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Elgar Cello Concerto reveals eternal sadness

Elgar Cello Concerto

Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Opera House, July 11

Four Stars

As the world ponders once again the great unanswered question - why? - in connection with the centenary of World War I, Truls Mork’s performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto (1919), written at the other end of that catastrophic collective madness, was a reminder that few works express with richer poignancy the passing of the Edwardian idyll that the war terminated so brutally.

Mork played the opening declamation with a sound of golden transparency, and the autumnal melancholy of the first movement flowed with poised restraint. The second movement, which begins with some diffidence, quietly assumed polite liveliness with courteous grace at the cadences, like someone too polite to turn down a dinner invitation.


It was in the ripening warmth of the slow movement, however, that Mork, with glowing expressiveness, captured all that was ever melancholy about life. The finale regains vigour, though at a crucial moment the energy wains and winds down in arching valedictory phrases to a return of the opening idea.

Mork’s performance of this work, heard with the SSO in 2005, is one of great beauty and eloquence, ebbing, in Matthew Arnold's words (50 years before Elgar’s work) with tremulous cadence and letting the eternal note of sadness in.

After its superb mid-year Beethoven Festival and tour of China, the Sydney Symphony retained its form in the works by Brahms that framed the concerto. The five Hungarian Dances (Nos 17-21) were efficient and brisk, but it was in the Symphony No.4 in E minor, Opus 98 that the tonal strength of the string sound, particularly the cohesiveness of the violins, rose to the fore.

The horn and woodwind tone in the second movement was moulded and refined while the third movement had both moments of splendour and peril under conductor Jakub Hrusa. The great Passacaglia which makes up the finale brought judicious balance, and richness of tone from all, from the noble choir of three trombones to the splendidly emphatic first violin line at the recapitulation.