At Sunday’s symphony concert we heard one of the two greatest cello pieces ever, Sir Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto.
Fourteen years ago OSO conductor and musical director Rosemary Thomson saw 14-year-old Arnold Choi play it, and she’s wanted to perform it with him ever since.
He’s already visited Vernon for the Dvořák concerto, and on Sunday, he used a 17th century Stradivarius.
For Elgar, this piece represented his despair and disillusionment after the massive losses of the First World War. In contrast with his earlier violin concerto, this meant a major change in style, far removed from his grand depictions of the English way of life, notably the famous pomp and circumstance march, Land of Hope and Glory.
Composed immediately after the war, and premiered with Elgar conducting, the concerto suffered from inadequate rehearsal. Yet, Ernest Newman, critic for The Observer, wrote, “The work itself is lovely stuff, very simple — that pregnant simplicity that has come upon Elgar’s music in the last couple of years — but with a profound wisdom and beauty underlying its simplicity.”
The piece failed to achieve widespread popularity until Jacqueline du Pré’s landmark recording in 1965, conducted by John Barbirolli (who was himself in the cello section at the premiere.)
During a recording break, local musicians and critics arrived after being told something extraordinary was happening, and after hearing the recording, (Russian cellist Mstislav) Rostropovich apparently removed the piece from his own repertoire.
Unlike most concerti this was in four movements, with the first two played as one. Choi’s playing seemed effortless. In the faster moments he tossed out cascading 16th notes, his left hand making incredible leaps on the finger board, and bowing with impossibly rapid repetitions on single notes.
But it was the slow (fourth) movement in which Choi most displayed Elgar’s sadness.
Thomson had already talked on stage about “the aching cry of this piece … the depths of despair.” In this section Elgar could have gone for heavy sentimentality, but his writing was sparing and Choi’s delicacy of playing echoed this. In these subdued moments, a pin dropping could have been heard.
The emotion was raw, and it’s rare for me to cry during a concert. Finally the trance was broken and the audience and orchestra collected itself for the final movement.
From the age of five, Choi has practised for five hours every day. Thomson speculated he’d already achieved his 10,000 hours when she heard his 14-year-old performance, and she publicly thanked his mother (present on Sunday night) for making him do that.
Afterwards, I talked to him about the notion that the cello most approximates the tonal range of the human voice. I asked if he sings to his cello, and he confirmed this, adding, “If I’m not sure how to play a section, I first sing it — my voice is terrible, but it’s just me — and then I know how it has to be played.”