Daniel Barenboim and Edward Elgar have made for one of classical music’s most unusual love affairs in recent years.
Outside England, the music of Elgar (1857-1934) still has a crusty, flag-waving reputation, despite the efforts of musicologists and the advocacy of musicians. But over the past eight years, Mr. Barenboim, 77, and his Staatskapelle Berlin have released accounts of Elgar’s two symphonies, the oratorio “The Dream of Gerontius” and the Cello Concerto, with Alisa Weilerstein.
It’s a connection of long standing: Mr. Barenboim’s first wife, the cellist Jacqueline du Pré, collaborated with the conductor John Barbirolli on a classic recording of the Cello Concerto in 1965, and she and Barbirolli in turn inspired the young Argentine-born Mr. Barenboim to learn and record much of Elgar’s work with the London Philharmonic.
A fifth album in the Berlin cycle is coming out on Friday, featuring “Sea Pictures” (five songs, sung by Elina Garanca) and “Falstaff,” an ambitious, often rambunctious symphonic poem. Mr. Barenboim, whose contract with the Staatskapelle and the Berlin State Opera was extended last year amid accusations of bullying, spoke by phone from Spain about Elgar and his music. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Why do you love this music so much?
It’s a difficult question to answer, because one has to admit that, historically, Elgar is not so important. If Elgar had not come through this earth, the development of music would have been the same. One also has to forget that he was somewhat anachronistic, when you think what else was being written at the time — Schoenberg, Stravinsky, etc.
But there is a unique quality in his music which appeals to me tremendously: something emotional, in the best sense of the word. Not outward, but something very, very deep and sincere, which has to do, I suppose, with the modulations — with the harmonic language, which is unlike that of many other composers. The closest is Strauss.
Should we then think of Elgar not as a radical, like Schoenberg or Stravinsky, but as a progressive, like Strauss or Mahler?
I think so. “Falstaff” is a special work in Elgar’s output. It has things that connect it to his symphonies, but if the symphonies are close to Strauss’s “Don Juan” and “Ein Heldenleben,” “Falstaff” is close to “Till Eulenspiegel.”
Even in England, “Falstaff” is not that often played compared with some of Elgar’s works, and if music lovers know the “Falstaff” story, it’s primarily through Verdi.
Verdi, of course. But you know, I take very slight objection to the fact that Elgar’s nationality is always mentioned in relation to his music, as if it was not to be expected that one could be English and be a great composer. Nobody talks about the nationality of other composers as much as they talk about Elgar being English; of course, there is a certain Englishness about it, but it’s not the most important element.
What is the most important element?
The harmonic language, the orchestration, is remarkable, if the conductor balances the orchestra properly and the orchestra has familiarity with the music, which is very rarely the case, because Elgar is not played that often. The English saying “familiarity breeds contempt” is totally out of place; we forget that orchestras and publics alike need familiarity with music in order to love it.
One of the things that you seem to be saying is that Elgar was part of a European — not just an English — tradition.
This is a very dangerous statement you are making now in view of Brexit, of course. I think he is very much a European composer, don’t you?
“Land of Hope and Glory” at the Proms had nothing to do with a political thing; it was totally misinterpreted. We played both symphonies at the Proms, and I wanted to show that you don’t have to be English to play this music well.
I am a firm believer in the European idea, and I am a firm believer that a lot of the problem with the European Union is that many people forget that it was not only a financial or economic idea. Let us not forget that whether it is France, Germany, Italy, England or Spain, culture is the greatest contribution, historically, of the continent. It is a different contribution from the other continents, and therefore culture — European culture — is a very important point for today’s world, too.
That raises the issue that Elgar is usually thought of as a quintessentially English composer because of his association with the British Empire.
Yes, but do you think that Elgar’s connection to the English part of it is more important than, shall we say, Debussy’s to France? No.
But as someone who loves Elgar’s music, I still have trouble with it historically, as I love and still have trouble with Wagner’s music.
Yes, but your problem with Wagner’s music, I imagine, has to do with his profile as a person, as a human being, which is not the case with Elgar.
Elgar still wrote works like “The Crown of India” and the “Imperial March,” though. So how do you think about performing him today, during a global reckoning with racism, slavery and empire? Should we ignore that part of Elgar? Should we confront it?
No, I think we have to place it in context. Let’s be a little bit more neutral in our remarks. We realized a long time ago that slavery was a horrific thing, and we did away with it, but at the time that it was there, it was there. The English Empire quality is only a part of some moments of Elgar’s pieces. Let’s not dwell on the “Pomp and Circumstance Marches,” because that’s a “pièce d’occasion,” like the ballet in “Aida,” but in the serious works — “The Dream of Gerontius,” the symphonies, “Falstaff,” the Cello Concerto, the “Sea Pictures” — that element is only a part of it.
So we can play him today by accepting that part and moving on? Is that what you are saying?
Yes, I don’t think we have to play Elgar and pay special attention, as it were, not to forget that there was a British Empire and that that was the expression of it. That is part of the whole.
Are there particular moments of “Falstaff” that you think show Elgar at his best?
The interlude in the center, the small interlude with the violin solo, is very touching, because it is juxtaposed against very rhythmical, boisterous music. And of course the end. Falstaff’s death is an absolute masterpiece of composition.
Elgar had a gift for endings, like the end of the Second Symphony.
Yes, and they are very difficult to conduct. If you look at the score of the end of “Falstaff,” it is so constructed — I wouldn’t say calculated, because that smells of something not natural. Then, when it’s finished, it’s finished; it doesn’t end on a sentimental note. He dies, and then there is a very little coda, which seems to say death is part of life. And that’s it.