It is exactly 100 years since Elgar’s Violin Concerto was first performed at the old Queen’s Hall in London. The soloist was the eminent violinist Fritz Kreisler and by a twist of fate the very same violin was present again for this centenary performance on Wednesday: the so-called “Kreisler” Guarneri del Gesù of 1741, now played by Nikolaj Znaider.
The concert formed the culmination of Znaider’s almost year-long sojourn with the concerto. This concerto is largely ignored outside English-speaking countries, but throughout the year the Danish Znaider has taken it to Europe’s most prestigious concert halls, including Amsterdam and Vienna.
In the lead-up to the main event the London Symphony Orchestra offered two very contrasting pieces. Solar by Emily Howard, with Nicholas Collon as conductor, was part of the UBS Soundscapes: Pioneers series. A five-minute tone poem describing the sun, it manages to suggest galactic power on a compact scale and sets a trajectory of inexorable slow movement that took it convincingly in a single revolution to the final bar.
Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” symphony brought us nearer to home. Like so many of his generation, Mendelssohn was inspired by the romance of Scotland, and the symphony encapsulates his exhilaration. But the playing was not sharp enough and Colin Davis, the conductor for the main part of the evening, was on pedantic form.
Easily the outstanding feature of the evening was Znaider’s eloquence in the concerto. Although better played, the orchestral contribution here remained ponderous – too often the music failed to flow forwards and there was no need for brass and timpani to wallop down so loudly – but Znaider always had romance and lightness at his fingertips. A year’s close relationship with this concerto has taken him to its heart. Kreisler’s own violin added its own dusky romanticism and it was good to hear Elgar played by a soloist of international class. This was not the outstanding example of a foreign violinist bringing Elgar to our shores – Kyung-Wha Chung, with Solti in the 1970s, remains unforgettable – but it was more than good enough. ★★★☆☆