Music of profound sorrow and exceptional beauty. Written in 1919, in the depths of the English countryside, Elgar’s Cello Concerto is a phoenix rising from the ashes of a world at war, an elegaic lament for an England lost forever.
Edward Elgar is often considered to be the quintessential composer of the Edwardian era: a period of optimism and prosperity when England ‘ruled the waves’. Works such as the Pomp and Circumstance Marches (the first of which became famous as ‘Land of Hope and Glory’) and the ‘Nimrod’ movement from his ‘Enigma’ Variations have a strength and grandeur which seems to epitomise the spirit of those pre-World War I years, and one of Elgar’s favourite performance indications on his pieces was Nobilmente — nobly.
However, Elgar’s composing career extended well beyond the Edwardian age, and World War I had a profound impact on his music. He wrote little during the War itself, and when he did begin to write seriously again, his music was more questioning than forthright. The piece which began this new stage of his career was the Cello Concerto (1919), a passionate lament over the devastation wrought by the War.
The other two works on this disc, Sea Pictures and The Kingdom, return us to the carefree, confident mood of turn-of-the-century England. Sea Pictures was written in 1899 for the acclaimed contralto Clara Butt, who gave the premiere dressed as a mermaid! Elgar’s skill as an orchestrator is very much in evidence, with subtle colours that evoke the sea in many moods.
The Kingdom was one of what was meant to be a trilogy of oratorios (Elgar only completed two of the three) about the apostles who shared in Christ’s ministry during his lifetime and spread the gospel after his death. Elgar was a deeply religious man, although his faith (he was a Roman Catholic) made him something of an outsider in protestant England. Oratorios — large-scale works for choir and orchestra, on themes taken from the bible — were hugely popular in Elgar’s time, with amateur choral societies and festivals all across the country clamouring for new music to perform. The orchestral Prelude that he wrote for The Kingdom lays out some of the themes of the oratorio, beginning boldly but soon moving to a more contemplative, prayerful mood.