I am delighted that, in the centenary year of these compositions, the Brodsky Quartet members made these beautiful recordings of Elgar’s chamber music, as I never see them in concert – three stand to play, with the cellist jacked up on a platform, and I cannot abide watching the violinists and violist do knees-bends, walk and weave about. If I am going to have to keep my eyes closed, I may as well stay at home and listen to them on radio or record. This is presumably their final recording with Daniel Rowland, first-violinist since 2007, as the vastly experienced Gina McCormack has just replaced him.
In a note in the booklet, Jacqueline Thomas tells us that the ensemble began in 1972 as the Cleveland Quartet, when the players were eleven and twelve. When the players went to the RNCM in Manchester in 1980, they chose the new name Brodsky because of Adolph Brodsky’s connection with the city in general and the College in particular. Finding that Elgar had dedicated his E-minor Quartet to the Brodsky Quartet, they began to champion it and recorded it with the Delius as their first release in 1984, for ASV.
I think their decades of work on the piece really show: they have slowed down slightly in all three movements, especially in the Piacevole, but any expansiveness is well justified. They perfectly catch the mood of the opening to the Allegro moderato – hesitant and deeply nostalgic – and play with passionate commitment, not to mention some terrific portamentos. A certain amount of slightly stressful tone from the first-violin can be forgiven. Although their timing in the Piacevole is the longest among the performances in my collection by about a minute, they keep it moving. They take a very rhapsodic view, allowing for quite a lot of ebb and flow, and observe a good range of dynamics. The ending is lovely. The Allegro molto starts very positively and again they play passionately, with a fluid attitude to tempo which strikes me as authentic. The little passage where the the second-violin, viola and cello parts are marked ponticello is well-handled and the coda is very exciting. The recording quality achieved by Jeremy Hayes and Jonathan Cooper is irreproachable.
The Brodsky musicians did not take up the Piano Quintet until a few years after the Quartet, but they are used to playing it with Martin Roscoe, one of the most astute and style-conscious pianists. This work also begins hesitantly but flowers into an evocative, nostalgic passage before the main Allegro comes in. Elgar deploys a wealth of themes and motifs, including the opening notes of the plainsong ‘Salve Regina’, a theme that, as a Roman Catholic, he obviously loved very much. Another theme is characterised by many commentators as Spanish, although if any Spaniard is involved, he is striding over the Malvern hills wearing plus-fours, a tweed jacket and a deerstalker. Roscoe is beautifully integrated with the strings but when he cuts loose, the piano sound is really grand. As in the String Quartet, Elgar eschews a Scherzo and feels free to give us an expansive Adagio. It is sympathetically phrased at the delicate start, Paul Cassidy’s viola-playing is very fine and the strings ‘sing’ the entire movement with the same commitment and intensity that they showed in Opus 83. Roscoe is very much part of the mix and when, after the more disturbed, passionate central section, the opening idea returns in varied form, the musicians set the seal on a lovely piece of playing – the coda is very well done. The Finale begins in a rather world-weary mood with a reminiscence of the opening movement but, via a brief piano cadenza, takes a more positive turn with a typically surging Elgarian Allegro subject. This movement too, replete with new themes and further reminiscences of what has gone before, is superbly played and the triumphant peroration of the great final pages is magnificently performed.
American and mainland European ensembles seem not to have fully embraced this wonderful music, which surprises and distresses me. I have used the word passionate several times in this review. Elgar was not only a passionate man but a great European composer and while the String Quartet and the Violin Sonata can happily take their places among the jewels of Late-Romanticism, the Piano Quintet is fully worthy to be set alongside those of Schumann, Brahms, Dvořák, Franck, Fauré and Shostakovich – and I would add those by Adolf Busch, Reger, Saint-Saëns, Martucci, Guido Alberto Fano (with a touch of trumpet added), Reinecke, Suk, Novák, Martinů, Taneyev and Sgambati. If I have omitted a favourite Piano Quintet of any reader, I apologise!
One can find the odd recording from beyond these shores – I must investigate one by the chamber musicians of Lincoln Center – but the burden of proof, as regards Elgar’s Quartet and Quintet, has rested solidly on British pianists and ensembles since about 1921, when the London String Quartet made a much abridged recording of Opus 83 on three sides. The single side of the Piacevole must have been what Elgar and his friend Troyte Griffith were listening to when TG said: “Surely that is as fine a movement as Beethoven?”. Elgar responded: “Yes, it is, and there is something in it that has never been done before.” Asked by TG to elaborate, he said: “Nothing you would understand, merely an arrangement of notes.” A shame he didn’t say more. Compton Mackenzie wanted Elgar to play the piano for an NGS recording of the Quintet with the Spencer Dyke Quartet in 1926, but the composer demurred and the splendid Ethel Hobday was pressed into service. Somehow this performance has passed me by, but it cannot be bad. It is a very authentic performance which Bryan Bishop has posted on his blog and on YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uCh08Ox9Qss.
For the first electric version of the Quintet in October 1933, Elgar suggested Harriet Cohen and the Stratton Quartet. The Stratton’s violist Watson Forbes told me many years later that Cohen had had difficulties with the piano part, owing to her small hands, but the performance still stands up well. Just before Christmas, the Strattons returned to Abbey Road to record the Quartet as a seasonal present for the composer. “When we played the slow movement of the Quartet for the recording, it was just too long and the final grooves would have been covered by the label”, Forbes told me, “so we had to play it slightly faster. But he adored it.” Even though the final timing was only just over eight minutes, the intensity of the playing won the day. In Dr Forbes’s music room was the photograph of Elgar on his deathbed, listening to Cohen and the Strattons playing the Adagio of the Quintet. It had been dedicated to Dr Forbes by the ailing composer.
The 1940s and 1950s were not vintage decades for Elgar’s chamber music but in the mid-1960s we had what may have been the first American recording, an excellent version of the Quartet by the Claremont Quartet. Since then the sluice-gates have opened. A few versions of the Quartet on its own that have stuck in my collection are those by the Music Group of London and the Gabrieli, Coull and Britten Quartets. An extraordinary version of the Quintet came from John Ogdon and the Allegri Quartet. Hugh Maguire, who then led the Allegri, told me that none of the five men really knew the music. They rehearsed at the “rather grand Adam house in Regent’s Park” where Ogdon lived with his pianist wife Brenda Lucas and the piece formed itself slowly over three-or-so rehearsals and two Abbey Road sessions. Perhaps their lack of ‘baggage’ helped them to bring freshness to their task – the Adagio has rarely been so ‘inwardly’ phrased. The performance is doubly important, for its own sake and as a rare chamber-music outing by Ogdon.
I have hung on to CDs of both works by the Sorrel Quartet, including the new Brodsky first-violinist Gina McCormack and the terrific violist Sarah-Jane Bradley, with Ian Brown in the Quintet; and the Goldner Quartet with Piers Lane, bringing an Australian freshness to Elgar – it was Lane’s second recording of the Quintet. This Chandos coupling will go happily on the shelf next to them: it can be recommended without reserve to any newcomer to the music. Recently a misguided attempt has been made to orchestrate the Quintet: Elgar knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote his three chamber works in 1918-19 and he had considerable experience of writing for small ensembles. His vision should be respected.