Edward Elgar arr. David Matthews
String Quartet in E minor, Op. 83
– Allegro moderato
– Piacevole (poco andante) *
– Allegro molto *
* – Exclusive for ESO Digital supporters
English Symphony Orchestra
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Conductor: Kenneth Woods
About this Concert
David Matthews’ string orchestra adaptation of the Elgar String Quartet was made at the instigation of George Vass, and premiered at the 2010 Presteigne Festival. Woods worked closely with Matthews on the work ahead of a performance at the 2017 Colorado MahlerFest, and the ESO first performed it at the 2018 Elgar Festival. “David’s arrangement is an important and very useful addition to the Elgar repertoire for string orchestras,” says Woods. “Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro and Serenade for Strings are among the most sublime works ever written for strings, but both risk being heard too often. The Quartet is a bigger work, a more difficult work, and a more substantial work, and forms a major new challenge for string orchestras everywhere. It was so exciting to come to this piece and to continue to develop our shared interpretation of it.”
About the Arranger - David Matthews
One of the most important of British composers, David Matthews served as Composer-in-Association for the ESO from 2018-19. His Ninth Symphony was written for the ESO’s 21st Century Project. “I always thought the Elgar Quartet was almost orchestral even as a string quartet,” says David Matthews. “Of course, it’s a masterpiece and works beautifully in its original form, but I thought the larger forces and the addition of a bass part could give it a new dimension.”
About the Arrangement - Note from David Matthews
String Quartet, Op.83 Arranged for string orchestra by David Matthews
Although Elgar was a highly accomplished violinist, he wrote no mature string chamber music until, at the end of his creative life, he produced three major works: a violin sonata, a piano quintet and a string quartet. His creativity was incapacitated by the First World War: “I cannot do any real work with the awful shadow over us”, he wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin. He was living in his grand Hampstead house and much of the time was ill and deeply depressed. But in 1917 his wife found an isolated cottage, Brinkwells, near Fittleworth in Sussex. It was here, in the autumn of 1918, his spirits revived, that Elgar worked on the three new pieces, and also made sketches for his last major completed work, the Cello Concerto. These sketches were originally intended for string quartet, and the Quartet proper begins with similar E minor material. Both outer movements are full of mercurial changes of mood; both end at the last minute in the major, the finale with an exhilarating display of renewed energy. In between comes an intermezzo marked ‘Piacevole’, ‘peacefully’ – a pastoral C major interlude between the two stormy outer movements. Alice Elgar was particularly fond of this movement, and it was played at her funeral in 1920. In 2002, I arranged the slow movement for string orchestra and George Vass conducted it that year at the Deal Festival. The remainder of the Quartet was orchestrated in 2010. The substantial part of the arrangement is the addition of a double bass part, but I have also thickened the upper parts in a number of places. At two points in the first movement and at the end of the Andante I have preserved the original writing for solo strings. The arrangement was commissioned by the John S. Cohen Foundation. © David Matthews
David Matthews and Kenneth Woods In Conversation
Adventures in Music - 14th May 2021
Performing string quartets in orchestral settings is a fascinating affair. Among the most famous forays to the genre are Gustav Mahler’s 1896 (unfinished) adaptation of Franz Schubert’s Death and the Maiden (1824) and Dimitri Mitropoulos’s string orchestra version of Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet in C sharp minor, op. 131 (1826), championed by Leonard Bernstein.
Transcribing chamber settings to symphonic strings is not only about massed sonorities. I fondly recall attending a workshop by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique some years back, where they performed the quartets of Schubert, Ravel and Webern in orchestral guises. In his introduction to the Ravel, Gardiner pointed out that with string orchestra, the music’s striking family relationship with Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1893-1902) began to emerge out of the fabric, something that rarely happens in its original quartet guise.
Thus an orchestration, when properly done, can bring forth layers inherent in the music, but somewhat hidden in a chamber setting. Perhaps this is one of the musical reasons why some composers, such as Anton Webern, Samuel Barber and Pierre Boulez have also chosen to rework their own quartet movements into versions for string orchestra.
Adapting quartets for massed strings is not simply about doubling the violin and viola parts and dividing the lower voices between the celli and double basses. Rather, it is a delicate process of adjusting the textures and dynamics in such a way that both retains the essence of the music and transcribes it idiomatically to orchestral forces. Obviously, not all string quartets lend themselves into such practices; thus being sensitive to the hidden potential of an original score is the key to the process.
Among the many orchestral adaptations around, David Matthews’s 2010 arrangement of Sir Edward Elgar’s String Quartet in E minor, op. 83 (1918) is surely one of the finest examples. Solid and insightful, Matthews’s adaptation is both a loving salute to Elgar’s original as well as a worthwhile alternative for performance.
When brought to sounding reality with such commitment and enthusiasm as Artistic Director Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra on their latest online concert outing, the communicative powers of the Elgar/Matthews score have an absolutely spellbinding effect over the listener.
Written between 25 March and the Christmas Eve of 1918, Elgar’s only (surviving) string quartet belongs to the group of late masterpieces the composer wrote while recovering from the physical and psychological ailments brought upon him by illnesses and the toll on the long years of the Great War. Written along the Violin Sonata in E minor, op. 82 (1918) and the Piano Quartet in A minor, op. 84 (1918-19), and followed by the Cello Concerto in E minor, op. 85 (1919), the String Quartet presents us with a composer whose lifelong experience and perspective have brought forth a musical language of tremendous craft and depth.
The twenty-five-minute quartet is cast into three movements, yielding to a fast-slow-fast overall musical architecture. The riveting outer movements, marked allegro moderato and allegro molto, respectively, frame a radiant Piacevole (poco andante) central movement, where Elgar briefly quotes his Chanson de Matin (1889-90).
The second movement contains some of the most captivating music ever penned down by Elgar. A combination of delicate morning dew and sublime undertones of yearning, the piacevole adopts an airy mood, while unveiling in passionate textures. A paradox perhaps, but one gorgeously clad in music. Performed with sensitive translucence and astonishing intensity by Woods and the ESO strings, the central movement transports the listener in time and space in quasi-theatrical manner, without ever resorting to any exaggeration or routine; a case in point of music-making at the highest level.
Both wonderfully characterised, the outer movements come off brilliantly with the ESO and Woods. The extended sonorities of the orchestral strings serve Elgar’s writing exceptionally well, thanks to ever beautifully shaped musical phrases and pristine balancing. As a whole, the Elgar/Matthews score is a veritable delight, wholeheartedly recommended for newcomers and seasoned devotees alike.
Seen and Heard International - 18th May 2021
In the closing years of the second decade of the twentieth century Elgar composed four works, three of them chamber works, all of which were cast in minor keys. The last of these to be composed was the Cello Concerto, Op.85 (1919). The preceding works, all completed in 1918, were the Violin Sonata, Op.82, the String Quartet, Op.83, and the Piano Quintet, Op.84. With the exception of the Piano Quintet, which has A minor as its home key, all of these works were cast in the same home key of E minor. I think it would be fair to say that over the years the three chamber works have not received their full due other than from committed Elgar enthusiasts. Indeed, even though a number of distinguished cellists took up the Cello Concerto, it was not until the celebrated recording by Jacqueline Du Pré and Sir John Barbirolli in the 1960s that the musical public really took the work to their hearts. Yet the trio of late chamber works contains a great deal of fine music which deserves a wide audience.
The Piano Quintet was orchestrated a while ago by Donald Fraser and has been recorded by Kenneth Woods and the ESO. I have never heard that orchestration, though the CD was reviewed by my MusicWeb International colleague Gwyn Parry-Jones. David Matthews made his arrangement of the String Quartet at the suggestion of the conductor George Vass. It was first performed at the Presteigne Festival in 2010, though this present performance was my first opportunity to hear it.
Kenneth Woods performed it with an orchestra comprising (if I have counted correctly) 14 violins, four violas, four cellos and two double basses. The viola section was positioned on the conductor’s right, with the cellos between the violas and the second violins. I think it is relevant to mention the number of players involved in order to make a point of comparison with Elgar’s celebrated Introduction and Allegro. Elgar deliberately designed that masterpiece for performance by the full string section of a symphony orchestra (originally the LSO). I suppose it would be feasible to play David Matthews’s arrangement of the Quartet with a full-sized string band. However, I am not sure that would work so well because, after all, the Quartet is essentially an intimate piece whereas the Introduction and Allegro is a big, public composition. It seemed to me that Kenneth Woods had elected to use just the right number of string players. With these forces he demonstrated that Matthews has made the Quartet into a bigger piece but without losing sight of the spirit of the original.
The work has three movements. Right from the start of the first movement, marked Allegro moderato, I was struck by the fine, full sound of the ensemble. It was particularly pleasing to hear a strong, rich – but not overpowering – bass line. The main theme of the movement is quintessentially Elgarian and the music benefitted from the generous tone produced by more than four instruments. I noted a couple of short passages in which Matthews used just the section principals as a quartet; those brief intervals produced a useful contrast. The full string complement was a decided asset in projecting the several passionate episodes in the movement.
The slow movement is marked Piacevole (poco andante). The equivalent movement in the Violin Sonata is a strange, inward-looking piece. On the surface at least, the Quartet’s slow movement is less complex. Indeed, in the opening pages, and elsewhere in the movement, Elgar seems to be looking back to the lyricism of his earlier years, albeit refracted through a lens of melancholy. The present performance had a nice, easy flow to it and I thought that Woods conducted very intelligently, allowing the music to make its mark without undue intervention. There’s lovely music in this movement and it was very well played.
In the finale there was a richness and brilliance in the Allegro molto passages which, obviously, exceeded the tonal resources of a string quartet; thus, an extra dimension was added to Elgar’s music. The more reflective episodes were played with sensitivity but it was, above all, the sweep that Woods and his players brought to the quick passages that left the strongest impression.
I think David Matthews’s arrangement of Elgar’s String Quartet is a conspicuous success. His work seems to me to have been undertaken in complete sympathy with Elgar’s original, but he has enabled us to hear the music in a fresh way. Thus, the title given to this presentation, ‘Elgar reimagined’, was entirely apt. Matthews’s arrangement works on another level too; it adds to the string orchestra repertoire music by Elgar in a version that sounds completely authentic. I thought he was especially successful in the way he added the extra depth and resonance of a couple of double basses to reinforce the bass line but in such a way that never made the music seem bottom-heavy. Kenneth Woods and the string players of the English Symphony Orchestra gave a performance that showed Matthews’s work to best possible advantage.