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Somebody once said that the way Elgar chooses to open his Cello Concerto, with those tortured chords sounding as if they have to be excavated from the cello face, is as if Shakespeare had started Hamlet at ‘To be or not to be’.
Most concertos take a little time to come to their main point. if they don’t make you wait until the slow movement – and many do – for their crux, they at least keep the listener waiting through a short orchestral introduction. Elgar was having none of it .
Perhaps the timing of the composition explains it all. In 1918, and aged sixty-one, he had gone through the period of his life where he would have been regarded as a budding composer. In fact, he had already been acknowledged as a national treasure for some time. Now, he was seriously wondering whether some critics were right to write him off as a spent force.
He came around from the anaesthetic after an operation to remove an infected tonsil with this tune already in his head, so he wasn’t going to let it go to waste. he didn’t and it remains one of the most English of all pieces of English music.
Illustration: Mark Millington