Putting history into practice: Elgar’s Cello Concerto

I am undertaking research into performance practices associated with Edward Elgar and the English early 20th century performance style. I have a main focus on the Cello Concerto which was recorded twice with conductor Edward Elgar, cellist Beatrice Harrison and the New Symphony Orchestra (named the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra between 1915 and 1928) in 1919/20 and 1928. These recordings formed the basis of my artistic research project at the Royal College of Music, London, where I in May, 2019 performed the “Adagio” from the Cello Concerto in an early 20th century performance style as part of a lecture recital on this topic.

I recorded the entire concerto in late February 2020 with an orchestra consisting of London freelancers and conductor Christopher Quentin McMullen-Laird. Performing on gut strings, and with historical brass instruments, helped us create an authentic sound, rather different from what one is used to hear in concert halls these days. The recording will be presented in a lecture at the RCM “Music & Ideas” series on Febuary 27th where I will demonstrate how early 20th century performance practice can be used in performances also today.

Musicians of the early 20th century had a different musical ideal than we have today. Performers employed an excessive use of a variety of portamenti, huge and frequent tempo flexibilities, unalignment between soloist and accompaniment, and a different ideal of sound. Employing these factors in performances of music of the time creates a completely new meaning to the music. I feel that musicians’ creative space has become much more limited today than during earlier times. 21st century performances emphasize what we today would describe as “beautiful” sound, good intonation, steady pulse and togetherness. Early recordings suggest that performances of the early 20th century prioritised individuality, flexibility and variety – aspects that allowed creativity and spontaneity. Through performances of a particular style of a “forgotten” practice, such as Elgar’s, practitioners may be able to discover new expressive devices to use, and ways to perform and understand music that broadens their creativity and acceptance towards a larger uniqueness and individuality of musical performances today.

Below can you listen to the recording conducted by Elgar in 1928.

Elgar - Cello concerto - Harrison / NSO / Elgar
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Published at 2017, December 22
Edward Elgar

Cello concerto op.85

I. Adagio - Moderato
II. Allegro molto
III. Adagio
IV. Allegro -
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