The London Proms have returned. Over the course of the weekend, the Berlin Staatskapelle played Elgar’s First and Second Symphonies under the baton of Daniel Barenboim. It is always a pleasure to hear a great non-British orchestra under a great non-British conductor play Elgar. Somehow all the barnacles of tradition and convention are stripped away and you hear the music first-hand, afresh.
When I was a schoolboy the Scottish National Orchestra under Alexander Gibson undertook an Elgar season. What a revelation it was. Yehudi Menuhin, who famously recorded the violin concerto in 1932 with the composer conducting, performed to a packed house. I was standing at the back. Nowadays, the only violinist who fills the hall in Glasgow like this is Nicola Benedetti. (She’s playing Shostakovich in the London Prom on Tuesday). Menuhin, ever a generous man, was actually playing in a slum. In 1962 somebody threw away a cigarette following a boxing match in St Andrews Hall and the magnificent edifice, all but the façade, went up in a puff of smoke. That it took the City Chambers twenty eight years to replace the hall is a dark stain on the record of the city fathers who for decades told the populace what was good for them and in the latter half of the twentieth century created an asphalt jungle of concrete flyovers and underpasses heading nowhere. The trams and trolley buses had already vanished. Sauchiehall Street conveyed nothing but tumbleweed. Of a Saturday evening I would take the electric train from the west end along a deserted Clydeside dominated by a huge empty and derelict granary. At Charing Cross I would alight and head for the river across a mud bath where the pile drivers were gouging out the future M8. Stranded in this blighted landscape stood the Gaiety Cinema where the SNO had become refugees. I imagine Menuhin must have been reminded of Paris in 1944 when he returned to the newly liberated city to resurrect culture.
In that same season, Jacqueline du Pre was to play the Elgar Cello Concerto but she was indisposed. (Might this have been the start of her tragic and debilitating illness?) Andre Navarra stood in at short notice. I remember the spike of his cello kept slipping!
The First Symphony made a huge impression on me with its opening A Flat theme, nobilmente. I was sitting next to a pal of mine who ostentatiously opened his copy of The Daily Record I think in some vague protest against the British Empire but even he let the paper slip to the floor. What else did the SNO play? I remember the Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Falstaff, and the Variations on an Original Theme, Enigma, the enigma being that Elgar never told us what the original theme was. It’s like Fermat’s last theorem, a tease. Elgar liked such mysteries. He inscribed the score of the violin concerto “Aqui esta encarrada el alma de…” (Here is enshrined the soul of…) Of who? I remember Sir Michael Tippett conducted Enigma. I was sitting in the front row, barely six feet from him. He was very moved. He actually sang all the variations as he conducted, from Nimrod to the end.
Daniel Barenboim came on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning principally to talk about an up-coming concert in aid of research into Multiple Sclerosis, the condition that thirty years ago took away his wife Jacqueline du Pre so cruelly. He spoke very warmly of the Proms, of its attentive audience and particularly of its adventurous programming. This certainly struck a chord with me. In an age when “bums on seats” are so important, and when many orchestras’ subscription series can be very conservative, and repetitive, the Proms seem to be able to fill the vast capacity of the Royal Albert Hall every night with music that can be extremely audacious. On Sunday night, for example, Elgar 2 was paired with the UK premiere of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Deep Time.
The mood of Elgar 2 is quite unlike any other piece I can think of. In many ways it harks back to Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Both are on a vast canvas; both in E flat; both have a funeral march in the second movement. Both have some connection with disillusionment. Beethoven was disillusioned with Napoleon declaring himself Emperor. In the Elgar the sense is more abstract. There is a wistfulness, a profound nostalgia for something that is being lost. Elgar lingers for a while, in a coda perhaps reminiscent of the close of Brahms 3. The rendition on Sunday night was beautiful.
Then something extraordinary happened. The Staatskapelle played Pomp & Circumstance March No 1 as an encore. It was extraordinary because they had already done the same on Saturday night. It was as if they were hijacking the bill of fare of the Last Night, and divesting it of its jingoism. As if to underline a point, Maestro Barenboim made a speech – another Last Night tradition. To be honest, it’s a bit of a cliché, to say that in a fractured world music has the healing power to bring people together. But is it true? Didn’t the Nazis purloin the music of Richard Wagner for their own nefarious purposes?
It would be no exaggeration to say that Daniel Barenboim is the preeminent musician in the world today. I think of him as having assumed the mantle following the untimely death of Lord Menuhin in 1999. His work with the West East Divan Orchestra has put him in a position, like it or not, of moral leadership. He has taken the orchestra to Israel, and to Palestine. He wants to take them to Tehran. Now, it seemed to me, he was wading into the Brexit debate. He is worried about the parlous state of the world, about religious fanaticism, and, in a European context, about isolationism.
But what exactly was he saying? He said he wasn’t being political, a remark that elicited some ironic laughter. His solution to the problems of the world? Education. (Tony Blair would have said education education education.) He might have said coffee bars in book shops. His remarks ended up as runic and enigmatic as any quotation Elgar might have inscribed above his score. I think I prefer the Shelley quote Elgar put at the head of his Second Symphony.
Rarely, rarely comest thou, spirit of delight.