Two giants of British music - Edward Elgar and Harrison Birtwistle with Daniel Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin, Prom 4 Royal Albert Hall. Barenboim's Elgar credentials go back decades to the early years of his marriage to Jacqueline du Pré, when they made exciting music together with the trendiest young crowd in the business at the time. Over the years Barenboim's approach to Elgar has matured, becoming more magisterial and more elegant. Though Elgar was thoroughly English, he was not a "Little Englander". Though celebrated by the Establishment., he wasn't born to the Establishment but made his own way. In his day, there was integration between British and European music. Elgar was a citizen of the world well aware of what was happening around him.
Thus Barenboim's sophisticated, cosmopolitan Elgar Symphony no 2 in E flat major, where the "Spirit of Delight" flowed with graceful confidence, truly "nobilimente". each theme suggesting open vistas and expansive horizons. There are hints of the kind of music one might associate with celebration - holidays at spas, gala occasions, even the Proms of Sir Henry Wood. But the mood changes. Celli and basses introduce a darker mood. The themes return, but more urgent, descending into haunted quietude. When the expansive tutti return, they seem defiant, rushing towards frantic climax. Speaking like a poet, Elgar said that this was "a sort of malign influence wandering through a summer night in a garden". The themes in the Larghetto were stretched,just enough to emphasize the idea of fragility, of holding onto something elusive. "Rarely. rarely comest Thou, O Spirit of Delight" ...... "Wherefore hast thou left me now/ Many a day and night? Far less funeral march than personal and deeply felt nostalgia for something inevitably slipping away.
Thus the wildness of the Rondo, swirling cross-currents, cut off mid flow in a short, sharp climax. . Elgar wrote, enigmatically, "Venice and Tintagel" , referring possibly to pleasant times he'd enjoyed in the past, both places being popular with turn of the century travellers. There are even hints of tea dance music and jazz. Think Thomas Mann Death in Venice, though Elgar got there first., completing the symphony before the novella was published. In the circulating themes and sense of constant movement, perhaps we can imagine the idea of throngs of tourists, each on individual voyages, which will inevitably come to an end. The bustle and wild, whipping lines with which the movement ends certainly suggest hurried departure. Elgar and his peers weren't to know that the era of European expansion was soon to end, but we cannot blank out our awareness of the war and what followed. Nor should we : music isn't just ink on paper. Art engages the soul. Thus the final movement, the Moderato e Maestoso, seemed to glow, the last chords fading slowly, like dying embers. Dignified and very moving.
At Prom 2 the previous evening, Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin had performed Elgar Symphony no. 1 in A flat major (1908) together with Sibelius Violin Concerto (1904) with soloist Lisa Bathiashvili. Two works by almost contemporary composers, written within a similar period. Interesting combination, but not nearly so intriguing as Prom 4 pairing Elgar Symphony no 2 (1910) with Harrison Birtwistle's Deep Time (2017). Since that's an important new work, it deserves a piece all on its own, which I've written about here.
But one more observation on Elgar the European. For their encore on Saturday, Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin launched into the famous Elgar Pomp and Circumstance March no 1. Brilliant wit ! That piece has become hackneyed in the popular mind, having been associated with jingoism, flag waving and Last Night of the Proms silliness. Which is ironic since pomposity is not a good thing. "Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!" Othello is in agony, having been tricked by Iago into doubting Desdemona. His past victories and the status he won through war have come to naught. He'll end up losing everything. Because he's listened to a fraudster! It was wonderful to hear the piece played as serious music and as a proper concert work. Refined and stylish, yet also beaming with good humour. How many in the audience "got it" I wonder ?