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Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85, his last notable work, is a cornerstone of the solo cello repertoire. Elgar composed it in the aftermath of the First World War, by when his music had gone out of fashion with the concert-going public. In contrast with Elgar's earlier Violin Concerto, which is lyrical and passionate, the Cello Concerto is for the most part contemplative and elegiac.
The first performance was a débâcle because Elgar and the performers had been deprived of adequate rehearsal time. The work did not achieve wide popularity until the 1960s, when a recording by Jacqueline du Pré caught the public imagination and became a classical best-seller. Elgar made two recordings of the work with Beatrice Harrison as soloist. Since then, leading cellists from Pablo Casals onward have performed the work in concert and in the studio.
The piece was composed during the summer of 1919 at Elgar's secluded cottage "Brinkwells" near Fittleworth, Sussex, where during previous years he had heard the sound of the artillery of World War I rumbling across the Channel at night from France. In 1918, Elgar underwent an operation in London to have an infected tonsil removed, a dangerous operation for a 61-year-old man. After regaining consciousness after sedation, he asked for pencil and paper, and wrote down the melody that would become the first theme from the concerto. He and his wife soon retired to the cottage in an attempt to recover from their health problems. In 1918, Elgar composed three chamber works, which his wife noted were already noticeably different from his previous compositions, and after their premieres in the spring of 1919, he began realising his idea of a cello concerto.
The concerto had a disastrous premiere, at the opening concert of the London Symphony Orchestra's 1919–20 season on 27 October 1919. Apart from the concerto, which the composer conducted, the rest of the programme was conducted by Albert Coates, who overran his rehearsal time at the expense of Elgar's. Lady Elgar wrote, "that brutal selfish ill-mannered bounder ... that brute Coates went on rehearsing." The critic of The Observer, Ernest Newman, wrote, "There have been rumours about during the week of inadequate rehearsal. Whatever the explanation, the sad fact remains that never, in all probability, has so great an orchestra made so lamentable an exhibition of itself. ... The work itself is lovely stuff, very simple – that pregnant simplicity that has come upon Elgar's music in the last couple of years – but with a profound wisdom and beauty underlying its simplicity." Elgar attached no blame to his soloist, Felix Salmond, who played for him again later. Elgar said that if it had not been for Salmond's diligent work in preparing the piece, he would have withdrawn it from the concert entirely.
In contrast with the First Symphony, which received a hundred performances worldwide in just over a year from its premiere, the Cello Concerto did not have a second performance in London for more than a year.
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The work has four movements:
The piece represented, for Elgar, the angst, despair, and disillusionment he felt after the end of the War, and an introspective look at death and mortality. It was a significant change in his style, as he wrote much of his previous works in a noble and jovial style, inspired by the English way of life and the pre-war renaissance of European art.
The first movement is in ternary form with introduction. It opens with a recitative in the solo cello, immediately followed by a short answer from the clarinets, bassoons and horn. An ad lib modified scale played by the solo cello follows. The viola section then presents a rendition of the main theme in Moderato, then passes it to the solo cello who repeats it. The string section plays the theme a third time and then the solo cello modifies it into a fortissimo restatement. The orchestra reiterates, and the cello presents the theme a final time before moving directly into a lyrical E major middle section. This transitions into a similar repetition of the first section. This section omits the fortissimo modified theme in the solo cello. The slower first movement moves directly into the second movement.
The second movement opens with a fast crescendo with pizzicate chords in the cello. Then, the solo cello plays what will be the main motive of the Allegro molto section. Pizzicato chords follow. A brief cadenza is played, and sixteenth-note motive and chords follow. Then a ritardando leads directly to a scherzo-like section which remains until the end.
The slow third movement starts and ends with a lyrical melody, and one theme runs through the entire movement. The end flows directly into the finale (again with no pause). The fourth movement begins with another fast crescendo and ends at fortissimo. The solo cello follows with another recitative and cadenza. The movement's main theme is noble and stately, but with undertones and with many key-changes. Near the end of the piece, the tempo slows into a più lento section, in which a new set of themes appears. The tempo slows further, to the tempo of the third movement, and the theme from that movement is restated. This tempo continues to slow until it becomes stagnant, and the orchestra holds a chord. Then, at the very end of the piece, the recitative of the first movement is played again. This flows into a reiteration of the main theme of the fourth movement, with tension building until the final three chords, which close the piece.
Elgar and Beatrice Harrison made a truncated recording in 1920, using the acoustic recording process. The first electrical complete recording (using a single carbon microphone) was made in 1928, by Harrison, Elgar and the London Symphony Orchestra. A notable later recording was made by Jacqueline du Pré in 1965 with Sir John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra for EMI. During a break in the recording session, the 20-year-old du Pré left the studio, returning to find a large audience of local musicians and critics who had heard that a star was in the making. On hearing her recording, Mstislav Rostropovich is said to have removed the work from his own repertoire. Du Pré's recording has been praised for its passion as well as a secure technique. Barbirolli himself had an association with the concerto from its first days: he was a member of the cello section of the orchestra at its 1919 premiere; and he was the soloist at one of its earliest performances, with the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra under Sir Dan Godfrey.
The BBC Radio 3 feature "Building a Library" has presented comparative reviews of all available versions of the concerto on three occasions. The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music, 2008, has three pages of reviews of the work. The only recording to receive the top recommendation of both the BBC and The Penguin Guide is du Pré's 1965 recording with the LSO and Barbirolli. Other recordings commended by both the BBC and The Penguin Guide are by Beatrice Harrison (1928); Steven Isserlis (1988); Yo-Yo Ma (1985) and Truls Mørk (1999).