Moderation In All Things?​

Last week Daniel Barenboim received the Elgar Award at London’s Royal Festival Hall for his performances of Elgar, in particular his recordings made with the Staatskapelle Berlin. These are, without doubt, outstanding recordings with much to recommend them. Do I like them? In a word, no! There should always be an etiquette when discussing other conductors work, and clearly my opinion on Barenboim’s Elgar is going to make no difference to this great conductor’s career. But, as so often, the noise that surrounded this prize made me reflect – as I frequently do – on what it is that makes Elgar, and I think all English music, particularly special.

If you were to sum up Barenboim’s approach to Elgar, I think one would probably say that it is deeply influenced by the European tradition – Elgar through the prism of Strauss perhaps. Of course this approach has validity, as Elgar himself was deeply influenced by this tradition; Strauss, Wagner Brahms and Dvorak are obvious points of reference. But what is it that makes Elgar distinct, as I think most of us would agree he is? It’s not just a particular and personal approach to orchestral colour and indeed to structure (all the more surprising in view of the fact that Elgar was almost entirely self taught); I think it runs deeper than that.

Compared to Barenboim’s lifelong association with this music, my recent forays as an Elgarian, principally in conducting the symphonies, doubtless carry less weight. Nevertheless, sometimes a fresh pair of eyes can shed new light on a work, – indeed isn’t it one of the glories of our art that so many of the great masterpieces encourage an almost limitless variety of interpretation? For me conducting Elgar is often about dignity, restraint, balance and subtlety. It seems to me that the reason why Elgar is often so passionate is that he refuses to tread the path of Mahlerian or Straussian excess. This is not to say that English music is less emotional – I would fight to my last breath to prove the opposite – but somehow a performance that keeps the balance between expressivity and objectivity will often move beyond one which tends to the overblown or hysterical. I’m not claiming that Barenboim’s performances approach either extreme, but the issue of creating a performance is a complex one, about which we all have differing opinions.

In much the same way I was surprised that Barenboim claimed, in his Elgar Medal acceptance speech, that Jacqueline du Pré was a great Elgarian. Without any question her famed recording of the Cello Concerto will always stand as a benchmark interpretation of this extraordinary work, and certainly as a retired cellist myself, that CD  will always hold sway on my record shelves.  At the same time – and being devil’s advocate as always – I feel the greatness of this recording lies in the personality of the artist, and is perhaps further aided by the tragedy that unfolded in her life, rather than any particularly objective connection with Elgar’s music, not least in her very liberal disregard of many of Elgar’s carefully placed markings. Needless to say, when I tweeted something along these lines, I quickly felt the collective raised eyebrows  of the traditionalists.

In a sense, all this underlines some of the basic issues when interpreting any music. Every conductor and soloist will tell you that they are merely the servants of the music. And yet in how many different ways do they serve it! One man’s passion for expressivity is another’s grotesque waywardness. Another major facet of interpretation is how much should the beauty of the moment relate to the discipline of the structural whole, and thank goodness there are no set answers to these questions! Where is the golden mean?

Which of course brings us nicely to Gabrieli’s forthcoming release of Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, another glorious English work where not only the music but the subject matter address many of the questions pertaining to the way we live our lives. The argument of cheerfulness against reflectiveness is not merely a conceit but something that has been addressed across all  philosophies throughout time, so what is particularly wonderful about Handel’s settings of Milton is that he refuses to judge or lecture. There is the most extraordinary ebullience in the cheerful music that is contrasted by a glorious melancholy in the reflective music. The libretto of the final section composed by Jennens (also librettist of the Messiah), draws the conclusion that providing there is nothing pathological in ones’s melancholy or ludicrously wanton in one’s jollity these aspects of humanity can be combined in a ‘golden mean’. L’Allegro is in my opinion really one of the greatest works Handel ever wrote. Whilst much-loved by Handelian scholars and enthusiasts, I do hope that our new recording will help to rehabilitate this wonderful piece amongst the general public.

Indeed, when conducting Elgar’s Second Symphony it made me wonder how close in spirit the work is to Handel; certainly the glorious scherzo reflects the world of L’Allegro, and the outstanding funeral music of the slow movement that of il Penseroso.  The finale is especially challenging to bring off; I think of it as a ‘moderato’ movement combining so many of the characteristics that we’ve heard earlier in the symphony.

As the more erudite amongst you will know, there is in fact another English symphony known as L’Allegro ed il pensieroso  (sic) by C V Stanford, maybe that’s for another blog!

Copies of our latest CD can be purchased at a specially discounted price of £13.48 from our friends at Presto Classics until 13 May. Click here for full details.

Paul McCreesh – Sunday 10 May 2015