Sir Edward and the Sow’s Ear

Photo courtesy Allegro Films

By the same distance that the Elgar Cello Concerto is a better piece of music than the Rach 3, so is Hilary and Jackie a more honorable piece of movie making than Shine. As a teller of truths about music, or as a purveyor of plausible fictions, it far outshines such other cinematic horrors as Immortal Beloved, Amadeus or the consummate awfulness of Ken Russell’s Mahler (which, you might be thrilled to know, has just been reissued on DVD after years of blessed unavailability). It may be true that Emily Watson’s handling of the cello bow doesn’t match the passion of the music she is made out to be playing; what strikes me as more important is that, on her own, she creates a level of passion-driven strangeness of comparable intensity to that of Jacqueline du Pré herself. Her presence intimidates me almost to the same extent that du Pré’s did the one time we met; the two occasions in my life that I have been struck tongue-tied during an interview were with her and with Maria Callas. Furthermore, if you compare Watson’s perform ance technique to such classic ineptitudes as Paul Henreid’s cello in the Bette Davis weeper Deception (badly in need of reissue, by the way) or Robert Taylor’s baton in Song of Russia (in no such need), she comes off as a veritable Yo-Yo Ma of musical probity.

Elgar abides. New York had an Elgar bash a couple of weeks ago conducted by Sir Colin Davis (Elgar/Beethoven, actually, which couldn’t have done Beethoven much harm), and the reviews bordered on the ecstatic. The scraps of sketches for a Third Symphony, which Elgar puttered over in his last days and then left with deathbed orders that they were not to be tinkered with, have now been tinkered with and fabricated into a full-length work, raising questions of morality as well as musical quality. The gadfly Nigel Kennedy has made his second recording of the Violin Concerto, this time with Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Orchestra on EMI, unearthing hitherto unsuspected strengths in the work. And now there’s the movie, and with it reports that the Cello Concerto (which the Emily/Jackie character confronts as though it bore the full and only meaning of life) pushes its way onto the charts to join the curiously diverse company of Hildegard von Bingen and the Rach 3.

Even if the world needed another Elgar symphony, a matter which I will argue, the sow’s ear being passed off as a silk purse under the cop-out full title of The Sketches for Symphony No. 3 Elaborated by Anthony Payne merely inflicts Payne on Elgar’s already shaky reputation. By 1932, Elgar’s composing had been in decline; the Cello Concerto, his last truly rounded-off work, was already 13 years old. Still, the BBC asked for a new orchestral work, and the doddering Elgar set about the task, sketching new material, orchestrating brief bits here and there, taking over music composed for uncompleted projects during the preceding decade. By the time of his death in February 1934, he had assembled a bundle of vestigial starts and stops that, he was wise enough to realize, were beyond salvation. Yet the tinkering, which he had forbidden with just that word, began soon after.

I am no admirer of Elgar’s symphonies: The First starts off with the only music I know that I could qualify as "morose"; the Second is all last week’s Yorkshire pudding. Elgar seemed to need a soloist to light a path through the murk. Nigel Kennedy not only blazes his trail through the nearly hourlong Violin Concerto, he hangs colored lights and streamers along the way. I have always been amused by the work’s self-indulgence; Kennedy/Rattle have me hearing it as music. The Cello Concerto is all music, the deepest, purest and saddest of his works — a requiem, you might say, for Elgar’s own expressive power, and for a kind of music that nobody could, or would, write again. If the movie at least succeeds in bringing this music into your life, that’s accomplishment enough. There are three du Pré perform ances currently available on CD, plus another on the Christopher Nupen video documentary, where it is preceded by a wrenching scene with the real Jackie, her body already ravaged by the multiple sclerosis that killed her, coaching a young student in the workings of her own fingers, her own soul, in this music.

That’s why I am appalled by this utterly wrong-headed, if resonantly pub- licized, attempt to patch a wretched memento of Elgar’s senility onto a chron ology so nobly ended years before. Some of the music, and all of the gluing and whittling, is by Payne himself. The most interesting product of his endeavor, in fact, is not the NMC disc of Andrew Davis’ performance (with the BBC Symphony) but the companion disc in which Payne, with violin, piano and occasional orchestral excerpts, does an honest job of explaining the nature of the sketches and what he has done to them. The music itself is dreary, its progress through 56 minutes clumsy and unconvincing, but you come away, at least, with some insights into the whole process of silk-pursemanship. What you donlearn, however, is why he bothered.

Can’t wait? The work gets its local premiere on Halloween next, with Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony, at Orange County’s Performing Arts Center.

Those who can’t compose, I read somewhere, write. I refer you to a recent disc on Hyperion, offering no less than Sir Donald Tovey’s one and only venture into the lordly form of the Piano Concerto, a work in A major dating from 1903. If you’ve visited this space very often, you know of my adoration for the Scots Tovey as a writer about music; his Essays in Musical Analysis: Chamber Music (still in print, but abridged) were the catalyst for my abandoning medical studies — which, in truth, had also abandoned me — and entering upon my current nefarious practice. Had I known Sir Donald’s compositional predilections at the time, I might have flinched, but only for a moment. Think back to Sir Edward, and shed a tear that that doughty figure had denied the world a piano concerto; then recoil at the news of the existence of the Next Best Thing, its Elgarian accents depressingly recognizable. Sir Donald’s hilariously ponderous concerto has as its disc mate music by a fellow Scot, a Scottish Concerto in fact, by Sir Alexander Mackenzie, composed — or, more accurately, cobbled together — out of wayward folk-song fragments in 1897. Steven Osborne is the unquestioning pianist; Martin Brabbins leads the BBC Scottish Symphony. Forget the Yorkshire pudding; try a spoonful of last week’s oatmeal.

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