volume or pared down to almost nothing. He is particularly outstanding, then, in Elgar's many introspective, lyrical moments, not least right at his first entry. He has been touring the work, playing on the same 1741 Guanarius del Gesu that Kreisler used to premiere the concerto a hundred years ago, and he has clearly got to know the work inside out in the process.
While Znaider's performance is astonishing in its technical security and accuracy, it is not at the expense of excitement and he is every bit as persuasive in the grander rhetorical gestures where Elgar pushes the instrument to its limits, such as the big double-stopped passages in the opening Allegro. He also manages to wring enormous expressive power from the instruments gutsy lower register and is compelling in the finale's extraordinary accompanied cadenza. In the booklet he thanks Davis, too, for his contribution, and few will argue with glorious results the veteran Elgarian gets from the Staatskapelle Dresden.
While there's little to quibble with in Znaider's account, and an enormous amount to admire, I do hope that its earlier release date does not mean it overshadows Zehetmair's new recording. Admittedly the Hallé's own label doesn't yet share RCA's glossy prestige, and the recorded sound is rather less luxurious, but Zehetmair's playing is engrossing from the word go. He achieves an astonishing expressivity in the opening statement, and seems constantly to be probing at the Elgarian veneer to find greater vulnerability beneath. While no less virtuosic than Znaider, he creates a more exciting sense of physicality in the big double-stopped passages, and I detected a greater feeling of purpose in the cadenza. Elder matches him at every turn, with the Hallé playing with all the commitment and power we've come to expect.
Another advantage of the Hallé disc comes in the couplings, a powerful account of the Prelude to The Kingdom Op.51 and the premiere recording of 'The Prelude and Angel's Farewell' from The Dream of Gerontius, as arranged by Elgar himself. It's an effective counterpart, as Michael Kennedy points out in his note, to Wagner's 'Prelude and Liebstod', even if the German translation deliberately avoids rendering the Angel's opening 'Softly and gently' as 'Mild und leise'. Alice Coote is a persuasive soloist, but it is unclear how much of a clincher this extra will be for those who already own Elder's complete Hallé Gerontius (also with Coote).
There are so many fine recordings of Elgar's violin concerto now, and these two new ones make the choice of a front-runner even harder. Few will be disappointed with the virtuosic assurance and deep conviction of Znaider's account, but I wouldn't want want to be without Zehetmair's edge-of-the-seat account, either.
By Hugo Shirley