During the recent Lincoln Center festival celebrating the music of Edward Elgar, I was reminded of a remark that Rudyard Kipling, the composer’s contemporary and kindred spirit, once made about a writer whose name I can’t remember: The fellow, Kipling said, was guilty of “compulsive vividness.” We were somewhere toward the end of a masterly performance by Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra of Elgar’s gargantuan First Symphony. We had already been taken on a long ramble across a barren moor, got caught in an electrical storm of apocalyptic proportions, experienced a vision of salvation in the form of levitating strings, stumbled into a miasma of Gothic mist, been chilled to the bone in a sudden frost, and were now back on that slog across the moor, only to find ourselves being lashed by great gusts of orchestral wind. Where, I thought longingly, was the village pub-and would it still be open when we got there?
I was having, as they say, a déjà vu -a crashing reminder of life as I lived it for several years in the 80’s in that not always green or pleasant land of England. The stereotype of the English stiff upper lip conceals a frightening reality: Behind the theatrical displays, the muddling through, the chintz and the irony, lurks an abundance of envy, discontent and depression. And, as I discovered in the course of the London Symphony Orchestra’s three concerts at Avery Fisher Hall, no Englishman better exemplifies this Pandora’s box than that outwardly dignified but inwardly panic-stricken Edwardian par excellence, Elgar.
If Richard Wagner’s endlessly mounting, never finally resolved harmonic progressions conjure up sex without orgasm, the mighty utterances in Elgar’s larger works suggest nothing so much as that ingrained English striving for social acceptance. A late bloomer, Elgar first came to public attention just as he was turning 40 with the Imperial March , a piece of pomp written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. From then on, until he stopped actively composing at the age of 62-by which point he had, musically speaking, been consigned to the attic-he played to the hilt the part of England’s Greatest Composer, a role for which he camouflaged himself in the upper-class outfits of fox hunter, golfer, fisherman and clubman. That he was also fond of kite-flying says a good deal more about his music, which, when it was not being blimpish, could be highly individualistic, athletic and downright fey.
Hearing the L.S.O. in its second visit to New York in two years under the auspices of the Great Performers series-last year, the orchestra focused on the Nordic splendors of Jean Sibelius-I feel safe saying that you have to be English to play Elgar. Under its magnificently supple music director, Mr. Davis, the L.S.O. has joined the pantheon of the world’s great orchestras. Its balance is faultless; its sections brilliant across the board; its intonation and attack exemplary. That it does not have the sort of high-relief identity honed by each of its peers-the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony-is not a deficiency. The current L.S.O. plays everything terrifically well, from Haydn to Pierre Boulez. In a rather audacious exercise in comparison-begging, its New York programs paired Elgar with an indubitably greater predecessor in symphonic power: Beethoven. The orchestra’s superbly charged performances of the Sixth and Seventh symphonies and the Piano Concerto No. 4, with Emanuel Ax as soloist, proved that, as with so much else, the L.S.O.’s Beethoven is up there with the very best.
But I can’t imagine any non-English orchestra matching the sheer conviction that Mr. Davis and his forces brought to their countryman’s pieces, which can so easily puff up with bluster. The Introduction and Allegro for Strings , which was written for the L.S.O. in 1905, dashed beautifully between panache and poignancy. The Serenade for Strings was like a bath in Devon cream. The musical portraits in Elgar’s most consistently appealing masterpiece, The Enigma Variations , were sketched with the luminous density of an illustration by Gustave Doré. To hear how the L.S.O. kept the First Symphony from shattering into a million pieces was a demonstration of how deeply such picaresque nuttiness runs in the English bloodstream.
Only during the Cello Concerto in E minor , with Steven Isserlis as soloist, did I want to cry “Enough!” For me, this beloved work goes pretty much nowhere after it drills that famously noble first sentence into your skull. (As with so many of Elgar’s tunes, which reach for some ineffable never-never land, I can’t even remember how that one ends up.) And although Mr. Isserlis played the solo part with exceptional sweetness of tone, I found myself irritated by his physical manner. What is it about this piece that puts cellists into such paroxysms of ecstasy? With his head tilted back, eyes closed, profile lifted just so, rapt expression fixed like one of Matthias Grünewald’s witnesses to the Crucifixion, Mr. Isserlis brought to mind the musician who did more to establish the cult of the Possessed Cellist than any other: the late Jacqueline du Pré, whose paroxysms in the same piece plays such a vivid role in Hilary and Jackie , the new, dreadfully overwrought film about the cellist’s tragic life. (The film might better be entitled Shine II in that it tells the only story that the movies have ever been able to come up with about musical prodigies: To be a great virtuoso is to go insane.)
Watching Mr. Isserlis in what might have been a simulation of the movie’s simulation was like seeing an illustration of what makes Elgar, for all his shining moments, so essentially not a truly great composer. To borrow George Santayana’s famous definition of sentimentality, here was the will doing the work of the imagination-miming a sense of the sublime that was constantly being aspired to but was never quite achieved.