A Rare Sighting of Elgar’s Second Symphony

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Elgar: Yefim Bronfman (piano), the Cleveland Orchestra / Nikolaj Znaider (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio. 2.3.2018. (MSJ)

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.5 in E-flat major, op.73

Elgar – Symphony No.2 in E-flat major, op.63

Audience psychology is fascinating. One wonders just how many factors go into shaping an audience’s response. It is interesting to have watched this in Cleveland over the years, regarding English repertory. American orchestras play much less English music than the orchestras of Great Britain, for though the nations share a language, there are major cultural differences. And Cleveland has not been a welcoming port over the years, with its strongly mitteleuropäisch focus for most of the last century. George Szell conducted little English music other than Delius’ Irmelin Prelude and a couple of pieces by the cosmopolitan Sir William Walton. Lorin Maazel recorded Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Lynn Harrell in the 1970s, and Christoph von Dohnányi nothing but the thorny modernism of Birtwistle. Only in recent decades has music director Franz Welser-Möst consciously widened the repertory to include prominent works from the British Isles.

This time around, a rare visit from Elgar’s Symphony No.2, last performed in Cleveland a quarter of a century ago, was a welcome experience, which many in the audience cheered with a standing ovation. Another part of the crowd was also standing, if only to flee the concert hall and rid themselves of a piece they clearly didn’t like. The gentleman nearby in the dress circle started checking his watch and sighing after ten minutes. What is it about the piece that eludes many people? Is it simply its rarity in the Cleveland repertory?

Heaven knows, Elgar didn’t do himself any favors. While his contemporary Mahler was piloting a new kind of orchestration on the continent — deploying a huge ensemble with x-ray clarity — Elgar took Brahms’ thick blend and added another layer of saturated Straussian color on top. Many must be fatigued, trying to understand why the composer went to so much trouble, and Elgar does not easily yield that information. The symphony’s surfaces are mostly bright and vigorous, a sort of post-romantic hybrid of Beethoven’s Eroica and Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben. But, in that heroic context, why Elgar’s strange turns of direction, the dark cul-de-sacs that spin off from the main thrust? And above all, why the finale that seems to start confidently, yet fails to rise to a climax after multiple tries, only to sag down into an exhausted sunset?

Something else is going on here. Elgar’s soul can only be seen obliquely. He was the first English composer to be internationally successful after a long dry spell, and coinciding with the expansion of the British empire, he became something of a national mascot—heady stuff for a self-taught, middle-class outsider. But the role became a burden, and perhaps the truth is that the Second is from a depressed artist desperately trying to keep up a false front of cheer. In the end, he couldn’t sustain the charade any more, and it collapsed.

In 1911, the London premiere audience didn’t want to hear that narrative, for their empire was about to do something similar. Perhaps a certain percentage of the Cleveland audience also didn’t want to hear and embrace this subversive message, but a strong majority found it resonant and responded warmly to the orchestra’s passion under Nikolaj Znaider.

Znaider’s advocacy is as committed as it is unexpected. Born in Denmark to Polish-Israeli parents, he first came to fame as a concert violinist. But in recent years, he has made strong inroads as a conductor. And Elgar’s Second clearly speaks to him, for he led it confidently from memory, with real urgency.

Znaider’s headlong opening tempo might have left some overwhelmed, but it is authentic, as proven by Elgar’s own recording. Conductors such as Barbirolli and Sinopoli have made convincing arguments for taking a broader tempo to let in a little air, but Znaider made the breathlessness part of the argument, feeding the desperation and shadows that lurk beneath the bright surface.

Those shadows come to the fore in the second movement, which could be taken as a reference to the funeral march in the Eroica. Elgar deflected by claiming it was about the death of King Edward VII, when in fact it was more likely a personal response to the deaths of two of his close friends. With a range from funereally somber to downright uncanny, one passage evoked misty ghosts swirling up out of the ground, with a particularly deep and stirring string resonance.

The third movement scherzo was crisp and appropriately bewildering with its continuous harmonic side-slips. The pounding passage at the heart — the moment where Elgar almost lets the mask fall completely — shook the whole concert hall. The finale ripely imploded, subsiding in waves of loss with close attention to the softer dynamics. Znaider let the final chord trail off into nothingness and held still for several seconds. In the instant before the majority of the crowd launched into a warm ovation, one elderly gentleman in the balcony could be heard muttering, ‘Oy, vey’.

Perhaps that listener felt more at home in the simpler world of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, which shares the same key as the Elgar and not much else. Unlike the latter’s elaborate smoke and mirrors, the last of Beethoven’s five piano concertos is straightforwardly majestic and poised. And longtime Cleveland favorite Yefim Bronfman gave it sobriety and majesty, enthusiastically supported by Znaider and the players. Bronfman rewarded the audience cheers with a tender and personal performance of Schumann’s Arabeske.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

1 thought on “A Rare Sighting of Elgar’s Second Symphony”

  1. As always, I love your ability to amusingly educate me to the history around the creation of the works. Thanks for continuing to share your appreciation and exploration of symphonic music. I wish you had access to the reasons for the exodus of concert-goers. Were there comments to the symphony support staff about the choice? Surely it wasn’t the execution or the conductor. Your supposition is insightful, but I would love to hear the departers’ reasons. Was it like the angry rebellion of those who first heard other controversial pieces? Stravinsky is the only one that comes to mind, but I know there were others.


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