By Greg Cahill | From the May-June 2021 issue of Strings magazine
London Symphony Orchestra music director Sir Simon Rattle has called Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61, “a monster… a masterpiece.” At about 50 minutes, that late-Romantic masterwork is one of the longest and most challenging concertos in the violin repertoire. It is also one of the most beautiful, filled with lush lyrical phrases. French violinist Renaud Capuçon, 45, was up to the challenge. In the midst of the pandemic lockdown, he recorded the concerto with the LSO, under Rattle’s direction, and a cast of masked musicians.
The orchestra has a long history with Elgar and his famous violin concerto: The LSO accompanied Fritz Kreisler in the premiere of the work in 1910 and Elgar became the venerable orchestra’s principal conductor the following year. On the newly released Warner Classics album, the concerto is paired with Elgar’s Violin Sonata in E minor, Op. 82 (featuring pianist Stephen Hough), which Capuçon has described as “a work of nobility and tenderness.” I spoke with Capuçon about his approach to the works, and what it was like playing with an orchestra that has such a strong connection to the composer.
Tell me about your personal connection to Elgar and the violin concerto in particular.
I discovered this concerto when I was quite young—it was a recording of Sir Elgar and Menuhin, and I always loved it, but I didn’t have the opportunity to practice it when I was studying in Berlin between 1994 and 1996, and then began to work. I played the piece for the first time in 2006.
What was it like working with the LSO, which has had such a long and illustrious history with Elgar?
While working with the LSO is always a treat, I have to say that knowing that the LSO had played it with Elgar himself—and Menuhin, and Kreisler, and Heifetz—made me feel very, very small. But it also felt like surfing a wave of sound because they played the music so well.
Elgar himself was a violinist. How is that reflected in this concerto?
You can certainly feel that Elgar was a violinist, because he’s really using the violin to think, and it’s very well written. Also, the fact that it was written for Kreisler makes it clear that it’s a violinist’s piece.
You paid tribute to Kreisler on your 2007 recording Capriccio. What has drawn you to this legendary violinist and how has he inspired you?
Kreisler is a frame of reference for everybody. I remember my teacher speaking to me when I was about eight or nine about meeting Kriesler. She met him when she was young and heard him in concert, and she was always fascinated with what she heard and spoke to me about him and his amazing and sweet sound. Of course, I am incredibly inspired by him, and the chance to play one of his violins, his 1721 Stradivari, was an incredible opportunity. Being a violinist, you always have to give homage to Kreisler because he’s the one that inspired us most.
The lyrical phrases in the concerto’s Allegro Molto movement are some of the most beautiful ever composed in Western music, so very tender. How did you connect to these?
I think everyone knows the concerto thanks to this amazing moment, and its lyrical phrases are all around the concerto, returning over and again. It’s one of the concertos you can feel the most with the violin. It’s just incredible.
Your chamber partner, pianist Stephen Hough, has described the sonata as “dangerous music, in that it can get so close to sentimentality, but it never tips over the edge.”
When Stephen plays the sonata, it’s clearly a love dialogue between the piano and violin. It’s like he wants to say he’s in love, but he can’t really say it and it’s going back and forth. Stephen is an amazing pianist, and we’ve been able to dig into the music. It was clear that we both are in love with the piece, which made it easy to meet in the middle.
What should violinists understand when approaching these works?
I think if there is one thing that you should know as a violinist when you play the Elgar concerto and sonata, it is that they should sing. You should let the violin sing from the beginning to the end and let the opalescent tone of your sound be the first to appear in this amazing music.