Friday, November 26, 2004

Elgar blimey

We're learning a new piece: the Elgar violin sonata. It's a peculiar experience because I don't know very well how it's supposed to go. Mostly I learn pieces that I know by ear well enough to sing backwards (if I could sing at all). But this is different. The only recording I have is unsatisfactory - it must be because it left me completely cold and reluctant to learn the work, so I've not listened to it again. My friend Margaret Fingerhut persuaded me that I was missing something special, so Tom and I decided to take the plunge. Now, approaching the work purely from the inside, having cast aside preconceptions, I'm finding that it is one of the most emotionally devastating pieces I've ever had to tackle. Inside the apparently staunch frame, this is the sound of a soul falling to pieces.

The sonata inhabits the same world as the Piano Quintet, the Second Symphony, the concertos - works I adore, but, obviously, have never had the chance to be part of. It's always seemed to me that Elgar was the voice of his age, mourning the cataclysm of the First World War and the end of an era. But this music is so inward-looking that I think it has much more to do with Elgar as a personality - and one that is deeply tortured. I'm simply gobsmacked by the way he can take what seems about to be an innocuous, four-square melody and, instead of developing it, unravel it entirely with harmonies in free fall, or rhythms that give way abruptly to episodes that make time stand still. I know of nothing truly comparable, certainly not in the violin sonata repertoire. It's astounding, powerful and both frightening and humbling to play.