Although this concert gave considerable enjoyment to the audience – and to this writer – both performances were problematic in different ways. The Elgar Violin Concerto was extremely interesting and so was the soloist. Alda Dizdari is from Albania, the daughter of a composer, and has been based in Britain for some time. She has made a special study of the Elgar and at the concert she was launching her book Kiss Me Again: A Memoir of Elgar in Unusual Places. She tells how, on the same day, she acquired in London both the Sammons/Wood recording of the Concerto and Sir Henry Wood’s own heavily marked piano score. The book is built round performances she has given in Oxford, Tirana, Oradea, Bacau, Timisoara and Sibiu, some of them with Alexander Walker conducting. She has read the book by W. H. Reed, who helped Elgar with the violin part, and she is aware of the ‘Windflower’ connection – it was the composer’s nickname for Alice Stuart-Wortley, one of his muses and an influence on the Concerto. In fact she misses one vital female connection with the work: the German-American violinist Leonora von Stosch (Lady Speyer) helped Elgar considerably by playing much of the music with him.
Dizdari has a complete command of this fearsome work but it has to be said that on this occasion her interpretation was too protracted, lasting almost an hour. Walker started well in the opening tutti, whipping his young orchestra up into quite a fervour, but once the soloist entered the whole thing became more expansive. When he had another tutti, Walker tried to move things on a little, but Dizdari was having none of it – she clearly wanted to express her deep feelings for the music. She mostly extracts a very fine tone from her 1791 G.B. Ceruti instrument; only sometimes, under pressure on the E-string, does a slight element of ‘shriek’ creep in. She does not throw herself about the stage, thank goodness, unlike some of her contemporaries, and purely as a technical exhibition her playing is good to watch. If she can just pull all the threads together a little more tightly, her interpretation will be formidable.
I very much liked the simple way in which she presented the beautiful first theme of the Andante – some violinists, Pinchas Zukerman to name only one, produce far too thick a tone at this point. Unfortunately Dizdari soon departed from the simplicity and once again we were treated to a very broad view of the music. When it came to the great Finale, she had the full technique for the Allegro molto opening and played all the fast music with splendid technical address; but the broader passages got out of hand. I feel that in placing a large-scale accompanied cadenza within the Finale, Elgar was definitely not trying to hold things up. He surely wanted his soloist to ruminate but to do it within sight of the tempo primo, to reflect the earlier themes but in the context of a basically fast movement. Dizdari almost came to a halt in the cadenza, dissipating the tension she had built up earlier, and the rush to the finishing line came too late to save the day. Nevertheless, she gave us some wonderful moments along the way.
Following the interval Walker and his players, all recent music college graduates, tackled Dvořák’s greatest, most characteristic and most loveable Symphony. It has long been customary to present the opening bars as a slow introduction. I remember Anthony Burton pointing out on Radio 3’s Building a Library that there was no sanction for this practice in the score; and he sent me into a cold sweat by suggesting that it might be interesting to hear Sir Roger Norrington conduct it. I still get the shivers when I think of it. As far as I know, the traditional interpretation goes right back to Dvořák himself, via such conductors as Václav Talich and Oskar Nedbal, and I am very happy with it. However, it does require transitions in the opening Allegro con brio to be particularly smoothly and ingratiatingly handled, and that did not quite happen on this occasion. There were a few little accidents in the orchestra, suggesting that Walker had not had enough time to bend the players to his will. The whole account could have been lighter on its feet, with a little more swing in the waltz-like Allegretto grazioso. Having said that, there were many felicities, especially from the first flute and the other woodwinds, and the performance ended in a blaze of enthusiasm.
After the applause and curtain calls, the orchestra remained while Alexander Walker was presented with the Elgar Society medal by Andrew Neill, vice-president of the Society. The citation stressed how much Walker had done to propagate Elgar’s music in such out-of-the-way places as Belarus, Russia, Poland, Turkey, Albania and Romania. I believe he was awarded the medal last year, but this concert afforded an opportunity for its presentation.